I became interested in the idea of
driving a dog team across Alaska on a flight seeing trip along the
Iditarod Trail. Then in August of 1998, I saw an index card posted
at the Talkeetna Post Office advertising a "free dog team"
for the winter. I called and made arrangements to meet the dogs.
Imagine my amazement when out of the lush, snowless, summer forest
emerged eight monster dogs dragging a rickety 14' freight sled and
my now very good friend and popular Alaskan author, Rick Leo. These
magnificent animals are Rick's only transportation into his homestead,
6 miles off the rural road system. Weighing 100 plus pounds, strong
as oxen, and named after Russian Ballet dancers, this pack has free
reign to run and play together year-round at the Rick's Homestead.
Instead of the usual truck and dog box setup to transport the team
on road trips, Rick opens the back door of his '85 Isuzu Trooper
and commands "get in". He doesn't even own a snowhook,
essential equipment most mushers use to anchor the dogs until the
musher is ready to go. There is good reason for all the gear we
use on the Iditarod but Rick has taught me you can keep it simple.
He's had some wonderful adventures with these dogs like a month
long expedition north of the Arctic Circle in the Brooks Range with
no outside support.
Horstmann at the Iditarod start
I had already read "Living on the Edge" and "Way
Out There" (and Rick's Books) prior to meeting Rick and I highly
recommend these entertaining and enlightening books. He really lives
what many consider the Alaskan Dream. I needed a place to keep the
dogs and my friend Don Bowers of "Back of the Pack" and
Iditarod fame let me keep them at his kennel in exchange for helping
train his 1999 Iditarod team. That winter I started the '99 Serum
Run with Rick's dogs. I wasn't ready. My five mile an hour freight
dogs and I couldn't keep up with the Iditarod racing dogs most of
the other mushers had. Two hundred miles into the run at Tanana
I withdrew. In year 2000 Don Bowers was planning on taking two teams
on the Serum Run and using them for the basis of his 2001 Iditarod
team. I was to drive one of the teams. For a myriad of reasons Don
only took one team on 2000 Serum Run and I didn't go along. Then,
as every Iditarod fan knows, Don died in a tragic accident in June,
2000. My wife and I became caretakers for Don's place, taking care
of his 60 dogs until good homes could be found for most of them.
I kept 16 of the dogs and did the 2001 Serum Run with them, becoming
the first musher to use the Serum Run as an Iditarod qualifier.
In 2002 I entered the Iditarod Sled Dog Race with many of the same
dogs Don ran on his last Iditarod including the now famous "Maybelline".
I was very proud and honored to run them. I
know Don was with us in spirit enjoying the adventure.
My 2002 Iditarod Post Race Report
Iditarod 2002 -Resting at the McGrath
"Dream Big & Dare to Fail"
This is one of my mottos adopted from one of my heroes Col. Norman
Vaughn. Only we didn't fail. I am proud of what the Dogs and I accomplished.
We did most of the trail and the last several hundred miles all by
ourselves which I found out is a lot harder then being in the pack.
Counting the 2001 Serum Run we did the whole northern route. ( We
did the Iditarod trail just no belt buckle )..... am I disappointed
we didn't finish? Yes but, I am proud of the team's accomplishment.
So what happened? Well, I will never know for sure , ( who knows what
goes on in those little doggie brains ) , but here are my thoughts
for now. My plan was basically to run from 6 am to 12 pm and 6 pm
to 12 am, use the checkpoints as much possible and camp between any
checkpoints more than 50 miles apart. I was right on schedule coming
into Rohn within minutes of my plan. However, I had just got my but
kicked on a night run through the Dalzell Gorge. I slammed into trees
twice harder than I ever have before on a sled. I thought I broke
some ribs and smashed my right hand. I was in a lot of pain for the
rest of the run. Another time the sled flipped and my headlight went
out. I found myself racing down the gorge in the dark being pulled
by 16 dogs trying to climb on my tipped over sled and politely asking
the Dogs if they wouldn't mind stopping. Actually what I was screaming
would have made my sailors blush. Besides the terror and near panic
I remember thinking "now this is interesting" while sliding
along. Don had recommended not doing the Gorge the first time at night
- I imagine he had a good laugh.
We left Rohn a little behind schedule
some what humbled and perhaps a bit shaken. We had a lot of trouble
with the Post River Glacier and I broke my brake in the Buffalo Tunnels.
So by the end of my 6 hour run I had only covered about 24 miles,
about half of what I hoped to do. All the mushers had been told that
a former Iditarod musher, Shawn Sidelinger, was care taking the Farewell
Lake Lodge and was going to set up a rest stop with hot water 25 miles
out. I knew this but somehow when I passed some signs he had put up
saying hot water 4 miles, 1 mile etc. I read no water and was confused.
Unfortunately, there was a small creek about 1/2 mile from his hot
water station and I stopped there for my 6 hour break and got out
my cooker. The stop didn't go well. Even the simplest task seemed
hard and I kept starting one thing then switching to another task
and was getting very little done and no rest. I was getting ready
to go when another musher came by. She stopped to talk for a minute
then went by. She only went a
couple of hundred feet and stopped to undo a tangle. I looked up and
thought she had stopped because there was a pony in front of her team.
I told her this and that I felt out of it. She recommend I get some
sleep and when she met Shawn a little way down the trail she asked
him to check on me. He suggested some sleep and that it might be better
to start across to the Burn in the morning. I did this and left well
rested in the morning but lost 12 hours. I think what had happened
was I was getting little or no sleep and not eating well. For the
rest of the run I made sure I got at least a two hours sleep each
stop and ate better. The run across the burn went real well and I
pulled into Nikolai late that afternoon. I now found out its a totally
different experience to pull in to a checkpoint that has already started
shutting down. I had to hold the team till some kid came up who I
asked to go find the checker for me. Don't get me wrong, once I found
the checker he, the Vet. and the Communications guy couldn't have
been more helpful. They were the only people left at the checkpoint.
However, the energy level is just not there to feed off of like at
a checkpoint full of teams. I left around 11:30 pm for a midnight
run to McGrath that would catch me up a little and put me back on
my desired run schedule, after coming off my required 24 hour layover.
This run and the 24 went well and I left McGrath rested and back on
my desired run/rest schedule but 12 hours behind my plan and last
out of the checkpoint. The run to Takotna went well. I planned to
stop there just long enough to snack the dogs and get some stuff out
of my drop bags. However, while doing that I was invited in for steak,
eggs, hashbrowns and toast. I succumbed to the siren call and stopped
to eat, staying about 2 hours. We then ran to Ophir arriving about
2 pm. Without the stop we would have arrived in Ophir at noon right
on schedule and avoided running two hours in the heat of the day.
I also see now we did 13.7 mph on that run, much too fast especially
in the heat and up hill. I had no idea we did this till I saw the
time on the Cabela's site. Bill Borden was still in Ophir and suggested
we run together through the big long empty sections ahead. In what
may have been my biggest mistake of the whole trip I said no, and
that I would meet him ahead when he camped. I was to never see another
team. As I write this Bill is in Koyuk having caught the back of the
pack - a tribute to him and his team. Out of Ophir I hit a wind storm
and the dogs started acting up. Near the end of my 6 hours of planned
running I came to a stand of trees offering some protection from the
wind and camped.
Spectacular view going up Rainy Pass
The next day I had to deal with sections
of drifted in trails and leaders who kept balking more and more. It
took me almost 3 six hour runs to make Cripple. I should have done
in it in two with time to spare. The run from Cripple to Ruby went
well for the first half then the leaders started balking more and
more. It was a repeat performance on the run from Ruby to Galena,
only worse. I wouldn't be surprised if I went to the front of the
team 100 times. I tried every combination of dogs I could, I did everything
I knew to do and nothing worked. I left Galena at about 2 am in an
effort to catch up. The dogs went out of town strong but after about
2 miles caught me by surprise and completely turned around. I turned
them back around but couldn't get them to go. I tried for about 30
minutes and then considered the situation. I had been fighting with
the dogs for about three days to make them go. It was getting worse,
I had 50 miles ahead of me to the next checkpoint and it looked like
I could walk there faster then I could get the team there.So I turned
the team around and went back to Galena. I later found out this is
where Don scratched on his last northern route run. The checkpoint
workers figured the dogs thought I must be lost trying to get them
beyond the end of the trail and that Don was having a good laugh.
Did I do right? I'll ponder that for a long time. Lessons learned
Iditaod 2002 - Along the coast near
Take care of yourself
Stick to your plan
Playing catch up is very, very hard
Run with another team when you can.
and enjoyment are top concern - Tours maybe cancelled if weather
or conditions are in our opinion unsatisfactory. We we reschedule
or a full refund will be given.