Unalakleet has been amazing so far. Flying in, I couldn’t believe how brown everything was. We flew over what must have been mud flats; land that’s supposed to be covered with snow was brown and barren with deep cracks running through it. The earth here looks like it is craving water.
Getting off the plane, I had no idea where I would go. The flight attendant gave me a hug and said “Welcome to Unalakleet.” I was nervous and began trying to figure out how to get to the actual checkpoint. A family, overhearing me asks for directions said, “it’s easy! Hop in Our Truck!” The hospitality of the people here reminds me why I love Alaska so much; everyone is full of smiles and is eager to lend a hand.
I throw my backpack in the bed of their pick up and we drive to the post-office where the checkpoint is located.
“Who’s your musher?” They ask on the short 2-minute drive.
I see a flash of blue and my heart stops. “HIM!” I say! I’d recognize that blue jack anywhere!
Travis is walking up the trail from the dog lot below. You can see him do a double take as we drive past.
“What the?’ He says, as I get out of the truck, and breaks into a grin as I walk over.
”Wow.” He says, still shaking his head. The family who drops me off is beaming as Travis’ continue to stare at me in disbelief. “I saw the backpack in the back of that truck,” he says “and then I saw the prettiest girl. And then I thought, HOLY SMOKES THAT’S SARAH.”
He hugs me and doesn’t let go. His eyes are a mile wide. “It’s good to see you,” I say.
“Better to see you,” he said. “Wow. Wow. Wow.”
He offers to take my backpack full of stuff but I won’t let him so he settles for holding the door open as we go into the checkpoint building. It’s filled with people – many are “tourists” like myself who are here checking out the race. He’s quick to introduce me to several of these people who have “shared” the checkpoints with him.
He’s still more or less speechless at my arrival but people are quick to talk to him.
Mostly, it seems like he is in good spirits as he recounts stories from his journey down the trail but there is a hint of frustration.
“My race was over in Rohn,” he admitted to me. “I lost my team going down the gorge. And I mean I lost my team. They were gone for 45 minutes and ended up missing the trail and shooting off a ravine. They were so far off the trail…I have not idea how I found them…” He trails off, visibly still shaken from the experience, “but we survived.”
“Are the dogs ok?”
“They are fine,” He says. “But after that they had a bunch of nicks and scrapes and sore muscles. They were in such a mess when I found them. It was bad. I’m grateful no one got seriously hurt.” He shakes his head and laughs because what else can you do about it at this point?
He continues, “I had to hike down this ravine way off the trail through a bunch of pine trees before I found the team. I think I had a guardian angel watching over me or something. I have no idea how I found them. And then, after that, I had ti tie off the dogs to trees, carry my sled up the ravine, and then carry the dogs.” He shakes his head, smiling. “Gosh it really sucked. What a low point.”
“But you know, I am not a quitter,” he says.
I nod. I’ve never met anyone more stubborn than Travis.
“And neither are the dogs,” he said. “We are here and we are eeking by. I think we are going to finish. I’m hoping we do. But man…this race has been such a let down.”
After his 24 he said the dogs started to get sick. He takes me into the yard to see them. They perk up a little, recognizing me, but not much. “They aren’t themselves still,” he admitted and I could see that too. They are usually very peppy dogs but there is something to them beyond the tiredness you would expect.
“But they’re eating,” he continues, “and when I say go, they go. But they aren’t the team the usually are. Still, they want to keep at it.”
“It’s ok though. I’m just disappointed for them. They are a top caliber team… and everything that could go wrong, went wrong. But we’re still here. That’s something, isn’t it?”
“For sure,” I say. “I mean look at how many people have scratched!”
“Yeah. Sometimes I don’t know how I haven’t. This is the toughest thing I’ve ever done.”
‘Worse than last year?”
“By Far! My 3 main dogs are home this year. The trail has sucked. The dogs don’t have the pep in their step they usually do. I think there’s been 200 miles of snow this whole race. You know, some teams may be ok with that but…every time ours hits the dirt the dogs look back at me and I feel like they’re saying ‘Dad, what the hell! What is this!’”
He goes on, “I get its easier pulling, but… I don’t know… they perk up every time we are on snow, good snow… and every time we’re on dirt or ice they are sort of like ‘really, dad? Really? More of this shit?!’’”
He’s happy as he’s talking to me. He’s happy to share stories and there’s a visible air of optimism in him despite all this.
I talk about the dogs he dropped. He’s happy to learn they’ve made a full recovery. “I should have dropped Willie-Charlie sooner,” he admits. “I think he was the one who started not feeling well first. But WOAH is that dog good. He just kept going and going, I thought he was going to work through it. He didn’t want to be dropped and, honestly, I didn’t want to drop him…but he just wasn’t look right so finally I left him.”
“I thought you might have some problems with sick dogs,” I told him. “You were on the trail with Ramey a lot and in the same spots. When he scratched I really feared for you.”
“Yeah. I spent a lot of time with him. We were going to tare it up together. I parked next to him in McGrath for 6 hours during my 24 and then he moved on – I think to take his 24 in Takotna. I caught up with him later in Ophir and was like ‘RAMEY! LET’S GET THIS!’ and Ramey was like ‘Yeah man I think I’m in a world of trouble’ and then he scratched later on. And you know, the very next run was when these guys started having issues….I just camped and camped and camped….Gosh they picked at their food real, real slow, but they ate. When I asked them to go they all stood up and wagged their tales…but they weren’t right.”
I knew what he meant. Our dogs are usually leaping 3 feet off the ground to go. At the end of the Copper Basin this year every dog was on his feet, jumping and screaming ready to go further. Most mushers don’t have that peppiness; some actively try to discourage it. We love it.
“I thought about scratching, honestly. I thought about it a lot. But they always went,” he said. “I don’t have good leaders right now,” he said. “Fidget has been doing it mostly but she hates the glare ice so when we get there I have to get off the sled and run in front of the team. And man is that HARD to do! They’re fast and the ice is so slick… but she’s sort of got the hang of it now.”
“How far do you think you’ve run?” I ask.
“Maybe 75 miles?’ He said. “I mean, obviously not at once and sometimes I just run beside the sled. But I’m not afraid to be the lead dog. I knew that going in when I left Zema and Madori I might need to do this – and I have — and its been a good learning experience.’
“But you know, you just don’t want to have runs like this. It’s not fun. I mean, I am having a great time, but its frustrating. They’re pouring they’re hearts into it. They really are. They don’t want to throw the towel in and I don’t either. So we are doing it. But we are doing it on their terms, not mine. They need to stop a lot so we are stopping a lot. We’re taking our time. “
Still, when he thinks of where he is in the pack, he seemed frustrated. “They have so much potential. And For a lot of these dogs, this is their last run…I just wanted them to finish on a high note.”
I tell him its ok. It’s the journey that counts and to learn from it. He agrees, but when another musher comes in and teases him for where he is in the standings, Travis is visibly agitated and walks away from the conversation to works on drying his boots. I’m still stunned someone would actually say that.
He seems to take it in stride though. The whole time he’s beaming from ear to ear, “God Sarah, I need new boots.” He’s laughing, “we’re always like this aren’t we?”
“Yes,” I admit. We’ve both been without good, reliable boots for most of the winter at this point. Looking back, it seems stupid not to have invested in new a pair. “Sometimes,” I say laughing “I think we try to save money in all the wrong ways.”
“Yeah well next year we are buying like 10 pairs of boots each. I’m having a new set at each checkpoint cause these things are junk!” He asks the checkpoint staff if they have a dryer and they point him in the right direction. “I got to go dry this stuff out.”
Mike Ellis comes up and starts talking. “I think we should do this first part of the run together,” he tells Travis. “There aren’t any trail markers.” They’ve been travelling on and off it seems down the trail. I don’t Mike but his easy-does-it attitude is contagious. He’s someone I’d want to be around a race in too
Apparently the trail markers blew away or were marked down after the front runners went through; they haven’t had anything marking the trail in over a day. It doesn’t seem to phase either of them – though they sound wary of the idea of an unmarked trail — but other mushers are quick to vocalize their frustration later on. “You’ve known for a day there aren’t any trail markers out there! Why haven’t you gone out and put new ones up!” There are exasperated sighs, as if this is what mushers have now come to expect with this race.
We leave before the arguments heat up – they were headed in that direction it seemed so he could boot his dogs. He works through the team bootying the dogs, they stand and wag their tales. “Good dogs, good dogs,” he tells them.
Mike is hooking up his team next to Travis, singing to them. I can’t help but think if I had to travel down the trail with any musher besides Travis, it would probably be Mike. He just radiates happiness.
Before you know it, all the dogs are on their feet. Monroe, who I was so sure would be the weak link in the team, is standing in wheel howling with delight. Soon the whole team is singing.
“I love you,” he tells me as he grabs his hook.
“I’ll see you in Nome,” I tell him.
His smile lights up his face. “I can’t wait,” he says. “I’ll get there as soon as I can.”