Part 3: Day two: The race really doesn’t even begin until you go over Rainy Pass.
By 2pm and 24 hours into the race I had put on another 10 miles bringing the total to 70 miles for day one. I thought to myself, “I’d take that any day of the week.” The mountains in the distance would have something else to say about that however. The going was only gonna get more difficult as those ominous mountains drew near. I was in hot pursuit of Paul and Steve. At the same time I didn’t want to miss the Cindy Abbot experience. She is one of the unofficial stops on the trail that I’d heard was a must see. She is a trail angel known for treating racers like kings. From what I had heard from other racers in previous years is that she has a ton of baked goods, hot soup, and coffee at the ready. That is if you aren’t in too much of a hurry to stop. I think she was supposed to be 20 miles out from the 1st check point. A good place to take a break and refuel. Before I find the sign leading to her place I catch up to Paul and Steve. They had now grouped up with Maren, a Canadian that was running her first ultra. she was doing the 150 miler. We find out she is from Whitehorse on the Yukon River. She mushes dogs for a living with her husband. She is not your average Canadian. Maren had motored by me right after leaving the 1st checkpoint that morning. She was flying! Somehow I was able to close the almost one hour gap Paul and Steve had leaving the check point before me. I was pleased to now have some company. It didn’t sound like they planned on stopping at Cindy’s though so I figured we wouldn’t be together for very long.
We started working as a group taking turns leading and setting the pace. I kept looking for the sign leading to Cindy’s but I never did come across it. Somehow I missed it. Who knows maybe she don’t have a sign and experienced racers just know which place is hers or what mile she’s at. The cabins and lodges along the river are few and far between. We did However see a momma moose and her calf on the river though. The calf didn’t seem too concerned with us, but the momma was not happy. She kept trying to get the calf to follow her off the river and away from us. Momma nervously paced back and forth on the Rivers’s edge. Eventually the calf followed Momma up into the trees on the river bank.
As the sun began wane we came to the confluence of the Skwentna and Yentna rivers. Here we run into a dilemma as a sign points in two different directions to get to the Skwentna Roadhouse. The trail looks better to the right, but the GPS says to go left. As a group we decide to go left. Both directions say it’s only 4 more miles. It didn’t take long before we were cussing whoever painted that sign because there was no way we hadn’t already gone 4 miles. Distance on the trail never seemed to match what we had on our race info. I guess because the trail is a little different every year. Certainly no reason to get upset. It just gave us something to laugh about. In the end we would always get there eventually. Once the trail left the river we knew we were getting close. It began to get dark and we could see red lights through the trees. Like most check points Skwentna had an air strip. The blinking lights were marking this one so it was a year round airfield. Most of the other airstrips were on the ice marked by pine boughs. The remoteness of this adventure is daunting. The only way in or out is via the Iditarod Trail or airplane.
We walked out of the tree line near the airstrip. Somehow we must have missed a turn to the roadhouse. We quickly backtrack to where the trail skirts around the airstrip and finally pull into the 2nd check point.
Inside we are greeted by the cheerful Inn Keeper behind the bar. A piping hot wood stove was against the far wall in the middle of the room. We all head over and start trying to find a spot to dry gear. I quickly string up a 10 foot piece paracord as a clothes line to hang my wet gear. This was one of the few check points that didn’t have a ton of spots to hang stuff. I tied my line to a hook on the wall and strung it right next to the stove tying the other end to the back of a chair. Prime drying real estate. The remaining space on the line was shared with the others.
The Skwentna Roadhouse was nice. It seemed pretty new compared to other checkpoints. Most importantly it was warm. The wood stove was kicking out some serious heat. The inn keeper wasn’t shy about stoking the fire either. Here they offered us the option of lasagna, chili with corn bread, or chicken noodle soup. I got the chili and it was well worth the $15. Paul got the chicken noodle soup which looked equally impressive. None of us had slept yet. Maren, Paul, and I kind of reluctantly rented beds for a fee of $75. As I was assigned my room and bed the owner informed us that we got the last available beds. Poor Steve was out of luck and banished outside to bivvy in the cold. It wasn’t as cold as the first night, but it had to be close to -20F.
I wandered off to my room. I had ear plugs out in my sled, but I really didn’t feel like bundling up to go back out and get them. In retrospect I should have. My room was already occupied by Judd and Steve. They are a couple of bikers sporting single speed old Skool cool bikes. They are a part of the Back of the Pack Racing Team. A sort of outlaw biker band of misfits that seem to scoff at mechanical advantages when it comes to biking. They can often be found at the bar enjoying a pint or three the night before a race. They don’t seem to take anything too serious. How can you not admire that?! No need for fancy gears or suspension for these guys.
I knew of Judd from seeing him at Arrowhead and had read his race report from his first Iditarod a couple years prior. We end up swapping paint out on the trail with these guys from the beginning to the end of the race. Paul and I also sat next to them on the bus ride to the start. Early in the 1st night we even helped Steve get back on course as he was going the opposite direction. Almost every section all the way to the end we were crossing paths with these guys. The even tried to drink all the beer before we could get to the finish line. They were flipping awesome! They were out there to enjoy themselves and it showed. They were already asleep when I walked into the room. Steve was snoring so loud Judd had his ear plugs in. I was having a hard time not laughing my fuck ass off with each ungodly noise billowing out from Steve’s bed. The only open bed was the top bunk of a lone bunk bed. Which just so happened to be covered with what I assumed was Judd’s gear. I felt terrible but had to shake Judd in order to wake him given the ear plugs. Thankfully he quickly moved all his stuff and I crawled up in the top rack. This would be my only good sleep of the race. Our group agreed set our alarms so we could meet downstairs at 5am to get going.
By 4:30 I was wide awake and raring to go. The bikers were still asleep. I gathered my belongings trying not to wake them while at the same time not leave anything behind. As I get downstairs to the main room everyone else is also starting to gather up their stuff. I buy a piece of Pecan pie for breakfast and settle up my bill.
As we prepare to depart I lube up my feet and put fresh dry socks on followed by the rest of my gear. It’s now nice and toasty having been hanging next to the fireplace all night. I fill my hydration vest with water and my pockets with food to last most of the day. As we get ready to go I notice Dimitry (who I later dub the Russian spy) keeping an close eye on us as if he doesn’t want us to get too far ahead of him. This becomes his M.O. for the rest of the race and at some point we expect him to make a move to get out ahead of us. I didn’t know until after the race but we left this check point in 3rd place as a group. Paul, Steve, Maren, and myself would spend the entire day together.
At around 5am we head out into the darkness with basically a full nights sleep. The trail quickly leads back onto the river. Before long the sun began to rise bringing yet another absolutely perfect day.
At about 20 miles into our day the trail had left the relative flatness of the river to what had become gently rolling woods. Soon we reach a sharp descent. We all slide down and spill out onto a good size lake. Over on the distant shore we can see smoke wafting from what looks like a bunch of small cabins. One of which was the Shell Lake Lodge. Shell lake lodge is another unofficial check point that welcomes racers with food, beverages, and a piping hot wood stove. It was the perfect spot to stop for breakfast. Like the other places you take what they are serving at the time and be grateful. We got eggs, pancakes, and ham served with coffee and Tang. Tang seemed to be a staple on the trail as I would later find out. We also had some crunchy peanut butter that was left out on our table. Me and Maren must have been lacking fat and protein because we scarfed it down right off the spoon. Breakfast was reasonable considering how remote this place was. The only power was a generator out back that was probably running constantly. I think they only charged us about $15 for breakfast which included endless coffee and Tang. As we leave the bar tender tells us we have 30 plus miles to get to the next check point. Of course thats 10 miles more than our mile chart, but we take it as it comes. We really have no other choice and it’s hard to complain when the backdrop is this gorgeous.
After about 25 miles Paul starts to pull away off the front. I stop to take some photos of the amazing sun as it seem low in the sky.
By late afternoon the mountains start to close in around us. We knew we were getting close to check point 3 when a large group of snowmobiles pull up. One of them thanks me for my service as he sees my USMC sweatshirt. I thought that was nice of him, but I was soon cursing them all as they completely wrecked the surface of the trail. It was now a struggle with every step sinking 6 inches into the snow. Thankfully we only had a couple more miles to go. Again we spill out onto a lake and go past a makeshift airfield that’s lined with pine boughs. I thought it was strange that this one was out of the sight of the resort, but as soon as we rounded a point the lodge came into view. This was Winter Lake Lodge which is located on Finger Lake.(something I found strange was that the lodge names never matched the name of the lake)
At this checkpoint they have a big canvas tent set up on the ice for the racers. Our drop bags are up at one of the tiny rustic cabins no bigger than a small shed. Here they provided us with a hot meal that the race had catered from the lodge. It was a chicken, bean, and rice burrito which hit the spot after a long day on the trail. The bikers ahead of us had pillaged the condiments so they were a little dry without sour cream or salsa. Still much better that the trail food we had been eating all day. After eating we all went to our tent and made a fire in the wood stove. I pulled out my paracord again and hung all my wet gear above the stove. The second place runner was only one other racer laid out so we had our pick of spots when we laid down. By the time we woke every square inch of the plywood floor was covered with sprawled out racers. Unfortunately those that came in after us failed to stoke the fire. The tent also had a propane stove, but it had run out of fuel as well. Temps had plummeted and it was now freezing inside the tent as we woke. Thankfully my stuff had enough time to dry and was not frozen solid. The 4 of us all gather our stuff and meet up at the check point cabin. We pillage the extra food left behind faster racers drop bags. It’s a nice change of pace from eating the same stuff for the past couple days. A group of three maybe 4 total racers that were behind us beat us out of this check point as we all sit and enjoyed a nice hot cup of coffee before departing.
We head out into the cold around 3am in hot pursuit of the group of racers now just in front of us. Again it was around -20F. Before leaving we are told this next section has 3000 feet of climbing and the happy river steps. Almost immediately upon departing the climbing begins. By sun up we catch the group ahead of us on a very long steep climb. They are speaking a different language and seem reluctant to make room for us to pass even though we came up on them quite quickly. We have no choice but to yell on your left and all four of us barrel by quickly gaining separation from them. After what seems like hours of climbing the trail opens up crossing a few alpine lakes. What goes up however must come down. After all that climbing I knew we’d have some major descending. Sure enough we have a bunch of slidable winding trail down to where the trail crosses the Happy River. The final descent to the river was so steep even I am leery about sliding down it. And I slide everything. I drag my feet the whole way down. Maren is behind me and she goes down on her butt in front of her sled. Amazingly we all make it down unscathed. I don’t know how the sled dogs do that section without getting run over by the sled.
The river has overflow and the snow on top looked wet. We all stop to don waders. I only have think black trash bags so I pull them up to my knees. Paul crosses first and breaks through the snow covered ice. I follow and the sharp ice splits my bags instantly. My feet get drenched. By this time temps were in the single digits. I’m a little worried about my feet freezing but as long as we stay moving I should be good. Thankfully it wasn’t colder. That could have been trouble.
After crossing the river we have an equally steep climb out the other side. The trail is a virtual wall of ice. We are literally on our hand and knees trying to pull ourselves up. Dragging a 50lb sled behind us make this extremely difficult. We are forced off into the deep snow to the side of the trail to be able grab shrubs to help pull ourselves up the slope. It’s comical watching each other struggle. I wish I would have recorded it, but all my batteries were dead. After that super steep climb we spend the day going up and down as we seem to skirt the side of a mountain range. Each day changed who was the strongest. In retrospect I think it had to do mostly with fueling. The prior day was Paul’s as he pulled off the front and beat us to that check point. This one However was mine as my fueling was on point. It may have been all the peanut butter. I pulled off the front and kept stopping to see if they would catch up. By noon I had made separation from the group and could no longer see them when I’d look back on the straight ways. After a while the trail opens out on what seems to be another air strip overlooking a lake. I make my way to the other end and the trail veers to the left and makes a sharp descent pouring out onto the lake. On the lake is yet another make shift air strip lined with pine bows. A couple planes are parked out front of the lone resort which we are headed to. This is Rain Pass Lodge on Pintilla Lake. This is where Maren’s 150 mile race finished. During the day Maren confessed to me that she felt like a 5k runner compared to us doing the 350. We all got a good chuckle out of that because in reality it was exactly the way we felt as compared to those going on and doing the 1000 miler.
I make my way up the hill to the little cabin with the Iditarod invitational banner above the door. It’s a little old log cabin that looks to be leaning to the side and about to fall over. It’s a three room cabin with a old wood stove in the corner next to the door. Nothing is level and the door never seems to close all the way. I grab an empty rack and plug in my phone hoping to get a quick charge so I can go back down and record Maren coming across the finish line for her outright victory of the 150 mile race. After putting a dry shirt on and my down booties I grab my camera and make my way back down to the lake. On the way down I meet Dave Mable who’s there documenting the race for the movie 1000 miles to Nome. I tell him about Maren and he does a little interview with her on camera as she finishes. We all congratulate her on her victory.
Paul asked me what my plan was. We were told it was not a good idea to go over Rainy Pass alone or at night. I had been listening to other racers along the way and most were going to take a prolonged break here heading over the mountain pass just before day break. I also knew the next aid station only had room for about 6 people and was just a small wall tent. They also had a rule of first in first out. Which meant if you were the first one in and 6 people showed up after you you were sent out to make room for the new arrivals. I had a feeling if we didn’t head out before morning there would be a huge log jam at the next check point. I made the decision that I was leaving at 5pm with or without them. In the back of my mind I thought maybe this was my chance to get separation from the group. Paul said he’d set an alarm and see how he felt.
Again I string up my line just above the wood stove to hang my gear. On top of the wood stove is a huge pot of water filled with cans of soup. Each racer is allotted 2 cans. Before laying down I scarf my first one down.
After eating I grab my rack and attempt to sleep. A hour of tossing and turning while getting blasted by cold air every time the door opened I finally got up and moved to a bed in the back room where it was nice and toasty. There I got a couple hours of sleep. By 4:30 I was up and getting dressed. At this point I ate my second can of soup. I waited to see if Paul was gonna show. For some reason him and Steve went to another cabin to sleep.
At 5pm Paul came in and seemed surprised that I was dressed and ready to go. It didn’t take much persuading as I explained the dilemma about if we were to wait til morning to go over the mountain pass. He agreed and went to rouse Steve. While I waited I thumbed through the sign in sheet and was pretty sure we would be leaving in 3rd place. 2nd wasn’t too far ahead and Rob Henderson(A fellow Minnesotan) was killing it way out front in 1st. When they came back they were joined by Maren. Sadly we all said our goodbyes and made plans to see each other sometime at a future race.
The sun was setting as we make the bold move heading up Rainy Pass. As we depart I mentioned to Dave Mable that we still had 200 miles ahead of us. That’s longer than any race I had ever done. It’s hard to even wrap your head around that. We are not even 1/2 way into this thing! In the back of my mind I’m thinking this is where the race actually begins…. The 2nd place runner is still within our reach….
Conclusion coming soon: