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Women Prepare to Tackle Frozen Iron Dog Trail

 

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (MCT) - As a kid growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska, Issa Otten learned early how to live with extreme cold: Dress warmly and don't stay outside long.

Now, though, as the 42-year-old Anchorage woman prepares to undertake the 1,000-mile Tesoro Iron Dog snowmobile run along the Iditarod Trail from Big Lake to Nome, she is learning to live in extreme cold, and that's a different matter.

During the weekend, Otten and partner Fabiola "Faby" Membrila were busy training on the trails that run west from Wasilla through the frozen forests of black spruce and birch to the frozen swamps, the frozen tundra and the frozen lakes that stretch all the way to the frozen Susitna and Yentna rivers.

The temperature was 40 degrees below zero. On a snowmobile doing 60 mph, the new, national wind-chill index calculates the effect on the body as comparable to standing in still air at 91 degrees below zero.

Exposed flesh will freeze in less than five minutes at that temperature. Veteran snowmobilers, Otten and Membrila, a 36-year-old transplanted Texan, knew this. So they put patches of duct tape over cheeks and noses to protect against the wind.

LESSONS LEARNED

What they didn't know, however, is that at 40 below, it's a good idea to duct tape around goggles too, because at these temperatures air can hold hardly any moisture. Thus, every time a person breathes, the moisture in the air that comes out of the lungs goes looking for a place to condense.

If any of this moisture gets inside goggles, it will fog them in a blink.

So came extreme cold weather lesson No. 1 for a temporarily blinded Team Pink, as the women bill themselves: Tape the goggles.

Extreme cold weather lesson No. 2 quickly followed: Keep the extra duct tape in a warm place.

"We also discovered that duct tape freezes," Otten said. "We pulled it out of the bag, and we couldn't get it unstuck. We had to go back to the cabin."

Next time, Otten said, she'll stuff a compact roll of the tape in her bra to keep it warm in case it is needed.

Better to learn these things now, she added, than to discover them on the trail next month far from any help in some of the wildest country left in North America.

"I figure it's going to be 40 below on the trail," she said. "Now is the best time to experience it."

DAUNTING TASK

An accomplished snowmobile rider, Otten confesses the idea of going nearly 1,000 miles to Nome in February, mostly in the dark, across a landscape where few humans venture, possibly in temperatures as cold as 50 degrees below zero, is a little daunting.

Otten and Membrila are among 14 rookie racers, including two from Iceland, entered in the Iron Dog's Recreational Class. The recreational class finishes in Nome, while the pro class only takes a break there before turning east and racing back to Fairbanks for a Feb. 14 finish.

Iron Dog organizers consider it dangerous enough that racers are required to wear body armor and compete in pairs. On a couple occasions, the latter rule is probably the only thing that has saved the race from suffering a fatality.

As with all motor-sport racing, the faster people go the more dangerous things get, but even for competitors like Otten and Membrila driving their Ski-doos down narrow, twisting, rutted wilderness trails at 50 to 80 mph, speeds some of the top racers might consider a bit pedestrian, there are risks.

If a ski catches a tree at that speed, the rider will be thrown from the snowmobile in a blink. If a moose or bison steps into the trail, there will be almost no time to react and stop.

"Everybody thinks we're crazy," Otten admitted in a telephone interview Wednesday.

The Anchorage fitness trainer prefers to think of herself and her partner as simply adventurous and athletic. Otten has run the Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon here, competed in the Hammerman Extreme Triathlon at Kincaid Park and taken the stage nationally in bodybuilding fitness competitions.

As for snowmobiles, she's been around them for most of her life. "My dad had one for hunting when I was a kid," she said. "It would sit out in the yard" in Fairbanks.

THE FIRST SNOWMACHINE

Otten admits she never rode it, but by the 1980s, she'd taken her first snowmachine ride, and by the 1990s, she was enthusiastic enough about the sport to buy her own machine.

"I've owned a sled for 10 years," she said. She's ridden regularly with friends. She ridden a lot with husband Jeff. She's gotten to see a lot of Alaska many Alaskans only dream about seeing.

"Last year we went to the top of Sleeping Lady (the mountain immediately across Cook Inlet from downtown Anchorage)," she noted on the Team Pink Web site: www.teampinkak.org. "It's pretty awesome to look out of my office window and see Mount Susitna (now) and know that I've ridden my snowmachine to the top."

Still, riding up Mount Susitna at the start of spring when the days are getting long and the weather is moderating isn't quite as extreme as Iron Dogging it to Nome in the dead of winter.

"I'm not stupid," Otten said. "I know we're getting into some serious stuff. I know it's going to be hard. (And) we're really relying on the newer technology."

Otten and Membrila admit they're not going to be out on the frozen tundra replacing a blown cylinder on a snowmobile at 30 degrees below zero the way Iron Dog legends John Faeo or Scott Davis or Alaska "First Dude" Todd Palin might do or have done. But then those guys have always been in the race to win.

All Otten and Membrila want to do is finish, to prove something to themselves and, well, maybe, to a few other people.

The whole "Team Pink" thing kind of goes back to a Willow bonfire on New Year's Eve in 2004 when Otten, Membrila, Laura Bedard, now executive director of the Iron Dog, and a few other women got to talking about how their male snowmobile friends were always going off on snowmobile adventures about which they would then brag. The women decided then and there they should organize some of their own rides about which they could brag.

One thing led to another, as they say, and now two of Team Pink's members - who have yet to make it past Skwentna, only about 90 miles north of Big Lake on the Iditarod Trail - find themselves speeding toward the Feb. 8 adventure of a lifetime.

"We'd been drinking a few adult beverages" at that 2004 party, Otten confesses now, older, colder and increasingly wiser as to the challenge she and Membrila face. "We were a little toasted."

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