Saturday, April 17, 2010

Travelling within the Dream World of Dawgs...

"I made a pilgrimage to save the human race, not comprehending the race had long gone by..."

What's it like to be free? Where am I again? Who is this? Wake up Neff! Been a rather busy past few months- lots of gorgeous places, plenty of smiling faces. Now that it's over and done with I can relate a few of the hidden truths that were better kept hidden at the time they happened. Before we get to the Iditarod saga I'll quickly divulge the info. from our fun in the storm up north in the Kobuk valley. There is no greater feeling having finished another season of mushing madness than to relax out on the dock with a nice glass of wine and listen to the wind blow through the mountains- the wilderness is calling your name!

I wonder how many layers of skin my hands and feet have shed over the past 3,200 miles of racing we've participated in since January? Been a month now since the Iditarod finished and I'm finally starting to get some more feeling in those three fingers on my left hand. Suppose doing those two other races wasn't much of a help. Well, as my buddy William Kleedehn would say, "Whatever." This season it was more like wherever- been a fun one, travelling through an Arctic spring coastal blizzard would be a day for the memory books. At the time we were 10 minutes behind local Eskimo musher John Baker- he's one of the best in the world, especially in these conditions.

Though I left Ambler a few minutes before him by the time we descended down onto the river from the portage he was already leaving us in the dust. I wasn't complaining however, the kids were doing great. After all this was just as young a team as our Iditarod squad, we were down to 9 pooches having dropped Jewel, Simba and Zodiac during previous layovers. Tyler, Jester and Tolliver had been doing most of the leading. Following behind were Juanita, Ellsworth, Nathan, Sicily, Geronimo and Walter. 1o miles downriver the winds arose, from there on we'd be travelling thru drifts from inches to feet thick. Life was transforming from chasing to surviving.

While the main trail went down the river a small offshoot cut to the right and into a portage of rambling hills which leads to the halfway shelter cabin. (I'd tell ya the names of all of these places but I can barely remember my own- get a map.) John's squad was out of sight by now yet the winds were just waking up. Finding the trail was a struggle , Tolliver and Tyler plowed thru endless feet of fresh powder as an hour or two passed by. Fortunately we had found the trail at the last minute or we too might have been lost as other teams had endured. Upon reaching the shelter cabin I immediately decided to press on. Though shelter was tempting we were here to play- not hide from life indoors!

My hero of heroes is a Scottish fella named Muir. Johnny would run around Yosemite enjoying a good rumbling in the mountains- an earthquake- learning from the powers of Mother Nature. Believe me, her wrath can be just as viscious. In fact I had gone out and bought some sealskin mitts from some friends from Shishmaref before the race began. My fingers had froze on the coast in Iditarod, another lesson hopefully learned- life is easier with 2 hands! Competing in 2 races with 1 and a half hands has been interesting to say the least. Jumping back down on to the river I knew by now that John would be hard to catch, we had other things too worry about. Glancing towards the horizon a massive black cloud arose, as did the winds. I could only giggle in awe, knowing that we were heading INTO this thing.

Storms usually start off softly, as if lulling you to sleep. Flakes descend, the skies darken, the trail slows down... Moments later you have 40 mile an hour winds at your back, drifted trail in front of you and nary a trail marker to be seen. Bush living- can't beat it! Fortunately I had Walter (Annie's brother), wheel dog from another world. He's 5 years old and has done at least six 1,000 mile races. He'd been on this section of trail before. Replacing a worn out Tolliver and Tyler, my main man was on his own. He would lead us the remaining few hours into Kiana, the local mining community- our next checkpoint. The stretch of trail into this village is known as the 'small channel' but I can assure you that there are only a few other places in Alaska's Greatland that can present the hardened-in winter warrior with as many challenges. Ice, beach, rocks, drifted in trail, - WIND.

I was quite proud of the kids as we came into town, after all some of these two year olds were competing in their 3rd major race this season. If there's one thing about humans I've learned this year is how weak we are compared with DAWGS. Each time we slowed down on the trail, missing a marker and getting a bit lost, instead of yelling gee or haw I should have just kept quiet and let Walter ' have his head' . We probably would have had a less winding road- and I'd probably still have my voice. Our Eskimo friends along the way were as awesome as ever- that's why the Kobuk is so beautiful-- Happy Faces! Upon arriving at each village each musher drew from a hat a lucky # for someone to win an easter egg basket. Yeah, the 440 is a competitive event yet more so- it's a celebration of the northern lifestyle.

After pretending to sleep in Kiana for a few hours I hooked up the team as we headed back to the finish line in Kotz, thankfully the storm had diminished by now. The remaining miles were pretty much a ceremonial run as catching Mr. Baker's fine team was out of the question. Two promising future talents, Pete Kaiser and Quinn Iten were a few hours back. It's great to see these kids who grew up out in Alaska's bush country doing so well. Joe Redington would be proud to see that his dream thrives. Cresting over the last hill, I stopped the team and snacked them as the military plane's engines roared in the background at the local airport. Putting Walter back in lead with Tyler I figure he had earned the right to cross the finish line 1st. Little did I know minutes later he'd be chasing after a tan labrador, as I ducked underneath an airplane's wing- fortunately we avoided Front 1st.- which would have lead us into town. All's well that ends well... Will the Fat lady please start singing?

A special thanks to our host family, the Peacocks, my good friend Mr. Darrin Nelson, Mr. Warren Coffin, Shane Goosen and Pat Barrett for the airline miles to get us there! Iditarod blog coming soon! Enjoy the view, Hugh and the Laughing Eyes Kennel Crew


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