Iron Dog 2006 Race Story

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Minor updates #7 on 6-23-2006

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Sport Arena [44]

On Saturday (day before the race), we had a parade, the Safety Inspection and the "show and tell" where all racers show their machines and equipment. Here at last is where most secrets are revealed...
  Start Lineup [74]

The Pro Class lines up at 11:00 am and is off at 2 minute intervals. Excitement is high. Finally, at 11:50 a.m. we are called to the firing line, the 30 second warning...the 10 second countdown....the flag ... and we are off!

Skwentna, Shell Lake, Finger Lake

We left on Sunday at 11:50 am, after all the pro class was on the way. The trail teams were us, team 41; two young racers, team 42; and the Californians, team 43.


Oopsie! [75]

We wound our way through the trees out of Big Lake, into the Susitna river, and up for a fast ride to the Skwentna checkpoint. We were passed on the way by team 42, who were wannabe racers and should have been pro class. Once in a while there are oopsies like this tipover. You must understand that my partner, Kenny, was the one with the camera; he never consented to take pictures of his 'stucks', but there were a few. The final score was something like 20 to 30, with me being the 'stuckier' of the two. But, age before beauty like they say....

Gassed in Skwentna, 40 minutes behind 42. We had a quick bite, and waited a while for California team 43. We never saw them again.
 
 
 
 

Winding the Steps [78]

We breezed by Shell lake where we were waved thru, without a stop. We encountered some overflow on a lake; Kenny got stuck; I powered past him and helped him out. Love those waterproof bunny boots!

At the Finger Lake turnoff, we went left towards Puntilla. Big mistake. The rain had softened the snow to mush, we got wedged on a steep hill, got dark and took us several hours to extricate. The "come-along" we had with 100 ft rope was heavenly. We were only 3 miles past Finger Lake, so we went there to overnight. Next morning I replaced a bad upper left ball joint with a spare I had on hand. We got a message the Californians wanted to team up, but by noon we had not seen them, so that Monday morning we continued towards the Steps and the Happy River gorge and ultimately Puntilla. With overnight freezing, traction was good, and we got up "wedge hill" and on to the "Steps."


The Steps and Puntilla Lake

Start of the Steps was preceeded by K2 hill, a wedge again, and we prepared it by chopping some of the sides for a bit with the axe. While we were doing that, Lee and Brassard escorted by Eric Johnson came down. Lee was hurt and was in obvious pain. He'd tipped over into a competing Arctic Cat while passing. These are nice guys, and we felt badly for them.

Going down the Steps was interesting. Two steep hills would have been a bear southbound, but no problem northbound. The third one with the sidehill looked like a nightmare. There was this 90 degree left turn at the top, between a notch, then a 45 degree icy sidehill. If you loose it here, the fall is about 200 feet to brambles and deadfalls at the bottom. It was not to even be considered; but we stood on the left boards, gunned it and down we went.....and here come two machines uphill! More scratching pro teams....but they pulled to the side and we squeaked by.
 


Happy River Gorge [79]

This picture shows Kenny doing some good miles per hour coming around a bend at the Bottom of the Happy. It is not a long stretch, a few hundred yards ahead there is another steep bank to climb, but after doing the wedge and the infamous K2 Climb and the Steps, it was trivial.

This area, from Finger Lake to Puntilla is the most technical part of the trail. One of the things that makes it difficult is that if you try to do it as one leg, it is going to turn night on you. My hair stands on end doing that last step at night; then again, maybe it is a good thing.....what you don't see can't hurt you, right?

A mile or so after we descended the last step, we met some race support people, including "Randy" from Nome. He was trussed up with helmet, and I did not see his face. Who are you Randy? Get a hold of me, OK?

  Rainy Pass Lodge (Puntilla) [81]

Along to Puntilla, Kenny stopped right after a side hill and shouted on the radio: "Watch it Ramon, lean left!". Well, I did, but he was stopped at the end of the sidehill and I could not run him over, so I flip sideways into a tree. I was pinned and I thought the machine was messed up. Kenny did not see me do it, and drove off. Luckily I got him on the radio and he walked back. I was a bit shaken up, but we got straightened with no damage after all, to me or the rig, and onto Puntilla we went arriving about 7 pm. This was my only crash of the race.

Puntilla reported us in, and we met another scratched team. Dane Ferguson hit an ice ledge near Rohn and busted the sled. Puntilla was a nasty surprise, $150 per person per night, but not the fault of the caretakers who cooked and excellent meal and were very friendly.



Puntilla Pass and Hellsgate

Tuesday morning at 10 am we left Puntilla, but apparently they did not report us out. The snow had accumulated thru the night, and Eric Johnson's trailbraking and the pro class "gouge" had filled in with shoulder deep powder. We rode as fast as we could, but the trail faded pointing to Rainy pass. We turned back to find the proper trail. Never found the fork, but we could see some markings and a stake in the distance. We headed that way but the snow was very deep.

This stuff LOOKS white, is COLD, and FEELS somewhat like snow, but it is not. At least, not snow either one of us has seen before! You ride as fast as you can, steering is done by leaning on the boards; if you turn the skis you get stuck.

Kenny could not make it up a hill, but I did, and still could not see the trail. Next hill? Up I go and planted the sled in deep snow. Where is Kenny? Soon he radioed that he had fallen off a cornice and got stuck, but no hurt. But where? Not being in sight of each other plays all sorts of mind games! We dug for our lives. Kenny got unstuck first, climbed a hill and hollered on the ham radio. I could see him and got him to see me. He then came down his hill and I told him when he was on the faint trail. He could not see it even though he was right there on top of it! My eyes and perspective were better so I got him to stop. He walked uphill to me, a good quarter mile in chest deep snow. This was a monumental effort! You have to do something like this to appreciate it. With his strong tugs, we got my sled out.

We continued like this with the trail intermittently in sight for a couple of miles. The trail went up this one hill and faded out. I tried, but the machine would not climb the hill and I turned downhill before I got stuck. Kenny got stuck, and when I stopped 30 feet from him I was stuck too.


Digging in the Pass [82]

This was the low point of our trip; Kenny was for scratching, but I would not hear of it. While discussing our options, three trappers with deep snow capable sleds went by. We asked where they be going, and they were going to go by Hellsgate, so we followed their trail.

  Mountains [84]

We stuck a few times, but having a trail to follow meant not getting lost. Night caught us short of the tree line, but snow conditions eased, and we had a good ride into the trees and down through Hellsgate to the South Fork of the Kuskowim River.

We did not have any more snow trouble after that.


The Rohn River episode [85]

On the upper Kuskowin short of Rohn we encountered all sorts of open water, ice ledges, etc., and we were dog tired and stopped for the night. Resuming next morning we got into Rohn about 11 am.

At Rohn we got word of a tragedy that had unfolded the day before. Richard Strick, an experienced Iditarod trail breaker had been swept by an avalanche on Rainy Pass. While we were digging for our lives in Puntilla Pass, this man perished just about 5 miles up from us. His brother, family and perhaps 30 to 40 persons were in Rohn looking for him. We wished them godspeed and with heavy hearts pressed on.

  Farewell Burn and Nikolai [88, 90]

The fabled Farewell Burn was an anticlimax. This was a good run. The trail was comfortably wide, snow cover over the bumps and Kenny was in fine form. Prior to the burn, the treed part of the trail past Rohn was good for me, I maneuver well between the trees; but when we got to the burn, Kenny was way faster. My old age hurt here as my reflexes are not up to the speeds that Kenny could do. With Ken 100 feet ahead of me I could do 30 to 45 behind him .... but he was capable of 60 or 70. He was patient and held back his speed to allow me to keep up. Again a case of age before beauty...
 
 
 


Sullivan Bridge [91]

The John O'Carroll Memorial Bridge at Sullivan about 30 miles south of Nikolai is truly the Bridge to Nowhere. This creek flows all winter and is deep. This small bridge - only 6 ft wide - was built to allow access to the country south of Nikolai. All trails converge on this bridge, and a tin can on a rope gets you fine drinking water.
  Nikolai Friends [93]

We got into Nikolai about 4 pm, and were checked in by Damien Dennis (smiling between us) who wants to do the Iron Dog in the future. Way to go, Damien! You want an old man for a partner?



McGrath - Takotna [95]

On to McGrath and a restful night at the Takusko House, where Kitty took care of us and cooked the Steak-To-End-All-Steaks, period. We slept like logs and took off for Takotna at 9:30 AM.

The trail from McGrath to Takotna was a complete bitch. Wide, but the width had allowed it to get windrowed....hard as cement. It was like doing the Snowcross, but worse. The irregular bumps meant that fast, slow, anyhow, there was no way to do it gracefully. Kenny's fastest was not much faster than my slow, and it was spooky. The only consolation is that its only 16 miles.



  Takotna [96]

In Takotna, which is not an official Iron Dog checkpoint, we looked up Dan and Jan Newton. Dan is the famous Loafer from Ophir and to him falls the responsibilty of manning the Ophir checkpoint and breaking/marking/maintaining the trail from Takotna to Poorman. This is a monumental job, and one that he has been doing competently for years.

It also happens that Dan lived in Nome in the 70's, and although we had never met back then, we have lots of friends and acquaintances in common. Alas, what could have been a nice all afternoon visit soon was cut short by the reality that we had "to get on with the program."


Ophir to Cripple [98]

Takotna to Ophir was a breeze on the Ophir road. Flat, no problems, decent time. Again I slowed Kenny, but soon enough we were in Ophir, gassing up. We had left McGrath full of oil, so we did not oil up. This had consequences. Since it was only 1:00 pm, we could not see wasting the rest of the day, so with a shrug we took of for Poorman.

Ophir to Poorman was interesting. We had been warned by Dan about overflows and running creeks, and for the most part we had no trouble, excepting two creeks. Here, Kenny defined the term "breaking trail."

The technique works like this: we come up to this here creek, steep banks both sides. Thin skim of ice over water. Kenny guns it, leaps into the ice, BREAKS the ice as he bounces off, and is up on the other side and out. Ramon comes up, guns it, plunges into the newly opened water and goes glug, glug, glug. Where is my rubber duck?











  Enjoing the Riviera [99]

Out come the ropes, the come-along etc. In truth, it was straightforward. First creek, a no-name one, was not too bad. My ski tips were on the bank, and although the motor died, I got off the machine without getting my patootsies wet. Tied the ropes, click the come-along, and up the bank she goes and out. Primed the cylinders with gas, a couple pulls and off she goes, 30 to 45 minutes total.

The second creek was Cripple Landing. This was serious, with water in a deep hole. No way, so we look for a way around dodging trees in powder snow. Here we found a better spot, with a skim of ice. Again Kenny "breaks trail", so I did the water routine. Should I have looked for a different spot? Perhaps, but with no guarantees, I went in knowing it would glug, which it did. If the approach was flatter I could have water skipped it, but with a 45 degree angle into the water the outcome was preordained. People we met later said they had "issues" there.

Cripple got me wet to mid thigh, but with the come-along and the ropes still was out in under an hour. In the picture you see me working the come-along and smiling. Why not? Nice day, good company, swimming on the Alaskan Riviera, and not a care in the world. You can take this sort of episode with grumpiness or with a smile. I chose to smile and say I had a good time, and who can't say I didn't? Specially after the race is over....


Poorman [104]

What with those two misadventures we got to Poorman at 10 p.m.

We found the checkpoint closed up: building locked, stove dismantled, and worse: the stove fuel tank gone, no engine oil, no coolant, but we located two full drums of gas and the pumps. We gassed up, rigged some gas to siphon from a 5 gallon bucket into the Yukon Stove, and spent a warm night. Next morning we sort of slept late, checked things over, secured the camp, cleaned up a bit but not as well as we should have. Sorry guys!

As the disgusted Kenny in the picture shows, the coffee Tasted Like Shit, and his hair boasts the latest Bush Alaska Trim and Cut. Hey, he took pictures of my stucks, so there! Paybacks are a bitch, right?

We also discussed our options here. In McGrath the race officials told us of the open water conditions in Norton Sound. They were adamant that we not go to the coast; something that had come up at the pre-Race meeting. Incredibly, some of the teams waterskipped in front of Koyuk for a mile and a half in 60 ft deep water. The race officials stopped the race and managed to keep most of the teams in Unalakleet where they would do a race restart.

Our options were: finish in Fairbanks, or finish in Galena, where arrangements could be made to safely fly our sleds out.












  Ruby [108]

Friday 11 am we left Poorman for Ruby. Temperature was 24 degrees and the snow solidified, and I failed to kick snow into my cooler and boiled the engine over 10 miles out of Poorman, right after the Sulatna Crossing. We heated snow on the stove and refilled my coolant, but it was weak mix at this point, so we sweated a temperature drop, which luckily never happened.

Kenny and I traded sleds, as he was faster and had a good technique for kicking snow into the cooler, something I was loath to do in the narrow confines for fear of striking a tree. My machine has awkward stirrups: they do not let go my boots, and it is easy to inadvertently get boots wedged into the stirrups. A tipover could mean a hurt knee or ankle. Last year I had an ACL injury, and was really leery of it; my kneebrace is supposed to limit any stress, but...hey...why take a chance? Kenny drove my sled and weaved into the soft snow with no problems. I followed in his fan cooled 550f MXZ. What a lovely engine, such a smooth throttle response! But the handling was vastly different!

He has these apehanger handlebars, and they are to his fit and physique, but for me it was torture. In just a few miles my hands were a mass of pain yet numb. You'd think numb don't feel pain. What happens is they throb in terrible pain, yet can't feel the steering or the handlebars due to numbness. I had to make longer and longer stops every 2 to 3 miles to rest my hands. Finally we got into looser snow, and we traded sleds.

Back on my machine with about 30 miles to go to Ruby, my hands eventually returned to normal. As we descended to Ruby, my oil light intermittently blinked! Close call! We could sure have used a quart apiece in Poorman!

Ruby was reached at 2:50 pm, and we reported our time in. We found two teams taking a rest, and their machines in the impound area.


Ruby Decisions [110]

The layover teams were up at Rachel's Wild Iris B & B, so we joined them and took out a room for the night. Some teams came in for their 6 hour hold, and others left for Tanana. Frank Harris came in after hitting a ledge and having a spectacular wreck. He got towed by partner into Ruby, welded for a few hours -on the clock- then went into the checkpoint for his layover. We really liked Frank; he was very cheerful and helpful over at the Sports Complex, with good advice. We understand he will be here in Nome for some local races and look forward to his company. Rachel cooked up an excellent meal. The place was new, the rooms very, very nice; the only detractor being the super loud phone ringing all night.
  Yukon River and Galena [111]

Saturday morning we made arrangements to terminate in Galena; we would have wished to go to Unalakleet but the Race officials did not want us to. Fairbanks was an option, but we are not from Fairbanks: we would have been in a strange town, on foot, too late for the finish with nothing to do, low on funds, expensive! So we opted for the Galena finish.

The Ruby to Galena run was fast; Kenny hit an ice ledge and crashed. Not bad, but bruised his ribs and was sore. The machine flipped but with no apparent damage. We got to Galena at 2:50 pm. Frontier Air offered us a flag stop on their Fairbanks to Nome flight for Sunday; they had no Saturday flight. We overnighted at Shawn Bjorgen's B & B, and it was EXCELLENT.


Overall Impressions

It was great. We terminated where we were told to, and did not scratch. We had fun; we could have been faster, but we had exhausting snow conditions in Puntilla Pass. My old body had a lot of determination and stamina, but the machine was hard for me to get unstuck by myself. My reflexes really did not allow me to make up time on the good stretches. I did worry a bit on that Puntilla pass!

Would I do it again? Yes, definetely! I am fired up about it. But not with a liquid cooled 800 heavy thing. I am sure I can do much better overall time on a lighter rig.

I think SkiDoo is the way to go. The machine was comfortable; good handling and suspension, and my back and kidneys never felt A THING. I have nothing but good to say about my machine, only that it was too heavy for me. I am considering the 550 Fan Summit with wide skis and light studding on the track.

Equipment? We had a lot of duplicate stuff and could have better combined our gear. Spare clothing is heavy! In McGrath we lightened up, Ken by 20% and me by 50%. My waterproof bags were overdone. I got my pack to 32 lbs in back, 8 pounds in front, still too heavy.

The 100 ft rope was too stretchy; the cable come-along with only a 10 ft pull needed a lot of resets. This is going to be done over, somehow, but for sure a come-along and ropes are essential for trail teams.

The Seward Peninsula Amateur Radio Club sponsored our radio gear. We had Yaesu/Vertex VX-150, and Pryme SPM-1502 throat mike setups. If we did not have these radios with us, we would have been forced to scratch. Allowing us to keep in touch when we lost sight of each other in Puntilla pass; stopping the one in front so he would not leave you behind if gotten stuck (there is no turning around in these treed trails), and allowing us to make comments now and then. There were a few shortcomings: the push-to-talk switch needs some rethinking; the earpiece kept falling off for Kenny but was ok for me, etc. Overall, the radios were a big success. Kenny is ham operator KL1YJ, licensed January 2006; I am AL7X licensed March, 1958.

We want to thank the kind folks we met on the trail; and I will expand this list soon!

Finger Lake Lodge, not an official checkpoint, gave us a good rate, encouragment and food.

Tom Kriska, team 15, with encouragement and tools at the start. Alas, they blew an engine close to the finish. What a bummer!

Scott,Zane and George, trappers we followed as they broke trail past Puntilla pass.

Frank Harris team 30, for the good advice, cheer and encouragement at the starting line and again at Ruby. I see you guys finished "last" or "10th place" in 60 hours. Way to go, guys! Considering less than half of the fellows finished, this was a great Rookie effort.

Damien Dennis in Nikolai: friendliest checker; tour of Nikolai, good cheer. We left Nikolai with a smile because of this young man.

Frontier Airlines for the flag stop in Galena, saving us the agravation of being stuck in the Fairbanks airport terminal.

Everts Air Cargo for transportation. Thanks, guys!

Laura Beddard [13]

Laura is the Executive Directrix and she really encouraged our participation, answered every question we ever put to her, etc. Words fail to express what this person did for us. Sorry for being pests....we promise to do better next time.

Jeffrey Johnson, director, for his encouragement to run this race; keeping track of us, and most of all for his faith in me. We've known each other since 1988 when he lived in Nome.

Shawn Bjorgen of Galena, for his B&B, rides in town, and was it ever so helpful when he took the baggage of an old man and heaved it into his pickup. May your loads be lighter in the future.

A special thought to Richard Strick who perished in Rainy Pass breaking trail. I will light a candle to him so his spirit will find its way in the forest and join others in Summerland. I am speechless to express the sorrow that I feel for this man, with a wife and children, for what happened to him. All I can say is that at least he passed on doing what he loved.

To Dan (the Loafer from Ophir) and Jan Newton who welcomed us into Takotna, gave us details on what to expect at Ophir and Poorman, and who did such a great job on the trail there. I hope to see you again sometime, may your years on the trails continue for a long time, Dan!

Local Nome sponsors: KA Igloomatic (hey! we saw the Igloomatic at work in Anchorage!), Foot Rentals, Arctic Whitney, R.J. Auto, and Gary Hart of Checker Cab.

To Mike Hahn for help with the sled, and endless hours of advice. Mike is a noted retired racer, and a former aide to Evan Booth of Iron Dog fame. He met us at the airport on the return to Nome.

Keith Andrews for help on the sleds, metal work, and for housesitting my dogs and cabin.

To my two dogs, Strider the 120-lb German Shepherd, and Lacey; who were my companions throught the preparations. I promise to fix some sort of sled, basket, harness or some contraption so you guys can go on local snowmachine trips with me.

To Arnie Ashenfelter who bet us we would not finish, and therefore provided the determination to do so.

To race marshalls Tim and Dennis for their fair treatment and wise decisions.

To the Iron Dog as a whole, and Tesoro, Spenard Builders, and many unseen and unthanked volunteers for making this event possible. After completion, it simply boggles the mind how something like this comes together. It does, but only by the hard effort of non-racers who each do a portion of the work. Web site. Organization. Finances. Bookeeping. Medical. Legal. Trail breaking. Trail marking. Checkpoints. Fuel. Gas pits. The list is endless. The race focuses on the pro class racers, but you must know that this is only the tip of the iceberg and that the racers are simply guys that stand on the shoulders of giants.

And finally, but not last, to my partner Kenny Shapiro, without which non of this would have come together, or held together through the trip.

And....darn it!....I forgot the cheeseburgers in McGrath at Kitty's lodge and ended up having Dinty Moore Stew in Poorman. Booooo.

If you wish to reach me, be advised because of Spam I do not publish my email address. Instead, write me at Ramon Gandia, Box 970, Nome, AK 99762 with your email/regular address and we will then get together.


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Copyright © 2006 Ramon Gandia and Ken Shapiro. All rights reserved.