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| 2011 Race Update #10||Thu, Mar. 10th, 2011   |
Heather and the Hardcore Team rolled into McGrath at 4:02 AM AKST this morning (8:02 PM EDT). It took 6 hours 52 minutes to make the 54 mile run from Nikolai.
She and the dogs have now completed 401 miles with 730 more to go to get to Nome.
Heather said as usual she’s back near the tail end of the race. She’s in 50th position. She thought this might happen because she didn’t have training she really needed because she was short of funds to race the dogs in some earlier races. Many on the Hardcore Team are rookies making their first race run in the Iditarod. But Heather remains in good spirits and the team is doing well. They were reportedly eating and drinking well in the warm sun while in Nikolai.
Heather is about 5 hours ahead of her fastest pace to this point in the race. Race records show defending champion Lance Mackey is a little over 50 miles ahead of Heather. However Mackey has finished his 24 hour rest that Heather and her Team is just starting.
Now that mushers are beginning to take their 24 hour break, the staggered times from the race start will be adjusted so that everyone will be on an even field and their true position in the race will become clear. For example, the musher who left last from the starting line will only need to take a 24 hour break. Heather, who left in the middle of the pack, will take a 24 hour and 28 minute break. Defending champion Lance Mackey, who was 17th off the starting line, had to wait 25 hour and 32 minutes before leaving.
By Iditarod standards, the McGrath checkpoint is pure luxury. That is why it has become a favorite for 24-hour stops in the past few years since the checkpoint has been moved to a house away from the airport. It can still get hectic if you’re in the front of the pack because this 500-person town is a major hub and the media stages out of here for the middle part of the race. Since Heather is more toward the middle of the pack, Heather and her team should be able to get plenty of rest.
As was said in an earlier post, McGrath has several advantages for a 24-hour layover. One of the nicest is a diesel-fired steam kettle outside the checkpoint that provides all the near-boiling water you could ever want. There are a couple of well-stocked stores where you can grab stuff you may have forgotten (or get some hardware and duct tape to fix your sled, if you didn’t have a replacement sled shipped here). The people of McGrath help to staff the checkpoint and there is usually a full-time cook in the kitchen who will whip up whatever you want before you crash in the sleeping room. There is also a coin-operated shower in the laundromat in the municipal building if your dogs are starting to think you’re one of them.
Hopefully after feeding the dogs and grabbing a hot mean and shower, Heather will call the Hardcore Headquarters and let us know how she is doing and what we can expect now that the toughest part of the trail is behind her. We’ll keep you posted.
When Heather leaves McGrath, the next two runs are short, 18 miles to Takotna and then 25 to Ophir. Just outside of Ophir is where the route changes from last year as Heather will turn south toward the checkpoint at Iditarod.
| 2011 Race Update #9||Thu, Mar. 10th, 2011   |
Heather and the 12 members of the Hardcore Team departed Nikolai at 9:10 PM AKST on March 9th (1:10 AM Thursday March 10th EST) for the 54 mile trip to McGrath.
This is a fairly easy (but sometimes deceptive) stretch which always seems to be longer than it is, mainly because it is often so boring and there are so many seemingly identical lakes and river bends. The trail cuts cross-country southwest from Nikolai toward McGrath, running along a series of lakes and swamps interspersed with wooded stretches to Big River. It then runs west down Big River for a few miles to the Kuskokwim River, then down the Kuskokwim to McGrath, with several shortcuts across the bigger oxbow bends.
This run normally takes four and a half to seven hours. It is usually a good stretch to do at night when the dogs will go faster.
The trail leaves Nikolai on a village street. Once on the overland section, the trail is generally straight and fast, running mostly across lakes with occasional cuts through the trees. This is also the main snowmachine trail between Nikolai and McGrath and it is usually easy to follow. Because she is traveling at night Heather should be able to see the light at the Air Force radar station atop Tatalina Mountain, 15 miles southwest of McGrath. The biggest lake she’ll cross is Guitar Lake, about nine or ten miles out of Nikolai. It’s almost two miles wide and is about halfway to Big River, which is the end of the overland section.
When Heather reaches Big River, she’ll be halfway to McGrath, about 23 miles to go. The trail turns right (west) down the river, coming to the Kuskokwim in 4 miles; the river trail is usually hard and fast. For the rest of the way into McGrath she will see the Kuskokwim Mountains (actually big hills) rising on her right. The river flows generally along the southeast edge of the hills on the way to McGrath.
Just after she gets onto the Kuskokwim Heather might see the old Big River Roadhouse, one of the original stops on the Iditarod, up on the right bank.
After another seven miles running down the river, the trail will climb sharply up the right bank to a cabin. Heather is now 13 miles from McGrath and at the upper end of Stewart Bend, a huge oxbow looping to the south. The Hardcore Team will then across the bend by running along a back slough for a bit and then lurching almost vertically up and over a hundred-foot wooded ridge (very steep up, not quite so bad coming down the other side). Then she’ll come out on a curving slough that will arc you back to the left (south) for a mile or so, where Heather will rejoin the main river.
After the Stewart Bend cutoff, the trail runs southwest along the river for another three miles, then jumps up the left bank again, this time for a four-mile shortcut across another big oxbow sweeping off to the north. This shortcut runs across swamps and sloughs and across beaver dams and up narrow twisting trenchlike creek channels and through the woods. It has some very interesting stretches.
When she re-enters the river, she’ll be one big bend and about five miles away from McGrath. Since she is traveling at night she’ll probably see a red light on a radio tower. This means she is still one more big swing to the north before make the final run south toward McGrath. By now the Hardcore Team is probably bored out of their mind and are hoping they never see another big river bend—sorry, they still have 150 miles on the Yukon after gets to Ruby. Dogs get bored in open areas like rivers because they can see a long way ahead. They prefer to run through winding forested areas where they will run faster just to see what is around the next turn.
When the river starts to bend back to the northwest, McGrath should appear on the left bank. The trail will be well marked to swing the Hardcore Team across the river to the checkpoint, which is right on top of the 20-foot-high bank. The parking area can get a bit crowded, so mushers should let the checkers know immediately whether you’re planning to take your 24-hour layover here so they can park you out of the busy “transient” area.
McGrath has become a favorite for 24-hour stops in the past few years since the checkpoint has been moved to a house away from the airport. McGrath has several advantages for a 24-hour layover. One of the nicest is a diesel-fired steam kettle outside the checkpoint that provides all the near-boiling water you could ever want. There are a couple of well-stocked stores where you can grab stuff you may have forgotten, switch to a replacement sled shipped here, which Heather will do. The people of McGrath help to staff the checkpoint and there is usually a full-time cook in the kitchen who will whip up whatever you want before you crash in the sleeping room. There is also a coin-operated shower in the laundromat in the municipal building if your dogs are starting to think you’re one of them.
When they arrive in McGrath Heather and the Hardcore Team will have completed 401 miles and have 730 more to go.
The original Iditarod continued more or less directly from the Salmon River crossing to Big River Roadhouse. For the short stretch down Big River to the Kuskokwim, you’re almost on the old-time trail. From the roadhouse, the original trail stayed overland on the north side of the river and bypassed McGrath, which was then located on the north side of the river—it only moved to its present location when the Army Air Force built an air base there in 1940. The old trail eventually ended up in Takotna. If you get to McGrath and want to learn more, the Bureau of Land Management has an office in McGrath just a couple of buildings down from the checkpoint. They’ve got lots of information on the trail.
| 2011 Race Update #8||Wed, Mar. 9th, 2011   |
Heather and the 12 members of the Hardcore Team arrived in Nikolai at 2:35 PM AST (6:35 PM EST) today. They made the 80 trip from Rohn in 16 hours and 10 minutes. During this 80 miles leg Heather and the Hardcore Team went over a lot of ice and bare grounds which could have been hard on her sled. In previous years this would not have been a big worry because she had a spare just 54 miles up the trail in McGrath. That is not the case this year.
We have also learned the first two dogs that were dropped were Monroe and Wyatt. Monroe, a rookie, is the wild and raving, daughter of Fast Eddy and Minnie. Some call her "psycho" but Heather says she is just spirited. Monroe wants to follow in her father’s footsteps and finish the Iditarod. Unfortunately that won’t happen this year. Wyatt on the other had is a veteran and is described as a ladies man! Wyatt loves all the ladies, and all the ladies love Wyatt. The Hardcore staff is on the way to Anchorage to pick up the other two dogs that were dropped and as soon as we learn who they were we’ll let you know.
Nikolai is the first of many Native villages along the Iditarod Trail. There is a village store, restaurant and lodging.
Veterans say that if you make it to Nikolai with the team still in high spirits, there is a good chance you`ll finish the race.
The toughest part of the trail is past and the mushers, and more importantly the dogs. have managed to make the mental transition to the long-haul trail mode.
Heather will probably rest for several hours before heading out to the next checkpoint at McGrath. This next leg is about 54 miles and should take them about 6-7 hours.
Heather and the Hardcore Team are 347 miles from Anchorage and have 784 more miles to go to get to Nome.
So far 56 mushers are still on the trail with 6 having scratch for a variety of reasons.
| 2011 Race Update #7||Wed, Mar. 9th, 2011   |
Heather and Lance Mackey are sharing something in common during this year’s Iditarod; both are now racing with 12 dogs. Heather and her now 12 member Hardcore Team left the Rohn checkpoint at 10:35 PM AKST (2:35 AM EST today) headed for Nikolai.
This leg isn’t as long as it’s alleged to be. Some people say it actually runs only 75 miles, but the real distance is probably closer to 80. It’s still quite a pull, but not as bad as it could be. (The published figure probably comes from the old trail routing over to Farewell Station and then to Nikolai.) On the other hand, there are some truly bad spots on this stretch, mostly within the first 20 miles. Expect Heather and the Team to take a total of 10 to 15 hours for this leg; she’ll want to rest the dogs for several hours somewhere, or else take a lot of shorter breaks.
This run breaks into three natural sections: 20 miles along the south side of the South Fork of the Kuskokwim from Rohn to Farewell Lakes and up onto the Farewell Burn, 35 miles across the Burn itself to Sullivan Creek, and then 20 miles north from Sullivan Creek past Salmon River to Nikolai.
During her first Iditarod race at the finish line Heather was asked what her favorite part of the trail was and she said she loved the Burn.
The first 20 miles out of Rohn has some of the consistently worst trail on the whole race. Allow yourself at least three hours of good daylight when you leave Rohn—you’ll definitely want to see what you’re getting into.
From Rohn, the trail immediately breaks out onto the windblown gravel and sandbars of the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River have about a mile of really lousy going over bare spots, through driftwood tangles, across large stretches of slippery ice, and maybe even through some overflow and shallow open water.
This area is a natural wind tunnel and is a perennial Excedrin headache for the Iditarod Air Force pilots. The wind is often blowing hard out on the open riverbed, 40 miles per hour or more; it always blows from the east, or down the river. Heather might have some trouble keeping the team going in the correct direction on the ice if the wind is strong enough. She’ll need to be prepared to grab her leaders and help them if the wind is really strong.
Five miles out of Rohn on an otherwise straight trail, the Team will make a sudden swing to the right and then slowly start bending back around to the left. The entire side of the mountain overlooking the south side of the valley collapsed in the winter of 1997-8 and obliterated about half a mile of the trail, burying it under 30 to 50 feet of mud, rocks, and entire uprooted trees. The bypass trail may be a bit rough in places, but it shouldn’t be any trouble.
About ten miles out Heather will come to the Post River. This is a major river flowing in from the south and you’ll have a hundred yards or more of gently sloping ice to cross, probably without much snow cover. It may have a light covering of water in places, making it Really Slick. On the far side she’ll have a quick left turn back up the bank and into the trees again; slow the dogs down as you leave the ice and don’t miss the turn up the steep bank.
Half a mile later she’ll come to what most people call the Post River Glacier, but which is really a separate, smaller stream. This little stretch is about a quarter-mile of pure nightmare even under good conditions, followed by some merely terrible trail for another quarter-mile or so.
Then she’ll come to the crest of a hill and will see a hundred-yard expanse of ice in the canyon below, with a side ravine feeding in from the other side. The side ravine will look like a sloping cascade of ice perhaps 30 yards wide with rocky sides. The hill down to the ice is short but steep. At the bottom the Team will make a sharp right turn.
The trail turns uphill on the ice for about fifty yards, bending right around a sharp rock outcropping (keep your sled clear of this) and continues up to the end of the ravine through a field of rocks the size of softballs (usually with no snow cover) then come into a short open tundra area that is often bare of snow before regaining the trees and a semblance of normalcy.
Once you are back in the trees the trail will begin to climb slowly up to a saddle on the south side of Egypt Mountain. This area is called the Buffalo Chutes because the local herd of several hundred wild bison wanders through here and grazes in some of the small pothole marshes and lakes in the woods. Heather may or may not see the buffalo; they have not been known to bother anyone.
For the next ten miles through the Buffalo Chutes she will probably see stretches of bare dirt, rock, and ice, some very narrow trails through the woods, and a couple of areas of frozen overflow that can be bad enough to obliterate the trail.
One of the potentially worst stretches of overflow is after Egypt Mountain, only a couple of miles before the lake. The trail will enter an area of several acres of swamp and trees that may be flooded with ice. The trail exits up the hill to the left, although in some years it is entirely possible to miss it and continue on down the icy swamp, ultimately coming to the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. In 1997 six teams were tangled up in this mess for an hour and a later musher missed the turn completely, got lost, and ultimately took almost two days to get to Nikolai. Let’s hope Heather doesn’t miss the turn!
The first large lake you reach will be Farewell Lake. For the next five miles the Team will run from lake to lake with some excursions through the forest.
After Farewell Lake, Heather will see one more “Dangerous Trail Conditions” sign just before a short, steep downhill onto another lake. Also somewhere after Farewell Lake, just after she crosses a creek in an open area, she’ll duck back into a treeline and pass the old Pioneer Roadhouse, one of the original stops on the old Iditarod. It’s a good place to take a break and explore for a few minutes; ruins of a couple of the old cabins are still there.
If my memory serves me right this is where one of the mushers held up in 2007 for many hours until they were rescued and then scratched.
After leaving the lakes, the trail will start to work up a series of low wooded hills and ridges. Heather will crest one last forested ridge and suddenly be in the Farewell Burn. This was the site of Alaska’s largest forest fire, a million and a half acres in the summer of 1978 be running through it for the next 40 miles.
The trail through the Burn was almost impassable for several years after the fire, with snags and all manner of obstructions, but it has been cleaned up by the Bureau of Land Management and isn’t usually much of a problem. The visibility from the tops of these ridges is forever because there are no trees; at night you can sometimes see the lights of other mushers for 20 miles in either direction. At night you can also see a single light on top of a mountain far to the west. This is the light at the military radar site on top of Tatalina Mountain, 15 miles southwest of McGrath pass right under it on your way from McGrath to Takotna in a couple of days.
During the day mushers can easily see the hills west of McGrath, and Mounts McKinley and Foraker looming above the Alaska Range far to the northeast. (At sunset or dawn the view from the Burn can be positively breathtaking as the sun ignites the lofty summits of Denali and Foraker above the dark landscape below.)
When the Hardcore Team comes down into a sheltered gulch with a tent camp on your left (people may be there on snowmachines) she will be 41 miles from Nikolai. This is called the Buffalo Camp (for obvious reasons). Mushers are usually welcome to stop here for awhile if you wish; the owner lives in Nikolai and is a friend of the race.
If the wind isn’t blowing and there has been sufficient snow, this level stretch of the trail is a speedway and you can make superb time all the way to Nikolai. However, if the wind is blowing (from the north, like it was in 1997) the trail will probably be drifted in as soon as you drop off of the ridges.
Once you reach Nikolai, Heather and the Hardcore Team is through a lot of the bad trail on the race (although anything can happen on down the line, and often does). The Hardcore team will be bedded down in the area surrounding the school and village public works building. Cold water will be available in the village public works building, and maybe in the school or in the washateria in the municipal building. In some years hot water may also be available. A snack bar is sometimes set up in the school gym and there’s a small restaurant upstairs in the game room of the municipal building. Heather will be able to catch a nap upstairs in the village public works building and dry her soaked gear in the boiler room. As a rule, if mushers make it to Nikolai, they’re through the toughest trail and you—and more importantly your dogs—have managed to make the mental transition to the long-haul trail mode. Many veterans say if you can get to Nikolai with your team and your wits intact, you’ve got a good chance to finish the race.
| 2011 Race Update #6||Tue, Mar. 8th, 2011   |
Heather and the fourteen member Hardcore Team rolled into the Rohn checkpoint at 15:47 AKST this afternoon (19:47 EST). The trip from Rainy Pass took 5 hours and 12 minutes, a bit longer than Heather had planned. Reports say mushers in the back half of the race are facing rougher trails because the lead teams created some pretty good size ruts.
The population for the Rohn checkpoint is normally zero. A tent is set up with Iditarod Staff in this normally desolate area. This area is tied with Rainy Pass as having the most spectacular scenery. The gateway to the interior, Rohn Roadhouse marks the transition point where the mushers start to venture into the flatlands of the interior, along with dropping temperatures.
Situated near the confluence of the South Fork of the Kuskokwim and Tatina Rivers, the area served as one of the original Iditarod Trail Roadhouses for the dog teams carrying mail, etc. The actual roadhouse is gone, so the checkpoint is a cabin built in the 1930s.
NOTE: Most press people refer to this as the Rohn River checkpoint, but there is no Rohn River. It`s Rohn Roadhouse. Some mushers may decide to take their 24-hour layover here before heading across the bleak but treacherous Farewell Burn area. There are no facilities for visitors at the checkpoint.
Heather and the Hardcore Team have now completed 272 miles with 859 more to go. The next run to the Nikolai checkpoint is 75 miles so Heather and the Team will probably rest at Rohn a bit before heading out across the Farewell Burn.