Overflow & Jumble Ice
Apparently recent trail reports are using 2 words that seem to be causing fans, and maybe even a few rookies concern. But I would bet my last dollar that seasoned Quest mushers like Dave Dalton actually expected this. I am not saying they did a little happy dance when they heard, I am sure they groaned too. But it came as no surprise that there may be overflow in the 101 area, and there is always seems to be jumble ice somewhere on the American side. I am not saying either situation is ideal, but life is like that. And so is the Yukon Quest trail.
Some people are surprised to learn that even in extreme cold, water is not always well behaved frozen ice. It can seep and crawl up from the ground, turn to slush as it flows above the river ice layer into snow, and make shifting ice glaciers that angle across trails, usually in the most inconvenient of places. Learning how to handle this, and more importantly training your team to handle this, is a critical skill for anyone who is going to travel 1000 miles of trail in the arctic winter. Another interesting thing about rivers AND trail reports; things change, sometimes overnight. I have been at a race meeting where we were told the trail was bone dry, only to find myself wading through open water a day later. I do not pretend to understand what forces are at work that allow a river to have large areas of flowing water even when they are at subzero temps. But I did find this article that helps explain it: Science of the Season, Overflow. And it references a serious incident that happened on Birch Creek. Hans made a very wise choice to end his race and take care of his health. I am so very glad to see him back, as good as ever, and having a great race.
So it is true that there is the possibility things can go really wrong when the conditions are technically challenging. Controlling teams on overflow is very difficult. A well trained command leader is a huge advantage. The 101 area has long been known for overflow. I remember one year the ice was rising so much actually came up to the door of one of the cabins at the old 101 checkpoint. Then there was the year William Kleedehn broke his leg when his sled went sliding on the overflow, 2004 if I remember right. And more than one musher has told tales after the race about having to lead their team across icy parts because the dogs were trying to avoid it and run into areas of snow, that were not actually part of the trail.
But to put this in perspective if you think about the total number of mushers who have traveled this trail since the first race was run in 1984 statistically we see that although overflow has the potential to be a game changer, generally it just makes conditions more challenging. And armed with the trail reports mushers can do things to prep for the situation. One of my personal favorite tricks is garbage bags. Remember your mom putting bread bags on your feet before putting your boots on? Well it is the same idea but on a larger scale. I take a large garbage bag and put it on my leg, over my pants socks and boot liners. I tie it off up at my thigh. And then put on my overboots and snowpants; both of which hold the bag in place. Yeah they might get wet, but if it is warm, so what? My inside layers are all dry. And if it is super cold, so what? My inside layers are still dry and the outside freezes to a crust. Maybe I will need to defrost myself out of my clothing at the next checkpoint. But with a dry inside layer I can stay warm. Other tricks include packing your sleeping bag and emergency gear in dry sacks. Putting extra gloves and such in zip locks, some mushers even go so far as to shrink wrap things with a vacuum sealer. So part of my point here is that trail reports are not meant to be alarming, they are simply giving the mushers the information they need to be prepared.
Now jumble ice can range in size from small sections of annoyances the size of large living room furniture, to being tossed around in a field of jumble ice with chunks the size of a VW Bus and larger. Trail crews have cut their way through as best they can, but drivers still have to work hard to prevent being bounced around big chucks, tipping, or catching air. It can be exhausting and exciting. How do you prep for that, well make sure your gear is all stowed and your sled zipped up so you can’t lose anything if you do tip. Then bend your knees, breath, and drive your sled as best you can. Here is a fun video of the jumble ice on the Quest trail in 2008.
So why do I sound so nonchalant about all this. Well truth be told, as a rookie musher I was on totally nervous every time a trail report was less than perfect! But I now know, it is what it is, and if you have done the miles of training to qualify and prepare yourself you have most likely gained the skills to deal with what it is. Hopefully you have even had a few mishaps in training to practice what to do when things aren’t going well.
And over time I have developed my own theory. I call it Jodi’s 80/20 rule – in any run 20% is going to suck for one reason or another, bad trail, too cold, windy, gear brakes, the list of things that can make mushing more difficult is long. But the way I see it, that 20% is the price you pay for the other 80%. The sublime beauty, the peace that comes with traveling in silence under the dancing aurora, the beauty of the vast wilderness you have the privilege of traveling, and the joy of being out on the trail with your dogs. All these things fill my heart with joy. So really the 20% that sucks becomes a small price to pay for the 80% that is amazing!