IDITAROD CHAPTER 7: In which we return to the land of ice and snow. . . .

KALTAG, Alaska — My trusty pilot, Old Jim Okonek, was waiting at the airport as I landed — again — here in the Lonely Country. He tugged on his blue cap, and his eyes danced under his sunglasses.

“Nice to have you back,” he said, grabbing a bag.

“Thanks.”

“Might have been easier if you just stayed here, you know.”

He smirked. OK. So I am the only journalist in history to leave the Iditarod on the fourth day, fly back to Michigan, then return to Alaska three days later. Hey. I needed to wash my clothes, OK? Besides, seeing what has happened in this gruesome race, I didn’t miss anything except the chance to get my head taken off. Tempers have worn thin out on the frozen trail, and the lack of sleep, the long hours, the endless work — they’re beginning to take their toll on the mushers. And the dogs. Apparently, one furry soldier decided he’d had enough of wearing a harness and clomping through snowbanks just to get a piece of lamb every few hours. His musher went to move him and
— boom! He bolted. Took off into the wilderness, sprinting toward the black spruce at the base of the Alaska mountain range. A lost dog is disaster in the Iditarod, not just because anything can happen out in the abyss — mostly bad
— but also because his team will be disqualified if he is not found.

“I let him go for a second and that was it, that was all it took,” the musher, Bill Peele, told reporters after it happened. “Everything I worked for, for years, is shot unless I find him.”

Peele tried calling the dog. Offering food. Hiding behind his sled. No go. Every time he tried to get close, the animal took off farther into the wilderness. Hours passed. It was a nightmare. The other dogs in his team were getting restless, and it was just Peele and that one damn dog and about a thousand miles of frozen wilderness in which to catch him.

My heart sank for the guy. I had gotten to know Peele before the race. He is one of those divided souls, a pharmaceuticals businessman from North Carolina who, deep down, has the heart of a wilderness pioneer. He has been coming to Alaska for years, climbing mountains, dreaming of the Iditarod — then going back to his 9-to-5 job in North Carolina. Finally, at age 55, he figured time was short, so he traded in three years’ worth of vacation, borrowed $40,000 against his retirement and got into this year’s race. His dream. His soul on fire.

And now a doggie had done him in. Bolted into the blue. At last look, Peele had dropped off his dogs at the Nikolai checkpoint and was headed back, alone, to try to find a single dog in a mountain range. “I gotta get that dog, no matter what it takes,” Peele said. “Not for me. For the dog.

“All life is sacred to me. . . . All I thought about on the way to Nikolai was him out there freezing and starvin’ to death, and dying. . . . “

He had tears in his eyes.

The Last Great Race on Earth. Mushers start to feud

Of course, arguing with a dog beats arguing with humans, which is pretty much what’s been going on near the front of the race. Since I’ve been gone, it seems, the Iditarod has become a machismo war, a boy-vs.-girl thing, kind of like those battles you used to have in grade school.

“He hit me!”

“She started it!”

It began with a 90-mile stretch of trail between tiny Ophir and Iditarod
— two places never to be confused with Las Vegas and Reno — where a blizzard and high winds had obliterated most of the trail. Susan Butcher, the four-time champion, and DeeDee Jonrowe, maybe the world’s second-best female sled driver, wound up breaking much of the trail for their mostly male competitors. They had to get off the sleds and hoof it in snowshoes. Their dogs, at times, were neck deep in drifts. Ugly stuff.

But when the other (male) mushers caught up, Butcher claimed, they didn’t exactly volunteer to go ahead. Breaking trail is tough on the dogs, wears them out, and apparently, the mushers behind Butcher — including her arch-rival Rick Swenson, the only other person to win this race four times — were just as happy to let her have the honors, thank you. “Hey,” they seemed to say. “You’re the champion. You go first.”

Which began a mini-war of words in the press:

Butcher: “It’s bad sportsmanship.”

Swenson: “Hey, it’s bad sportsmanship for her to bitch about it.”

Butcher: “It’s obnoxious of racers not to put in their turn leading.”

Swenson: “I’m running my race on my schedule, and if that doesn’t suit Susan, too bad.”

Butcher: “Schedule is no excuse when the nose of his lead dog is near the tail of my sled.”

Swenson: “What a bunch of crybabies.”

At one point, reportedly, Butcher turned and called Swenson “a lazy son of a bitch.” So I guess we have to keep these two away from any sharp kitchen utensils. Their little feud has caught the attention of the Alaskan public, and some actually find it amusing that out there, among the frozen rivers and bone-chilling winds, there is still room for a good, old- fashioned sports argument.

If you ask me, these mushers are acting perfectly normal for people who haven’t showered in a week. A sleeping bag?

I, myself, have no such plans. I packed soap. Still, in the Lonely Country, you never know. Just before we took off in the small plane Sunday morning, Jim’s wife, Julie, was stuffing food and flashlights and gas stoves — gas stoves? — into a duffel bag.

“You do have a lighter, don’t you?” she said.

“A lighter? What do I need a –“

“And a sleeping bag?”

“A sleeping bag?”

But these were not my only surprises. Once we flew into the wilderness, it was clear that not only had the weather grown colder, but the Iditarod, now more than a week old, was no longer the happy hunting ground I had left behind. The checkpoint in McGrath, beyond the Alaska mountain range — where you land your plane on Main Street — was deserted, save for a few dozen dogs chained to a fence. These were the damned, the wounded, the animals the mushers had dumped along the trail, too sick or too injured to go on. They eventually would be shipped home. For now, they howled like prisoners in some medieval chamber. “Awwwooooooo! . . . Awoooooo!”

Chilling. Then, in Shageluk, a lonely pit stop on the Innoko River, I encountered Jim Cantor, the Anchorage lawyer — and former Michigander — who had been so funny at the start of the race, going the first few miles dressed in a three-piece suit, with a sign on his sled: “Send a lawyer to Nome.”

Now he was curled up in the checkpoint cabin. His face was red, his eyes glazed. He looked like hell, like Charlie Sheen after the first battle in
“Platoon.” “I’ve banged into everything I can bang into,” he said. “I’ve had some rough going.’ “You gonna make it?”

He looked at his feet. “I’m kinda groggy now. I haven’t had much sleep.”

Chilling. Before the day would end, we would stick the plane in a snow drift, and everyone would have to get out and push. But that’s a story for later. For now, as we lifted into the Alaskan skies, I pondered the dangers ahead and behind. I thought about the upcoming stretch along the Bering Sea, where the winds eat through your best winter clothes and burn you with cold. I pictured Cantor, back there, looking a hell of a lot worse than he ever does in court. And I saw Peele, the hard-luck North Carolina man who watched that dog take off with his dream.

Let’s face it. This is not “Lassie,” folks. This is the Iditarod, it’s a damn long race and you never know how you’ll spend it: arguing with a competitor, staring at your feet, or squatting in the wilderness, looking for one stinking dog that doesn’t want to come home.

And what did she mean, sleeping bag?

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