March is the month of the Iditarod race across Alaska, and for any musher who has ever run a team of huskies to Nome, it is a month when flashbacks from races on that thousand-mile trail flit across the imagination at odd moments, day and night. I suppose it is the same for aging jockeys who have ridden a thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby: a spring day in May, with a glimpse of sunshine on green grass, a mint julep and a fancy hat, or a whiff of horse manure, and on comes a breakneck parade of vividly remembered instants, galloping across the track in the mind’s eye. One race takes a few minutes, the other takes weeks. Both are pageants, with histories, and on the nitty-gritty level they both boil down to quests. Quests for the magical connection that dedicated humans can (sometimes, maybe) make with gifted animals, and the reciprocation of that connection (sometimes, maybe) by those animals.
This year the Iditarod start fell on the same Saturday that here at the Hoarfrost I began some dogteam trips with nine university students. I spent the first two weeks of March on the trail north of here, driving dogs every day and making camp every night. By Iditarod racing standards this was a paid holiday. One night, as I tucked myself into my private berth, a 1975-vintage North Face mountain tent, pitched a short distance away from the wall tent full of chattering students, my thoughts drifted to the Iditarod, and specifically to the night we nearly lost Joe Senior, up in the Topkok Hills. Maybe we didn’t nearly lose him, but that is how I always think of it.
In 1991, a captivating Alaskan drama played out across the final 77 miles of the Iditarod Trail. A tight pack of front-runners marched, and retreated, in the face of a classic coastal blizzard. Rick Swenson somehow swept forward through the storm to his fifth victory, cementing forever his reputation as one of dog mushing’s great champions. It was a race of trail-breaking, bivouacs, snow, and wind, and as a grand finale the coast of Norton Sound on the Bering Sea dished out its deadly mix of blasting wind and bitter cold. There is a stretch just out of White Mountain, the final checkpoint rest stop before the finish line, where the trail leaves the coast and heads up into the hills. Those hills can generate fierce katabatic winds, and the “Topkok wind tunnel” is a stretch of trail feared by mushers and local residents in such conditions.
My dogs and I were in a pack of five teams travelling together, through the night on that final stretch of trail. Race-wise, we were back in the standings a ways, but we were not tail-enders, and we were not on a camp-out. We were racing to Nome. Dan MacEachen, Dave Allen, Raymie Redington, Joe Redington Senior, and yours truly. I was running at the head of the caravan at one point, about two in the morning, and the five teams had melded to become one long string of dogs with multiple sleds in it. The wind was howling, snow was blowing, and it was not a fit night for man nor beast. Suddenly something bumped my leg, and I looked down to see a slim brown husky right up between the tails of my sled runners, trotting along in the gap between my mukluks. I turned around and flashed my headlamp beam at the musher behind me, as if to say, “What the heck, man? Back off a bit.” No change. I slowed my team and shouted back through the wind, “You wanna go by?”
I recognized the sled, and the gnome standing on its runners in an enormous parka. It was Joe Senior. He shouted up to me, “She won’t go by, Dave; she wants to just tuck in up there and follow you.” Referring to his lead dog, Luna. Under other circumstances, and with anyone other than Joe, I would not have put up with this. Either go by, I would have said, or drop back – I have enough going on here without having your lead dog running between my legs all night. But this was Joe Senior, age 74, and if he felt like he needed to draft my team through this wild night in the Topkok Hills, or piggyback us all the way to Nome, for that matter, who was I to turn him down? Read More