Outdoors

Iron-dogging the Iditarod Trail:<p>Diary, days 13-14

In this Friday, March 9, 2012 photo, an aurora borealis swirls in the sky over the Yukon River village of Ruby, Alaska, a checkpoint of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)
In this Friday, March 9, 2012 photo, an aurora borealis swirls in the sky over the Yukon River village of Ruby, Alaska, a checkpoint of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

SNOWMOBILING — “I'm too tired to even look at pictures,” snowmobiler Bob Jones said in an email from the tiny village of Golovin on the Iditarod Trail. (Additional photos will come later and be posted here.)   He'd just put in an 11-hour  day that extended well into the night to reach a place where he and Josh Rindal could get out of the cold for a few hours of sleep before continuing their 1,000-mile journey to Nome following the Iditarod Trail.

Despite a fierce cold and a major breakdown that forced them to find a snowmobile to borrow, Jones, from Kettle Falls, and Rindal, from Spokane, have an outside chance of making the Mushers Banquet in Nome tonight (March 18) — if they can make the last 90 brutal miles in one day.

“It will be a cold ride, just like today's was,” Jones reported. “It's -9º and breeze outside as I write this from the library at the Golovin school.  It's about +70º in here and my sleeping bag is only about 5 feet away on a pad on the floor.”

Then he crashed and slept like a bear in winter… until early the next morning when he filed his diary for two days (click continued reading below) and offered these additional updates:

Mileage: Nearly 1,000 miles so far out of a total trip that will reach about 1,300 miles if they return to Unalakleet as planned.

He had one final thought about his cozy quarters on the library floor before heading out in the bitter cold for another long day: “This is a beautiful school. Probably costs more on a cost-of-heat-per-kid basis than anywhere in the Lower 48!”

I replied to Jones noting that he was an ironman model for people older than 70. “I wonder what all the other septuagenarians in Kettle Falls are doing today?” I poked.

“Being more intelligent!” he replied.

Click “continue reading” to see Jone's Iditarod diary and photos.

Also: click here to see a continuously updated photo gallery of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

Thursday, March  15, 2012

Day 13.  -10º, Tripod Flat Cabin

We had a great night in the little Tripod Flat Cabin on the Iditarod Trail route from Kaltag to Unalakleet.  The temperature outside was -10º and the black sky was chock-full of huge stars.

The three 8-foot long sections of dead spruce we stopped to cut came in handy.  There wasn’t much wood here and what there was was green.  Getting wood is a tough chore in this country this year.  We sawed down our wood tree so it fell right on the trail.  The next visitor will appreciate it.

Although the sky is overcast this morning it appears that a faint sun may be giving the trail a little definition. 

We are getting out at 1pm after cleaning up the cabin and splitting a wood-box full of the dry spruce that we brought in last night.

We made a great run down a great trail for the 60 miles to Unalakleet and arrived here at 7pm after stopping for a break at Old Woman Cabin.  The Trail Sweeps were just ahead of us.  We found Greg and Maggie at the Sleep Inn and they gave us the key to Room 3.  We are the only ones here, so we have the run of the little kitchen and the TV room all to ourselves.   Wireless is down, so Josh and I went to the Pizza joint for dinner and a computer opportunity.  The owner is a great guy!  He fixed us a delicious pizza and somehow found us a couple of beers that he put on the bill as pop.  Unalakleet is a ‘dry’ village.

Greg came over for a long visit and told us about his new SkiDoo Tundra and how much he is impressed with its operation.

The bunk felt awful good when I crashed at midnight.

Tomorrow we have a 125-mile run to the Kwik River shelter cabin north of Koyuk on the Koyuk to Elim portion of the Iditarod Trail.

Read more about the latest cabins built along the Iditarod Trail.

 

Friday, March  16, 2012

Day 13.  -8º, Unalakleet

They don’t call it the “Sleep Inn” for nothing!   We had the place to ourselves and it was warm and as quiet as a mouse.  I finally worked up enough nerve to get into the shower at 9am. 

Our plan to leave at 10am soon changed to 11am and then it became 1:30pm.  Greg and Maggie were just too much fun to ride away from.  We have spent some memorable evenings in Unalakleet over the years.  We finally got fueled up and headed up-trail under sunny blue skies. 

We had only gone five miles when we met three of the five Trail Sweeps coming down the trail headed back to UNC.  Will was towing Jack’s 4-stroke which they had loaded in a tow sled, and Jack and Caroline were on the second machine towing Jack’s tow sled.   It seemed that Jack’s 4-stroke had terminal heat-exchanger damage and was out of commission.

At the 11.5 mile-mark the shit hit the fan for us!  Josh was out of sight in my rear-view for a long time, so I turned around and soon found him sprawled out on the trailer in the warm sunshine.  He told me the driveshaft in the 4-stroke machine was totally toast.  We were done!  Here we were practically in sight of Nome and we were done!

I turned around and we hooked the tow strap to Joshes machine.  This country has a lot of snow but it also has had the benefit of strong winds to pack it down.  So I tuned a big U and got us headed back to Unalakleet.  We had pretty much climbed the eleven miles from town into the foothills of the Blueberry Hills, and that made our return a little easier.   At least we wouldn’t have more than two or three short, steep hills to climb.  We left the tow sled hooked up to Joshes machine so we could try to make it to town with one trip.

We met Will and Caroline once again.  But this time we were all going opposite directions from the last time.  Jack scratched in UNC and was shipping his machine and gear south from there.  He would be going to Nome via air for the banquet.  Will and Caroline were hurrying north to meet up with the other sweeps.  They were very surprised to see us going south.

Towing 1500 pounds went pretty well and soon we were back at the Sleep Inn.  A thought had come to mind as we made the tow:  What if we could rent a machine in Unalakleet to make the Nome run?  We had already decided that when we got to Nome and, if everything was still in one piece, we would make the 250-mile run back to Unalakleet to fly back to Anchorage from there.  Northern Air Cargo operates south from UNC just as they do from Nome.  I had called them in the morning to confirm freight rates and availability. 

Greg and a couple of others put their heads together in an attempt to locate a machine we could rent or borrow. But we had two major problems:  First, NO ONE likes to loan out a snow machine.  Second:  After spending 120 days hunkered down by their stoves during the most severe winter in memory, everyone in Unalakleet was ready to get out into the hills, hunting caribou and enjoying some sunshine.   It had been a long, cold winter.  Spring was about to hit the coast, and everyone was ready.

Greg kept scratching his head.  He had a brand new machine that he really didn’t want to loan out AND he had his trap-line to attend to.  But he also had an old Ski Doo Scandic that he said had at least fifteen thousand miles on it.  He wasn’t sure it would make it to Nome but at least it was a chance.  At first he was reluctant for us to take a chance with it.  But the more we talked the better the machine appeared.

We siphoned the full tank of fuel out of the 4-stroke, hooked the tow trailer onto my machine, and got ready to go.  It didn’t seem possible, but less than four hours after our initial start we were ready to head north once again at 5:45pm.  We had 125 miles to go and it might take all night, but at least we were moving.  And in the right direction!

It took us the better part of two hours to make the 22-miles to the Foothills Shelter Cabin.  The stove was still warm when we got there, as the Trail Sweeps had spent last night here.  We had just arrived when two machines stopped out front.  It was a pair or Alaska State Troopers headed from Shaktoolik to Unalakleet.  They were carrying two giant crab pots in a tow sled.  Evidence, they said.  They also said that the wind was blowing a real gale at Shaktoolik, about twenty miles north of this cabin.   After the troopers departed we went inside, ate a granola bar, and mulled over our situation.  

Getting to Shaktoolik wouldn’t be any problem IF our borrowed machine stayed healthy.  But, upon leaving Shak, you cross 45 miles of frozen ocean.  There is no shelter out there whatsoever, and it can be one of the windiest places on the entire trail.  At the rate we’ve been traveling, darkness would likely overtake us before we could get across Norton Sound to Koyuk.  So, at 7:30pm, we decided to make camp right here for the night.  

There were just enough coals in the stove to make a fire without striking a match.   While Josh was tending the fire I commenced to melt snow with our little gas stove.  It wasn’t long until dinner was ready.  We had just begun to eat when we heard a machine passing by headed south.  We ran outside, and two more machines pulled into the yard.  It was Dick Newton and Doc Sauer, two old gold-miners from Takotna.  They have been riding the trail almost every year since 1992.  And they almost always ride round-trip.  They ride hard, they ride fast, and they travel light.  And they ride day and night.  They didn’t stay long, as usual, but we had a quick and very interesting few minute chat. 

The kicker is that Dick Newton is now 81 YEARS OLD and Doc Sauer is 73!    I kidded Doc that, even after nearly 20 years on this trail, that there were still some sections that they had never seen in the daylight.  And neither of them carries a camera.  Doc told us that the perfect machine for the trail is a Ski-Doo Expedition with the 2-stroke e-tec engine.  They get over 20 miles per gallon and they start in 50-below weather.  His quick advice was surely food for thought!

The Foothills BLM Shelter Cabin was built in 2011 using federal stimulus funds.   It is the only shelter on the 42-mile stretch of trail between Unalakleet and Shaktoolik.  It is a beautiful little cabin and is a welcome addition to the Trail.

The temperature outside is exactly Zero at 11:15pm.  The only sound in the cabin is the hiss of the Coleman lantern.  It is a wonderful place to be!

Go back to Diary and photos, Days 1-6.

Go back to Diary and photos for Days 7-10.

Go back to Diary and photos for Days 11-12.

Continue to Nome Sweet Nome: Diary and photos for Day 15.

Continue to Diary and photos for Days 16-17.




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Rich Landers

Rich Landers’ Outdoors blog


Rich Landers writes and photographs stories for a wide range of outdoors coverage, including a Sunday feature section and a Thursday column. He also writes the Outdoors Blog.

By Rich Landers richl@spokesman.com (509) 459-5508


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