Monday, March 21, 2011

Iditarod Recap: West to Takotna!

Laura already blogged about Takotna, so I'll just add pictures to supplement her previous post.

In the photos above, we're airborne over McGrath and Laura flashing her dazzling smile as we cruise along in Iditarod Air Force Pilot Jerry Wortley's Cessna 180!
It's only a 10-minute flight over to the Takotna checkpoint, though it takes the mushers a lot longer to cover this 18-mile stretch between McGrath and Takotna. The pilots have skis on their planes so they're able to land on snow and ice. Here we are getting ready to land on the Takotna River. Then we walked up the riverbank and were immersed in Iditarod activities. This little village of 46 people pulls together and really supports the Iditarod. Mushers are greeted with warm water for their dogs, hot showers, fires burning in barrels and world-class homemade cooking and pies. It's no wonder why most all mushers take their mandatory layover in Takotna. This allowed plenty of musher-gawking and photo opportunities for the Llewellyn sisters.
The Takotna River transformed into a runway and aircraft parking area.

Me posing next to a dog team that had just pulled into Takotna, and the resting area for the puppies (Martin Buser and DeeDee Jonrowe's teams)

Laura posing with 2nd place finisher Ramy Smith. He arrived into Takotna in 20-something position. He ended up pushing his way up to 2nd place winner of the Iditarod. Was Laura his good luck charm? I think yes.

This was one of our sneaky strategic photos: Laura pretending to pose for the camera while I pretended to take a picture when really we snuck a photo of famed mushers Dallas Seavey, Mitch Seavey, and Jamacian musher Newton Marshall sitting around shooting the breeze.

I loved this chalkboard - little reminders to wake the mushers up. What a great system! Wake Martin Buser up at 2:00 am (I wonder if he was fussy), and wake Paul Johnson up at 9:00 p.m. - he can be found in the old church, in the front row of the inner room.

Laura and Rosie relaxing in the back of the airplane. Rosie was a dropped dog from one of the teams that we brought back with us in the airplane to the drop dog hub in McGrath. Rosie was a real sweetheart and took a liking to Laura. The pup wasn't feeling well, but was a good sport about the ride in the small airplane.

A beautiful sunset was the perfect ending to the perfect Takotna dinner adventure.

Warning! Sisterly Love Shout-Out

Iditarod 39 came to a close Sunday, when 50-year old Ellen Halverson and her 9 remaining dogs made their way under the Burled Arch on Front Street in Nome. She recieved the Red Lantern award, given to the last musher to arrive in Nome. Per tradition, Ellen extinguished the Widow's Flame, signifying all mushers and their dogs were safely off the Iditarod Trail. I think she also won some money and other good stuff for getting last place.

This was my 3rd year volunteering at the McGrath checkpoint, and this was by far the most fun I've had yet. Having Laura here played a big part in that. I think back to before the race when I told another volunteers that my sister was coming up to help out. She said, "Really? Is that a good idea? Do you think you might get in a fight? One year there were 2 sisters helping and they fought the whole time. It was just terrible." I replied, "Umm... maybe if we were little kids again we'd get into a fight or 10, but not now. She's my best friend, and we make a good team." Sure enough I proved her wrong! We were a dynamic duo. Laura got off the airplane and jumped right into volunteer duties. She had to learn 1oo people's names along with strange-sounding checkpoints like Nikolai, Shageluk, Takotna, and so on. She handled it all with grace and ease. She was a hard little worker - it's that Montana upbringing.

One of the pilots paid us a very nice compliment that summed it all up nicely. He told me, "You and your sister are a lot of fun to watch. You work really well together. You're obviously close and you respect each other." And he wasn't drinking when he said that, so I know he was sincere.

And in addition to Laura - Nicole, Al, John, and all the Iditarod Air Force Pilots were a lot of fun and hard workers. Team McGrath rocked!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Day 4 (It's never too late)

By the time you get this, it will be a good morning to you all! Our apologies for the late night blog, but we just got done with a 15 hour day and are now heavily drinking a $37 18-pack of MGD. Game on! What a day! We have had quite a few dogs drop in MCG today, a broken caravan (the plane that takes most, if not all, of the dropped/scratched dogs and various people to other checkpoints or back to Anchorage). In short, the caravan is a very important (only "big") plane that we have to cart people all over The Race. By the afternoon, the plane was back up and running so we were able to get about 40 dogs out. Tomorrow, things are looking up and quite a few more will head out. The dogs are soooo cute!!!!! They are all so excited about life (even with shin splints and other various ailments and hopefully not too serious ailments) and are fun to be around. We have had the opportunity to go down to the "dog drop" and help load the dogs into the caravan. Until their departure, they are rested in straw and have 5 star treatment while they stay in McGrath. The vets and vet techs treat them better than they would treat a human being and that's no joke.

The logistics/comm room was a hopping place again today. After watching Mark Nordman, Stu Nelson, Nan, Wes, etc. sit in a room for two hours last night planning out today, things sure changed and I'm left to wonder if they should just put the day's events in a coffee can on pieces of paper and draw them out instead of writing them on a giant dry erase board. A broken plane can really cramp a person's style. Even at day 4 I'm still blown away at how chipper everyone is. There are certainly times where things can get a little tense between people (Nan and I have managed to not get testy with one another by feeding our angst with red vines when an episode is about to occur), but by the end of the day things are back to normal. Friends and strangers alike are all sitting around like tables drinking a beer, sipping on tea, checking their email or talking about their everyday lives. I love this place!!!! Nan might have a new roommate in McGrath soon....

The last musher is supposed to come through tonight so things will begin to slow down. Then, maybe we will begin to clean things up and catch up on our logs books, and many other fun, misc chores. This is definitely a working vacation (for me, whereas this is now Nan's life) and I wouldn't have it any other way. This has been time well spent.

Nicole and I sneaked away to the checkpoint today to visit Wattie McDonald (the Scottish musher). Nicole is from Newcastle and have a very kindred heart for Scots. Wattie called up on the radio and told her to come down and visit--I tagged along for the ride on the "snowmachine", as those not in the lower 48 call it. Wattie was kind enough to take a picture with us. He was impressed with Nicole and her accent, but not so much by my MT accent.

Nan will hopefully write the next blog tomorrow, as it will probably be much more insightful than my outsider view....

Tiger update:

He slept at the top of my pillow last night. I'm officially convinced he likes me. I'm moving up in the world! Nan had a vet check him out today and he has a clean bill of health. Now Nan can rest easily and hopefully we can finally turn the repeat button off the Brandi Carlsile (sp?) cd that plays repeatedly on the player (per one of the other vet's recommendations).

Well, off to look at the Northern Lights!

Over and out 10-4.

~N & L

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Day 3-MCG to TAK

Full from cheeseburgers, world famous Takotna pie and the high of sitting in a room full of world famous mushers, Nan and I are happy girls! Jerry, one of the Iditarod Air Force pilots, took us over to Takotna for dinner, which is a ten minute plane ride. Yum!

What a day! I can't believe how quickly things have flown by. We watched the first musher, Martin Buser, ride into McGrath yesterday evening. This happened while there was still daylight, which is unheard of. He stayed long enough to drop off a tired dog and take a picture with his trophy.

We hit the ground running this morning at 7:40. Today was a little better, because unlike yesterday morning, we weren't surprised by a flight of incoming vets, trail crew, etc. Imagine not even having your contacts in yet or having brushed teeth and people coming up to you asking where they're supposed to go. I have learned that if I just take a deep breath and remember that we're the luckiest people in the world right now, everything goes smoothly. So far so good!

We have a great little working crew here in our hub out of the cafe. Nicole, Nan, Laura, Bert (being replaced by Wes) tomorrow and Jodie (who left today with Bert for a different post) and Al who does anything and everything that needs to be done here or elsewhere in McGrath. Nicole is from Newcastle and is a ton of fun and she knows her stuff. At first, her accent was a little difficult to understand but it has all evened out because she can't understand why the Llewellyn sisters (or maybe all Yanks in general) are so bad at pool--I'd say we're even.

We had a lot of incoming/outbound volunteers today, so things went by quickly. We have quite a few dropped dogs here right now in McGrath so we went and visited them tonight. They'll head back to Anchorage tomorrow. They're nestled down in their straw tonight keeping warm.
We haven't had much time to head down to the checkpoint to see the mushers come through so rely on the reports from others who can go to see what they look like/how they and their dogs are doing.

Al, a load volunteer, and I went to the dump today! It was nice to get a bigger tour of McGrath. We even saw a moose! I felt much better seeing one, because I had a fake sighting earlier and had asked Al to turn around in a truck that has little brakes and is on its last leg. This time it was for real and was lying down in the snow munching on some grub.

The Chinese auction was fun last night! We were so tired that it was hard to keep our eyes open, but we stayed for a few rounds. A couple times we came close to our change being the last quarter/dollar being dropped but alas we did not win a thing. Some of the prizes we saw were a dinner for two at the McGrath B&B, round-trip tickets from PenAir, a fox fur hat and coat and a jewelry box with a key chain in it (pilot Ed won that).

We are gearing up for day 4 on the trail and are excited for all of the excitement tomorrow will bring. I can't believe how many amazing people we have met!!!! How exciting! Thank you all for following our blog. We will post more as soon as we have a break in the action. For some reason, I can't load pictures so if you're on Facebook we'll try and post more soon!

~Nan and Laura

Tiger update:
He has finally emerged from under the bed and even slept in Laura's sleeping bag last night. Our room is a balmy 50 degrees, so we think he's more desperate for warmth than anything.

Quote of day:
To Nan from a volunteer in TAK:, "Where are you from, MN? You have a funny accent."

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Day 2- MCG!

Greetings from MCG! Well, we are halfway through our working day here and things are going smoothly. However, I hear this is the calm before the storm so we shall see how things pick up. We have a friendly little pool going in the logistics room as to when the first musher will arrive tonight. I think it will be 9:10, but it seems to be the general consensus that it will be sometime this afternoon.

Just to give you a little overview of what we're up to out here...

We have a station set up in a room of the cafe, which is located right across the road from the airstrip. We have a board set up and pilots, media and volunteers (vets, trail crews, etc) coming in and out of McGrath. The pilots haul loads back and forth to the checkpoints. Their loads consist of anything from vinegar (for chili) and M&Ms (the essentials of course) to dropped dogs. Coordinating all of this is actually quite the task, and there's a whole big logistics and communications team behind the scenes. Nan is one of the main coordinators in MCG and I consider myself her assistant extraordinaire.

The weather here has been brisk in the morning (-20 degrees) but warms up to a balmy 20-30 degrees during the day. We are headed to the Chinese auction tonight at the local bar, McGuires, which consists of a coffee can passed around that everyone drops change into. There are various items up for bid and if you are lucky enough to have the pot stop at you, you win the item. The prizes range from PenAir tickets, gold nuggets, to homemade cookies. I'll keep my fingers crossed!!!

Well, back to work! Hope you are all well.

~Nan and Laura

Best quotes so far:

When I met the pilot I had radioed to earlier that day, he asked "So, are you going to be on the radio quite a bit?" I don't think that was a compliment.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Day 1- McGrath!


Well, we made it...although I am no longer in Tiger's good graces. Poor cat, but at least he's made history, or at least I'm pretty sure he has. How many maine coon cats have traveled to a town on the Iditarod trail to root on hundreds of dogs and mushers? That's right, Tiger, you have made history.

McGrath is amazing. It's kind of like Basin, MT, but much more remote. I have met lots of pilots, many of whom I met the other day but didn't remember, and numerous volunteers. We are staying in the cafe above the Communications/Logistics post. This makes it very convenient to hop out of bed and the morning and head downstairs. I rode on the plane this morning with 12 grade school students from Maine who have been saving up all year to come to McGrath. They are staying in the schoolhouse and are pretty excited.

Tomorrow the action is really supposed to begin. We have been coordinating loads with pilots all day; moving vets, supplies, missing musher bags and even Hans Gatt's headlamp to him on the trail. Good stuff. As of a few hours ago, Lance was in the lead and we think he'll be here maybe tomorrow. Yay!

I went to Willow yesterday for the true kick-off of the Iditarod. Zach, Nan's boyfriend Eric's roommate, was kink enough to cart me up there yesterday. We ate reindeer hot dogs and watched the mushing action. It was so much fun! The race kicks off on Willow Lake, so we moved in close to the middle and hunkered down with some hot cocoas and chairs and watched the action.

Nan is doing a great job of "coordinating/communicating" and seems to really know her stuff, which is good because I don't but people think I do just for the simple fact that I'm related to her. I'm learning a lot very quickly. Well, off we go to the dump! This should be fun....

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Anchorage...the beginning of the journey


After barely making my connection to Anchorage on Thursday night, I stepped off the plane and was instantly hit with a blast of cold Arctic air. refreshing! Fighting off the overwhelming urge to run as fast as I could to the gate where Nan anxiously awaited my arrival, I merely sped walk at Olympic pace instead. Seeing my sister's gorgeous smile and enthusiastic zest for life is one of my favorite things to see and after such a tedious journey it was the perfect remedy.

Day 1:

Wakey wakey, eggs and bac(k)y! One of the best kept secrets in Anchorage is the Middleway Cafe. Before I return to MT, I must make a mental note to stock up on (non-vegan) banana bread. It is the best!!!! I could eat this morning, noon and night. I had the great pleasure of meeting some of Nan's closest friends, Deela and Shannon for breakfast yesterday morning. These girls, as well as the handful of other wonderfully funny and animated characters, remind me of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood X 100. They make me not want to leave. Well, them and the banana bread, but I digress...

Nan and I proceeded to spend the rest of the day checking in at the Iditarod headquarters, meeting what seemed like a million pilots, vets and volunteers. At first, I tried feverishly to keep everyone's name straight but by the millionth person I gave up. Nan told me I must've said about a hundred times, "I've heard so much about you. It's finally nice to meet you!" Mental note...come up with a new line.

We also bought out most of Sportman's Wharehouse in supplies, warm clothes and anything else we could possibly justify for the cold weather. I'm fairly certain the cashier checking us out thought we were insane, but I long ago gave up the notion that we're not crazy so I didn't mind. Plus, how often do you get to experience something like this?! Justification...a woman's best friend. Eric (Evhoo), Nan's boyfriend, made us moose burgers last night (yum!) and we managed to pass away the hours talking about everything under the sun.

Day 2

We had a delicious breakfast and headed for the ceremonial start. I think this was a good test for me before I head someplace with truly busy streets and sidewalks, because I was like a little kid in a candy store looking at all the mushers, dogs and interesting looking people that I was in the way quite a bit. By the end of the day, I had mastered the art of standing off the beaten path staring at people, which is slightly less creepy but not by much.

Nan leaves tomorrow for McGrath and Eric's roommate, Zach, is kind enough to cart me up to Willow for the official start of the Iditarod. I can't wait! I head out Monday with a 20+ lb Maine Coon cat and a bag of warm clothes. Tiger, the "mangy" coon cat is moving to McGrath thru at least September with his mother. I hope I take good care of him until they're reunited on Monday. We have duct taped his carrier so hopefully it holds him. Over and out 10-4!
Side note: Many people, including myself, thought you could drive to McGrath. Alas, there are no roads. The only year-round transportation is once daily air service on a little plane. During the summer, there is barge service that travels 400 miles up the Kuskokwim River from Bethel.