For Jane Faulkner, 43, waking up comfortable in a soft bed under layers of warm blankets in her heated Soldotna home is quite a contrast to the typical morning routine she had just a few weeks back.
Crawling cold and stiff out of her sleeping bag, Faulkner would face the minus 40-degree weather that was waiting for her each day and begin her many chores.
She would melt snow, feed her dogs and then herself, pack gear, clean straw and then harness and bootie each dog before hooking them up to a sled to continue their journey to Nome.
Despite how it sounds, Faulkner wasn't in the Iditarod. However, her trek across the frozen tundra was equally impressive.
Faulkner was a musher in the Norman Vaughan Serum Run 25 an event in which dog team drivers and snowmachiners pair up to traverse the 776 miles from Nenana to Nome.
"What a trip," Faulkner said. "I've never done anything like it before."
"For me there wasn't really a favorite place out there. lt was more a favorite place of being, and that place of being was with the dogs, on the back of a sled, launching out of a village into the solitude of nature."
Photo courtesy ofJane Faulkner
The purpose of the annual Serum Run is two-fold. It commemorates the 20 men and their dog teams who relayed the life-saving diphtheria serum to the ice-bound village of Nome back in 1925. It also serves to raise an awareness of healthy practices and the need for inoculations throughout Alaska.
Faulkner's mushing career began four years ago, and she has competed in numerous local races including the Clam Gulch Classic and the Tustumena 100. However, she said the impetus to participate in the Serum Run developed from her relationship with boyfriend Ed Borden.
Kasilof-based Borden died in 2002 after battling cancer, but in life he was a dedicated musher and sled builder.
"Ed did the Serum Run in 2002," explained Faulkner. "I helped him train for it and heard all his tales including a few tall ones about what the trail was like. Then, after he died he left me his 16 huskies." So, she said she decided to find out for herself what the trail was like.
Including Faulkner, this year's Serum Run drew 23 participants from as far away as Washington, D.C., South Carolina and Switzerland. Their ages ranged from 20 to 72 and their experience levels varied widely.
Several professional mushers also annually send teams on the Serum Run to give young dogs experience. Martin Buser was represented by two dog teams and Jeff King by a team, as well.
There even were a few Iditarod mushers out there, including past champion Joe May, who won the Last Great Race in 1980.
"We all were strange in our own ways and we all had our moments of craziness, but out there you learn tolerance and patience and how to get along," Faulkner said. "By the end, we were a tight group."
The motley crew started out on its 20-day trip after being seen off by run organizer Norman Vaughan. He bestowed the group with the mock serum they would be transporting, read a few passages from the book "The Cruelest Miles" and then wished them well on their journey.
The 98-year-old Vaughan didn't make the trip himself because he is busy preparing for his ascent of the Antarctic peak named after him, which he intends to climb when he turns 100.
Almost immediately after setting off, Faulkner began learning things about the trail, mushing, her team and herself.
"I knew it would be a working vacation, but I had no idea how much work it would be," she said. "I had 11 dogs to care for and there was a lot of camping the first week."
Camping may not sound so difficult but with that many animals, things quickly get tough. To those who have never mushed, it's comparable to caring for 11 small children. The dogs are completely dependent on the musher for food, water and warmth, and that much responsibility adds up to a lot of hard work.
Things on the trail weren't any easier for Faulkner. "Mushing for 50 miles a day I got dragged a few times and quit counting how many trees I crashed into."
Faulkner said the good times far outweighed the not so good times, though.
"The enormity was incredible, and when I would stop and step off the sled, all the dogs' ears toward me, tails wagging, it was just the best feeling," she said. "For me there wasn't really a favorite place out there, it was more a favorite place of being, and that place of being was with the dogs, on the back of a sled, launching out of a village into the solitude of nature."
Being on the trail and facing the harsh elements gave Faulkner plenty of time to reflect on what it may have been like for the 20 men and their dog teams that first made the trek without synthetic gear, snowmachine support and other modern amenities.
"One time on the Yukon (River), the wind was blowing hard for at least 20 miles of trail and the temperature was minus 40. It was too cold to move. I would just do, just go forward, just do it and not look back and I think that's what the original guys did," said Faulkner.
When not mushing across the state, Faulkner is an emergency room nurse at Central Peninsula General Hospital, and her trade came in handy numerous times on her trip.
She helped a few participants with minor ailments, treated a bloody nose and closely monitored an older gentleman with a heart condition. "I even glued one man's head back together after he split his skull when a snowmachine helmet fell on him during the night," she said.
Faulkner's training also came in handy in her discussions with the Alaskan Natives she encountered in villages along the way.
"We would break up into groups and go into classrooms to talk about healthy habits, healthy eating and exercise, and our specific emphasis this year was on teaching about diabetes," she said.
Although there to teach, Faulkner said she learned a lot from her interactions with the villagers.
"You really learn a lot about the things they don't have that we take for granted," she said. "We have it pretty cush with our miracle drugs to take away aches and pains, but we could learn a lot from the villagers about tough living."
Faulkner said her group also was taught a few Native words from some of the children in the villages, and that the exchange between the two cultures was very interesting. However, as sometimes is the case in such situations, there were a few misunderstandings in the lines of communication.
One incident in particular stood out in Faulkner's memory.
"As we were leaving one village, people came out to see us off. They were waving and cheering" she explained, but above it all, Faulkner clearly heard one slightly confused well-wisher.
"They yelled 'Get the sperm to Nome,'" she said. At that point there was little Faulkner could do to correct the person, so she just shook her head and laughed. The motto ended up becoming the running joke of the trip she said.
In the end, Faulkner said the serum made it to Nome, just like it did in 1925. All participants received a symbolic vile of mock serum to remember their trip by. Faulkner and Jack Campbell, her snowmachine partner from Big Lake, also were awarded the Best Musher-Machiner Relationship Award.
Faulkner said the overall experience was invaluable. "You come out either loving it or hating it and I loved it," she said. "The Serum Run taught me a lot about how and when to do things outside with whatever is available."
She said she plans on using the skills she learned to compete in some mid-distance sled dog races like the Tustumena 200 next season.
Faulkner also added, "I will go to Nome by dog team again one day."
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