IDITAROD DIARY, CHAPTER 10: The homestretch, the lonely sea, and the rotten stench of money . . .
WHITE MOUNTAIN, Alaska — So there I was, speeding along the Iditarod trail, in the middle of a blinding windstorm, over the river and through the woods, where the real mushers mush and the real dogs dog — only I was on the back of a snowmobile. And we couldn’t see a thing. And I yelled to the driver, who had a maniacal smile on his face, “HEY, MAYBE WE SHOULD SLOW D-“
And just at that moment, we hit a patch of frozen river and suddenly — WHOA-BUMP! — we were off the machine, spinning in the air. . . .
But wait. Before I hit the ground in that tale — and before I tell you of the frantic homestretch in the Last Great Race on Earth, as the top mushers lope toward Nome, bleary- eyed, their sleds bumping along, their tired dogs panting — I want to say something about this event. Particularly its top attraction, Wonder Woman herself, Susan Butcher, whose team, at last look, was charging toward that $50,000 first prize like a pack of hungry greyhounds at a Florida dog track.
I like Susan, although she’d prefer that I had a tail and fur, and I like her husband, David Monson, even if he is a lawyer. But I must say — and I think, deep down, they know it — that Butcher, and a few other top mushers, have enormous advantages in this race.
Example: airplanes. Butcher and a few others hire planes to fly with them over the entire course. Ostensibly used to transport dogs and possessions, these planes can also relay valuable information, such as who’s in what position, what the trail looks like, weather, etc. The information can be passed along as soon as Butcher pulls into a checkpoint. This is better than the way most poor mushers get news, which is to wake up in a sleeping bag on the floor of some old school house and mumble, “Who’s winning? What’s happening? Where am I? . . .”
Which leads to another inequity: accommodations. Butcher has a private home to stay in at almost every checkpoint, usually a nice warm place where, quite possibly, there is hot water already waiting for her dogs, not to mention a comfortable bed and good food for her. Nothing illegal in this — nor is it illegal to use airplanes, if you can afford them — but the advantage in an 11- to 14-day race is enormous. The lesser-known mushers sleep where they can, heat their water over a fire, wolf down some fried food at the local cafe. Often they are a physical wreck by the final days. How well can you mush when you’re burping?
Another example: equipment. Butcher needn’t worry should her sled get wrecked along the trail. She has a new one waiting at many checkpoints. While other mushers might spend precious time working on sled runners and patching dents, Butcher can simply unhook, rehook and be on her way. She also doesn’t need to carry a cooker in her sled — an extra few pounds — because she has a new one available at most checkpoints, too.
Understand, none of this is against the rules — which is part of the problem — and several other top mushers, including front-runners Rick Swenson and Joe Runyan, also enjoy some of these advantages. But that doesn’t make it right. If the Iditarod is supposed to be a pure and equal test against the elements, for all mushers, famous and not — well, let’s just say money tips the balance.
You pick up 20 minutes a day in privileges. It’s a four- hour cushion by the end.
“You’re right, it’s not fair,” admitted Jim Kershner, the race marshal.
“The top mushers like Susan have all this sponsorship money behind them, and so they have significant advantages. The other mushers can’t possibly afford these things.
“I find it amazing that a musher can have an airplane overhead. Just amazing.”
And this is the guy who enforces the rules.
He shook his head. Sixteen years ago, Kershner was a musher in the Iditarod. Those were the old days, before ABC Sports and Sports Illustrated discovered this race.
“Would you come back as marshal next year?” I asked him.
“Not unless we made some major changes in the rules,” he said, sighing.
“It’s just not an equal race right now. . . .”
Of course, when I took all this to Monson, Butcher’s husband — who travels the trail and confers with his wife, further angering other mushers — he said, “That’s bull. That’s jealousy. That’s bull.” And, yes, I’m sure there is plenty of jealousy toward Butcher because she is a four-time winner and a woman in what used to be a man’s race.
But Monson protests too much. He gets defensive, as if he knows that his wife’s success has turned into a year-round job, a big-money operation, that they planned this Iditarod as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf planned the rescue of Kuwait.
“It’s the winners versus the whiners,” Monson sniffed. “People make charges against us because Susan wins. But there has always been griping in this sport, always.
“It’s just the winners versus the whiners, that’s all.”
Which sounds a little whiny to me.
But what the heck. It’s not like Butcher isn’t great with dogs. It’s not like she couldn’t survive in the wilderness without sponsorship. This stuff happens in every sport when the money comes in and the rules don’t keep up. There is talk now about changing those rules, making all mushers sleep in the same accommodations and park their dogs in the same open spots.
Fine. Personally, I’d like to see all these big-money dogs trip over one another down the finish line, and have that 55- year-old rookie musher from North Carolina, who had to stop his team and chase a loose dog around the mountains for a day, come trotting along and win the race.
But that’s just me.
And I can’t even handle a snowmobile.
I landed on the ice, on my head, then looked up to see my crazy driver brushing himself off as the snowmobile puttered down the river.
“I guess I shouldn’t try to put my goggles on while driving, huh?”
I nodded. As my vision cleared, I saw a wooden stick with a red ribbon — a trail marker — and I realized, wow, this is the actual trail, this is what the mushers see, day after day, night after night. And what they see is this: nothing. Not a soul. Just white landscape, tall spruce trees, rivers so solid and snow-covered they look like ground — until you see a shiny, wet, green thing poking through the surface, ice that has popped from pressure, like a wrinkle in a carpet. The wind- chill is 30 below. The whole scene is eerie, like the Fortress of Solitude from those Superman movies.
I blew a mouthful of cold smoke. We were only 10 miles from the checkpoint, but the loneliness of it all was overwhelming. Here is quiet like you have never heard. Here, where the howling north wind blows snow horizontally across your face, the sun is but a blurry light in the white sky. What would possess a person to take a pack of dogs and run through this desolate landscape — or even further north, along the Bering Sea, or into the hills, through thickets and bushes and trees that, at night, hover like muggers to the sleepy dog- drivers? Are they crazy? Death-wishers? Or is the sheer beauty of it all, as Jack London put it, the call of the wild, what lures them?
It sure ain’t the accommodations. Even as I nursed my bruises, miles ahead, between the villages of Shaktoolik and Koyuk, the leaders in this race were huddled in a cabin in the wilderness: Butcher, arch-rival Rick Swenson, Martin Buser, Tim Osmar. Their dogs were resting while the snow blew up a white fog. They made small talk and watched each other like hawks, lest one sneak out and take off.
Suddenly, Joe Runyan — the tall, stoic one who says, “Only inexperienced drivers try to push things too early” — cruised past the cabin and kept going. And within minutes, the others were out on their sleds after him.
By the wee hours, they arrived at Koyuk, a village on the coast. And by sunrise, it was Butcher, again, in her familiar red snowsuit, out first onto the trail, followed closely by Swenson and Runyan. Out of Elim, a village on the sea where the winds are so cold they suck the breath from your chest, it was Butcher, Swenson, Runyan. Their dog teams were depleted now. Animals had been dropped along the way because of injury or sickness. But the ones that were left had their little booted paws moving in rhythm. And the mushers, droopy and fatigued from 11 brutal days in the Lonely Country, were nonetheless juiced on adrenaline. They could smell the end. It was time to run for the money.
It’s a hell of a race.
And we could have a hell of a finish. TOMORROW: And the winner is . . .