Why I Scratched Iditarod 2019
By Emily Maxwell
Special to Glacier City Gazette
Editors Note: Glacier City Gazette received permission from Emily Maxwell to publish her detailed Facebook post explaining why she scratched from the 2019 Iditarod near the halfway point of the race. The text has been lightly edited.
Thank you everyone for your well wishes and concern for the dogs and me. We are safe and resting comfortably back in McGrath and will be flying home tomorrow. The dogs are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, resting on straw and enjoying a meat and kibble buffet.
While this is certainly not the outcome I was hoping for, I couldn’t be more proud of this young team and how well they handled such a tough trail this year. I also feel good to make the right decision on their behalf, which was that it wouldn’t be right to try to keep moving uptrail with them.
In addition to rough trail, I had only been working with this team for a short time. They did the best they could for me and I did the best I could for them. It’s hard to explain how much the dogs are your entire world during this race. When they are eating well, resting well and confronting challenges while barking and charging, you know they are happy and having fun, so you are happy and having fun. Anything less tears at your heart.
Alas, everything was going well until the run from Ophir to Iditarod. It’s roughly 85 miles between the two checkpoints. I was informed upon leaving Ophir that there were “some tussocks” going into Iditarod. I imagined a mile or two of rough, bumpy trail and thought we’d just take it slow and enjoy a nice, long rest at Iditarod.
Don’s cabin is a little under halfway between the two checkpoints and we rested there during the heat of the day for about four hours. When we left, the day was cooling off, the trail was setting up nicely and the dogs were well-rested and looking great. The tussocks started 20+ miles before the Iditarod checkpoint. In most sections there was little to no snow, and it felt like ice skating on grass.
I ran and pushed the sled as much as I could to make the load easier for the dogs. I was wearing bunny boots and would run as far as I could until I couldn’t keep up then jump on the runners to catch my breath before getting back to running. About 10 miles outside of Iditarod, we were going uphill with zero snow and even with me running and pushing, the dogs quit running.
I went up front, grabbed the gang line behind the leaders and started walking forward. Without my weight on the back, it was easier for them, and we did this for about 2 miles, stopping every now and again for me to address any tangles and keep going. I was exhausted, dehydrated and my legs were cramping but I wanted to get them safely to the checkpoint so badly that I didn’t let it bother me.
At the top of a hill, I decided to get back on the sled and ride down. They went along ok for a bit until we saw Marcelle’s team up ahead, stopped on the trail. My team pulled up behind them and stopped. I set the hooks and went up to talk to Marcelle. It was dusk then, and she said her team had quit a few hours earlier. She had snacked them and rested.
I said I would try to go ahead and see if her team would follow mine. We tried that, but her team didn’t follow and mine didn’t go very far before quitting again. It went on like this for a few more hours, starting and stopping and me walking them forward until I decided to push my SOS button, effectively ending my race and alerting Iditarod officials that I needed help.
By now we were about six miles outside of the checkpoint. I melted some snow for water and used the last of the meat I had to water/feed the dogs. It wasn’t particularly cold, but the dogs were lying on little patches of snow. Normally we would carry straw to make beds for them, but I had none as I hadn’t planned to stop. I put their coats on them and then laid out my parka, my bibs and any other clothing I could find in my sled for them to sleep on.
By that time I was really tired and felt shaky and weak from dehydration. I was soaked in sweat and starting to shiver, so I stripped down and put on my emergency set of long johns, pulled all of my supplies out of the sled and put my sleeping bag in, crawled in, holding my tracker in my hand and hoped it wouldn’t be too long until someone came to check on us.
I woke up to the sound of a dog team coming up behind us. I could hear Anja Radano’s voice in the darkness, talking to her dogs. She pulled up beside and asked if I was ok. I told her I couldn’t get the dogs going and had pushed my button. I told her I’d try to get the dogs to follow her but if they wouldn’t, to tell them when she got to Iditarod that I needed help.
I pulled the dogs onto the trail and called them up behind her as her team took off. My team didn’t budge. Back into their sleeping spots they went, and I crawled back in the sled. Kristin Bacon went by a little while later and the situation was the same. Finally it started to get light, and it was roughly seven hours after I’d pushed the button. I needed to get them food and couldn’t wait any longer.
I tied the sled off and made sure everyone was secure where they were and started walking down the trail, taking the tracker with me. I walked four miles and was about one mile from the checkpoint when I heard a snow machine coming. Andy Pohl and Kale Casey are friends and had been traveling the trail independently of the race, and Iditarod had asked them to come and check on Marcelle and I.
They were carrying dog food and supplies to make water. When I saw them, I started bawling. They asked if I wanted to go to the checkpoint or back to the dogs. “Back to the dogs!” I rode on the back of Andy’s machine, a very rough ride on that rough terrain. They dropped the food off at the dogs and went to check on Marcelle who was about a mile behind me.
When they came back, I asked Kale to drive the snow machine a little ahead of the dogs to see if they would chase him to the checkpoint. After a few false starts, we got them moving, and they followed him all the way to Iditarod. I’ve never been so happy to see a checkpoint.
Thank you to everyone who helped me get to the start-Iowa City, IA and Girdwood, Anchorage and Hope, AK. Thank you to the many mushers and mushing families who supported me this season and in the past. Thank you so so very much to Brett and Suzette Bruggeman and Miriam Osredkar of Skinny Leg Sleddogs for bringing these incredible dogs into my life, entrusting them to me and for all your help and support in the weeks before the start.
Thank you to Kale and Andy, I don’t know what I would’ve done without you. Thank you Jim Lanier for giving me Beethoven for the race. Thank you to mushers and race officials at the Iditarod checkpoint, all of whom were kind and considerate of my feelings upon arrival. Although it was the right decision, it wasn’t easy and everyone showed me nothing but respect.
Finally, and most importantly, thank you to Flame, Shout, Mowgli, Kahn, Wasp, Inca, Aztec, Maya, Wyoming, Sassy, Sweeney, Sabin, Farquhar and Beethoven. You did such a great job and I am so so proud of you and how sweet you were to one another and to me through all the challenges we faced together, honored to know you, feed you, massage you, bootie your little feet and run you in the last great race. Good dogs. Mush on…