Learning to Say “Yes” to Adventure on the Iditarod Trail

9 min read

Am I going to freeze? Where am I going to be sent? Did I make enough frozen dinner meals for my husband and son to use while I’m gone? What if he gets sick and nobody can contact me? Did I finish all my medical records and client calls? I’m pretty sure I did, but, oh man, let me just check one more time. Am I a neglectful mother for just up and leaving my family for 10 days to be a volunteer veterinarian with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race with no way to communicate with them? Maybe I shouldn’t go. But I want to go. Oh wait, my socks are still in the dryer.

I’ve always been an outdoor gal (winter camping is no stranger to me), but I’ve never done it alone, and I’ve never done it with no idea of where I am going to be at. My husband and friends have always been a little bit of a security blanket for me, so this trip was a big leap in terms of my own outdoor self-sufficiency. We were limited to 40 pounds of total gear, and the temperature could range from 32 degrees to 40 below for the duration of the trip. Anyone’s guess when it comes to Alaskan weather, so just packing was a challenge. (Cheers to the sweet friend who lent me her down sleeping mat!)

Ashley's gear for her entire trip, which weighed in at 37 pounds.

All the volunteers were teamed up with volunteer bush pilots (called the Iditarod Air Force) to take us to checkpoints that we were needed at. My call came Friday morning, so I stuffed my gear and myself into the back of a Cessna 180, buckled in, and threw on a big headset. Since I’m a veterinarian, I had lots of medications that couldn’t freeze, so I was a marshmallow of a person with all the inner pockets of my down parka stuffed with medications to keep them warm against my body. I couldn’t lean over or move my arms very well being so jammed in my seat between packs full of gear and the confines of my drug-laden jacket.

While flying I had to make sure the tiny microphone arm of the headset was pressed up against my lips and the earpieces weren’t tangling my long braid per recommendations of the pilot. Just as I was feeling like such an amateur who tangles her hair in plane headphones and wears overly stuffed jackets amongst these seasoned Alaskan backcountry pilots, we took off from Lake Hood and slowly rose over Anchorage. As we continued up the valley, we rose over a snowy ridgeline and suddenly I could see Denali and Mount Foraker glowing in the sunshine under the low hanging cloud cover.

View of Mount Foraker and Denali from the Cessna, flying out of Anchorage on our way to Finger Lake, Alaska.

The pilot began pointing out aerial geography that I have never seen in my years of living on the ground in Alaska. Frozen river beds snaking through frozen birch clusters, moose tracks, dog teams, and a view of the Tordrillo Mountains as far as I could see. I took a deep breath, the hair on my arms rising, and suddenly, I felt like this was exactly where I was supposed to be.

I took a deep breath, the hair on my arms rising, and suddenly, I felt like this was exactly where I was supposed to be.

My first assignment was at Finger Lake. This is a remote lake with only a winter guest lodge at one end that you have to fly into in order to visit. There is no road system. We weren’t guests at the lodge, because we were there to work. The first two days were spent alongside other veterinarians, communications volunteers, and trail volunteers. Using snowshoes to pack down patches of lake, we built a tent city that would act as the checkpoint. Tents were made of a layer of straw, a layer of tarp, the tent frame, and the insulated tent lining to keep it as protected from the elements as possible. Here, I helped install my first satellite, which would be temporarily used for communications. Because our tent had veterinary medications in it that couldn’t freeze, we had a small propane heater that kept the inside of our tent just above freezing. We had to spread out straw bales for the dogs, and put up markers along the trail so the mushers would know where to go.

The view across Finger Lake midday Monday. Warm and Sunny!

These were long, exhausting hours. The first night, after working for about 10 hours, we all sat outside in the 10 below cold sharing campfire steamed salmon with instant mash potatoes. The salmon was caught by another Iditarod volunteer that past summer in a river not far from where we were camping. The sky was as clear as I have ever seen it, and we all counted constellations, sharing stories of past Iditarod races, camping adventures, and technique for building the perfect igloo. The air was so cold and dry against my skin, each time I blinked I had to do it quickly so my eyelashes wouldn’t freeze together, but each breath was inexplicably invigorating. I felt so tired and cold, but warm on the inside and awake at the same time.

Living with a group of like-minded people, all sleeping like sardines in a winter tent, working long days together, sharing stories at night, we became close friends fast. That camaraderie paid off when the dog teams began showing up at 2 a.m. Monday morning. We worked as a solid team as if we had known each other and our work habits for years, escorting each team in, spending time examining each dog, helping mushers, and making sure every competitor was healthy and happy. I examined several hundred dogs that day, only grabbing a quick bite of sandwich between dog teams. By the time the last team came through at 11 p.m. that night, we had all been awake and on our feet for close to 36 hours, but the adrenaline was still pumping. My ears hurt from having a frozen stethoscope in them for most of the day listening to dog hearts and lungs. My knees ached from bending down next each dog in an effort to make friends and not scare them. My feet swelled from walking through snow in my heavy insulated boots for so long without stopping. After the last team left, we all circled up, looked up at the North Star in yet another crystal clear night, and cheered. Our yell echoed across the frozen snowy lake surface for several seconds while we hugged, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

Examining and loving on a sled dog during a pre-race exam.

Tuesday morning as I was slowly crawling out of my warm sleeping bag and sipping my warm black tea, a fellow volunteer came into our tent and let us know a pilot was on his way to get us. She just received word he would arrive in eight minutes. Because he had such a short weather window, if he couldn’t get us then we would all be stuck at that checkpoint for days because of an impending snowstorm. We rushed around in complete disorganization, throwing our gear into our packs as fast as we could. I gathered all the vet boxes, medications, paperwork, etc. We then ran the three-quarters of a mile from our tents in dumping snow to the open landing strip on the other side of the lake, and got there just in time to see four planes on skis all land in the deep snow with the same goal in mind. We rushed to load our gear, postholing up to our thighs in the fresh snow to get to the plane, and within 10 minutes, we were all taking off watching the clouds roll in heavier and heavier behind us. I’m still missing the lid to my tea mug. It’s somewhere in its forever resting place of Finger Lake, AK.

My next checkpoint was in Takotna, a remote village of 52 people, situated on the high bank of the Takotna River. I arrived there Wednesday morning. Since this checkpoint was an actual village, with already existing buildings, we didn’t have to build anything. All the volunteers were set up in the large community building, which had a 24-hour shuffling of volunteers, village members, and spectators abuzz with the excitement of the race. They had a large TV in the community room with the race GPS beacons all on the map, so everyone could track each racer in real time. The community room was set up with a large kitchen, and the village had a volunteer cooking schedule. Each person volunteered to cook for a shift for the entire race, so race workers and mushers could get food whenever we wanted, 24/7. Takotna was most famous for their pies. Several village elders made berry pies from locally picked Alaskan berries on a constant rotation. At no point was there ever less than five pies on the counter for anyone to sample. The first night I was there, an 84-year-old village elder made a moose roast for all the volunteers from a moose he had harvested for his family this past fall. The generosity of the community of Takotna was incredible.

The entrance to Takotna, Alaska, from the Iditarod Trail.

At this point in the race, the mushers were more spread out, so we had breaks between dog teams to rest or play. We were working all hours of the day and night, but did get several hours here and there to catch quick naps before another dog team would roll in. The snow was constant in Takotna, snowing enough that we had to constantly shovel out pathways and dog lots. Thursday night I was out checking on dog teams for about two hours, and the hood on my down jacket was off because I was kinda warm. When I came inside and took my jacket off, I had over four inches of snow in the hood of my jacket. The third day I was in Takotna, the snow finally broke. We took that opportunity to walk around and explore. Myself and other veterinarians had become friends with several village kids and the local teacher, and we spent time making an igloo with them at the edge of the dog lot. It was over five feet high on the inside, the entrance dug into the snow. The little girls commandeered it as their own and made a “No Boys Allowed!” sign hanging from the entrance. I heard them laughing and chattering about where their snow couch and table should go when I had to leave to go check on another dog team.

The "No Boys Allowed” sign on the igloo built in Takotna, Alaska.

I lived in my long underwear, insulated overalls, down parka, and headlamp for the entire trip, never showering or changing clothes. No one had access to phones or Internet, and I had some of the best conversations I’ve had in a long time. This trip taught me so much about motherhood, in that sometimes you have to put yourself first and stretch your comfort zone. I’m also more confident in my winter layering skills, I’m better at reading maps, I know I can take care of myself in the Alaskan winter wilderness, and I can rely on my husband to take care of my son. It has given me a renewed sense of confidence and satisfaction that you can only get by doing something that you are so worried about it almost makes you cry. I was especially inspired after meeting fellow adventurous mamas on the trail. I met a mom who started dog mushing with her family as a way to help her teenage son battle depression since dogs were the only thing that made him happy, and now competes in races with her own dogs all over the country. I met another mom whose teenage daughters were both alpine mountaineers. I met a mom who had young children and also left them with family to volunteer for this race.

It has given me a renewed sense of confidence and satisfaction that you can only get by doing something that you are so worried about it almost makes you cry.

The volunteer veterinarians around the igloo built in near the Takotna checkpoint. All veterinarians wore a red band with the word “VET” in reflective silver lettering to stand out.

I will continue to volunteer for this “Last Great Race” as long as I can, taking time to stretch my comfort zone, learn more about myself and others around me, and continue to care for the dogs that my career is all about. The guilt, uncertainty, and stress that I had felt in the anticipation leading up to this trip was so quickly washed away, and I made lifelong friends and met some of the most inspiring women in my life. This trip taught me so much, but most importantly, it taught me to always say yes to adventure.

About the Author

Ashley Harmon

Ashley is a mom, wife, and veterinarian living and working in Anchorage, AK. She is very active in the Anchorage veterinary community, volunteering for several rescue organizations, sled dog races (including the Iditarod), and serving as a foster home for many animals. When not working, she can always be found somewhere in the Alaskan backcountry with her son, husband, and 3 dogs. They are often salmon fishing, hiking, trail running, skiing, camping, and checking off glacier climbs around Alaska. Her two-year-old son is up to nine glaciers so far in his life.

Read More Stories From Ashley

3 Comments

  1. Jennifer Britton (Berg) on April 10, 2018 at 1:18 pm

    Ashley, this was a fantasyic article!! What a great adventure!

  2. Jeanne lambert on April 10, 2018 at 2:34 pm

    Best adventure I’ve had this year. Thank you dear Ashley.

  3. Bea cox on April 10, 2018 at 7:36 pm

    What an amazing experience, Ashley ! Enjoyed so much reading about this great adventure!
    Your granddad and my husband are first cousins 🙂
    Bea Cox

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