Seven am – Fairbanks – -31 Degrees F
Restart day found me where I left off yesterday – checking in volunteer dog handlers! But not for long…. I was due to meet Nathan at is truck at 9:00 and wanted to get a quick walk around the musher parking lot to check in with everyone well before that….
And guess who was pulling in right as I arrived at the lot?
I checked in with Nathan, but he and the team were huddled up in the truck trying to stay warm, so I kept wandering and checking in with the teams.
In walking around, it quickly became apparent that the mushers interpreted the rule change about carrying dogs and mandatory gear very differently than I did! The rule states that dogs and mandatory gear must be carried “in the front sled”. When I originally heard the change, I heard it as “in front of the musher”, so I was surprised to see that most mushers still had storage behind where they themselves would stand. I guess technically, if it is on the front set of runners it’s still considered the front sled. It will be interesting to see if the rule is reworded again next year!
The thing everyone was dying to see? Dallas’ new sled! There have been rumors about this sled all week – rumors like: it’s 20 feet long, it’s made of space age materials, it has a dog food cooker built in, it cost $10,000…. So of course I made a bee-line for his parking spot to check it out.
It’s definitely different. To start with, it’s hard. It’s carbon fiber and Kevlar. It’s not like your typical soft sled bag. And it opens like a coffin at the top. I don’t know… we’ll have to see how it works out! Here’s an article about Dallas’ sled as well as a few others: Sled Article
Things were starting to get hopping, so I headed back to Nathan’s truck to begin my “Musher Handler” duties! First up? Dropping the dogs so that they could stretch their legs and pee for the P-Team. The P-Team is a group of volunteers that collects urine from all of the teams to be drug tested. They collect samples at the start of the race, at an undisclosed location on the trail, and from the top twenty teams in Nome. Nathan and Nick worked on making sure the sled was all packed correctly. Nick changed the runner plastics. I petted dogs and tried to keep them calm. Or maybe I just petted them because it kept me calm!
Just like on Saturday, we watched the parade go by! Team after team headed for the chute.
Now, I’ve been telling everyone who would listen that the distance from the back of the musher lot to the start line is five miles long! I may have exaggerated a bit… but just a bit! Literally, from the front of the musher lot to the start line is a full mile. And the musher lot is massive – more than 70 dog trucks are parked in it in a huge circle! Luckily, Nathan wasn’t quite at the back this time like he was in 2015 – but still the haul to the start line was going to be a challenge. We had to swing the team right out of the parking spot, make our way to the front of the lot, make a sharp left to get into the chute and then plod a mile to the start line. While the parade was going by, we got word that we needed to head to the start line SLOWLY. Apparently teams were hitting the turn into the chute way to fast and handlers were wiping out right and left. Remember all those ITC Handlers we checked in? Apparently lots of them decided one team and one wipe out were enough and they were leaving without handling multiple teams. There was going to be a crunch for handlers by the end!
Finally it was go time for team 62! Booties and harnesses on – dogs led to the gangline to be hooked up and off we went! We got Nathan successfully to the start line, heard the countdown, and he was off towards Nome!
I hung out at the start line to watch the rest of the teams start their race and then went inside to warm up a bit… where I was give a bit of surprising news…. I was headed off to the first checkpoint!
The first checkpoint this year, Nenana, is about a five hour trip by dogsled, but only an hour by road. It’s the only handler assisted checkpoint in the race. Handler assisted is a bit of a misnomer – the handlers drive the trucks to the checkpoint and restock the mushers, but they aren’t actually able to assist the mushers in any way.
Nenana is a great little town at the confluence of the Nenana River and the Tanana River with a population of about 386. We walked to the community center, where the checkpoint was being staged and where the checkpoint banner was hung. The mushers come off the river under a bridge, follow the trail under the banner and in front of the community center, then return to the river where they will be officially checked. At check in the decide if they are going through or staying. Their answer to that question determines where they go next – to the parking area or under the next bridge and back onto the trail!
We got to see about 30 teams come in during the 75 minutes or so we were there. Some restocked their supplies and rolled through and others stayed for a bit. Because it’s so early in the race teams are still stacked up and everyone was in and out of Nenana in about ten hours.
By the time all of the teams were on their way to the second checkpoint, I was on a plane had headed home to Baltimore!