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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

...and it was.

I arrived in Alaska on Thursday, February 7th literally just in time for the Yukon Quest start banquet.  Peter and I had the same flight from Seattle to Fairbanks, so I probably don't need to mention that it was one of the more enjoyable plane rides I've had.  From the airport, we scored a taxi to the start banquet and hauled our big ol' bags into the small arena.  Northern hospitality is alive and well and we were able to stash our bags in the coat check and join the others.  Here, I met Peter's friends the Kitchen family from just outside Whitehorse.  This is the family that hosts Dave Dalton and his handler(s) every year. 
 The start banquet is when all the mushers draw numbers from a hat to decide the starting order, there were 24 in all.  As it turned out, a majority of the mushers had a lot to say and by the time we left, I'd been awake for about 24 hours.  Who knows where we would've stayed, a hotel probably.  This is where a bit of magic came into play.

Brian and Marguerite (I still do not know how to spell her name) and their two daughters had accepted an offer to stay with Ryan, a co-worker of Marguerite's second cousin Stephanie, just outside of Fairbanks.  We met Ryan and he also offered us a place to stay and we accepted. Ryan has a beautiful house up on Moose Mountain and he spent a good bit of time and effort assuring that everyone had a comfortable place to sleep and he graciously took the couch while housing seven extra people.  I think it takes a special person to give up every mattress in their home to a bunch of strangers and take the couch without a hint of seeming inconvenienced, and after getting to know him, I can say with confidence that he is.

Saturday was the start of the Yukon Quest race and we all bundled up to make it to downtown Fairbanks as temperatures remained a good 30-40 degrees below zero.  All the dogs were on the gang line when we got there and Peter, the Kitchens and myself got to lead the dogs about 100 yards to the start line.  That was pretty exciting.  After the start, we explored the festivities for a while before heading to North Pole for the first checkpoint.
 This checkpoint is more of an initial dog drop if need be than anything else.  We caught a couple of mushers coming around the bend as the sun lay at a low angle, as it does at every hour of the day that far north.  Did I mention that we were able to do this because Ryan caught a ride to work so that we could use his car?  Well, that's how we got around..  Ryan's generosity.  

That night, the mushers were required to stay at least two hours at the Chena Hot Springs checkpoint.  So, at around 9pm (1am according to my internal clock), we got back into the xterra and headed to Chena with our bathing suits and towels.  On the way there, I noticed a faint green band across the entire sky.  I was immediately filled with excitement, grabbed Peter's leg, shook it and pointed through the windshield.  It was the Aurora coming out to play.  I actually got a little choked up, full of wonder and awe at the green light that gradually got brighter and started to move.  What started as a faint green band turned to brighter green swirls on one side of the sky and a big green equalizer on the other.  By the time we got to Chena, I had to walk backwards, with my mitten in Peter's glove, head back, mouth agape trusting that he would not let me walk into any large objects.  By this time, the lights were really bright, still all green, pacing back and forth in lines across the sky.  After a bit the lights faded and I started questioning my sanity as we headed to the hot springs, knowing that I was to walk outside at 11pm and 35 degrees below zero in nothing but a bathing suit... not even flip flops.  It must've taken me 15 minutes in the dressing room to take off all of my layers.

I met Peter at the indoor pool, which I had no desire to go into, as it was very sulfur-y smelling.  We stood in front of the glass door that led outside to the hot spring, I took a deep breath and charged forward.  I opened the door and it looked like an episode of Quantum Leap.  I stepped out of a cloud of steam and walked quickly since I didn't want to slip and fall on any ice.  Transitioning from -35 to 110 was pretty intense.  The steam rising off the water wasted no time freezing in our hair and eyelashes.  
The pool was pretty enormous, but felt secluded since it's impossible to see more than 5 feet in front of your own face through all the steam.  Peter carried me around the pool and within a really short period of time, I started to feel like I was suffocating, so we quickly moved towards the ramp so that I could get out of the water a little.  I sort of started to panic since I felt like I couldn't breathe, I got nauseated and had that feeling like I was about to faint.  I fainted once when I was 14 and it's a very distinct feeling that I remember well.  I sat on the ramp for a bit, in about 6 inches of water and the only things that were cold were my ears and my nose.  This is where all the kissy pictures took place.  I probably could've stayed in the water for hours after that, but they closed at midnight, so we made our way back to the locker rooms, where a maintenance man walked in, saw me in my underwear and froze (as did I) for what felt like several minutes, until his brain registered what he was looking at, when he turned around and walked back out.  Peter wasn't so lucky, as the same guy got a load of him in all his glory..  butt nekkid.

We returned to the checkpoint area where we helped clean up the straw where the vets checked the dogs and they caught a brief nap, then we led the dogs to the truck.  Apparently this year there was not enough snow on a certain part of the trail and all of the dogs had to be driven around this area.  I think this is why several mushers were penalized two hours because they forgot to check out of the checkpoint.  Now the northern lights were back out and really strong swirling all over the sky.  At this point, the batteries to my camera died and I can't manually control the F-Stop or aperture, so I didn't even try to get a decent picture.  I just stared.  I also just realized that I didn't get a picture of the ice martini and shot glasses at the ice bar.  It was closed, but there were glasses outside on the ledge.  Cool.

I think we headed back around 1:30 (5:30am Atlanta time) for the two hour trek back to Fairbanks.  Maybe less, I can't remember.  Anyway, Peter and I had to play alphabet games to stay awake, which, even though I was exhausted, was really fun and will likely remain one of the moments I'll remember as a special one.  There are a lot of geographic locations that end in the letter A.  Dang.  We made it back without landing Ryan's truck in a snowbank and lay comfortably in bed while musing on what a full and perfect day/night that had been.  ...and it was.



jimiyo said...

if you die from the plague, can i have your bicycle, and ill take care of your cats. word? unless stephanie takes your cats, but then she would have like what 4? i dont think she would want to be considered a cat lady as much i would mind being called fruity. hope you feel better, sucks to be sick.

kat said...

i didn't die from the plague, but if I die from heartache, the bike is all yours and take care of the kitties.

wcgillian said...

Very nice blog here. Nice job and I ask for nothing if you die from the plague. No really nice bog and the photos are great.