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Insight into early Iditarods from Joe May

Overflow...It's About Staying out of Trouble

by Joe May

In response to a request for a rookie "Trail Safety" discourse, particularly related to overflow and open water hazards, I first considered listing specific problems and their respective considerations, and junked that idea.

To list hazards in all their marvelous shapes, sizes, and degrees of import that might be encountered on a thousand-mile trail is well nigh impossible. I don't mean to imply that the Quest trail is well nigh impossible. I don't mean to imply that the Quest Trail is inherently dangerous, because overall it's not. Yet, annually, in a few mostly unpredictable places, in some weird and wondrous new arrangement of circumstances, something unexpected pops up...usually to be laughed at afterward...but occasionally not until long afterward.

Though the hills are more or less stationary, everything else out there moves around a lot so it's the fact that each race produces it's own unique environment. Once in awhile this can become serious. To wit, free water in strange places at 40 below zero. Not a rarity by any means, and with a few precautions, some old tricks, and common sense, a cool head will see you through. A wet foot on a sunny day is no big deal. On the other hand, a wet foot at -40F, at night, on a glacier hillside, will need a positive response on the owner's part. So what I'll do here, rather than catalog 'nightmares', is a critique of "what works for me," much of which is only common practice - common sense. Though there are undoubtedly other ways to skin these particular cats, I still have all my fingers and most of my toes to prove this stuff really works.

Of course, go around it if you can. Stop the team; reconnoiter with your ax. Scout it out, but be careful. If you're on a creek...if you can't get around it, use your ingenuity to stay as dry as you can. Or if it looks really bad, prepare before hand for a wetting. Get dry gear and fire tools ready before you drive into it. I can't think of anything dumber than to drive unprepared into an overflow because there are tracks leading into the hole and coming out the other side...that guy obviously made might get stuck or the dogs might stall out in the middle. Mentally and physically, inventory your options before you go in. I don't for a minute suggest the following as routine practice. However, I'll describe some personal experience to illustrate an example of what I consider good overflow procedure.

I once had a nasty overflow creek on a trapline. To cross it, on memorable occasions, I pre-gathered a pile of dry firewood, twigs, and bark a top the sled bag, tied my boots, pants, and long johns around my neck, wore one pair of socks grabbed the leaders neckline and hauled ass for the far side. That may sound extreme, but you see, for ten minutes of discomfort I had the creek behind me, dry clothes on, a hot fire, tea heating, and I was fit to go to work drying dogs and harness. Provided you're not in the water very long, even at -30F, it isn't threatening until you come out, with or without wet clothes. The trick is to plan ahead to avoid protracted wetting.

Overflow and open water don't always emit warning steam. You might even get lucky enough to be the originator of a new hole in the creek. So should you suddenly find yourself in water, the first order is "don't panic." Talk the dogs out of the hole, drag them if you must, but move. Don't waste time cussing and arguing with bewildered dogs. Move far enough up or off the trail so as not to block any immediate succeeding team from clearing the hazard. See to yourself with dry gear and fire as necessary. See to the dogs. Get the booties off. Change wet harness if possible, or at least work a frozen harness until it's limber. Though they will usually roll in the snow to dry themselves, some dogs need help to clear the ice from their coat. When you have things under control, if possible, walk back and reroute the trail around the hazard, or block it in some obvious manner. You'll make friends that way.

Open leads in the river on the Quest trail are uncommon, but yes, they're chilling to behold should you get near one. Trailbreakers avoid them like poison. If you do see something ugly, of course, stay clear, reroute the trail if it presents a threat to succeeding teams and advise race officials at the soonest opportunity. There's no other advice here except to stay alert on the river, and as a matter of habit, query the checker before leaving each checkpoint regarding trail conditions ahead, specific hazards, etc. Good news is that the trail will have been flown several times prior to the first team's passage so any visible open water near the route will have been reported.

Carry a spare set of something. Even high tech boots catch fire, are torn, etc. Keep the spares with socks, waterproofed matches, dry work gloves, and the ax and cooking fuel where you can get to them readily. Plastic bags can be magic for emergencies. A kitchen garbage bag worn over dry socks inside of wet boots is better than wet boots AND wet socks. A large trash bag worn on each leg will get you through fairly deep overflow. Whatever kind of footgear you prefer, carry a spare of some sort.

A thousand-mile race is hell on cumulative attrition. The race is nothing like training where you can tend them every night. A little neglect here and there easily adds up to splits and frostbitten digit ends. Small nicks, cuts, burns, and scrapes need attention in to avoid infection. You can't take care of yourself or your dogs with bad hands. Over the years, a goodly number of mushers have scratched from this race with fine dogs and bad hands. I can think of nothing more unfun on a long race than sore paws..theirs or mine.

Safety is many things. It's being careful and not taking unnecessary chances. It's about using your head and keeping your cool. Most of all I believe it's about staying out of trouble by not driving beyond your personal level of ability or that your dogs. If you don't leave good judgment and common sense behind at the starting line, as sometimes happens in the heat of the fray, you'll do well and have fun.

S/Joe May

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