Mush Madness: Life on the Iditarod Trail
Based on the body of literature romanticizing 19th-century Arctic and sub-Arctic explorers, one might suppose that modern-day mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race eat things like whale, walrus and seal to keep themselves going. And some native mushers still do.
Bill Pinkham, a 45-year-old musher who lives up Fourmile Creek on the way to Sunlight Ski Area above Glenwood Springs, prefers more readily available food stuffs, such as reheated slices from Atlas Pizzeria in El Jebel, one of his sponsors for the 2004 edition of “The Last Great Race” held last month.
“I had a lot of Atlas pizza out there,” Pinkham says with a grin, “and even burritos from Taco Bell; things I could just throw on my cooker and heat up real quick. Also, a lot of dried fruit and nuts, snack bars, fruit cups, different sausages.”
But during Pinkham’s 11 days, one hour and 40 minutes on the Iditarod Trail ” an 1,100-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome, ending March 18 ” his diet and nutrition, even rarefied sleep, often came second to that of his dogs.
Pinkham, who began running dogs in 1994 when he took a job leading tours for the Krabloonik kennel in Snowmass Village, has now completed a total of 11 races, including the last two Iditarods and two Yukon Quests (in 2001 and ’02), the two 1,000-plus-mile heavyweights of the sport. In the Iditarod this year, Pinkham finished 33rd in a field of 77 finishers and 87 starters, up from 37th in his Iditarod debut in 2003.
More important, Pinkham shaved 40 hours off his rookie pace, finishing within 33 hours of 2004 winner Mitch Seavey of Alaska. And that, Pinkham says, is progress.
“I’ve jumped in pretty quickly, I really have, and it’s my personality,” he says. “I’m competitive. But there’s a time frame that you just can’t push. There’s just too much to know about this race. I thought we could do better this year and then I just had to be humbled a little bit.
“Running dogs has taught me about patience. Hopefully, next year we’ll make another jump. Certainly we’ll keep trying.”
Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in New Jersey, Pinkham moved to Aspen during the winter of 1980-81. Supporting what he calls a ski bum’s life, he’s worked at Bonnie’s and the Sundeck on Aspen Mountain; he’s waited tables at Little Annie’s and the Steak Pit; he’s sold fish and was involved with the Legend’s Bar; and he even worked for Saudi Prince Bandar. Today he juggles various jobs, including leading guests on sled-dog rides out of Fourmile in the winter months. A 20-year veteran of the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club, Pinkham says a childhood curiosity about mushing led him to take that job at Krabloonik.
“I had thought about it for years but it was a six-day-a-week job ” it meant no skiing, you know, a real commitment. And the experience I got from doing tours [for three years] taught me a little bit about running dogs, but I had to re-learn everything. It’s a totally different world when you start having to train dogs on unfamiliar trails, train your own lead dogs, breed your own dogs, take care of them, deal with their health issues and then build a team and learn about long-distance training. It’s a whole other world.”
Pinkham got his first dogs in January 1998; the next winter he competed in his first race in Wyoming, finishing respectably for a greenhorn. Now, Pinkham keeps 40 dogs at his place up Fourmile ” which is linked with an extensive network of trails that enables him to make 65-mile training runs to Paonia regularly. Like most Iditarod racers, he uses hybrid Alaskan huskies, ultra-endurance specialists weighing approximately 40 pounds for females and 50 pounds for males. Most of the dogs live outside on the property, but Pinkham’s first Alaskan husky has graduated to the rank of pet.
With a pickup truck converted to a kennel, with slots for 16 dogs on back, Pinkham made the 3,400-mile drive to Anchorage in late February to get ready for the Iditarod’s ceremonial start from Anchorage on March 7. And while he started with the maximum allowable 16 dogs, he finished with eight, two more than last year, having left injured or fatigued dogs at checkpoints along the way in the care of veterinarians.
Pinkham, who returned to the Roaring Fork Valley March 30, detailed some of his experiences in an interview with The Aspen Times earlier this week.
A typical day on the trail: “Generally, you stop twice a day ” run six hours, rest six hours. We’ll run from 6 [a.m.] to 12 and rest from 12 to 6 so you’re resting during the heat of the day and, following kind of a normal schedule for you and the dogs, running again from 6 to midnight and resting again at night, 12 to 6. It works out because the schedule keeps you out of the heat of the day. If it gets 30-something degrees, even though that doesn’t sound real hot, it’s warm up there. …
“But the schedule changes. … You have storms, you have trail conditions that are slower so you don’t get quite as far as you’d like. And the temptation is to run, just keep running to get to that next checkpoint, and it can throw you off your schedule and that can really mess up your whole rhythm and your trust with the dogs. I did some of that this year. I broke trust and schedule. It’s hard. Really, it’s about is how you manage the knowledge you have, intertwined with your discipline. Apparently, I need to work on my discipline.”
The things you carry: “You’ve got to have everything with you, all your mandatory gear, at the start ” that’s everything you’ll need that you won’t be able to resupply at every checkpoint [some 19 along the way] like food. If you forget something in your truck, that’s it, it’s forgotten. So the start is a crazy day. You’re getting ready, packing the sled, and the dogs know, they’re wild, ready to go … ‘Oh, maybe I should bring that extra pair of gloves.’ And the next thing you know, your sled’s getting bigger and bigger and you’re going, ‘Oh, my God.’ Maybe you’re up to 150 pounds at the start, but once you start actually getting into the race, getting confident, everything’s going well and nothing breaks, then you start to get rid of some stuff that you don’t need.”
Sweet lonesome: “In the beginning, you see a lot of other teams, but once the race spreads out over 200 or 300 miles, you might not see another team for a good part of the day, until you hit a checkpoint. Some people chose to run with another team, or it might just work out that way because they happen to be going the same speed on the same schedule. I generally tend to be running on my own a lot, probably by choice, mostly.”
Taking care of the pooches and the musher: “Every time you get ready to run, and once you’ve rested, you’ve got to put booties on the dogs. That’s four booties on 16 dogs, so 64 booties each time. … Sometimes you go into a checkpoint but you don’t stay there because you’re on a schedule to run through for another three hours, so all you’re doing is just stopping and getting gear. … The guys who have done it 10 or 15 or 20 times, they just know how to do it very well from a logistical perspective.
“I learned a lot this year about nutrition, getting water and calories into the dogs. A good base kibble, with protein and fat. And a lot of different raw meats and fish, lamb, horse, turkey skin; a lot of people use beaver and the natives feed their dogs whale and walrus and seal, and they eat that themselves, too. You want a variety, the dogs get finicky.”
Sleep, the lack thereof: “No tents; too much weight, too much time to put it up and down. … A lot of people lie right on the sled and half the time won’t even get the sleeping bag out. I’ve done that a lot, but I can’t get comfortable on the sled. This year, I ended up getting my sleeping bag out a lot more and just getting in it and getting comfortable. You don’t want to waste the time getting it out and putting it away but, you know what, it pays to get in it and sleep, even if it’s just for an hour or two. Do it. Just get in there and be comfortable. … This year, I hardly ever fell asleep driving the sled. That used to be a issue for me.”
Leaving dogs behind at checkpoints: “Sore wrists and shoulders, muscle strains, some of them overheat and that can be a big problem. … Some of them get sick and you can work through that sometimes, but sometimes it really hits certain dogs. Some just get dehydrated and then they get fatigued. They can’t keep up. And either you stop, take a whole lot of time, and that decision is really whether you stop racing and just take your time. But generally, you leave that dog. …
“You learn to listen to your instincts and watch. If a dog changes its gait or its demeanor is a little off, it might not show up right then, but if you keep running that dog, then you might have to carry it. That really hurts the team. So you learn to go, ‘You know what, the dog’s still pulling but something’s not quite right with it.’ That’s part of my struggle. I always think I can fix a dog. But the bottom line is you’ve got to put all sentiment aside. Sure I’ve got my favorite dogs, but the smart decision is to leave the dog at the next checkpoint and let the vets take care of ’em.”
Frostbite on fingers: “I got a little frostbite and the skin’s starting to peel. I was hauling a couple [of injured dogs in the sled] and the next thing I know the wind comes up and the dogs are burrowing into the snow, wrapping around these trees. I didn’t have my liner gloves on; I just had my mitts on. I throw my mitts down and start unhooking these snags and the wind starts picking up more and the next thing I know, my fingers got it [near Nikolai, about one-third of the way through]. Lack of sleep, made a bad decision or two, hurt the team a little bit, and I had to haul a couple dogs, which slowed us down.”
Memorable moments: “Probably going out across the ice, Norton Sound, Bering Sea, being out there all alone, making a big push through a checkpoint and realizing you’re out there. There’s no one out there to help you and you can’t put that out of your mind, so the thought kind of keeps you company in a way. … Then big winds coming across this one mountaintop, maybe 50-, 60-mile-an-hour winds. It was pretty intense. My lead dogs were just awesome. It was nighttime, it was the hardest day on the trail ” there was no trail ” the wind’s howling, it was great. It was a real high for me. I was smiling. But there’s a lot of little moments, lots of highs and lows. It’s such an intense event and with all the sleep deprivation, everything is intensified to the extreme … and it’s really just being able to deal with everything that arises, and the sleep deprivation.”
On finishing: “It’s kind of a letdown. You’ve built up for this thing since September and now you’re done. You try to figure out what your purpose is now. … You’re a little disconnected from this world, this reality. It’s really hard to describe everything you go through. It’s totally wild and raw and self-sufficient. I could’ve really frostbit myself bad, or got wet; things happen and the next thing you know you can be in real trouble out there, so there is a great sense of accomplishment, too.”
Rivalry between Alaskan mushers and those from the Lower 48: “Alaskans are tight. They refer to everybody else as ‘The Outside.’ … I notice now that I’m knocking on the door, they know it too. I’m not that far away. It’ll just take a few things and all of a sudden I’ll be up in that top 20. And they want to protect against that. They were willing to help me a couple years ago, but now they don’t want to help me get any further. … But it’s not so much Alaska against the Lower 48, it really is about [former champion] Doug Swingley, the Montanan; they don’t care for him.”
Mushers helping mushers: “If it’s life and death, people are going to help each other. If it’s not, and you’ve got a busted sled or you’re struggling but you’ve got food, ‘Hey, sorry, camp out and take another 12 hours to fix your sled.’ That’s how guys are. I haven’t been put in that situation yet, but I’m generally willing to help. If I’m top two, say, would I have time to stop? Maybe not.”
The lure to go back: “It sucks you in. It becomes part of our lives. The challenge to train dogs, raise them and make this journey across Alaska with them, through time and tradition, it really is neat. And you try to keep that in perspective and enjoy it at the same time. … Financially, if you get top 20 and certainly top 10, you can get a decent paycheck.”
On the upcoming K-9 Uphill at Buttermilk: “Last year, my dogs ” and their people, I suppose ” came in fifth, ninth and 10th, I think. But the dogs could’ve done better, obviously. Believe me, it’s us holding them back. If you took two of my dogs, you couldn’t even keep up. Especially now. They’re ready to go. … Myself, I’ll have a climbing harness hooked up to Baltic, I think. He’ll pretty much pull me up the mountain.”
Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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