IDITAROD DIARY, CHAPTER 11: In which we learn absolutely nothing, except that someone might be dead out there.
SOURCE: NOME, Alaska — And the winner is . . . nobody?
“Have you heard anything?” someone asked in the confused headquarters on Front Street, where this grueling Iditarod dogsled race was supposed to have ended already — and I was now late for my plane back to planet Earth.
“What’s the latest? Have you heard?”
“I heard Susan turned around,” someone answered. “She went back to White Mountain! And so did Martin Buser. They couldn’t handle the storm. But Rick Swenson is still out there. He’s gonna kill himself!”
“He’s not gonna kill himself,” interrupted someone else. “He’s just lost. And so is Joe Runyan. But I heard Martin Buser is winning.”
“Buser’s not winning; he’s going backward,” someone else said quickly.
“And Runyan turned around, too. But I heard Swenson has a secret cabin he’s hiding in.”
“A secret cabin? Really?”
Rumors flew. Rumors bounced. Where was everybody? Where was anybody? Suddenly, the Last Great Race on Earth was the Biggest Mystery in Alaska. Downtown Nome, normally a wild celebration at this point, was nearly empty, the finish banner hanging from two telephone poles, swaying in the wind. It seemed the entire population was inside the wood-paneled Convention Center, bumping into one another, trying to get some news. It looked like Republican headquarters on election night. “What’s the latest? What’s the latest? . . . “
Here was the latest: After 1,086 miles of unforgiving wilderness — frozen rivers, black trees and snowdrifts so high you could rent them for condos — after 11 days of weather shifts, snowstorms and raw ice that left the dogs’ paws bleeding in the snow, after lead changes and strategy backfires and sleeping-bag nights on the icy frontier with only God as company — after all the Iditarod can be, suddenly the mushers were stuck. A ground blizzard had blown up during the final leg of the race, forcing Butcher, who had had a comfortable lead, to turn her dogs around after six terrible hours and seek shelter at the checkpoint, along with Runyan and Tim Osmar.
Swenson, however, her arch-rival — of whom one musher reportedly said,
“He’s gonna win this year or kill himself” — was more stubborn. He pushed on, into that blinding snow, hoping to find the trail, to find a miracle, to win this stinking race one more time.
No one had heard from him since.
“His dogs can handle this, he knows what he’s doing,” someone insisted.
“It’s not safe, no one should be out there!” said someone else.
“It’s his best chance!”
“Have you heard anything?”
Butcher looked like a winner
I found the coffee pot and filled another styrofoam cup. So this is what it had come to after all those miles of Alaskan wilderness; sitting in a wood-paneled room, listening to radio reports. My trusty pilot, Jim Okonek — who had flown me across Alaska, from one lonely village to another, landing anywhere that was flat — he took one look at the white skies this time and shook his head. “No way we can go in this,” he said. And Jim used to fly through bullets.
No way to fly. But could they mush? And if so, who was winning? Did we have an upset here? The night before, we had been at the White Mountain Hunting and Fishing Lodge, just 77 miles from the finish line. There we ran into Charlie Butcher, Susan’s father, who was smiling, in a jovial mood. And why not? His daughter, at that point, was about as sure a bet as Tyson vs. Douglas. Michael Douglas.
“Congratulations,” Butcher said, hugging his son-in-law, David Monson, who had just come in from the trail.
“Well, we’re not across the finish line yet,” Monson said sheepishly.
You got that right, David. And in this race, if you’re not across the finish, you’re nowhere. In just one moonless night, Susan Butcher, the defending champ, had gone from hunted to hunter. She was behind. She could . .
. lose! After returning to White Mountain, she had smugly told reporters, “If Rick can make it through that weather, more power to him. But when I last saw him, he didn’t have very high hopes.” Maybe not. But unlike her, he was still out there, in all his macho swagger, battling that storm. And you can bet every leather jacket and tattooed arm in Alaska was pulling for him to get to that finish line and show the women of this state that the men weren’t dead yet.
“They found him! He’s moving!” someone said.
“He survived the storm. He’s 40 miles away!”
“Nobody’s confirmed that.”
Is Swenson bound for glory?
Hours passed. Night began to fall. I gulped another coffee and held a radio to my ear. What was the last sporting event I’d covered wherein I couldn’t see the finish? There was the America’s Cup final in Australia, but I missed that because I became nauseated on the boat. There was that NFL playoff game a few years ago, between Chicago and Philadelphia, where the fog got so thick you couldn’t see the field. Yet even then, we figured the players were out there somewhere.
But this? Good Lord. Swenson could be on the trail, he could be in Siberia, he could be dead. Who knew? The planes couldn’t fly, the snowmobiles couldn’t run, and you can bet your butt nobody was walking out there. Not with 20-below temperatures, winds of 30 miles per hour, and the snow in such a maddening swirl that all you could see was white, white, white. Nuh-uh. For now, this was Swenson vs. the Wilderness, and they were playing on nature’s home court. No tickets. No TV. Whatever happened down the stretch, we would not see it. We would only hear about it later.
Which, I figure, is just about the way Swenson would like it. Win the race, tell the story the rest of his life. Hot damn, the guy becomes a legend! Let’s face it. Mr. Rick had played his hand here; he was going for the gusto. With weary dogs and a blizzard in his face, he either pushed on, found Nome — or he packed it in and kept right on driving back to Two Rivers. After all, he wasn’t just trying to win this race. He was trying to beat Wonder Woman. His rivalry with Butcher is big stuff, the second most important thing you learn here in Alaska. (The first is to buy polypropylene underwear.) Rick was the king of the Iditarod — having won four — until Butcher came along. He has been winless ever since, while Susan has captured four crowns and more publicity then Rick ever dreamed of. The T-shirts tell the story: “ALASKA — WHERE MEN ARE MEN AND WOMEN WIN THE IDITAROD.”
And the more he denied it, the more obvious it was that Butcher’s success was driving Swenson batty. Once friends, they became bitter competitors. He moaned about her dogs. He said she “wasn’t that great.” He sniped at her. She sniped back. At one point during this race, Swenson told a reporter, “If she weren’t a woman, I’d punch her lights out.”
Now, in a way, he had the chance. Win this Iditarod — especially like this, with a good old-fashioned spit-in- the-face-of-death climax — and he’d be a hero in Alaska forever. The men in the bars would sing about him all winter, how he braved the wilderness while “the girl sat back in White Mountain.” Hooh, boy, you can hear it already. Foolish, crude, and sexist, of course. But then, we aren’t exactly in San Francisco here.
“Someone saw him from a snowmobile!”
“He’s 32 miles from Nome!”
“Who said that?”
“I don’t know.”
“The weather’s getting worse in White Mountain.”
“No, it’s getting better.”
I turned off the radio. I went for the coffee pot. I thought of Butcher out there in White Mountain. Was she worried? Was she pressed against some window, cursing the skies? I thought of Runyan and Osmar. Were they second- guessing?
Finally, I thought of Swenson, the tough guy. Was he pushing his dogs too far now? Was this bravery or desperation? Maybe he was alone in that blizzard, with a radio plugged in his ear, enjoying all the fuss.
Then again, he could be in Siberia.
I filled another cup, found a seat, and sighed. What the hell? A few more hours in the Lonely Country wouldn’t kill anybody.
Would it? . . .