"Mush-on" ... is the dog-drivers' rendering of the French-Canadian driver's command of "marche on"to gohence, also the Alaskan verb "to mush," meaning to travel, in dog driving.
James Wickersham, Old Yukon, 1938
Yukon Territory, Canada: latitude 61 degrees northso far north that only a tiny skullcap of the planet exists above us. It is February and dark. The temperature has not risen above freezing in four months.
Dog mushers and their extended familiesspouses, children, dog handlers, and dogsnow converge on the capital of the Yukon Territory. Crammed into wrinkled, coughing pickups, each with an electric cord from an oil-pan heater dangling out of the grille and each carrying a miniature plywood apartment building on the pickup bed, called a dog "box," with spaces for perhaps sixteen to twenty dogs, these teams crunch their way over the ice-covered roadways of Alaska and northern Canada. Destination: Whitehorse.
For observers, things are about to start in the world of long-distance dog mushing. For participants in the Yukon Quest, this is the culmination. All those hours, all that training, all this money. How much? So much there is nothing else.
Even by motor vehicle, travel is eerily lonely this time of year. There are only seven all-year highways in all of this part of North America, and they penetrate only a fraction of the gross topography. In summer, true enough, the Alaska-Canada Highway and its tributaries are the scene of great migrations of steel and pressed aluminum, the vacation herds. In winter you drive these same roadways for ten hours and arrive in the little truck stop village of Tok, Alaska, where the bartender asks, "See any cars out there?" Matter of fact saw four, plus one wolf and twenty-five moose. "Oh? What color wolf?" he asks.
Myself, I'm taking the easy way to the starting line. Already this year, I've covered the distance back and forth six times by car and bush plane, and during summer by canoe. Now I'm riding a charter bus with some Quest officials, a few reporters, and the veterinarians. It's a dark, fourteen-hour road trip, Fairbanks to Whitehorse, with three bottles of champagne, a tin of caviar, and a slab of smoked salmon in my satchel. Windows frost up inside the bus, the road is bouncy, the seats hard, the scene inside raucous. Among those on the bus is Stephane Deruaz, a thirty-eight-year-old veterinarian from the Jura Mountains of France. June Ryan, a specialist in the U.S. Army and a volunteer vet tech, is teaching Stephane to swear like a soldier in English. He looks proud of himself as he blurts out obscenities, the meaning of which he does not comprehend. The worse they get, the more June beams her approval, the harder we laugh, the prouder Stephane appearslike a thirdgrader spelling words without knowing their meaning. We're all acting like thirdgraders. The champagne bottle takes another round. And another. Nervous anticipation is one of the glories of any worthwhile journey.
We stop for coffee at a roadhouse just across the Canadian border, and we're yanked back to reality. The instant we step off the bus an icy wind bites any exposed flesh. There is no exhilarating brace to cold like this, just a flash burn. My thoughts go quickly to the realization that we will be without heated shelter soon. The giddy light-headed feeling of expectation collides with sober foreboding about the wilderness we're soon to enter. A sign says the temperature once fell to 83 below at this roadhouse.
In the end, all of us bus riders will be tired, stiff, and hungover on arrival, de rigueur it seems. What fun would it be to begin this thing in tip-top shape, anyway? Bring on the agonies.
The Quest is the toughest race in the world, according to its slogan. Few would dispute this claim, although from time to time nervous organizers worry among themselves whether to tone down their language for fear of scaring people off. But in this era of easy hype, if you can honestly make an unqualified statement like "the toughest in the world," could you possibly resist? Surely, any musher who ever completed the thousand-mile epic wouldn't relinquish the title. Are you kidding? The toughest race in the world! Just getting to the finish line without succumbing to fatigue, frostbite, or self-doubt; completing the trek without getting whipped by your own mistakes or knocked down by bad luck or being kicked in the teeth by nature; advancing around the clock for two weeks against extremes of weather and terrain without fouling that rare bond of trust you have cultivated with your animalsthat's the essential goal of most who attempt the Quest. When you sign up for the journey, you flaunt your daring. You proclaim your own physical toughness and mental durability, you assert mastery of bush craft. But mushing is unique: you also must acknowledge reciprocal dependence between yourself and these dogs for survival down the lonely storm-swept trail. Neither of you will make it alone.
Along with the mushers, a traveling road show of volunteer race officials will be hopscotching from checkpoint to checkpoint, spreading out down the length of the trail: a race marshal, three judges, eleven veterinarians, an assortment of vet techs, a timer, a handful of logistics facilitators, and meall of us sharing the ordeal of perpetual motion, cold, the sleepless thousand-yard stare, the rank smell of the trail, the stomach adrift from too much coffee and boiled moose meat. I know people who, thirty years later, can recall with clarity the agony of pulling all-nighters in college. The Quest will provide serious postgraduate work on the subject.
My happy-go-lucky plan to enlist once again as a vet assistant and shovel the dog yards, stick thermometers up dog butts, and otherwise try to make myself marginally useful has been dashed. I've beendemoted. Down to the bottom of the volunteer ladder. I am now the Yukon Quest press liaison. The flack. Mouthpiece. Enforcer. My primary responsibility will be to manage the large contingent of reporters and photographers arriving from Germany, all expenses paid by a new race sponsor, the Frankfurt tire company Fulda. The press corps will now number more than fifty, when it used to be just a half dozen or so locals. All the old-timers up here are worried silly about the impact of this kind of press on the traditions of the race. They look to me for answers. I tell them I'm worried silly too.
Remember, don't ask what they can do for you but what you can do for them ... .
I am issued a huge overparka, bright yellowthe color of a daffodil, the size of a grain elevator. This, so people can spot me easily. They can. They chortle and call me Big Bird to my face. God knows what they call me behind my back.
"I'm getting ready to get nervous now," says Aliy Zirkle, a brawny, handsome twenty-eight-year-old former college track-and-field hammer thrower and a sometime wilderness biologist. She is one of four women running the Quest this year, all rookies. Aliy lives and trains in the outskirts of Fairbanks, in the mushing community of Two Riversthe densest concentration of mushers, sled dogs, winter trails, and expertise in the world. She is known for her oversize smile and for her swagger, the kind that strong, sexy women develop after a few years in the bush, where they are outnumbered ten to one by men who forgot what their mothers taught them about manners or combing their hair before dinner.
Parked in downtown Whitehorse amid a lineup of other pickups, Aliy is pulling restless, squirming dogs out of her dog box, hugging and encouraging them one by one, chaining them to the one-ton flatbed truck she shares with another Two Rivers musher, Jerry Louden, a shy but accomplished woodsman who, when not driving dogs, wheels a road grader and snowplow for the Alaska Department of Transportation. Aliy is striking and chatty, Jerry lumbering and mutelyreserved. Between them is an age difference of eighteen years, a shared devotion to the remote outdoors, and a jointly managed kennel. When they travel together, salacious gossip is whispered behind them. I don't ask; I am fond of them both. And right now, they are facing serious matters, not gossip: which dogs to take and which to leave behind? Aliy and Jerry have spent months training and conditioning dogs. They have traveled more than one thousand miles behind their teams since summer. But only at this last moment are they making the final decisions about the last two dogs in the kennel: which of them goes in whose team? It is morning on race day.
Race day. The sun peekaboos through rolling hilltop clouds; temperature: zero. Everyone bundles up as if it's colder because of a cheekreddening wind out of the north. Yukoners still calibrate and discuss that combination of temperature and breeze called windchill, as do Americans in the Lower 48. By that measure, it's something like 25 below. The local radio describes conditions as "potentially dangerous." As a rule, Alaskans do not calculate windchill, feeling no need to overdramatize matters. If there is a breeze, zip up your parka. Meanwhile, clouds trundle low and leaden across half the sky, but distant hills up the trail are lit bright with the canted rays of a sun that never reaches high above the horizon. It seems almost inviting out there.
Am I losing my mind to say such a thing?
In a few days, I will break free from the crew of officials and mush a dog team myself along some of the loneliest miles of the Quest trail. We'll see how inviting it is. Perhaps the fascination I feel for the sunlicked hills in the distance is the same the rabbit has for headlights. Whatever it is, I cannot explain it.
In town, sawhorses and survey tape block off several streets of central Whitehorse. A population of twenty-two thousand lives in this orderly, functional clapboard community on the left bank of the Yukon70 percent of the residents of the entire territory. The next biggest "town" up here is rollicking Dawson City, with less than one-tenth as many people. The Quest is just about the biggest winter event to hit either, and today hundreds of Yukoners in heavy boots and pillowy parkas come to watch mushers stage their dogs and finish packingtheir sled bags. There is knowing fascination in the eyes of these onlookers. The townsfolk understand what lies in the wild out there, what a person requires by way of skill and luck to survive in the vastness beyond the city limits.
Not only are there ten more teams than last year, but the field of thirty-eight is the strongest in recent memory, with fifteen mushers likely to vie for the top ten. Any of a half dozen are thought worthy of a victory. The purse is $30,000 for the first to reach Fairbanks. Prize money ranges downward to $1,500 for the fifteenth finisher. I'm only partly interested in the Quest as competition, however. That's a sentiment shared by most of the people I've metincluding many mushers themselves. If it costs $20,000 to prepare for the journey, and that counts only the direct expense of dog food, equipment, and the like and does not include losses that a musher sustains for forgoing a real year-round, incomeproducing career, and furthermore, if only the first- and second-place finishers win more than $20,000 in prize moneywell then, surely there is more to long-distance dog driving than paying the bills. I suspect the right word is adventure. Although, as any musher will tell you, a winter wilderness endeavor like this, intense and complicated, is not easily summed up in a single word, even an elegant one like adventure.
"My goal? Really, I just want to see if I can do it. I think it's going to be damn, flipping hard. I want to see," says Aliy. "Sometimes I think it will be fun, but the truth is, I don't have any idea."
As a youngster, she made up stories about herself. Wild stories. It became habit. Then one day she was grown and she was on an airplane and someone asked where she had come from, where she lived, and what she did. She told the truth. It made her smile: Aliy's real life was a stranger story by far than those she once invented for herself.
Her German-American father had run a shoe factory. When Aliy was young the family moved from New Hampshire to Puerto Rico, following the migration of the footwear industry from New England to the Caribbean. Next came high school in St. Louis. "A mess, suburbia after hippieville and surfdom," she recalls. Later, she pursued a biology degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Halfway through, she interruptedher studies. She saw a magazine ad seeking help for a bird survey in King Salmon, Alaska, a coastal fishing town. Pay was three dollars a day. She stayed six months. Then she signed on for another bird survey, in Australia. Back to Penn: biology, track and field, summers working construction, weekends as a waitress. After graduation, she hiked the Appalachian Trail.
Alaska, as sometimes happens, gripped her hardest and wouldn't let go. In 1992 she moved to Bettles, population 45, an Interior Alaskan village north of the Arctic Circle. No road reaches Bettles. She was a summer seasonal biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the huge but little known Kanuti Wildlife Refuge, a vast breeding ground for North American waterfowl. She stayed on for winter. Her first sled dog was a present from a villager. He was an old trapline leader called Skunk. She took him for a walk and decided to let him run free. That proved a mistake. For ten days, the loose dog tormented Bettles and ruined Christmas for the villagers, raiding the local stockpile of holiday ham and turkey.
Aliy spent days setting live traps, which the dog outsmarted one by one. She paid out hundreds of dollars in damages. Finally, Skunk found a trap he couldn't fool.
"When I saw him in there I walked up and I said, 'Okay, if you growl at me I'm going to have to shoot you.'" Aliy recalls, "But he wagged his tail. So I had to keep him. He's in my dog yard now, he's my pet."
By chance the region around Bettles, lowlands south of the Brooks Range, is some of the best and most historic dog country in the Far North. Old-time breeders insist that almost every good dog carries blood from just a few native villages scattered along three hundred miles of the Koyukuk River downstream from Bettles: Allakaket, Hughes, Huslia, and Koyukuk itself. Naturally, as Aliy traveled the region and expressed interest in dogs, she picked up other people's rejects and some pups. She rescued a few more when the river flooded and villagers fled in panic, leaving dogs behind. Their owners let Aliy keep what she wanted from those she saved.
She did her duties for the government, then took time off to run her team, explore, trap, and camp out in the vast emptiness of the AlaskaInterior. As she tells it, she learned the subtleties of mushing from an old lead dog that was also given to her, a dog now dead.
One spring night, she mushed into the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountains in America. She looked up and the sky served a dazzling delight for her. Night after night, the sky blazed. She returned and saw Time magazine, with a cover story about Comet Hale-Bopp. How surprising. The whole world was fascinated by something she figured only she had paid any attention to. She had been so far removed as to believe in the uniqueness of her encounter with the heavens, impossibly far from what others know as "reality," and the thought filled her with pleasure. Out here it is still possible to have experiences unscripted by science and the media. Once in a while, it is even possible to reawaken ancient feelings that one might actually discover something, a sensation that sustained the curious mind through millions of years of evolutionary history.
"I can't explain why I like it out there other than it's challenging," Aliy says. "It's about freedom, where you can grasp at life a little more. You want a hamburger? Go shoot a moose, don't go to Safeway. That's a cop-out."
She's not posing, either. I've been in her tiny cabin, where three wolf pelts dangle from a nail on the wall. One afternoon, she sorts through them. Which will it be for the fur ruff on the hood of her new mushing parka: silver, black, or brindle? She chooses the silver because the fur is especially plush. She cuts the skin and sews it to her coat by hand. Despite the marvels of modern fabric and gear, the guard hairs of certain northern furbearerswolf and wolverine prime among themare the most reliable cold-weather protection known for exposed skin around the eyes. The guard hairs shield against incoming wind and resist freezing into a blob from moist, outgoing breath. What is unspeakable Outside is lifesaving here.
Aliy looks like this: thick flaxen hair to her shoulders, dimples, and big, shiny matched teeth behind a contagious smile. She has a girl's small nose and a roustabout's square jaw. She owns two skirts and one dress. She is six feet tall with broad shoulders and doesn't feel the need for high heels. Most people wouldn't recognize her dressed like thatanyway. Her hands are like Vise-Grips. When she speaks of others the quality she judges first is not success but toughness. Ten days before the Quest she brings her dogs to a veterinarian for a required prerace inspection. Two dogs erupt in a fight, and as she yanks them apart, I see she is nipped on the hand. I ask, How bad is the wound? She glowers and stuffs her bleeding hand into her 38-inch-waist jeans.
"Let's see, what else is there?" she laughs. "Cookies? I made some cookies once. Did I mention the cookie part?"
Two years ago she moved from the bush in Bettles to the woodsy Fairbanks suburb of Two Rivers. Well, it is a suburb in concept anyway. Two Rivers is a collection of cabins on dirt roads in the hills north of town, an area where trail dogs probably outnumber people five or ten to one. The want ads in the local newspaper, the Fairbanks Daily NewsMiner, have a special category, No. 102 Dog Mushing. At the local convenience store, Skip's Cache, I stopped for a six-pack once and the cashier gave me the current road conditions: caution, the last motorist through reported a cow moose grazing on the shoulder about a mile ahead.
Here Aliy established Northwind kennels with Louden. Last year, as an unknown rookie in the Quest, Louden impressed everyone with his sixth-place finish. This year, with thirty-eight dogs in their yard, both Jerry and Aliy have entered. To bring in money, Aliy went back to waitressing and working part-time construction. In her spare time she went beaver trapping to stock some high-fat trail meat for dog snacks. She also dissected the carcass of a beef calf that had been a local teenager's 4-H project. In exchange for her report on the cause of death ("I am a biologist, you know") Aliy kept the meat for dog food. Her family thinks her life is terrific; her dad sent her a 40-below sleeping bag for the race and her grandparents paid her $800 entry fee.
Do you know where your daughter is tonight? Yes, out among the wolves and the stars at 20 below, with the sky dancing smoky green: the otherworldly light show of the aurora borealis. Athabascans say the aurora lights the trail to heaven. Why not? What better home for God than up in those shivering firmaments of pure energy? This father's daughter is at the doorstep of a cathedral that few can even imagine. Where is yours?
Because snow never melts in the perpetual freeze of a Yukon winter, it cannot be merely plowed off streets. Soon all the buildings in Whitehorse would be buried in snow berms. So snow must be scooped up and trucked away after each storm. Except this weekend, when the work crews of Whitehorse labor all Saturday night hauling tons of it back into town, enough to cover the streets along a dozen blocks with a foot of squeaky hardpack. The intersection of Main Street and First Avenue, in front of the train depot, serves as the starting line. The Quest route follows First Avenue north for a third of a mile, and then drops onto the jumble ice of the Yukon River.
The great river hugs Whitehorse as a mother would hold a child, tucked in the curl of her arm. At street level, the town seems an ordinary enough place: a small winter community with a short string of traffic lights, a shopping district, bank, general store, one-hour photo finishers, fudge "shoppe," parking enforcement. Fifteen feet down the bank of the Yukon, however, the raw chaos of blue-white ice stands as forbidding and as untamed as it has been since the time of mastodons. From here the unbroken Yukon runs north, then west into the wildest part of the continent. I walk down the riverbank from the center of town to take a close-up look at the Yukon's frozen surface. Not a single footprint breaks the crust of snow; nobody has ventured here. My senses are cast loose not so much by how different the world looks only a stone's arc from "civilization," but how different it feels. Here be dragons.
By 10:00 A.M. the first dog truck lumbers into the staging area on the river's edge. Then others. They disgorge their wriggling, howling loads. Spectators wander down, sipping hot mugs of coffee, children in tow, everyone heavy-footed in winter regalia, faces turned from the wind. By noon, the scene will be a melee: each team lining out pairs of overexcited dogs, sleds at the end of ganglines, the Cordura sled bags stuffed with some three hundred pounds of specialized gear and assorted bags of dog food. At the last minute, heaps of supplies are still being sorted and packed, then unpacked to answer the recurrent question: Where did I put ...?
Dogs are howling, now stirred into a pack frenzy by the call of the impending hunt. A flush of positive ions lifts mushers, too. No more preparations or abstract worries. To those who know the sensation, there is nothing that tops this marvelous surrender to fatalism. It is the same thrill sky divers enjoy as they take the first step out of the airplane, the same one rafters feel after scouting a big rapid and then pushing out onto the slick-water tongue that leads into the maelstrom. No turning back.
For no reason other than contagious excitement, I'm hurrying through the staging area, walking in circles.
Here's Rusty Hagan. I'm happy to see his rough-toothed grin. Last time we talked, he wasn't smiling. He confided that he was having nightmares about breaking through the ice of the Yukon River with his dog team. He could not shake the horrifying vision of looking up and seeing the hole through which he and the dogs had plunged to their impending deaths. "I just don't know what to make of it," he said.
But now he's looking better. He drops an armload of dog harnesses to come say hello. Rusty and his wife, Lenora, are the chattiest couple in mushing. Each believes the other wastes too much time at it. Usually, it's amusing to watch them. Today I can hardly bear the interruptions I cause by just walking near. Thankfully, he mentions nothing about the recurring phantasms of his own drowning.
Rusty is a deeply weathered, mussed-hair man of forty-six, the son of a recluse. Back home, in the oddly named community of North Pole, Alaska, a satellite of Fairbanks, Rusty showed me a sepia photograph of an even more rugged-looking man on the back of a burro. The man had a spade beard to his waist, ancient boots, and a dusty Western hat. The picture was taken last year: Dad prospecting in Central America.
The Hagan family grew up in the mountains east of Los Angeles in a cabin five miles from the nearest dirt road. Rusty is the only person I know to go from a rustic log cabin to a suburban stucco home by moving from Southern California to the interior of Alaska. In between, he was a New Mexico logger. Now a backyard inventor, he designs and builds, among other things, training carousels for dogs.
These iron merry-go-rounds, thirty-seven feet in diameter, have eight spokes, with a doghouse fixed on the end of each one. In his back yard, there are three demonstration carousels. Rusty releases a hydraulic brake from his garage. There is a mechanical groan and a hiss that brings the dogs leaping out of their houses. They are affixed by neck chains to the spokes of the carousel. At first, there is a bit of confusion on the ground as some dogs aim clockwise and others pull opposite. Then they reach consensus on which way they want to run this time. Seven pull, and one straggler rides in his house. The other carousels come similarly to life. Forty-seven revolutions equals one mile. Rusty looks at his clipboard and reports that in the last six months, in preparation for the Quest, his dogs have logged 1,657 miles, or 77,879 revolutions ... 77,880 ... 81 ... 82. That is supposed to keep them conditionedonce they get over dizziness, which doesn't take too long, Rusty says. For trail training, he has run the most promising of his dogs another 570 miles pulling a sled.
"I like my dog yard," he says, smiling abstractedly. "I like just watchin' 'em."
Locally, this kind of remark and the true believer's look in Rusty's eye is diagnosed as dog fever, a long-term affliction that both attacks one's wallet and good sense and compels a person to dress, day and night, in huge, white-rubber, military-surplus arctic bunny boots, scuffed and patched with duct tape, and ratty, threadbare brown canvas Carhartt overalls. These, it seems, are not clothes of necessity but a uniform of distinction among those infected with the fever. This explains why it's not a universal compliment to remark about someone: looks like a dog musher.
Like many mushers, Rusty allows one dog at a time to come into his house"the dog of the day." It is a practical way to maintain a personal connection to his animals, like pet owners do, and not be overrun by dogs.
Rusty, his wife, and their two kids arrived in Alaska in the bitter winter of 1989. He was jobless and it was 60 below, hunkering-down weather. He took work blowing snow off the roofs of buildings. Soon, he got his first ride in a dog sled. Before the end of winter, he had fivedogs. The Yukon Quest is the culmination of all the years since. Mushing has become his careerbreeding dogs, training them, training himself. He wants to prove the value of his carousels, and of the other mushing equipment he makes in his garage. He has no intention of racing out there. Just finishing. And conquering the demons of his nightmares. He must finish. Anything less would reflect badly on his own view of himself and his vocation.
"I'll make a lot of mistakes," he concedes. "I always do."
I feel a cold shiver. Mistakes in this wilderness are dangerous, sometimes deadly so But it was the Scottish poet and adventurer Alexander Smith who made sense of such endeavors as this. "Everything," he said, "is sweetened by risk."
For contrast, I walk over to where Paddy Santucci is methodically preparing his outfit. Unlike Rusty, Paddy does not break his concentration and offers only a nod. During his rigorous training, he was as generous as anyone with his time and knowledge and we spent memorable days together in the frigid bush. But Paddy is always all business. He is here not just to finish but to compete with the front-runners.
"If you come to a race, bring a race team," he says over and over, by way of a mantra.
I met Paddy a year earlier. He was not mushing but traveling checkpoint to checkpoint along the Quest trail as dog handler for another musher. Paddy had a fierce joy about him. He never took off his greasy tent-sized anorak parka, he never slept, I never saw him eat; he moved among the dogs with command, and people were drawn to him, but he always seemed apart. He had a bulge of tobacco under his lip and rarely smiled, but when he did he lit up a room. He seemed to embody the character of the Far North: thirty-seven years old, an accomplished mountaineer with one heroic rescue to his credit on Denali (a.k.a. Mount McKinley), a hunter, a bush pilot, a construction worker, a dog driver. He doesn't readily mention that he has a degree in physics from the University of California at Davis. His wife, Gina, is a nurse. For fun she goes to Hawaii and hunts wild boars with dogs and knives. Paddy is smallish but stringy hard, with sharp features, a predator's eyes, and shoulder-length hair. He is clean-shaven now because his beard oncefroze solid and scarred his face with frostbite. He speaks seldom and never, it seems, just to hear the sound of his own gravelly voice.
Now he strings out his gangline and hooks it to the new sled that a friend made for him of steam-bent hardwood, the joints lashed together with sinew to provide flex over rough ice. After months of training, he knows his equipment and supplies as well as he knows the contours of his own face. But he packs with slow, obsessive caution: the bags of food, the sheet-metal alcohol cooker, fuel for the cooker, medicine and balms for the dogs, food pans, ax, snowshoes, matches, maps, batteries and bulbs for his headlamp, dry clothes ... .
The clock approaches 1:00 P.M. On the hour, the first musher will come catapulting from the starting chute, passing under a wooden arch neatly displaying logos and banners from sponsors. Teams will follow every two minutes until 2:14 P.M., when the last musher will careen out of town just as the evening sun begins to drop in the frigid sky. Already, the echo of an announcer's voice vibrates down the street. Radio carries the sounds live throughout the Yukon and in Fairbanks. The foreign press, in look-alike parkas of bright red, swarm the scene and transform the Quest into a daily news story in Europe.
Regrettably, what most of the Outside world has come to know about the start of a dog race is conducted by the Iditarod. For the benefit of TV cameras and local businesses, that race "starts" each March in downtown Anchorage. But this is ceremonial only, and lacks the crackling energy of authenticity. Mistakes don't count. The teams merely lope along on parade with guest passengers riding in the sled bags, then stop and are loaded back on trucks. The mushers drive north up the highway to the small community of Wasilla or to Willow, or wherever the snow and ice are deemed adequate, and prepare for the actual start the following day.
In Whitehorse there is no such ceremony. This is the real thing. Spectators were directed out of the staging area an hour ago. Hysteria is rising in the dogs. Seldom do creatures from the bush see anything like the hundreds of other dogs and people surrounding them now. Howls and screams ascend in waves. The solid feel of the harnessstraps over their shoulders has them leaping against the anchored gangline. Sleds rattle and slam, ropes crack. Dogs screech and grunt. They claw the empty air in front of them with paws clad in "booties" of fleece or nylon, which will protect their pads against the abrasion of crystalline snow.
Humans learn with experience, or should anyway, to anthropomorphize dogs cautiously. But what is spreading through these teams seems an unmistakable contagion: a lust to run. Nobody tries to impose calm. This pure animal desire is an attribute to be cherished and cultivated. "Easy boy" is not in the vocabulary.
Quest rules permit up to fourteen dogs to a team, and most mushers harness all they are allowed. More dogs, generally speaking, mean more power, but also more work for the musher in their care and feeding, and more dog food to carry.
The ideal, always impossible, is to match dogs of equal speed and endurance, all with mellow temperament and zeal for the trail, dogs with leathery feet and unfailing appetites, dogs with the savvy to know that rest stops are for resting not goofing around, dogs that don't fight and don't have to be neutered, so they can command breeding fees later.
As important as these qualities is the intangible called "head," which is really a combination of guts and drive: the fortitude to run twelve or fourteen hours of every twenty-four for two consecutive weeks, the grit to pull up mountain passes when the eyes cannot penetrate into the swirling blizzard of snow and the ears hear nothing but the shriek of the wind. Great dogs, those with "head," can be counted on in the worst of conditions to inspire the entire team, including, foremost, the musher.
No matter what the individual qualities of the dogs, transforming them into a working dog team demands a natural hand and skills that take years to accumulate. Some people apprentice for months before they even realize how much there is to understand. Establishing absolute trust between animal species, sharing leadership man-to-dog and dog-to-man for the purpose of mutual survival, is no longer common in developed societies.
A few mushers come to the start with thirteen or maybe only twelvedogs, preferring to begin the journey without laggards even at the expense of power. Others will bet the odds that a weaker dog will get stronger. Or a musher may yield to sentimentality and bring a questionable dog, a young one, a favorite, knowing that if the animal falters it can be "dropped" at any of seven checkpoints or at six other designated points on the trail. These dogs remain in the care of race veterinarians until they can be returned to the musher or dog handler. There is no penalty for leaving a dog behind, but no fresh animals can be added to the team. Rules require that a musher have at least six dogs in harness to finish the race. To keep track of all these dogs, the Quest relies on technology. All the animals are "chipped," or injected under the skin with a microchip the size of a fat grain of rice, so they can be scanned with a handheld meter and electronically identified.
The launch of a fresh dog team is boisterous, savage, furious, always on the edge of controlsometimes this side of the edge, sometimes the other.
Tim Mowry is first into the chute, having drawn the No. 1 starting position at the prerace banquet. Nine volunteers, heels digging into the snow, huffing and puffing, work to hold back his lunging dogs.
A farm boy from Vermont and New York, the thirty-four-year-old Mowry is a minority among serious mushers. That is, he has a full-time job, as outdoor editor for the Fairbanks Daily NewsMiner. So consuming is dog mushing that salary work with regular hours is a distinct disadvantage, depriving one of training time. Nonetheless, Mowry is a game competitor, having run two Iditarods and six previous Yukon Quests. Long-distance mushing now provides him with the same absorbing escape that, say, passionate golf or fly-fishing does for others, and he approaches the trail exuberantly.
"Mushing is a lot like dairy farming. You have the same routines every day. There are animals you have to care for. They have names. It's a team and you're the coach," he says, with the deadpan of someone who has kept dozens of dogs kenneled in his front yard for so many years it now seems everyday normal to buy dog food by the container load.
Mowry is hoping for that right combination of dogs and trail experience to move his team into the front ranks of contenders. So far his best finish has been sixth. Right now he brings his dogs to the chute, stops, and lumbers forward sixty feet to the front of his team. A final word of encouragement to his dogs is part of the starting ritual. He walks back down the double line, roughing the fur of each dog and saying a few words. Amid the many distractions of people and rival teams, he is trying to bring his dogs back into focus. Individually, they stop surging and screaming in his presence. Their eyes leave the trail ahead only to meet Mowry's. From the announcer: Thirty seconds. As Mowry moves through the team, the dogs resume their howling and lunging. Volunteers hang on with everything they've got to keep Mowry and his outfit in position. Ten seconds. The screaming pitch of the dogs has the crowd's attention.
Mowry steps back to his sled, puts one foot on a runner, and grips the handlebar. Eight, seven ... With the other foot, he kicks his toe into the snow for leverage to push and break the sled free. Six, five ... Mushers do not say "mush." Four, three ... Maybe a whistle or "Hike!" but usually something easygoing, like "Okay, guys," or perhaps a wriggle of the handlebar. Two, one, GO!
Volunteers release the team. Mowry slingshots down First Avenue, into the confusion of colors, noise, and motion of spectators lining both sides of the road. As the team shoulders forward, the howls of his dogs cease, so abruptly as to be startling. They move in silence. A good-luck cheer from the crowd rolls down the street with the team. Mowry smiles and acknowledges his moment. Eight thousand miles of sled dog racing under his belt, going on nine. Sliding down the snow with him is every Hawaiian vacation he may have daydreamed of, or that new house instead of a trapper's cabin. In other words, these dogs and this race are everything.
At the edge of the crowd I retreat, embarrassed, into the fur ruff of my parka, where I fight wet eyes. I attribute this emotion to my being an Outsider, but then I see other people sobbing openly. It isn't from sadness, although there is some of that. On average, two dogs will die in each race. It is because the dogs are innocent, and beautiful andnoble, and their pursuit makes all the sense in the world, to them. And the trail ahead is so forbidding and so awfully long. So frightful as it aims toward the sun-kissed hills on the frozen horizon.
Everything is happening fast now. As soon as one team is released, another moves to the ready, dragging a squad of straining, skidding, red-faced volunteers.
Last year's champion, Rick Mackey of Nenana, Alaska, leaves third. Skinny, slump shouldered, graying, Mackey is the favorite of all those who are middle-aged and indulgent. He is forty-four, a two-pack-a-day smoker, and has won both the Iditarod and the Quest, only the third person to do so. His father, Dick, also won the Iditarod, and Rick's nineteen-year-old daughter, Brenda, will be following him down the Quest trail later this afternoon, the youngest musher entered. This will be Rick's twenty-first one-thousand-mile dog race. That's cumulatively ten months of nonstop long-distance racing, to say nothing of all that time training. All those cold, solitary nights with numb fingers and all those hungry dogs to feed, and those aching dog feet to massage, and only these dogs for conversation; and all that time with ice in the beard and snot icicles dangling from his nostrils, with sleep crawling up the spine, gripping the brain stem, and squeezing down while he fights to stay awake. Lumbering around in those heavy, stinky boots and all those bulky clothes, riding the sled runners through those vast and quiet spaces, across frozen rivers and under starry skies, sometimes against violent Arctic storms. This is neither a job nor a pastime nor an adventure, but all three. A way of life.
Seventh to leave Whitehorse is Alaskan Larry Carroll. Pink-faced, with a physique like a bear's, he's smiling this time. Last year, the poor man started the Quest with a fever and flu. He recovered after three days. Then he felt so damn strong he grabbed an ax to chop up a block of frozen dog food and sank the ax blade into the bone of his knee. A veterinarian sewed him up. I watched him walk stiff-legged out to his sled, take two aspirin, load up, and push on. If he thought about quitting, or even sitting down and resting, he kept it to himself.
In a few minutes, Aliy Zirkle comes fishtailing out of the chute, starting eighth, flashing her oversize smile and delivering big sweepingwaves to the crowd. Then Frank Turner, a local from Whitehorse and the only man crazy enough to have entered all fifteen Quests. "Grandma" they call him because of his screechy voice and busybody approach to other mushers. His head resembles an oversize peanut in shape, but Turner is the most photogenic of them all, thanks to the perfection of his ice-encrusted, exhausted grimaces. He won the Quest in record time in 1995: ten days, sixteen hours, and ten minutes. And he remains the favorite of the Canadians.
Then John Schandelmeier, a rural Alaska fur trapper and fisherman, the most authentic modern-day mountain man I know. I would call him an adventurer, a great one, but life in the wild with nature is perfectly normal for John and he does not see it as I do. "Adventure is when something goes wrong," he says. "Do you understand what I'm saying? My point is to go out and not have an adventure."
A two-time winner of the Quest, Schandelmeier entered this year at the last minute and only, he says, because the commercial fishing season was lousy and "these dogs need to pay their own way now." He was short a few dogs and tells everyone he had to harness up a wild coyote that he caught in a trap. He also called on friends to loan him back some farm-club dogs he had "given away." Still, he leaves the starting line with only thirteen. The core of the team are dogs he mushes through deep snow and awful conditions all winter long, setting and maintaining his fur traps. It is a beautifully responsive team, and it's hard to imagine anything that could slow him down. Perhaps no other musher has achieved Schandelmeier's calm, atavistic partnership with his trail dogs.
Right behind him is Bruce Lee, a summer tour-bus guide in Alaska's Denali National Park. Bruce spent four years rebuilding a dog team after a tainted medical inoculation virtually wiped out his previous kennel. This race marks his return to long-distance mushing; he'd finished second in the 1991 Quest, only five minutes behind the winner. Five minutes behind after eleven days. That's less time than it takes to pull down a pair of snow bibs and take a crap alongside the trail. It's been driving Bruce nuts ever since.
Now it's Rusty Hagan's turn down First Avenue. His jaunty mainlead dog, with a black coat, brindle mask, and blue eyes, is named Kid. Kid has no earthly idea of what he is embarking on. Then Dave Dalton, a clean-cut Fairbanks cab driver who once faced a painful choice: the dogs or me, his wife decreed. Eighteenth to start: Yukoner William Kleedehn, who races with a prosthetic leg and is justifiably famous, even feared, for his stamina. Kleedehn must surely be a throwback to the past century, when hard-bitten characters with all variety of spoken accents, limps, and quirks roamed this country looking for gold but settling for whiskey and adventure.
Rough country attracts its share of rough characters, and the roughest I know is Cor Guimond, a forty-seven-year-old fur trapper who lives in the Yukon bush country near the Alaska border, a place accessible only by dog team in winter and riverboat in summer. Even his smile is menacing, and his thick, blunt fingers wrap around a beer bottle like so many cased sausages. Drinking with him in a Dawson City saloon one night, I was handed a written message: "Where should we send the body?" Friends of mine across the room were inquiring, figuring I wouldn't survive the experience. Today, Cor is the nineteenth to leave. He is fresh-shaven and his sled looks shiny new as he mushes down First Avenue, and at first I hardly recognize him.
Right behind Cor is the sweetest person in the race, Gwen Holdman, a smiley, pink-faced, blond tennis player just out of college who lives on a hilltop north of Fairbanks, in a cabin she shares with a boyfriend and most of her thirty dogs. At twenty-five, she is a rookie, and these days rookies must prove themselves in a qualifying race before entering the Quest. Holdman completed a two-hundred-mile Alaska race earlier this winter, but experts rolled their eyes because she carried so much food and equipment for her dogs. She now has race judges here worried because her sled is surely the heaviest in Whitehorse. Heavy means slow. And slowness and inexperience are likely to put her way behind in the journey, perhaps too far behind in the event of trouble, or a storm. She smiles and looks out into the wilderness as if to suggest, Better to have too much in the sled than not enough. Besides, she picked blueberries all summer and baked $3,000 worth of blueberry pies to help finance this trip. She'll travel her way, thanksslow, cautious,aiming to finish without straining her team. Happy dogs all the way. A camping-trip strategy, it's called. That itself is an outsized dream.
Every two minutes, another string of bouncing, light-footed dogs comes coursing down the street, pulling a musher and a whole array of hopes and dreads. Some of these mushers have become my friends in recent months, and others I'm counting on knowing better down the trail. I don't suppose I'll ever know them well enough to understand fully why they give up so much of themselves for this strange, wild endeavor. But I can begin to frame an explanation for my own fascination: I find myself nostalgic for authentic experience. I'll disagree with John Schandelmeier. Adventure isn't only when something goes wrong; it's when something is sure to happen. The greater the intensity of that "something," the more sublime the adventure. Risk and reward grow on the same stalkisn't that what the proverb says?
After two blocks, the crowd thins and all but vanishes. Then the trail veers to the right, drops over the riverbank and onto the ice of the Yukon River. A Technicolor landscape becomes instantly black and white: snow, trees, ice, wind-scoured rock. Quiet descends. The musher's ear adjusts to the hush of runners gliding across the snow, the thump-rattle of the sled over rough ice, and the faint pneumatic wheeze of breath inside the hood of the parka. Within moments they have attained the nineteenth century, a world substantively unchanged since mail carriers, missionaries, and prospectors drove dogs, camped, and boiled their coffee along these same frigid trails, according to the unbroken rhythms of the wilderness traveler.
Copyright © 1999 by John Balzar