IDITAROD DIARY, CHAPTER 3: In which The Last Great Race on Earth begins.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The streets were still dark when the horrible noise began, a yelping, screeching, howling sound that swelled to a frightening volume, until you wanted to cover your ears and run for shelter. It was the sound of dogs whose blood was boiling, the sound of dogs yanking on their chains, jumping over one another in anticipation. The sound of dogs, thousands of dogs, ready to run.
I walked these streets Saturday morning, between the hungry beasts, feeling the raw power that is Alaska on the morning of the first day of the Iditarod, the Last Great Race on Earth. I breathed in the cold air, the energy of the mushers, the naked power of these furry animals. I felt a kinship with my ancestors, a sense of history, a surge of passion.
Then I felt a squish beneath my feet.
So now I smell like a dog, too.
“You feel lucky?” I asked Joe Runyan, the 1989 winner, as he wolfed down an Egg McMuffin while the inspectors checked his dogs.
“I feel good,” he said. “The dogs are ready.”
“Last fast food for a while, huh?”
He grinned. “Yeah. Not many McDonald’s on the Bering Sea.”
All around were the trucks of his competitors, rolling kennels that house the dogs who will pull these mushers more than 1,100 miles the next two weeks, through mountains and rivers and forests. Seventy-five teams were in these Anchorage streets, some all business, others in it just for fun. Not far from Susan Butcher, the defending champion, was a businessman from North Carolina, in his first and probably only Iditarod attempt. Across from Rick Swenson, the only musher besides Butcher to win four Iditarods, was a lawyer who grew up in Michigan — in Farmington, for Pete’s sake — a guy named Jim Cantor, who was wearing a gray suit over his long underwear, a costume he’ll don for the first 20 miles.
“How did you get into this?” I asked. “Did you have mush dogs in Farmington?”
“Nah. I had a Labrador retriever.”
There is a stockbroker in this year’s Iditarod and there are mushers who spend all year with dogs, training hundreds of them in tiny villages in northern Alaska, just for this moment. The race will soon separate the real from the fake, but for now, the morning of the start, they are all together, the challengers, the hermits, the bearded, the demented. One guy actually has 10 poodles racing alongside his huskies.
“It’s the Year of the Poodle,” he told me.
I looked at his team.
Obviously it’s the year of the puddle, too.
And suddenly, the announcer was calling and the teams were pushing through the packed snow on Fourth Street, in single file — “THREE . . . TWO . . . ONE
. . . GO!” — and the dogs, tethered together at the neck and body, sprang into action as if someone laced their water with amphetamines, galloping through the streets, the first steps on the odyssey toward Nome. . . .
Hunger, hallucinations, death
What can happen out there, on the last frontier? Well, that is both the lure and the danger. You can, for example, fall though the ice on the Yukon River and be lost forever, frozen to death. A cheery thought. You can be thrown from your sled, crack your ribs, and only pray that someone finds you in the snow. You can lose track of the trail — maybe a snowstorm wipes it out, maybe you are so punchy from lack of sleep you simply make a wrong turn
— and you are lost for days, your food runs out, your hungry dogs begin eating the leather that binds them together. This happened 15 years ago to Norman Vaughn, a well-known explorer who has been to the South Pole and back but nonetheless got lost during his rookie try at the Iditarod. He was saved, five days later, by snowmobilers who discovered his tracks.
This is the race that I will cover, by airplane, by foot, by curiosity mostly. And maybe stupidity. After all, why venture into the depths of the Alaska wilderness, where the temperature can drop to 40 below, to observe an event in which even the best mushers can suffer frostbite, dizzy spells and hallucinations? They can be staring at 30 miles of wide-open, blinding white landscape and suddenly they imagine a tree, or a house, or the horizon turning into a stick trying to hit them in the face. “That happened to me several times,” said DeeDee Jonrowe, a wavy-haired veteran Iditarod racer whom I met on Thursday. “You start ducking and swiping at this stick, you keep thinking it’s going to smack you, but it’s just the horizon line, fooling you, playing tricks with your head.”
Hmmm. Sounds like the ’60s to me.
Of course, much of what you see out there is real and inspiring, like buffalo in a snow field, and much of it is natural and awesome, such as the Alaska mountain range, or the illumination of the Northern Lights, reflecting pink off the frozen earth. Then again, some things you don’t want to see — like a charging moose, that big dumb animal who is a dog musher’s biggest enemy. And mine, too. (Let’s face it. I am hung up on this moose thing. And if one of them attacks me, I am not giving up my wallet.) Butcher, the master musher herself, had to drop out of the 1985 Iditarod — while she was leading
— after being attacked by a pregnant moose. She held it off with a stick for half an hour until finally another musher came by with a gun and shot it dead. That filthy beast killed two of Butcher’s dogs, trampled them to death. Most mushers carry guns now. I don’t blame them.
It’s you or the moose.
And then there are the mishaps with your own dogs. Some are tragic. Some are comic. Jonrowe — whom I really like, because she seems like the kind of woman who would laugh as her sled went off a cliff — tells the story of a recent race in which she was forced to stop her team when it went off course. On that day, she had 14 male dogs and two female dogs in her team.
The females were in heat.
“In the time it took to turn the sled around, Custard (a male) and Susitna
(a female) couldn’t resist each other, and they started to do what nature tells them to do. I kind of went ‘Nooo! Custard!’ But it was too late. And once they get started, naturally you can’t separate them. I had to sit and let nature take its course. It took 25 minutes and cost me first place.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“What can you do?” she laughed. “I waited until they were finished, let them smoke a couple cigarettes, then we moved on.”
“Weren’t you angry?” I asked.
She smiled, as if explaining the Golden Rule to a child.
“It’s the dogs who win the race,” she said. ” Above all, you have to respect them.” On to Nome
Back at the start the dogs were charging, leaping, howling as if someone were crushing them in a vise. So juiced are the animals at this point that the first 20 miles, mushers make them pull two people on two sleds. Just to tone down their adrenaline.
“What are you doing up there?” I yelled to Bill Peele, the 55-year-old North Carolina rookie musher who saved up three years of vacation time from his job to experience this race just once. He was standing on the roof of his truck, with a camera, as the early teams pulled out.
“I’m just trying to take this all in,” he said.
“You nervous?” I asked.
“No. I just want to make it to Nome in one piece.”
And that pretty much sums up my attitude. Because some strange things keep happening. Before sunrise, standing in the street, I once again encountered the mysterious, one-eyed man who is my liaison to the two Japanese journalists who will share my plane tomorrow. The man held a cigarette that glowed in the morning dark. He grinned.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
“Be careful out there. It’s tougher than it looks.”
He tapped out his butt and limped away on his cane.
The dogs kept howling. I tried to ignore them. On Friday, I found a man who agreed to take me on a brief sled run, so I could better understand the power of these beasts. I hopped on, and the dogs looked back at me as if to say “Great. Another tourist.” And — ya! — they took off. And then they took a wrong turn and the musher yelled “whoa” and ran up and bit one of the dogs on the ear. . . .
But that is a tale for the days to come, provided I can find a phone line out there between the snow drifts. For now, we buckle the hats and tug on the boot strings, we feel for that polypropylene underwear and, knowing it is there, get warm all over. We are following the call of the wild, the yipping and yelping that cuts through the darkness. The sound of the dogs, ready to go.
As soon as I change my shoes.
* TOMORROW: Into the wilderness.