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

IDITAROD DIARY, Chapter 6: In which we come to an end.

ROHN ROADHOUSE, Alaska — I am shipping out. My orders came this morning. I have been called back from The Last Great Race on Earth, right in the middle, by my newspaper, which wants me to cover — if you can believe it
— spring training in Florida. I hate to say it, sports fans, but, compared to the brave dogsled teams running through this frozen wilderness, baseball seems like a bunch of spoiled kids playing marbles. Monday, here in the Alaska Mountain Range, one musher’s sled went over a cliff, and she crashed face-first into the snow. She got up. She pushed on. Another musher’s line snapped and 17 of his 18 dogs sprinted off into the night. He was left with one dog and a heavy sled to drag through the darkness until he found his pack. He pushed on. That’s the Iditarod. Rickey Henderson thinks he’s underpaid? Let him try this sucker for a few hours.

Really. The thought of leaving these spectacular snow- capped mountains for the swamps of Florida baseball, it’s enough to make me cry. But what can I do? The orders came from my boss. And I am but a mush dog on his leash.

A pity. For I was just getting used to that tingling sensation in my toes, and the wet spot under my nose. I was even catching on to the tricks of the trail — like staying off it. As you may recall when we left off in Tuesday’s installment, I was walking along a snow-packed airstrip when I turned to discover a pack of galloping huskies right in front of me. And they were not slowing down.

“OUT OF THE WAY!” the musher yelled.

I dove into a snow bank. The dogs passed, panting. I think one of them laughed at me, but I’m not sure.

“You know,” whispered Old Jim Okonek, my trusty pilot, as I got to my feet, “out here, the dogs have the right-of-way.”

I know. I can tell by all the yellow snow.

But that is how it should be. These dogs were born to run. It’s in their blood, it goes with the territory — and everything in this dangerous and wonderful 1,163-mile dogsled race is just about that: the territory. The rivers, the lakes, the mountains, the tall spruce trees that poke from the snow like giant needles. Beautiful? It’s something beyond beautiful, something that wiggles in your stomach and makes you lose your breath when you look around. Alaska in winter: the Outback, the Great Interior, the Bering Sea coast, the northern lights coloring the sky. I swear, it can bring you to your knees. Before this race began, I met a 40-year-old teacher named Urtha Lenharr who was entering Iditarod for the first time. He obviously had no chance to win. So I asked what he hoped to get out of it.

“The privilege of seeing this land,” he said.

And I now know what he means. Just in time to ship out. Unfair? Yes. But maybe it is fitting. After all, many Iditarod mushers never get to Nome their first time out. They suffer exhaustion in the mountains, or they lose their dogs to bloody paws and sickness. Or maybe the animals just quit on them. It happens. It happened Monday — to Joe Carpenter. For nine hours he sat on the Yentna River with a team of dogs that refused to move. He fed them. He waited. He watered them. He waited. He went in front and tried dragging them. Nothing. “Something happened out there, I can’t explain it,” Carpenter would say.

In desperation, he took a tow from another musher, hoping that once his dogs started moving they’d get into it. But mushers are not allowed to accept a tow unless in dire emergency. Late Monday, the race jury disqualified Carpenter for breaking the rules.

A year of his life and $20,000 in dogs and equipment. Gone.

That’s gotta hurt.

But this is no place for the squeamish, not in the wilderness, where at any moment you can come face to face with a moose. Which, fortunately, in my case never happened. Fortunate for the moose. Being from Detroit, I might have to show the beast how we do things downtown.

But no. The last action I saw came here, at Rohn Roadhouse, the lonesome checkpoint just over the mountains, 274 miles into the race. By the time I arrived, a half-dozen leading mushers were already there, hunkered down, grimy and tired. Here was DeeDee Jonrowe, nursing her huskies between the tall trees, rubbing ointment on their paws as they lay in beds of straw.

And a few trees away, Susan Butcher, everybody’s favorite, cooking up chunks of beef, liver and fish to nourish her team back to speed. I want to say this about Butcher: I admire her determination, her total focus on the dogs and the environment. She probably wouldn’t do real well at Spago, true, but when it comes to wilderness, the woman gets it done. I have no doubts she will win this race.

Also in the woods, in a sleeping bag: Joe Runyan, the 1989 Iditarod winner, a tall, lean man. Earlier, I had asked him about spending 11 lonely days with just a pack of dogs:

“That’s one of the attractions,” he answered. “You’re so focused. You’ve got 11 days and nothing to think about but getting down that trail. For 11 days, you don’t think about taking out the garbage, or taking care of the kids.

“It’s kind of ironic, but for a lot of mushers, the Iditarod is just a super long vacation.”

Without showers, of course.

Wait. Did I tell you about “talent night” at the Latitude 62 Motel, Restaurant and Bar in Talkeetna? The rooms are pretty basic — beds and window
— but the people, like most people in Alaska, more than make up for it. This one night, I come back from the trail, and I’m at the bar, and the owner, a big, bearded fellow named Mac, starts telling me about the piano in the front
— and next thing you know, I’m sitting there playing a few tunes for the guy. And he’s dancing around like a big old polar bear.

“Whoooee!” he yelled. “If I played piano like that, I’d be a millionaire!”

And the piano was out of tune.

But this type of scene you get all over the Lonely Country, where the kindness of strangers makes you forget that it’s cold enough outside to freeze a tank. I got such kindness at the Latitude 62, and I got it every day from Old Jim Okonek, my trusty pilot, a former Vietnam and Korean rescue operator who now runs K2 Aviation in Talkeetna. He greeted me each morning with newspaper clippings and a sack lunch his wife had made. When we flew, he would dip toward mountain or lake and tell me its name and what it was used for in the pioneer days. Here’s a guy who’s in the air more than the Goodyear Blimp, but now and then I’d catch him gazing at some mountain peak, and I’d hear him say “God, it’s beautiful out here, isn’t it?”

If you had to be stuck somewhere for the rest of your life, you could do a lot worse than Alaska.

Back to the race. And who is going to win? All over the state, the media are betting on one guy or another to upset Butcher. Maybe it’s male chauvinism. Maybe Alaskan men are just tired of women winning. After all, a female crossed the Iditarod finish line first five of the last six years.

But though Runyan is good, as is Lavon Barve, a balding 45- year-old musher, and Rick Swenson, the only driver besides Butcher to win the Iditarod four times, I still put my money on the defending champion. As the Pistons say, “You gotta know how to win when it counts.” And Butcher is a fan of the Pistons.

But, hey, what do I know? Before coming up here, the only thing I’d seen a dog pull was my socks — from one room to another. I do know this: Whoever wins this year probably won’t be a native Alaskan. And if the Iditarod has any dark side, that is it. Dog mushing wasn’t invented in Indianapolis, you know. It is a proud tradition of the Alaskan Indians, the Eskimos, the people who settled this unforgiving land long before ABC Sports. Few of the 75 mushers entered this year have such roots. One who does is Tony (Wildman) Shoogukwruk. His nickname comes from his huge mop of hair and the unkempt black beard that frames his face.

“I’ve been trying to get into the Iditarod for years,” he told me. “This is the first time I could raise enough money. The native businesses in Alaska, they talk a lot about helping our people, but they don’t put their money where their mouth is. They would rather back a white person. They think the white man is a better musher.”

He talked about his grandfather and great grandfather — hunters, trappers, men who used dogsleds for more practical purposes than racing.
“The situation with our native people is very bad now,” he said. “We feel cheated. Our children are confused. The elders in our towns, they like the old ways. The kids always feel like they’re disappointing them. They become hopeless. They drink. Maybe they kill themselves.

“I want to race to show our kids that suicide is not the answer.”

I looked at his team. It was scrawny compared to the rest and his equipment was used and shopworn. Some say this is the shame of the Iditarod. Others disagree. “I lived in the bush for a long time,” said Libby Riddles, the 1985 winner. “A lot of the kids up there, they’ve been cleaning dogs and carrying their straw for years. They’re sick of it. They don’t want anything to do with dogs. There are plenty of opportunities for native mushers. But the kids in those villages would rather have snow machines and video games. It’s sad, but it’s true.”

So even dogsled racing has its controversies. But they are small compared to the challenge. The Iditarod is not really about nationality, or even winning. It’s about survival.

So as I head for the airport — and the sick, money-crazed world of baseball — I take these scenes from a week of Iditarod: I see the craziness of the start in downtown Anchorage, where serious racers mix with dreamers. I see all those dogs, hundreds of them, their snouts covered by icicles as they trudge on. I see mushers in the woods, cooking meat, dipping into an ice hole for water. I see Joe Garnie, the ebullient Alaskan who won a Dodge truck for being the first to reach a certain checkpoint, telling me, “This is great. Now I gotta get a driver’s license.” I see the solitary beauty of Finger Lake, the majesty of Rainy Pass. I see a line of dogs pulling a musher through white mountains as big as God’s soldiers.

I see me cleaning off my boots, after stepping in a pile of you-know-what.

And I see the village of Skwentna, all 114 people, welcoming the mushers and their dogs with such enthusiasm. Everyone in this tiny town pitches in. Someone checks the racers, and someone operates the ham radio, and someone bakes a cake. A chubby kid was sitting on a snow machine with a sign that read: “TAXI RIDES, $1.00” So I hopped on, and he smiled, and he told me his name was Richard Price, he was 11 years old, and he went to school in Skwentna.

“How many kids in your class?” I asked.

“Just me,” he said.

He was so unspoiled, this kid, so trusting and — I don’t know — mature. There was no glint of Nintendo in his eyes. No talk of material things. When it came time to pay him, I pulled out a $20 and just handed it to him, and patted him on the head. And suddenly, he was hugging me like a brother.

It’s hard not to be touched by the Iditarod.

“We used to have this guy in our village,” Old Jim told me on our last morning, “and he was kind of a wimp. Even his name was wimpy — Carroll. And one day, he said he wanted to try the Iditarod. We all laughed, figuring, how’s this guy gonna make it 1,100 miles, right?

“But Carroll rented a dog team, and he trained them, and then the race came. And darn if he didn’t fall and break his arm in the first stretch. We figured, that’s it. But you know what? They flew him to a hospital, he had the arm set and went back to the dogs. He finished the race, made it all the way to Nome. We couldn’t believe it.”

Jim shook his head. “It changed our opinion of him, that’s for sure. And it changed him. He was different after that. That’s the Iditarod, I guess. It changes people.”

And maybe, I’m thinking, it changed me too. I know this: There’s a Golden Retriever relaxing on my couch back in Michigan.

And when I get home, he’s


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

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.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!