by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

IDITAROD DIARY, CHAPTER 5: In which we make a rescue, cross the breathtaking mountains, and get nauseated.

RAINY PASS, Alaska — “Medic! Medic!”

Suddenly no one was thinking about the animals or the mushers or the thousand miles of frozen country still left in this trans-Alaska dogsled race. We were running down a narrow landing strip, toward a woman who was lying flat in the snow, her face contorted in pain. Just seconds earlier, a small plane had touched down, skidded off the icy runway, and veered toward four spectators. They scattered. Three men got away. The woman was not so lucky. She fell in the knee-deep snow and tried to cover up as the plane ran her over, its landing skis banging off her hip as it bumped past and went smack into two other parked planes, denting them badly. Now the woman was surrounded by a group of strangers, me included.

“Don’t move her!” someone yelled.

“Are you all right?”


“We ain’t got a stretcher out here.”

“What happened?”


“Someone get that big piece of plywood by the tent. We’ll make a stretcher.”

“Who’s got a plane that can get her to a hospital?”


“What happened? What happened? . . . “

If anyone ever doubted the lonely dangers of the Iditarod, one need only have been on that frozen lake Sunday morning with no sled, no phone, no stretcher, no ambulance. We think of sporting events, we figure, hell, there’s always somebody there, some trainer, some team doctor. In the Iditarod, the Last Great Race on Earth, there really can be nobody there. Night after night, for 1,163 miles, the dogs pull the sleds silently through the snowy landscape, through trees and over rivers and over mountains peppered with tall

spruce, and only the headlights on the drivers’ hats give any clue as to where they are. Accidents happen — they fall off the sled, they break an arm, a dog is injured and can’t go on — and only the mushers’ survival instincts will save them. It’s the way of life in the Lonely Country; you fall in the woods, maybe nobody hears you.

So I suppose in a way that woman was damn lucky, even if she did get run over by an airplane. We lifted her onto the plywood stretcher, and loaded her into a small Cessna. She was conscious, weeping softy.

“The surprising thing,” whispered Old Jim Okonek, my pilot, who has been in these Alaskan skies since the ’60s, “is that the guy (landing that plane) is real experienced, one of the best.”

We stood back as the Cessna rose into the white sky, heading for the hospital — even as another team of dogs trotted into the checkpoint with their tongues hanging out.

“Sometimes, out here” Jim said, shaking his head, “stuff just happens. . .
. ” Well, I could have told you that. I could have told you about the three mushers who already have dropped out of this race. One of them neglected to put booties on his dogs’ feet at the starting line in Anchorage, and by the time he reached the first checkpoint his team was staining the snow with bloody paw prints. I could have told you about trying to cover this race by airplane when your pilot likes to dip and drop and your stomach prefers to stay in one place. And maybe I will. . . . A special checkpoint

But first, back to the race. On Monday morning, Day 3, we landed on a deserted patch of frozen valley known as Rohn Roadhouse, a place that in the 1800s served as shelter for dog teams delivering mail. Today, in the Iditarod, Rohn is special, like a medal on your chest. It means you’ve survived the perilous Alaska Mountain Range. It is there that a soul feels as alone as Adam, nothing to this Earth but God’s massive granite mountains, covered in untouched snow. The race trail skirts ridges that drop sharp as cliffs and winds between the mountains in a narrow path that can disappear in a snowstorm and leave you stuck for hours, maybe days, praying for better weather.

You reach Rohn anywhere in the top 10 and you’re in the big leagues in Iditarod. As they might say in Georgia, your dogs can bark.

Which explains my company there inside the one-room log cabin, where a cast-iron coffee pot sat on a coal stove, below shelves jammed with graham crackers, syrup and oatmeal; here, in one corner, taking a rest, was Susan Butcher, the four-time Iditarod winner and defending champion. Sitting a few feet away was Rick Swenson, a former champion and Butcher’s rival, the guy who supposedly once said, “I’ll walk home from Nome if a woman ever beats me in this race” — before Butcher did it four times. These two in one room could be dangerous.

Things can get ugly in the wilderness.

Fortunately, a few other mushers were there, too — some taking their mandatory 24-hour stopover (each musher must make one during the race); some just grabbing a java after massaging their dogs to sleep.

“I am really sore,” Butcher said, stretching inside her red snowsuit. “My arms are killing me. I think the handlebar on my sled is too high.”

Swenson sipped his drink. He said nothing.

“Hey, Susan,” said a smirking Terry Adkins, a veteran musher and retired Air Force officer. “If you’re so tired, why don’t you take a good long nap?”

They all laughed, but I wasn’t fooled. I’d heard competitors’ laughter before. It has a certain edge, like a steak knife. Don’t let the word
“mushers” fool you. These folks want to win so badly, they’d eat dog food. I think some of them do. Hey, would you want to spend 12 months in a kennel and have nothing to show for it?

So they play head games with each other. NBA players talk trash? Mushers give misinformation. It’s not unusual for one of them to stop for a cup of coffee, give a yawn, and say “Well, I’m gonna sleep for a few hours and leave at 4 a.m.” And another musher figures, great, he’ll be smart, he’ll only sleep until 3:30 a.m. and get a jump on the guy. And he gets up at 3:30 — only to learn that the first musher left two hours ago.

Head games. It’s part of the way you win — along with nursing your dogs, picking the right weather patterns, bringing the right food, and, of course, if you have to — and never forget this — killing a moose. This is pretty much the Iditarod racer’s philosophy: There’s a lot of trail out there, and all that matters is who leads at the end, not along the way.

“Being ahead five minutes at this point,” Butcher told me privately outside the cabin, “doesn’t mean s—.” Cub is a bear to ride

Which, now that she mentioned it, is how I was feeling a few hours later, as Old Jim Okonek — the white-haired pilot who once rescued the charred body of a CIA agent from a wreck in Vietnam — decided to show me some of the smaller points of interest, from inside the Piper Super Cub. We had ditched the two Japanese photographers, Sato and Suda, who, when I last saw them were heading for a helicopter.

So it was Jim and me, in this tiny Piper, and he started dipping — and so did my insides.

“Look over the right wing,” he said, “see the musher?”

“Uh, hang on,” I said.

Another spin. “Whoa, look over there. There’s another one.”

“Jim, I. . . . “

“Have you ever seen caribou? I think there’s some over there. Let me drop down lower.”


“No, that wasn’t caribou, sorry, just some brush. Hey, did you feel that wave of air come off that mountain?


Anyhow. You get the picture. I’d wait a few days before we take that Piper up again.

Jim was right about a couple things, however. He told me to duck when airplanes were coming in at Finger Lake. And then, on the airstrip in Rohn, he said, “Watch out for dog teams. They use the same area as the planes to come into the checkpoint.”

And I thought to myself, “Yeah, right.” And I turned around, and I was looking smack into the eyes of 17 panting dogs, running in perfect synch, heading straight at me. . . .

TOMORROW: The big bail out.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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