Jodi Bailey is my amazing friend who completed the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod back to back, which means she mushed thousands of miles across a landscape most of us will never see. I have persuaded her to join me in a little Q and A because I have very important questions to ask her. “Are you nuts?” is not one of them.
A: But you already know the answer to that of course I am nuts
Q: So, of course, people who live complicated lives want to know – how do you pee on the trail? There must be a lot of gear that you’re wearing…
A:The same way I would anywhere else in the woods. Lets just say I don’t always stop the sled. (and yes it took some practice)
Q: One thing I noticed about your journey on the trail is that you kept a tight dog team – other racers ran with fewer dogs. Can you tell me more about what it’s like with your dogs when you’re out there?
A:It is one of the most relaxing things on earth, much of the time. I love being out there with the kids. And Yes there are parts that are hard, technical, and scary. But I have my 20/80 rule. 20% of the time you are hanging on for dear life, white knuckled, or uncomfortable. But it is a small price to pay for the other 80%
You forget about the bills in the PO Box, and the dirty dishes in the kitchen don’t even exist. Not that there is not a ton to occupy your mind. I have said before a race of 1000 miles is made up of thousands of small decisions. It is quiet, you hear dog breath, tags clink, feet padding along, and the ramblings of your own mind. Time takes on a new meaning, as it creeps along sometimes, and others flies by. And some times of day are special. I always enjoy the time when the sun and moon are competing for real estate in the sky, morning or evening. We had some beautiful runs under the changing sky. The dogs also have a rhythm or cycle, mine tend to go a bit flat in the morning, right before sunrise, and in the afternoon heat of the day. I tried to camp during the mid day heat as often as possible. And to be fair I can’t blame them for the early morning thing, I am not at my best that time of day either.
As for the larger team. That was something in both races that was a personal goal of mine. As a rookie I recognize I have a lot to learn, and being able to manage a team over the long haul was part of that. It did require some extra effort on my part to care for a larger team. And if any of my kids had been in a situation where it was better for them not to continue I would never hesitate to drop them.
People should know that mushers ‘drop’; leave dogs behind with vets at checkpoints if the are sore, tired, or for whatever reason the musher feels it is in the best interest of the team for that dog to not go on, dog for many reasons. A smaller team often is the sign that a musher is being very careful in choosing what dogs they continue down the trail with. I know it is hard to interpret what all those numbers on the website updates spreadsheet mean. And I would not want anyone to equate small teams with bad or big teams with good. It really is more complicated, and people need to understand about that “a race of 1000 miles is made up of thousands of small decisions” and each musher is out there making the best decisions they can for their team.
Q: I’m sure that was a hard question, so tell me about how you and the dogs rest on the trail. In my mind, you all sleep in a bundle of furry love, but I bet you will tell me I’m wrong.
The dogs are connected to the main gangline by their collars when we camp. I often have them in groups of 4 so they can snuggle up and share big piles of straw for a bed. We get a bale of straw at every checkpoint to bed our dogs down with. Our dogs are raised and live together and will all curl up together in a straw bed.
When we camp I either crawl into the sled bag for shelter if it is windy. Or throw my sleeping bag on the straw next to the dogs. Actually on our New Years Eve camping trip I was sleeping next to the leaders of my team, and woke up under Jake with Skittles in the sleeping bag. At checkpoints there is usually a sleeping area set aside for mushers, and I admit it I enjoy a nice warm bed after a long run. Lets face it I don’t have the beautiful warm coat the dogs have.
Q: Ok Jodi, you know I sort of hate being cold, so my mind boggles that you actually like this stuff – but c’mon now, you must have been cold out there at some point.
A: -well yeah, but really you can dress for it. I have bad hands, so I also have lots of glove liners, so I can always put on new dry liners. And I have beaver mitts that are super warm. And I have been known to use chemical heat packs in my mitts and boots. Especially when the temp was lower the -50F on the Quest.
And I have lots of layers, I admit it I am a technical fabrics junkie!! One strange thing that happens, when you spend hours and hours on end outside in the cold: You loose your ability to really know how cold it is out. You know it is cold, and when your eyelashes start to frost and freeze together you know it is colder. But you really do not have the same perception of cold as you would if you had not been out in it so long.
Q: Like -30 degrees. What is that like? (Sorry readers - this is an email Q and A, so I asked another cold question before she anawered the last one.)
A: At -30 dogs are traveling good, and your wearing a good bit of gear. You loose some mobility with the layers, and yeah it feels like you have gained like 30 pounds in outer wear. But it also tends to be crisp and clear at those temps. Usually not windy (you did mean the real -30 not with wind chill right? ;) Colder then that really starts to feel more ‘serious’ like WOW better be careful its really cold.
Q: I’m a feminist and think of your achievements from that perspective. Do you think there is a difference between men and women running the Quest and/or Iditarod?
A: NO, and it is one of the things I like about the sport. And maybe going toe to toe with my competitors, no matter what the sex, appeals to the Humanist in me (I have become a humanist, because feminism is in a way exclusive, I want to celebrate all people in their unique strengths and beauty) I think there are some things that make some people better suited to mushing, good sleeper who also handles sleep deprivation, iron gut to eat anything any time, endurance, positive attitude.
OK maybe some differences, you already mentioned the peeing on the trail issue, men might have a real advantage there. I have read where women have (in general) a higher tolerance to pain (thank you mother nature for preparing us for childbirth) and that has got to be a plus. But in general I think that each individuals attitude and athleticism either help or hinder them.
Q: Is there a difference between male and female dogs and how they are on a team?
Some people have strong opinions on this, I however do not. I find that all my dogs are their own little individuals with their own personalities. And we have had amazing dogs of both sexes. For the Quest I lead with males and females. And in Iditarod when I decided to drop first my back up leading man, and then later my main leader (also male) I had 2 wonderful little girls step up and take over lead.
What I look for most are dogs with heart and athletic ability. And heart really makes the dog. Heart = the ones that love to run, are up and jumping to go, get excited at the mere site of a harness in the dog yard, break chains in order to go chase a team if they don’t get taken on a run. They also tend to eat like machines, and get along well with other dogs, and love people.
Q: Do you think most of the Dew Claw dogs want to run, or are there some lazy ones like me who might want to prefer to stay home? I’m kind of guessing that laziness is inherently human.
A: You are right about lazy being a human train *hehe* the dogs don’t seem to be effected by it. But you do sometimes get a dog that just does not enjoy running in team, or gets ‘freaked out’ by big fast teams or large crowds. And the bottom line is “you can not push a rope” so if a dog decided they don’t want to play, we need to respect that. If it is a case where a dog is not athletic enough to keep up with the race team, we can work with them in smaller teams, or re-home them with someone who is not racing. We actually have recently placed 2 dogs into recreational ski-jor homes (ski-jor is when you cross country ski pulled by 1 or more sled dogs) I sometimes see pictures of them with their humans on facebook from fun trips they take.
Q: The Iditarod is run on some routes from the gold rush, and some that are ways between villages, and then long stretches that nobody sees except for you and your team. Does that ever scare you?
A:I thought it would scare me more then it did. And to be fair the Yukon Quest had much longer stretches between checkpoints where you’re out there by yourself. But even in the Quest, I never felt panic-y or overwhelmed by it. On some level you do realize that the race, well everyone thanks to GPS tracking, is keeping an eye on you. And I have grown much more confidant in my skills and abilities when traveling in arctic winters. Please do not interpret this as nonchalance, as I have a healthy respect for mother nature and the havoc she can wreck on us. And I carry gear and supplies to help me deal with it if she does.
Q I know you already wrote a thesis on it, but anything you can say about the gold rush and interior Alaska is amazing. I remain amazed that those people ran after gold to the point of losing limbs and lives - and I think people still do it, and are equally unprepared.
A: I could fill pages with my thoughts on greed and what it brings into the lives of people who allow it to motivate them….
But here is a more mushing based thought that was running through my head more then once on the recent trails I traveled. I would be cresting a mountain, winding through a valley, or traveling a river, and would think: I think I am so tough, out here with my technical fabrics, and fancy Patagonia long johns, aluminum sled, and lightweight gear…. And just think about the men and women who got out there are really discovered this land. With heavy wooden sleds, wool and oil cloth, lanterns, and bulky gear. They were really tough, I have it easy compared to their travels. Some areas are so beautiful and wide open empty, you come into them and breath deeper, and here is where often I would think of those early travelers; not just explorers and miners, but the indigenous peoples who were traditional nomadic hunter gatherers. For then how must it have felt to travel into these places? Amazing really to think of what it must have been like back then. In both the Iditarod and Quest you travel through areas of historic importance, although some are ghost towns. And in some places you see the shell of a cabin, or remains of a structure. All that is left of one persons dream and/or adventure.
And yes sadly people still come to Alaska unprepared for all it can throw at you. And even with our high tech long johns there is no substitute for knowledge and experience.
Q: I know it will be hard to choose, but please list the top five moments of your time on the trail.
A: I can not pick an order, so in no particular order:
Rosebud, known as a hard climb, I found it to be well worth the work.
Above treeline under a huge moon howling with the kids.
The run into Shaktoolik, near the end has one of my all time favorite ever down hill sections, very fun to run down and great conditions.
The hospitality stops, on both races (40 mile cabin, trout creek, and ravenwood outpost) They are different then checkpoints, not official, and usually have the best cookies.