Thursday, January 8, 2009

Knik 200, Part I: Knik to Skwentna

So last weekend was the Knik 200 - a qualifying race for the Iditarod, a little 200-miler that is one of several smaller races a musher has to successfully complete in order to qualify (unless said musher has already finished in Iditarod, in which case they are considered to have proved their qualifications.) Several years ago I was coaxed into vetting the race (not easily arranged, since it starts on a Saturday, when I am normally working, so one of my bosses had to be roped in to cover my shift.) It was a year when we'd had warm temps and little snow, so the race went off about a month later than usual, with the advantage that there was significantly longer daylight, and better weather.

The fun all started Friday before the race. Dr P - a longtime Iditarod vet - had arranged for me to get the vet kit from the Tustamina (another 200-miler, cancelled due to overly warm temperatures) so that I didn't have to hassle with assembling my own kit. This was really quite thoughtful of him, and saved me a certain amount of trouble and strife. I decided that if it wasn't there by noon Friday, I was going to Iditarod headquarters to raid their stash, just in case. I figured, if I get drugs I don't need, no problem. But if I need drugs I don't get, BIG problem.

Friday noon rolls around with no kit, so over I go. No one had the combination to the drug lockup or knew when JP (the nerve center of the operation) would be back. After a certain amount of head scratching and 'hmmmm'ing, the combination is unearthed and I'm turned loose in free drug Nirvana (not as much recreational stuff as you might think from the "Nirvana" remark... more that there are many tens of thousands of dollars of expensive antibiotics and other medications in there, all neatly arrayed and FREE - for the race. AND there are some drugs that would be tempting if you were an addict, but those are a tiny minority.)

I load up a plastic trash bag with a lot more than I think I need, but better safe than sorry. The 10 o'clock news on Thursday night had announced that there were 60 teams signed up (which would be biggish for an Iditarod field, let alone a little 200-mile race that averages between 13 and 20 teams. Fortunately, they were mistaken, but I didn't yet know it.) The reason I am loading up a trash bag is that amongst other amenities, the Tustamina kits (and Iditarod kits, etc) are made up in an ActionPacker box, a sort of heavy plastic lock box that looks as if it could readily survive a Bison stampede, let alone a paltry 200 mile sled dog race.

Someone calls around 1 p.m. to say the kit will DEFINITELY be there by 6 p.m., but 6 p.m. comes and goes with no kit. Congratulating myself for having thought at least that far ahead, I cart my drugs and supplies (suture kit, splints, bandages, fluids, etc) home and start looking for a suitable carrier for it all. I have an idea that the soft-sided briefcases I customarily get for free when I attend meetings may do the gig, and I'm right: lots of internal pockets to stash drugs, a roomy central compartment for splints, bandages, fluids, etc, AND as a handy fringe benefit, they unzip so you can lay them entirely flat and have at the whole shebang all at once. They are in addition a lot easier to carry, since they have a nice shoulder strap. The only drawback is that they are soft-sided, so my breakable drug vials are a wee bit vulnerable. Oh well. They'll have to do.

Saturday morning I drop off my dogs at the clinic (where they will be weekending, since I won't be home to take care of them), add a few things to the kits that I have thought of over night, and go down to Knik lake. The race starts on the lake (frozen thick enough that 30 dog trucks, 345 dogs, assorted mushers, handlers, spectators and volunteers, and various support vehicles, including the race plane, can all safely trundle around on it for hours on end). I am fortunately there in time to have breakfast, which I do. Pretty soon, though, I'm on the ice doing the pre-race check with the help of CS, a German vet (not licenced in the States, and possibly a bit rusty due to not having practised for several years), and a pair of volunteers who are checking vaccination paperwork while we do physicals. I am at least twice as fast as CS and am having trouble deciding if that's because I'm really faster, or if it's because she is being more thorough. Pretty soon it doesn't matter because teams are lining up in the chute and we have to go like blazes to get them there on time. Teams leave at two minute intervals, so there isn't a lot of time to dink around. We finish in good order, though, and I have time to get my camera out of the truck and take a few shots.

We retire to the Knik Bar (headquarters for the race - rather appropriate, really) to wait for our pilot, MK. MK is the deciding factor in my choice to do the race. I've flown with him before, and I trust him. Apart from that, I like him, and if the lure of his airmanship wasn't enough to tip the balance, then the chance to catch up with him (and by extension, his wife, an intelligent woman and top-notch cook, whose hospitality I've enjoyed in the past), certainly WAS. CS, a bit sleep deprived, is in a hurry to fly to Skwentna, hoping to nap a bit before the first mushers get in. I'm a bit sleep-deprived myself (having stayed up late and gotten up early to finish the medical kits), but I figure MK, who has piloted this race for many years, knows his job way better than I do, and I'm not inclined to rush him. I figure that he is donating his time, his fuel, his plane and his considerable expertise, and if he feels inclined to relax and read his paper and finish his lunch and his cup of coffee, he's entitled. And when I return his call so he can give me an ETA, I tell him as much. I figure that MK is responsible for getting us there in one piece, and whatever way he wants to go about it is okay by me. Furthermore, he's been carting straw and food and God knows what-all up the trail for the last few days, and the poor man might need a few hours peace to relax with his wife in his own house. I tell him to take his time.

Round about 2 or so, Mike lands on the lake and volunteers swarm over and start cramming bales of straw, various supplies, medical kits, cold weather gear and medical personnel into the plane. It's a neat little Cessna 180, sturdy and workmanlike and more than agile enough to do the job we'll ask of it. I love these little Cessnas. Tough little planes, extremely useful for accessing the remote parts of Alaska (of which there are many.) At any rate, to my delight CS offers me the right seat (next to the pilot) and retires to the back. I love the right seat.

MK is a really good pilot, even by my spoiled-rotten standards (bear in mind most of my small aircraft time has been put in with my boyfriend DB - a commercial jet pilot - at the yoke, and I am inclined to use his skill as my benchmark for "really good".) Since MK also flies heavy freighters for a living, his skill is no surprise to anyone, but I find a deep quiet hum of contentment building in my core as he makes a sweet takeoff from the ice. Mike has thoughtfully informed us that he's going to keep it low as he skims above the ice toward the lake end, and that we shouldn't worry if it looks like the trees are getting awfully big in the windscreen. He's just banking speed, and when he has what he wants we're going to jump out of there like a scalded dog, he tells us - apt, I thought, given the context - and this is just what he does. CS, a more nervous flier than I, thanks him for the warning, but I am serene. MK is too good a pilot to let anything happen to us.

We cruise along for a bit, and then MK finds the Yentna River, which comprises a significant leg of the trail. We fly lazy serpentines along its course, looking for teams on the ice, and soon enough we find them. Some are trotting along at an easy mile-eating pace, a few are paused to rest and snack their dogs - they haven't gone so very far yet, but it's a warm day (mid to high 20's) and it doesn't pay to overheat your team. One or two teams are really hauling, the dogs loping easily along, smooth and eager for the trail. Thoughtfully, MK points out the few hazard spots, dropping us down onto the deck to have a close look at the worst one, so that we (as the medical team) have an idea what things we might be soon discussing with the mushers. I am happy as a clam at high tide, loving the airtime, but I later discover that CS is inclined to airsickness and isn't having quite as much fun as I am.

All too soon we land at Skwentna, touching down lightly and taxiing off the strip. A pair of snow machines await us, drivers comfortably slouched astride, watching MK come in. We offload our gear and CS and I pile aboard the machines for the short trip to the Skwentna Roadhouse (our trail headquarters), while MK spools it up and heads back out for the next load of gear and personnel.

The Roadhouse is run by a good-natured and apparently unflappable crew, who welcome us in, point us to our rooms (2 rooms with 2 sets of bunks each, so we'll be sharing with the guys, of which there are a great many more than girls on the checkpoint crew.) Being first in (since we have to be there before the first musher, in case of a need for veterinary care), CS and I are able to stake out our favorite bunks. CS has a bit of a nap while I wander about a bit. It's now 4:15 and I haven't eaten since breakfast. The Roadhouse crew seems thrilled to be able to help me in any way, and are delighted to make me something to eat. I dispatch a bowl of chili and decide to take advantage of the lull, so I go lay down for a bit while CS gets up. About 5:30 I get up from a restless doze. While I am yawning and stretching and chatting with CS, we see from our second floor window the first team into Skwentna checkpoint. They are mushing along handily, the dogs trotting with a floating synchronous ease that is lovely to see - particularly for me, since as the race vet, anything that doesn't look smooth and sound and perfectly flowing is soon to be my responsibility. If that becomes the case we move from the surreal beauty of the pearly light of the afternoon into the sharp-focus reality of sore muscles and sprained wrists and abraded pads and lacerations and ulcers and diarrhea and dogs that are just plain tired from running 87 miles with a full sled behind them.

[Author's note: To keep this post from being excessively long, it is divided into three parts, the way I originally wrote it. Next time: Knik 200 Part II: Midrace At Skwentna Checkpoint.]


Holly said...


I love the scenery...oh wait, I wasn't just felt like it.

I love the descriptions of the dogs, the environment and how you chose what you took and what you found to take it in.

I love the names of the places, they are so different sounding for me.

I am so glad I found your blog and I am excessively glad that you continue to write and tell us of your life.

MaskedMan said...

I've heard this story before, but I love hearing it again.

As may have been mentioned at some point, I'm an Iditarod nut, and a fan of sled dog racing in general. The Knik 200 is a fairly short mid-distance race, and it has a different flavor than, say, the John Beargrease ( 410+ miles; coming up real soon - Jan 25 - Mark your callendars, folks!) race. On a shorter race, mushers are sorely tempted to push speeds and distances, and in good conditions you'll get very nearly stage-race speeds. Skilled mushers will carefully guage conditions, their team, and their competition, and make the correct calls on speeds and distances. Less skilled mushers can either dawdle when they should be pushing (or they may be sparing the dogs for later races), or push too hard, which tires out the team and may lead to sports injuries. In a longer race, mushers are less tempted, but in a short race, you quickly see who knows what they're doing and is settled down, and who is too green, or too hungry, or who's simply blown their judgement calls. Oh, and of course, Murphy and Mother Nature get a chance to stick their oars in and give the pot a stir, too.

Needless to say, it's dang important that the race vet be Johnny- or Jane-on-the-spot when a team comes in to a checkpoint. The dogs count on their mushers as their first line of defense, but it's the vets who backstop the mushers, and take over when the mushers are out of their depth, or so exhausted that they miss something.

Pat said...

From now on, when I read your blog, I am going to be sitting in front of a huge fireplace, sipping hot chocolate (at least, in my mind).

Anonymous said...

part II please!!!

AKDD said...

Beth, your wish is my command. :)

Pat, that sounds just YUMMY, after the two weeks of 30 below-ish weather we've been having... I'm sitting in front of a big roaring fireplace right NOW in my mind. Thanks for the idea!

Holly, you're not the only one who finds the names exotic and strange. You can always tell a new news anchor up here, becuase they refer to the "Nik" river of the "Nik" glacier, not the KNIK; both K's are pronounced. This "Nik" business usually lasts less than a week. I can only assume they are teased mercilessly by their peers until they knock it off.

At any rate, I'm glad you're enjoying this; I'd write in a vacuum, but it's MUCH more fun with a simpatico audience, so really I should be thanking you!

MM, you really have to come up here some year in race season. Although I'll grant you it'd be hazardous, as your head might actually explode with excitement. :D I'd actually almost forgotten that your fave musher was on that year's Knik, a few years before he broke the world of mushing wide open with feats no ordinary mortal (and no ordinary dogs) can even contemplate. It's kinda fun to look back at; despite his success, he hasn't changed. The energetic, upbeat, humble guy he was on that race is the guy he still is, even though he is, demonstrably, a world-beater. No one on earth has ever done what Lance Mackey has done behind a team. Could be no one ever will. Looking forward to seeing if he'll three-peat, altohugh you know he'll be loved and admired regardless.