A couple of people in the forum have asked to hear mushers’ views of the 2009 Serum Run. Here’s my perception of what happened…
Throughout the nine days of the trip we were plagued with obstacles. Below is a run-down of the days and some of the challenges we encountered.
Day 0 (Sat. Feb. 21, 2009): One of our experienced snow machiners, traveling from Nome to Nenana, never made it to the start of the Serum Run in Nenana. His machine broke down near Kaltag and a search plane was sent to look for him. He was found and was flown to Unakleet where he is waiting for a snow machine part. Once his machine is fixed he’ll meet us on the trail.
Day 1 (Sun. Feb 22, 2009 : Nenana to Old Minto : 28 miles): Mushers and snow machiners are scheduled to leave at 10:00am when the train from Fairbanks arrives in Nenana and hands us the serum. The train is late. I’m not sure what time the train actually arrived, but my guess is that we left Nenana around 11:30am.
- Travel by dog team from Nenana to Old Minto took a long time due to lots of snow on the trail and because it was warm day with temperatures between 20-25 above. The snow was “punchy,” meaning that a trail hadn’t been broken out and the dogs waded through deep snow.
- When the StinkyPups arrived at Old Minto, the scene was somewhat disorganized. Veterans of the Serum Run had a clue to what should happen, but the newbie machiners and mushers didn’t know what to do regarding where and how to hook up dogs, get water, and get settled.
- The StinkyPups ran well, but they didn’t want to eat a full dinner. They ate huge pieces of Salmon and snacks and nibbled on kibble.
- Jack, one of Von’s dogs, pulled a tendon in his back leg and rode in the sled for much of today.
- Heather and I slept in our tent. Kudos to Heather for setting up the tent herself as I was involved in a talking circle about stroke with the residents of Old Minto.
- Some of the Serum Run group unintentionally drank untreated water from the river.
- Some of machiners had a difficult day due to stuff falling off their cargo sleds and getting stuck in deep snow.
Day 2 (Mon. Feb 23, 2009 : Old Minto to Beaver Point Lodge : 29 miles): The trail from Old Minto to Beaver Point Lodge was great! Erin had mentioned that mushers would love this section of trail, but machiners may it find difficult.
- The trail had lots of fun twists and turns. Several mushers got “stumped” as we headed around a tight corner, encountered a bad turn, a tree stump and a bridge. As the StinkyPups rounded the turn, we heard Val yell out to us not to continue forward. I stopped the team and Val’s sled was turned on her side. After Val got her team moving, my break was caught on a tree stump. As I was lifting the sled up, Rob came around the corner and I yelled out for him to stop. I unstumped myself and continued on. Rob didn’t have any problems making the turn and crossing the bridge.
- In the evening we found out that on a previous Serum Run, Erin hit her head on a tree while maneuvering this turn.
- Beaver Point Lodge was a wonderful place to stay! The new owners, Marty and Miles treated us with tremendous hospitality, as did the old owners Patricia and Greg. Kudos to Marty for cooking delicious vegan meals.
- Cap’s snow machine broke down 7 miles from Old Minto. Chris and Greg (former Beaver Point Lodge owner) head back to fetch the machine; they are unable to retrieve it. They arrive back at Beaver Point Lodge around 1:30am.
Day 3 (Tues. Feb 24, 2009 : Beaver Point Lodge to Manley : 32 miles): Another great day for dog teams and a frustrating day for machiners. Dog teams left around a half hour after two snow machiners acting as trail breaks. Many teams had a hilarious start with dogs knocking over handlers and trying to run every which way on the huge lake that the Lodge sits on.
- Soon after departing, I ran into Drs. Brian and Jerry. Jerry’s machine broke down (although I didn’t know it at the time). They helped me get my dogs passed them and on we went. The trail was marked with HUGE tripods.
- The StinkyPups had a great day and traveled well. Val told me about the same trick Scott uses, which is to throw them a handful of kibble and give them straw after they eat. This method seemed to work okay, however they still pooh-poohed their soaked kibble and preferred to eat soaked salmon and snacks.
- Greg drove up from Fairbanks to Manley and the all of the StinkyPups were super glad to see him!
- The evening was a little disorganized. Our 8pm meeting didn’t happen until 9:15pm. At the meeting we learned that Jerry’s machine broke down and Cap was thinking of purchasing a machine from someone in Manley. At the meeting it was suggested that the mushers move on ahead and the machiners catch up with the mushers, but this idea did not go over well with most of the group– they did not want to split up the group. The trip leaders decide that it will be best for us to wait another day in Manley while Cap looks into purchasing a machine and Jerry gets his machine fixed.
Day 4 (Wed. Feb 25, 2009 : Layover in Manley): Many of us enjoyed the day in Manley. Some went to the hot springs, others did laundry, and others enjoyed the flush toilets at the wash-o-teria. The folks in Manley were quite generous in bringing food and allowing us to take over the school gym. We had a small career day with the 10 students of the Manley school, and we each introduced ourselves and told the kids what we did. Some of us met with the kids individually and talked to them about our careers. I spoke with a young lady about climbing, and showed her several important knots (figure eight and figure eight follow-through, bowline, and the fisherman’s knot).
- Greg took off in the morning after career day. He took Jack, Von’s dog, with him.
- Brad, Heather’s hubby, saved the day by driving up from Fairbanks to Manley and delivering a part for Jerry’s machine. He was crazy enough to drive back to Fairbanks that night– the road had overflow, snow, and a storm was coming in.
- Through the rumor mill, we unofficially hear that our contact in White Mountain had a fatal house fire, where four members of the household died.
- Several group members are feeling ill and have diarrhea.
Day 5 (Thurs. Feb 26, 2009 : Manley to Tanana: 59 miles): Today was an extremely long day. The StinkyPups left Manley at 11:40am. It took us around 8-9 hours to run 59 miles. The first 18 miles of the trail had been plowed down to dirt, so it was hard on the dogs’ feet, but we made good time. There were some great rolling hills– which the StinkyPups love.
- Before I left, one of Don’s lead dogs dropped to the ground. It was traumatic to watch. All of a sudden I saw a dog go down and someone doing CPR and rescue breathing. The next thing I saw was Dr. Jerry holding the dog– it was alive!! The scene was very scary, and thankfully the dog was okay. What happened was a tug line or neck line had strangled the dog and it dropped due to asphyxiation. Since the dog was okay, Don put the dog back in lead around 20 miles into the run.
- The trail was marked with the same tripods we encountered on our way to Manley. This was a good thing because it was snowing quite a bit and very windy on Fish Lake. Fish Lake was a huge lake that continued on and on and on. The dogs worked well and hard as they slogged through the snow, and our speed was about 6.5 mph. They enjoyed big chunks of Salmon and turkey skins for snacks.
- Roo was getting tired at the end of the run, and I put her in a sled bag for the last 15 miles.
- Paul Erhardt met us out on the trail (just about the time I put Roo in the sled bag) and told us he was going to be our guide from Tanana to Ruby.
Day 6 (Fri. Feb 27, 2009 : Tanana: Layover): While packing up in the morning, Erin stopped by to ask how I felt about staying in Tanana an extra day. The trail from Tanana to Ruby has been covered over and the snow is incredibly deep. By staying and extra day, the dogs would run two 60+ mile days instead of running 42, 45, 35, and 50 mile days. I said that I’d prefer to keep to the original schedule, but would do what the group wanted.
- The group is called together for a meeting and it’s determined that we will layover in Tanana. Serum Run organizers hire Paul and some other guys from town to put in a trail from Tanana to Ruby. The theory is that the trail will set overnight and we’ll have a good trail to ride on tomorrow.
- Later in the day, it begins to snow.
- Paul and the guys come back from their run. They didn’t make it to Ruby, but made it to Mason Slough, just passed Bone Yard Cabin– around 46 miles from Tanana.
- It continues to snow, covering up the trail they just put in.
Day 7 (Sat. Feb 28, 2009 : Mushers and Machiners split up): While packing up in the morning we’re told that we need to have a group meeting. It’s already 9:30am. The organizers tell us about the poor trail conditions– that the trail Paul put in has been covered up and that we’re supposed to get more storms. We are presented with four options:
- Option 1 is to fly the dogs from Tanana to Ruby and have the snow machiners drive 120 miles in one day to catch up with us . The theory is that the two 60+ mile runs will be quite difficult on the dogs due to soft snow. Dogs running in such conditions could get shoulder injuries.
- Option 2 is to due short runs on the river. This option was prefaced with the possibility of dogs running out of food and having to camp on the river for three nights in cold temperatures.
- Option 3 is to wait another day or two, but this would put us way behind schedule. We are told that if we’re behind by several days, we’ll have an impossible time leaving Nome because Iditarod will be ending while we’re in Nome. We may have to wait two weeks to fly out of Nome.
- Option 4 is to mush back to Manley and possibly fly from Manley to Unakleet.
The decision is left for the mushers to decide. The mushers meet and a decision was made to fly the dogs to Ruby and have the machiners meet up with us. My first preference was option #2, but I agreed with option #1 because my pups were tired and I thought that by flying them, they’d get a nice break.
- By the end of the afternoon, six of the eight dog teams and mushers flew from Tanana to Ruby. Two teams stayed in Tanana because there were no more flights going out that day.
- When we arrived in Ruby, Billy and Francis met us at the airstrip and helped get our dogs down to the Ruby community center. It was quite windy. There was no straw for the dogs.
- I sent Roo home with Chris, the pilot from Wright Air. She flew from Ruby to Fairbanks.
- Group members continue to get sick.
Day 8 (Sun. Mar 1, 2009 : Ruby to Galena : 58 miles): A beautiful day for mushing on the Yukon River. The trail is soft, but mushable. It took the StinkyPups around 10-11 hours to mush the 58 miles.
- Six dog teams and their respective mushers (Kathy, Val, Ilana, Margaret, Von, Don) pack up and get ready to leave Ruby and mush to Galena.
- Trip organizers hire Billy and a couple of other locals to act as trail break and trail sweep.
- To get down the windy hill in Ruby, individual dog teams are hooked to snow machines and escorted down the streets of Ruby to the river.
- The plan for the rest of the trip is unknown. We know that:
- Erin and Rob plan on flying to Galena with their dogs;
- During an attempt to snow machine from Tanana to Ruby, one of the snow machiners had chest pains and was medivaced out of Tanana.
- Snow machiners are still having a difficult time in the deep snow.
- The goal for the six mushers and dog teams in Ruby is to make it to Galena by the end of the day.
- Trail sweeps take off, leave the group, and head on to Galena.
Day 9 (Mon. Mar 2, 2009 : The Trip Ends): Mushers meet at 9:30am to discuss our options. The musher coordinator tells us that the snow machiners are having a difficult time, and that:
- One of the machiners was med-evaced out of Tanana due to chest pain.
- The trail hasn’t improved and more storms on on the way.
- That the machiners a have tried to leave Tanana three times.
- The machiners have low morale.
- That Heather, my snow machine partner, will probably not continue on.
- That the Kaltag portage section of the trail has deep snow and no trail.
After the group is presented with the information above, we’re asked to make a decision on whether or not we want to proceed. Before everyone has a say in the matter, Kent calls and the next thing we know, the trip is off. Apparently, a local from Tanana had headed off to Ruby via snow machine and “never made it.” A search party was sent out for him. This bit of information seemed to be the deciding factors in the trip leaders calling off the trip.
Day 10 (Tues. Mar 3, 2009 : StinkyPups fly Home): Greg flew from Fairbanks to Galena on a group charter flight (Wright Air). The gang helped me get the StinkyPups to the airport (only 1/4 mile away), and help to load the pups and sled onto the plane. Greg, the pups and I left Galena at around 1:00pm and arrived in Fairbanks a few hours later.