Kristy is still running a full team of 16 dogs, and Anna has dropped two, taking her to 14. I do not currently know which dogs Anna dropped or why. I can tell you that prior to leaving, she was candid about the fact that there were 3 or 4 dogs on her radar that she wouldn't be surprised to drop during the race, so I have no reason to believe the cause is anything serious.
Takotna, which the twins will be pulling into any moment, is a popular spot for mushers to take their mandatory 24 hour layover, and I expect Kristy and Anna will be doing the same. Not only will the dogs need a good rest, but neither twin has probably gotten more than a short nap or two in the 3 days they have now been out on the trail. If their sleds took a beating over the trail thus far, this is also the checkpoint where they shipped a reserve sled.
Speaking of the trail, let's take a closer look at what they've covered so far. Remember, I'm just piecing stuff together, too, so there's some informed speculation here. And if someone has seen something I haven't, please please email us! But here is how I suspect things have shook out so far.
The 42 miles from Willow to Yentna Station would have consisted primarily of alternating birch woods and spruce swamps, with gently rolling hills and likely a fair amount of snow cover. They checked into Yentna briefly mid-Sunday evening and pulled out right away. The 30 mile run from Yentna to Skwentna is typically flat and fast, so I was a bit surprised to see their enroute time at just over 8.5 hours. However, given that they only stayed in Skwentna briefly, it makes sense to me that they opted to camp along the way as opposed to in Skwentna with a gaggle of other mushers. It is also worth noting that Anna dropped a dog upon arriving in Skwentna, so whatever prompted the dog to be dropped was likely slowing them down as well.
After leaving Skwentna around 4am on Monday, they had a 40 mile run to Finger Lake. Although this stretch is primarily uphill, it typically isn't very rough trail. It took them a little under 6 hours to cover this stretch, which is well within the general trail guidelines. They got into Finger Lake around 10am Monday.
Kristy and Anna rested in Finger Lake for about 5.5 hours before pulling out just after 3:30pm Monday and tackling the next stretch of trail, which they likely did with increasing winds and snowfall. The 30 miles between Finger Lake and Rainy Pass is home of the legendary Happy Steps. Prior to the race, officials had decided to route the trail around the Happy Steps in the interests of dog and musher safety, as this section has in the past caused everything from broken sleds to broken ribs. But right before the start, it was determined that the new trail was windblown and snowy enough to pose a greater threat than the Steps. So they were back on the map!
The Happy Steps is an abrupt downhill section of trail with sharp turns that is lined with big, unforgiving trees and brush. I think this excerpt from Donald Bowers Jr. does it the most justice:
"After a mile or so of dropping down toward the valley and zigzagging through the forest, you’ll plunge down a short but very steep hill; directly in front of you will be one of the warning signs and the trail will vanish over the edge of what looks like a cliff. It is a cliff. This is the entrance to the Happy River Steps. Stop the dogs at the top, say your prayers, revise your will, and then see how gently you can get the dogs to creep down the hill. Of course, you will be standing on your brake for all you’re worth."
Courtesy of the Iditarod Trail Guide.
Needless to say, I was quite happy and a little relieved when they pulled into Rainy Pass around 7:40pm Monday night and I knew the ironically named Happy Steps were behind them. I also heard that the amount of snow on the trail this year is actually of benefit to the Happy Steps, providing enough of a base for dozens of teams to pass - and heavily brake - through without getting torn up. Whatever challenges this section provided, they made it through! And after about 3 hours and 40 minutes of rest in Rainy Pass, they took off again for Rohn at about 11:18pm Monday night.
The 35 mile run from Rainy Pass to Rohn takes you to the summit of the pass which is part of the Alaska Range and also the highest point on the trail at 3,160 feet. After that, mushers must deal with the Dalzell Gorge and the 200-foot steep hill one must traverse to get to its bottom. The Dalzell Gorge is another known spot of difficulty along the trail and has taken more than a few mushers out of the race in the past. It took them about 4 hours 45 minutes to cover this section, putting them into Rohn around 4am on Tuesday.
After just over 5 hours rest in Rohn, Kristy and Anna struck out for Nikolia at 9:10am on Tuesday morning. This stretch of trail is 75 miles long and the longest between checkpoints that they've seen yet in the race. It also took them across another notorious stretch of trail ~ the Farewell Burn. When I asked the twins which section of trail had them most leery, they both pointed to this one. Kristy wasn't looking forward to the stretch immediately leaving Rohn, as it is known for being poor, rough trail with little snow cover and very high winds. It can also be exceptionally icy. Beyond that lies the section on Anna's radar, the Farewell Burn. It is a section of trail hit by one of Alaska's largest forest fires, leaving behind stumps and remnants of trees that can tear up a sled and make for one rough, bumpy ride. Veteran mushers often say that if you've made it to Nikolai "with your team and your wits intact, you've got a good chance to finish the race." As the twins have now successfully covered this part of trail, I hope it's true!
Given the length and difficulty of that section of trail, it didn't surprise me to see it take the twins just over 14.5 hours to cover the distance, putting them into Nikolai just before midnight, late on Tuesday March 6th. They took a well-earned break here of just under 7 hours beore heading out on the 48 miles from Nikolai to McGrath. They hit the trail at 6:38am today (Wed. March 7th). Anna did drop her second dog in Nikolai, taking her down to 14. Given the long, rough section of trail they just covered, it is not uncommon to drop a dog here, and if you look at this year's teams, about half dropped 1 dog, some dropped 2 dogs.
The twins reached McGrath just before 3pm on Wednesday afternoon. They stopped there only briefly, probably anxious to put the next 18 miles between them and Takotna under their runners and get started on some well deserved rest for their dogs and themselves.