If the run through Pelly, McCabe and Carmacks had been routine the next stage to Braeburn and then on to the finish was to be anything but that.
As the previous blog outlined we had taken over responsibility for Skits in Carmacks. Rob had been monitoring a light injury to his right rear leg and decided to drop him as a precaution and to make sure he had a chance of being fit for Iditarod. I always think it is a shame when a dog is dropped but the most important thing is to consider the dog’s health and welfare first. With Iditarod coming up that is particularly important.
The most significant thing about the run from Dawson to Carmacks had been, at least from a handler’s perspective, was Skits’ foot injury and the fact that he was now with us.
The run had been so relatively uneventful, and in my previous experience, the last few checkpoints are normally pretty relaxed. It would have been very easy to think that this was now all going to be a gentle run in to the finish line, Meet the Mushers, the banquet and at least for me, home. Yet despite that it never felt this year like that was going to be what would happen.
From the perspective of the overall race it had been over for quite some time. Allen checked in to Whitehorse while Rob was on the way from Pelly to McCabe. He had passed through Braeburn where we were now headed while the temperatures were still low and consequently avoided the challenges that the second half of the field were about to enjoy.
There had been a lot of discussion about overflow before the race started and some rerouting of the trail to avoid difficult areas. Ironically some of the most significant rerouting was around Braeburn. However with the fall in temperature for the start of the race the first time we were to encounter overflow as a major issue was at McCabe when we ran across Dave Dalton stuck under the bridge over the creek up on the main road a couple of miles outside the checkpoint. It would be fair to say he wasn’t happy. Louise had offered her help and discovered exactly how unhappy he was as he politely asked her to move out of his way.
Rob inevitably ran into the same issues coming off the creek and made comment on arriving at McCabe that it would have been better if he hadn’t had to swim in. Or something to that effect.
The next time the issue came up was though when we got in to the Braeburn checkpoint with Rob still eighteen hours out. The rerouting of the trail, ironically to avoid overflow and open water, meant that the trail out of Braeburn towards the finish in Whitehorse, backtracked over the inward trail for some ten miles or so over the inbound trail.
The story was circulating that Luc Tweedel had decided that he was going to do the first ten miles of the trail in his underwear. This was because he had got so wet on the way in that he saw no point in wearing his dry clothes until he had cleared that stretch of trail on the way out. The main problem originated about seven miles from Braeburn coming in and extended in two main areas over a two mile period. This meant that going back out that fives miles out the mushers started to hit the overflow going the other way. With the temperatures rising to single figure negative Celsius it was getting worse.
Coming in was a problem as all the mushers were coming in wet and very cold. Going out was a bigger problem because they were going to be wet and cold ahead of a fourteen to sixteen hour run to the finish.
James and Louise took Skits to the vet in Whitehorse for an x-ray while I waited in the checkpoint for most of the day. Nobody was happy coming in. Afternoon blended into evening and we watched the tracker.
Eventually we saw Rob come in over the ridge. It was only as he came out of the trees and towards the road that we could see that Bennie was taking a lift in the sled bag which immediately suggested that something may not have entirely gone right on this run. It is fair to say arrived he was particularly unhappy.
As the weather had warmed the ice quality on the creek had deteriorated such that there was now up to three foot deep water. Many of the mushers had been faced with carrying dogs and sleds over the water. In Rob’s case the water had unnerved the younger dogs who had never been asked to “swim” through anything like that before. Hence Bennie, spooked by being faced by with the prospect of water, arrived in Braeburn riding “tank commander” in the sled bag.
After bedding down the dogs and a short discussion with the race marshall, then came the longer discussion of what to do now. I can’t imagine what it must be like having had to get soaked and then deal with travelling in to the checkpoint beginning to freeze. Then having survived that and got to the checkpoint to have to consider going back out into the same conditions, contemplating getting wet and then running for a number of hours whilst freezing. The only way I could motivate myself to do that would have been with a good firm plan to get me through dry. Luc’s under pant plan definitely wouldn’t cut it!
Rob considered various alternatives to give him a warm dry run down Lake Laberge and the Yukon to Whitehorse. Some of those might have involved him having to receive a financial or time penalty. In the end none of the radical suggestions were needed and he left at 02:39 still with the same 12 dogs that he came into Braeburn with including Bennie now back in harness. However his last words as he disappeared across the road were “don’t rush off, I’m not sure if Bennie is alright”.
James and I returned to the Lodge and settled down to a night of watching the tracker. It was a return for me to a long night in 2016 when Rob was stuck in a storm on American Summit and we sat watching his tracker wondering what was going on. This time it was in reverse. We knew what was going on but watched imagining progress through the overflow. Didier had been out on a snow machine to recut the trail and avoid the overflow but he had only managed to improve the first section and much of the trail remained as before, deep and very foreboding.
Through the night I sat in the lodge with either coffee or cinnamon bun in front of me watching the tracker and trying to stay awake. Steadily he progressed down the trail and as the night went n it started to look more and more like Bennie was OK and at least Rob was making good progress though the overflow.
I had briefly nodded off when there was a commotion and the lights went out. The generator cut in and the lights came back on. The internet though didn’t for another nervous hour or so. When it finally came back on and the tracker was back up he was through the worst of the water and heading back up towards the main trail. He had been passed by Riley Dyche but he was still going. We tried to catch some sleep but I couldn’t get any rest and soon we were raking up straw for the last time.
We headed out of Braeburn and to Whitehorse. I had barely had more than half an hour’s sleep since 6am the previous morning and although I tried to stay awake in the truck I did drop off for twenty minutes while James drove back to Carcross. Something that always makes me feel terribly guilty.
The finish was literally in sight. Both for Rob and for me.