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?
The other day while I was sorting some papers here at home, an old notebook full of clippings and loose pages fell off the shelf and scattered its contents across the floor. As I picked them up I came across Joe’s brittle and yellowed obituary, from the Globe and Mail, 29 June 1999. The Globe had reprinted it from the New York Times. “A Don Quixote of the Arctic,” it reads, with the sub-title ‘Started Iditarod dog-sled race with $50,000 he didn’t have.’ It is a good tribute to old Joe, who was born on the Chisholm Trail in Oklahoma Territory in 1917, and came to Alaska in 1948. In the late sixties, with some neighbors and mushers around Knik, he started talking about a big long sled race, out from Anchorage to the old mining ghost town of Iditarod and back. Everyone wrote it off as an impossible dream, and some journalist coined the “Don Quixote of Alaska” label. “Realizing that the race would be more dramatic than a round trip, he altered the course so that mushers would drive their teams all the way to Nome. This gave Mr. Redington time to visit banks, some of which eventually lent him all but $3,000 of the prize money…”
That was 1973. The rest is history.
But back to that night. All I call to mind now, these years later, is a pause on a long tundra slope, in the dark at some wee hour, in howling wind and blowing snow, with five dogteams strung out in a long row. A conference consisting mainly of shouts and gestures, with figures in headlamps and fur ruffs and heavy parkas, and all of us making a group decision. We would swing the teams around and drop back to the A-frame shelter cabin we had just climbed away from, to wait there for daylight. There was no way we were going to risk our dogs and ourselves over the next stretch of trail in those conditions.
More shouting, darkness, wind, dogs, sleds, snow, headlamp beams, a few trail markers, and we were somehow all turned and moving downhill. The tiny wooden A-frame loomed up alongside the trail. Each of us clustered our dogs around, beneath, and alongside its wind-carved perimeter, and settled them in. An hour or so must have passed in this process. When someone located the drift-buried door of the cabin, we discovered that it had been left ajar earlier in the winter. In that stretch of the coast (imagine a hut high on an Alpine ridge), the result of a door left even slightly ajar is a cabin entirely filled up with a sloping hard block of snow seven feet tall.
As we thawed out a little, out of the wind at last, I gleaned from my companions the fact that Joe Senior had not come back down the hill. His son Raymie was with us, and he said “Dad just decided to park up there. He didn’t want to come back down here. He’s gonna just wait ‘til we come back up.” I thought about this. I may have worried about it for a minute or two.
The few hours until dawn passed. We took some naps, since at that point in the race a nap has become the default condition of every musher not actively engaged in either driving a dog team or caring for a dog team. Sleep has become one of the two most sought-after states of existence, second only to forward motion toward the finish line. I remember Raymie – who has always taken the “snow gnome” look to new heights, and who always looked older to me than his father, and who never ever seemed to sleep – pacing around the hut, up and down that slope of hard snow, with a cigarette in his lips, repeating “Geezitscold, Sonuvabitchitswindy.”
Morning. Daylight. Still blowing. Dogs lined out, sleds tipped up, and we were underway again. I was in front as we set off, and McDougal – quite simply the greatest dog that has ever lived – was in lead. The wind had dropped a little, or so it seemed. We had not come far, in our retreat back down the hill to the cabin. It had seemed farther, in the night. There, partway up the slope, was a big blue Sawtooth Sledworks Iditarod Extra Long, sitting broadside across the trail. Joe Senior had pulled it into position to level his bed before taking out some of his gear, and climbing right into the sled for a nap. We got closer. Joe’s dogs, curled up and snowed over in pairs up the gangline, heard us. A couple of heads popped up. No movement of the sled bag. Suddenly I was gripped by a premonition that I was about to discover something that I truly did not want to discover. There, I thought, lies the Father of the Iditarod, and he might not be alive.
McDougal came up alongside Joe’s sled. I stopped the team, and one dog barked impatiently. A rare enough thing in the final miles to Nome, and music to a musher’s ears. “Joe!” “Hey Joe!” Joe was a little deaf in those years. More than a little, sometimes. His friends joked that he had a classic case of selective hearing, because he always seemed to pick up anything that he wanted to hear. “Joe, it’s morning!” He must have wanted to hear that.
Rustling of big blue sled bag, and a rush of relief as Joe’s wizened face and fur hat popped straight up out of the folds of snow-crusted nylon. “You OK, Joe?” He was fine, he said, and happy to see us. Raymie hung back with him to help him get going, and we all five went on together, past Topkok, down the coast to the Safety Roadhouse, and on to Nome. Later that day, we crossed under the big wooden arch on Front Street, and another Iditarod was over. Joe ran the race several more times, and in 1997, when I served as a race judge, I watched him from the sidelines, as he raced and finished his final Iditarod — at the age of 80.
Speaking of 74-year-olds, and of lives long on vision and adventure, of raising money and of Don Quixote, just this past Monday I flew our Husky ski plane 175 miles northeast of here. My passenger was Will Steger, of the north pole, the south pole, the Greenland ice cap, the Lindbergh Award and etcetera — you can look it all up. I dropped Will off in a snowy valley just below the divide between the Thelon watershed and the upper Baillie River, a dozen miles from where I picked him up late last May. He has skis, and some plastic sleds, and if the grizzlies haven’t crunched it he should have the custom-built canoe-sled that he cached last year, for towing his gear into spring thaw.This year he will be out for the next 90 days or so, making his way northwest toward the Arctic coast and Victoria Island. He is alone, in a part of the world where that word always seems a little inadequate.
I have known Will for 40 years. He will turn 75 this year, in August. Although our paths have diverged, there is a lifelong connection there because of our beginnings. When we had unloaded the little plane’s various cargo compartments, we shook hands. All I said was “Have a good trip. If there is anything I can do to help, just let us know.” I will see him in late April, when at some point he will call for a flight with the first of his two re-supplies.
I strapped myself into the Husky for the two-hour flight home. On glazed snow-crust, into a brisk breeze, and empty except for a few tools and a small bundle of my own survival gear, the plane was airborne after a take-off run of maybe a hundred feet. I banked left and circled over Uncle Willie. He didn’t wave. I realized, perhaps a little too nonchalantly, that I might at that moment be the last person to see Will Steger alive. I don’t expect this, but the thought did cross my mind. It still does. Because, to say that it’s a big land out there, or that a lot can happen out there, travelling alone for 90 days, would be the understatement of the year.
Will is in his element. He is as relaxed as Joe Senior was when he declined to join us in our retreat downhill to the A-frame. Ah, heck, he must have thought. I’m just going to have my nap right here in the sled. Save all the trouble of turning around twice… That cabin’s prob’ly full o’ snow anyhow…
I think of these two men, and of how different they are and yet how identical. It has been my pleasure to know and to travel with them, way back when, in blizzards and whiteouts and across the North.
And here’s the point. Or one point. Could something happen out there, or up there, or wherever? Yep.
And if it did, if that was the end of the line, in that tent or that sled bag, somewhere alone in all that white and wind — would that constitute a tragedy, in the true sense of the word? Nope.