Flying to Takotna

DSC_0745Late this afternoon I got news that I had a plane coming to fly me from Nikolai to Takotna.  Before I left, I had a chance to see Monica after her rest in Nikolai. She seemed in much better spirits after a good nap!  Apparently her sled did break in the tough trails from Rohn to Nikolai, but she didn’t even realize it until someone else pointed it out to her at the checkpoint.  She says it’s not too bad and she has another sled waiting for her at McGrath, so she planned to go ahead and keep going until she could get to McGrath.

I went up to the airport to wait for my plane and met my pilot for the trip, Udo.  Udo is originally from the Netherlands, but now lives in Anchorage and has been flying with the Iditarod Airforce for three years now.  The Iditarod Airforce is an amazing group of volunteers who not only donate their time to the race, but they donate the the wear and tear on their airplanes. Udo explained that he had been flying dogs all day…  and that for the most part they were very well behaved.  He said usually once they get in the plane, the motor starts humming, and the sun is shining on them they are perfectly content to take a nap!  Except on his last trip before picking me up.. he had one male dog who acted like a typical adolescent boy he said!

The arrival in Takotna was pretty amazing.  We got to see the checkpoint of McGrath from the air and then flew onto Takotna.  Apparently the planes usually land on the river but this year the river ice is rocky and rolly.  Maybe it froze and them melted some and then refroze?  But the point is, you can’t land on it, so the IAF is using the airport to make their landings.  Udo raidoed one of the other pilots to find out where he should take me.  The other pilot responded, “They are usually good about sending out a snowmachine to pick you up at the airport. But, a good pilot would buzz the checkpoint to let them know you are there.  A really good pilot would call ahead and tell them you are coming.”  When we were about ten minutes out, Udo had radioed them to let them know we were arriving so we seemed to be in good shape.  We landed at the airport, which Udo described as, “A really little place with a really big landing strip.”  When we stopped the plane and go off, you couldn’t see a thing moving anywhere. There was no sign of life at all.  And no clear idea as to which way the checkpoint was even if I wanted to walk!  Thankfully Udo decided he’d wait with me to make sure someone came for me.  So we waited… and waited… and waited.  Finally Udo used his amazing phone to call. Yes they knew we were coming.  Yes, someone was coming to get me.  So we waited… and waited.. and waited.  And as we waited the sun got lower and lower in the sky.  Now, you have to remember that the IAF planes are not allowed to fly at night.  And Udo was due back to McGrath because that’s the hub and that’s where he’ll fly from tomorrow.  So I’m starting to worry that he’s going to have to leave and I’m going to be out on this runway all night long!  Or I’m going to have to walk and try to find the checkpoint.  Or I’m going to have to go back to McGrath with him!  So he called again… and finally the schoolteacher’s husband came up in his pickup truck to get me!  Crisis adverted!

Once again I am sleeping in the school!  Takotna’s school is really neat!  It’s a wide open space with high ceiling and lots of natural light.  There are ten kids in the school and they run from elementary all the way to high school.  The teacher explained to me that the high school kids do a lot of their courses through distance learning and online types of classes.  But still, can you imagine having that many different levels of kids to teach at one time?  I met a young boy named Kai who came up to me in the community center and tapped me on the arm to thank me for sending the school the Goliath book!  It was such a perfect introduction to the community!  He said they read the book and he really liked it.  He was excited to learn that one of the first grade teachers at my school, Claudia Friddell, had written it.

Now each checkpoint has it’s own special touch to contribute to race lore.  Skwentna had the Skwentna Sweeties who cooked for the mushers and the Darlings who ran the river crew to park the teams in that fantastic herringbone formation that allowed everyone to get in and out easily.  And remember, they also had hot towels scented with lemon for the mushers to wipe their face and hands.  Nikolai had the wonderful school where the students cooked for the mushers and the amazing community support for the race!  The teams were parked on the bank of the river and had their drop bags brought to them on sleds.

Takotna has the pie.  Takotna is famous for its pies.  Oh, and did I mention the steaks?  I’ve always heard the story that the when the mushers arrive they are asked how long they are staying and how do they want their steak cooked.  I always wondered if it was a true story or not.  I didn’t have to wait long to find out.  I walked into the checkpoint, and there were the pies! I was just in time for a delicious dinner that was cooked for everyone who was in for the race. The village only has 48 people living in it, and there must be at least double that here at the moment!

Nathan Schroeder helped me answer the second question.  I ran into him as he came in from outside. He (along with many, many other mushers) have declared and are taking their 24 hour break here.  He said that indeed they did offer him steak when he arrived!  But, he saw they also had eggs and bacon and given the time of his arrival he thought that was better!  So he just got around to ordering his steak tonight – and he was pretty darn happy about it!  After his steak, but no pie (he doesn’t really like it), he spent quite a while studying the current standings sheet.  If rookie of the year is what he is aiming for, he has only one rookie in front of him, Katherine Keith. They have both done their twenty four hours here, but Katherine will leave about three hours ahead of Nathan.  With the time differential (remember, the 24 hour break is where they make up for starting at different times) Nathan is scheduled to depart at 5:38 am.  I’m also happy to let you know that his rest ratio is much better here!  He has already slept for six hours, then three hours, and plans to get about two hours more before he leaves.  He was then off to do some dog chores.  He wanted to take the dogs for walks since they have been sitting for a long time.  He is going to need someone to take him clothes shopping after the race.  His jacket is torn up and he is holding is snow pants on with zip ties because the Velcro tabs broke!

The layout of Takotna is different then the other two checkpoints I’ve visited.  The teams are actually parked throughout the village.  About 48 people live here, and the mushers are all parked in their yards and all around the village!  There are a few diagrams in the checkpoint so that you can find the mushers when it’s time to send them out.  Aily Zirkle left around 9:00pm.  Robert Sorlie left about two hours later.  Then there are pretty much people leaving from midnight on.  It’s going to be a long night of getting teams out. They have to be moved from their camping spots to the main road in front of the checkpoint.  Those that have done their 24 hour have to sign out and be timed out accurately.  Then they follow the river road right out of town!

I spoke with Mark Nordman, the Race Marshall tonight, and he made a comment about no matter what the previous teachers told me to expect I could never really “get it” until I was here to see how it all functions and works. He’s absolutely right. The sheer magnitude of what is needed to run this race boggles the mind!

The scene in Takotna:

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