Epic Solitude: A Story of Survival and a Quest for Meaning in the Far North

Epic Solitude: A Story of Survival and a Quest for Meaning in the Far North

by Katherine Keith

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Overview

All her life, Katherine Keith has hungered for remote, wild places that fill her soul with freedom and peace. Her travels take her across America, but it is in the vast and rugged landscape of Alaska that she finds her true home. Alaska is known as a place where people disappear—at least a couple thousand go missing each year. But the same vast and rugged landscape that contributed to so many people being lost is precisely what has gotten her found.

She and her husband build a log cabin miles away from the nearest road and create a life of love. An idyllic existence, but with isolation and brutal living conditions can also come heartbreak. Chopping wood and hauling water are not just parts of a Zen proverb but a requirement for survival. Keith experiences tragic loss and must push on, with her infant daughter, alone in the Alaskan backcountry.

Long-distance dog sledding opens a door to a new existence. Racing across the state of Alaska offers the best of all worlds by combining raw wilderness with solitude and athleticism. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the “Last Great Race on Earth,” remains a true test of character and offers the opportunity to intimately explore the frontier that she has come to love.

With every thousand miles of winter trail traversed in total solitude, she confronts challenges that awaken internal demons, summoning all the inner grief and rage that lies dormant. In the tradition of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and John Krakauer’s Into the Wild, Epic Solitude is the powerful and touching story of how one woman found her way—both despite and because of—the difficulties of living and racing in the remote wilderness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781538557044
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication date: 02/04/2020
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Katherine Keith is a wilderness athlete, experience junkie, spiritual questor, long-distance dog musher, and mother to a sixteen-year-old daughter and thirty-five dogs, living above the Arctic Circle in Kotzebue, Alaska. Professionally, and as a jack-of-all-trades survivalist, she is a small business owner, rural Alaska project director, energy engineer, commercial fisherman, and wellness advocate. Accomplishments such as completing six Ironman triathlons and five 1,000-mile dog sled races form the cornerstone of Katherine’s philosophy of generating grit through overcoming real-time obstacles. A never-ending dreamer, Katherine is currently pursuing climbing the seven tallest summits on every continent as a budding alpinist. Above all, she loves spending time star-gazing, chasing northern lights, and playing cribbage by the woodstove with Amelia at camp.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

> IDITAROD, MILE 777

UNALAKLEET, ALASKA | 2014

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

— HELEN KELLER

When it comes to cold, the crossroads of crisis and necessity is forty-five degrees Fahrenheit below zero. At twenty or even thirty degrees below zero, we can maintain our body temperature so long as we wear the proper gear. But deeper than thirty below, no gear suffices to counteract the cold — not even the four layers on my legs and feet, the six on my torso, the work gloves and two sets of hand warmers inside my musher mitts, and the wool balaclava and liner on my head, all topped off with a goofy- looking beaver-fur hat.

"I'm just a poor boy, nobody loves me," I sing out, trying to stay awake, to my dogs who march like heroes down the trail. The dogs are used to my off-key singing by now and don't seemed disturbed by my choice in music.

"Cowboy, take me away. Take me high and above to see the stars," I cry out, making up the Dixie Chicks lyrics as I go because, despite this being my favorite song, my sleep-deprived brain can't quite recall the correct words. The dogs don't seem to mind.

I am seven days and 750 miles into my first Iditarod, the thousand-mile dogsled race across Alaska. I started the race with fourteen dogs and have dropped five at the checkpoints for various reasons. Nine dogs remain with over 250 miles yet to travel.

Just as we leave Unalakleet at forty below zero, the weather service issues a winter storm warning with a high wind advisory. There is only one option: keep moving. We trek over the bare Blueberry Hills rising away from Unalakleet over the Bering Sea. I hope for snow to smooth the way but find none. Covered with sand and rocks and patches of glare ice, the climbs through the hills are long and arduous. After eighteen miles we reach the high point of this section with a steep climb. I scream out in frustration as the dogs slip around on ice while the sled sticks on sand. We cannot move. How are we supposed to do this? Inch by inch, I push the sled forward until the dogs can get off the ice. Their attitudes are positive, and the dogs march on once they get traction.

After about twenty-eight miles we reach the top of the Blueberry Hills, an 850-foot-high view with Shaktoolik visible from twelve miles away. The winds create an effect from the ground storm and combine with the sunset to give the area a glorious golden fog bank. I've traveled along enough Arctic coastline to know this fog bank will not be as heavenly to travel through as it appears. I understand how difficult traveling can be between the poor visibility, large drifts, glare ice, and low temperatures. But I don't hesitate, and we start the three-mile descent down into that fog bank at an alarming rate without the ability to stop, careening toward the ground blizzard. A forty mile per hour quartering headwind howls at us from the north, combining with the forty-below temperatures to create a dangerous chill factor of minus eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit.

In bad conditions, twelve miles is a long way to go. The wind and cold take a toll on all of us. Mile after mile, I stand on the footboards of my sled, packed with the minimum of tools and supplies we need to sustain us. My on-sled dance routine consists of kicks, squats, and any other movement I can think of to warm my extremities.

A gust of bitter wind hammers the sled, pushing it sideways off the trail. My grip tightens on the handlebar as I purse my cracked lips together to whistle to the dogs.

"Up! Up!" I yell in a scratchy voice, followed by, "Oh pirates, yes they rob us, soul light to the merchant ships." I am in my element, having the time of my life. I can sing out, wrong words and all, and there is no one within miles to care.

My team of Alaskan huskies, a cross between the Siberian husky and German shorthaired pointer, run in two lines stretching ahead of me, secured to each other and the sled with dog harnesses. These connect to a gang line, a long cable that attaches the harnesses to the sled.

"I still haven't found what I'm looking for. What I'm looking for, for, for, for ... What I'm looking for," I sing out as U2 keeps me company in the solitude of this frigid night.

We leave the shelter of trees and bushes behind. The trail follows a slough into Shaktoolik. The lack of snow results in a glass ice rink on the coast. We try to navigate the glare ice, but without traction, the wind pushes the sled sideways off the trail and spins it around the team. Joy and Summit, my experienced leaders, handle the situation effectively. At last, we see the buildings of Old Shaktoolik, which indicate we are close to the checkpoint.

The dogs know straw awaits them upon arrival. A bale of straw is provided for each musher to prepare individual beds to insulate the dogs from the snow and increase their comfort. The dogs love straw, and the sight of it causes a string of barking.

"Nice day, eh?" the Shaktoolik checker says.

"Gorgeous!" I reply.

In a more serious tone, he says, "The storm will increase in intensity."

"What are you going to do?" I ask a veteran racer and admirable musher, Paige Dronby, nervous rookie that I am, "proceed into the storm or wait it out in Shaktoolik for the next couple days?" My question is leading. I'm eager to leave Shaktoolik.

"The dogs can't rest well at this checkpoint due to the lack of shelter from the wind," Paige says. "If we leave soon, we might beat the worst of the storm and make it to Koyuk, which has better shelter to rest the dogs."

I make my choice: it's time to go. I leave with two hours of rest on the dogs. I soon regret that choice.

Leaving Shaktoolik, Paige and I put on our ice cleats and walk in front of our teams, leading them across glare ice that neither human nor dog can gain traction on.

It takes a long time to leave Shaktoolik. The winds increase harder and faster than predicted. There is no beating this storm. We struggle to see the next trail marker. I stop my sled, flip it over to act as a brake, and walk in front of the dogs to locate the stake. We continue in this fashion, crawling one trail stake to the next.

Fifteen miles out, the trail changes course to head around a spit of land. This abrupt turn is unmarked because wind and other dog teams have knocked down the trail stakes. My team can't find the trail, and if the tracks are any proof, neither could many others. Heading toward land over a mile of glare ice, the dogs face a crosswind. Our plight changes from tough to very serious when the wind gusts — now over sixty miles per hour — blow my sled and the entire team sideways a hundred yards over the ice. I have little to no control over the situation. The conditions scare my leaders, and they can no longer guide the team. They can't even hear my commands over the howling wind.

We are on the ice, unable to move. We crawl around the ice in circles searching for the trail. For every foot we gain in the right direction, we lose another ten. I need to reevaluate my decision to proceed to Koyuk and create a strategy that retains the greatest number of options to get my team through the night. This is now a life-threatening situation. Paige is ahead of me; her dogs travel faster than mine. No teams will leave from Shaktoolik behind us. Thoughts of the race drop away. Time to survive.

As the reality of my predicament sinks in, I think of my daughter, Amelia, who is now in sixth grade, and drown in regret and guilt over having put myself, her only living parent, in this life-or-death situation. Wet from sweat, I lead the dogs toward land inch by inch. No help is on the way. I am alone out here.

During a momentary break in the visibility, I see a shelter cabin in the distance that could offer protection from the wind. We head toward it, and I review our choices. If we make it to the cabin, we can stay there, but only for a short time because of the limited amount of dog food. Soon we will be forced back to Shaktoolik or on to Koyuk.

I worry about getting separated from the dogs. A SPOT tracker is secured to the sled bag. When triggered, it notifies international emergency services and dispatches them to our GPS location. I detach it and put it in my pocket in case I fall off the sled. Pushing the button doesn't mean help will make it out to us, given the conditions, but it is better than nothing. I get off the sled, walk in front of the leaders, and line out the team to locate a trail stake. A wind gust pushes the sled away from me on the ice. I panic as the dogs slide farther away. I run after them. The wind pushes me with such aggression that I fall over and slam my head against the ice.

Dazed, I look around not knowing where I am. I can't see farther than a few feet in any direction. All I can do is follow the wind and hope it leads me to the dogs. My head foggy, I stumble along until I hear barking in the distance. Is that my imagination? I alter my course until I spot the team. The dogs settled on a patch of snow solid enough to allow my overturned sled to get traction and stop.

The dogs wag their tails in enthusiasm as I walk up to the leaders. I sit there for a while hugging them, seeking to convey a confidence I don't have. Between gusts of wind, I still see the form of the bluff where the shelter cabin is. I consider stopping here to get into my sled bag, seven feet long and two feet wide, with room to expand. Gear plus one dog can fit inside. In bad weather, I can fit myself and a few dogs in the bag but must leave the rest out in the wind.

I am drenched in sweat from the labor, but my body temperature drops as soon as I stop moving. My shivering signals the onset of hypothermia. We must keep going. The dogs need better protection. It is worth another try to make it to the shelter cabin before we resort to bagging it for the night.

After another hour, we make it to the bluff. I drive the team to the backside of the cabin and out of the wind. I walk inside to discover there is no wood for the stove, and it rips away any hope I had of drying out. What do I do? I can't think. I have Heet for fuel, but no snow nearby to melt for water. I provide the dogs with a snack of dry commercial dog food and frozen meat, which they inhale. The back of the cabin offers little shelter for the dogs, so I take the females and the main male leader, Summit, inside the cabin. The leaders need rest to guide us through the storm into Koyuk.

The dogs outside nestle in their protective down dog coats, lick off any ice build-up, and fall asleep, while the dogs inside enjoy the break from the gang line and settle down in corners of the shelter cabin. I lay out my sleeping bag on the wood planks of the bunk bed. I have spare dry clothes, and shivering, I strip down the layers I can and swap them out. I figured packing all this extra gear was being paranoid, but you never know when you will need it. I jump into my down bag hoping to warm up. My shivering is so violent that even Ears, whom I invite onto the sleeping bag, jumps off to go lay by her buddy, Summit.

I snack the dogs every couple of hours, hoping to keep their body temperatures up. I am out of my own food, having lost that bag on the ice. There is vacuum-sealed food, but without snow to melt in the metal box that serves as a cook pot, I can't thaw it enough to eat. I better remember this lesson well. Weak from cold and hunger, I again review my options. How can we make it another forty miles to Koyuk, let alone to Nome?

With no one else to talk to, I end up in heated discourse with the wind.

"You know, there are easier ways," I say. "Easier ways to find answers. Why don't you tell me? Let's make a deal. I am happy to negotiate." My voice echoes the words back from the ice like a mirror and hits my heart with their full weight.

Over the course of my forty years, I've weathered my share of extreme temperatures — the baking, hundred-degree heat of that left me nauseated while competing in my first Ironman triathlon, for example — as well as other stamina challenges, including solo hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Endurance pursuits became my way of recovering from the series of traumas that sent me wandering across the country. What I was searching for, I couldn't always say. Escape, relief, distraction, answers, grace, a restoration of faith in the universe — at different times, these, more, and none.

My nomadic nature led me to Pompeii to dig through the remnants of the lost city, on rock climbing expeditions in Wyoming — the butte called Devils Tower and the outcrops in Vedauwoo — and at the granite pillars called the Needles in South Dakota's Black Hills. My spiritual nature sought the energy-field vortexes in Sedona, drummed during sun dances in New Mexico, and sweated through vision quests in Arizona. At last, my wanderings took me to the home I'd envisioned for myself at ten years old: bush Alaska, the Last Frontier.

Fifteen years after driving an ice cream truck from my childhood home of Minneapolis to Alaska to experience Arctic life, I am alone in the vast wilderness, wrapped in the solitude I craved for as long as I remember, just a sled, my dogs, and me.

The lack of response to my attempt at negotiation disappoints.

"Super," I say with a tight, flat voice looking down at my swollen, frozen fingers.

"Ears, have you figured it out yet?" I ask.

Painful emotion swells in my throat making it difficult to speak. My tired, windburned eyes look to hers, eyes that reflect pure unconditional love and adoration.

"Yeah, okay, you're right," I say. "Might as well sleep for now. The answer is down the trail somewhere."

We stay there for over twelve hours waiting for an opportunity to leave. The wind shakes the shelter cabin all night, letting up about ten o'clock the next morning. The visibility is still less than a quarter mile. The dogs are running out of food, so we need to keep moving. I hook them up, and we make our way toward Koyuk. Travel is difficult and slow. I switch out the leaders every hour to keep them fresh. Storms bring in large snowdrifts between the patches of glare ice, which takes a toll on the team. All we must do is make it to the next trail marker. Find the next stake, go after the next stake, make it to the next stake, and search for the one after that — because if I don't, this will be the last one I ever find.

CHAPTER 2

> DAD'S CABIN

GARRISON, MINNESOTA | 1988

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit.

— EDWARD ABBEY

It is a crisp morning. Dad is an early riser and likes to drink his cup of hot coffee out on the deck watching the world around him come to life. When I stay with him, I force myself to get up early so I can steal this time alone with him. We both sit in wooden lawn chairs, facing the lake, with a book in front of us. The loons call out to each other in lonely harmony. We take our noses out of our books to appreciate the stillness.

"Whatcha reading?" Dad asks. We're both avid readers. During a recent fourth-grade field trip to the library, I stumbled across Jean Aspen's Arctic Daughter: A Wilderness Journey. I checked it out and brought it to my dad's cabin in northern Minnesota outside the small woodland town of Garrison. Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and we have almost private access to one.

I have been waiting for him to ask me about this book. In fact, I have been leaving it out on the coffee table as a hint for him to pick it up. If he reads it, I know he will take me to Alaska.

"Dad you really have to read this," I say, unable to contain my enthusiasm. "Alaska sounds amazing. It's a memoir of this daughter of a famous explorer who follows in her mother's footsteps. She and her high school sweetheart set out to build a cabin and live off the land in the Brooks Range. They eat muskrats boiled in their skins, moose guts, and even maggots. Ew, can you imagine, Dad? She picks maggots off their meat before it can dry into jerky."

"Wow. You enjoy reading about maggots?" Dad says with his usual humor.

"No, Dad, that's just a detail! She's tough to do that, right?"

I'd been attracted to the Far North since reading Jack London's novel Call of the Wild, whose canine protagonist, Buck, is sold into service as a sled dog and the Robert Service poem "The Cremation of Sam McGee" with its mentions of northern lights and midnight suns.

I idolize my dad. He's a tall guy: six feet seven. Even at ten, I fall for his same old tricks — only in my mind, they never get old.

Driving down a gravel road, he pretends to get his hands stuck on a coffee cup, so he can't steer.

"Dad, grab the wheel before we crash! Dad, you're gonna hit that mailbox!" My older brother, J.T., and I are in hysterics. "Dad, stop!" we scream at the same time.

All the while, he is driving with his knees, in total control.

"There's that mean old lady from the doughnut shop that J.T. stole doughnuts from!" Dad says while cruising to the local store. "You better hide."

We both do.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Epic Solitude"
by .
Copyright © 2020 Katherine Keith.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Map, x,
Introduction, 1,
Part One: Starting Line,
Iditarod, Mile 777 · Unalakleet, Alaska · 2014, 7,
Dad's Cabin · Garrison, Minnesota · 1988, 15,
Indiana Jones · Kampsville, Illinois · 1994, 21,
Cold · Biwabik, Minnesota · 1996, 23,
Dog Mushing 101 · Kotzebue, Alaska · 2018, 26,
Kobuk 440 · Kotzebue, Alaska · 2012, 33,
Rock Climbing · Laramie, Wyoming · 1997, 36,
Married · Savannah, Georgia · 1998, 40,
Pacific Crest Trail, Mile, 45,
San Bernardino, California · 1999, 50,
Pacific Crest Trail, Mile, 72,
Mount Whitney, California · 1999, 53,
Pacific Crest Trail, Mile 830 Muir Pass, California · 1999, 57,
Pacific Crest Trail, Mile 850 Sendall Pass, California · 1999, 61,
Pacific Crest Trail, Mile 1,094 Yosemite, California · 1999, 66,
Sun Dance · Northeast Arizona · 1999, 70,
Inipi · Northeast Arizona · 1999, 77,
Falling · Minneapolis, Minnesota · 2000, 82,
Soul Repair · Minneapolis, Minnesota · 2000, 89,
Kuskokwim 300 · Bethel, Alaska · 2013, 92,
Leaving · Ely, Minnesota · 2000, 98,
Alaska or Bust Kluane Lake, Yukon Territory · 2000, 102,
Wealth · Matanuska Glacier, Alaska · 2000, 106,
Sea · Seward, Alaska · 2000, 110,
Phosphorescence · Seward, Alaska · 2000, 113,
Part Two: Rookie Mistakes Iditarod, Mile 0 · Anchorage, Alaska · 2014, 119,
Glacier · Seward, Alaska · 2000, 123,
Horses · Fish Creek, Alaska · 2000, 126,
Mummy · Fish Creek, Alaska · 2000, 132,
Iditarod, Mile 153 · Rainy Pass, Alaska · 2014, 135,
Sheefish · Fish Creek, Alaska · 2000, 138,
Moose · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2000, 143,
Iditarod, Mile 188 · Rohn, Alaska · 2014, 146,
Living · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2001, 149,
Iditarod, Mile 263 · Farewell Burn, Alaska · 2014, 155,
Break-Up · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2001, 158,
Wood · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2002, 163,
Our Littlest Angel · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2002, 166,
Iditarod, Mile 795 · Koyuk, Alaska · 2014, 169,
Helpless · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2002, 173,
Part Three: Scratching,
Iditarod, Mile 0 · Fairbanks, Alaska · 2015, 187,
Ceremony · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2002, 190,
Futility · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2002, 199,
Hope · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2002, 201,
Footprints · Cape Espenberg, Alaska · 2003, 205,
Goodbye · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2003, 215,
Lost · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2003, 221,
Thanksgiving · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2003, 226,
Man Up · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2004, 233,
Part Four: Finish Line,
Iditarod, Mile 446 · Galena, Alaska · 2015, 239,
Starting Over · Anchorage, Alaska · 2005, 246,
Cycles of Grief · Fairbanks, Alaska · 2004–2007, 250,
Home Again · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2008, 254,
Achieve · Fairbanks, Alaska · 2008, 259,
Resilience · Palmer, Alaska · 2008, 261,
Buddha and the Sky · Kotzebue, Alaska · 2012, 266,
Shaman · Kotzebue, Alaska · 2015, 270,
Yukon Quest · Whitehorse, Canada · 2017, 273,
New Dreams · Kotzebue, Alaska · 2018, 283,
Northern Lights · Kobuk Lake, Alaska · 2018, 286,
Acknowledgments, 289,

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