IDITAROD DIARY, CHAPTER 4: In which we discover sleeping dogs, ice cooking, and witness a plane crash.
SKWENTNA, Alaska — As the wind curled over the frozen treetops, I glanced at my pilot, Old Jim, who used to fly burned bodies out of Vietnam — we’ll get to that in a minute — and he pointed to a huge, frozen, snow-covered river in the distance. “Look there,” he said.
On the surface, I spotted at least 20 rows of straw piles, each dotted with something black in the middle, and human figures bent over the snow. It looked like an outdoor hospital after a nuclear attack. We flew closer and I realized the black spots were actually dogs, hundreds of dogs, sleeping in straw beds. And the figures were Iditarod mushers, cooking food. They have been out on the trail more than 24 hours now, more than 150 miles, running through the sub-freezing night like silent messengers. Their faces, dog and human, were stuck with tiny icicles. They needed rest.
So this was, what, sort of a musher’s Howard Johnson’s? “It’s a checkpoint,” Jim said, “one of the more popular ones. There’s a house, and the folks cook ’em food. They might even catch a little sleep.”
He set the plane down on the ice, and we walked toward the husky dogs, sleeping in rows like kindergarten kids at nap time. I rubbed my back, which was sore from the mattress at the Latitude 62 Restaurant, Bar & Motel, the roadhouse where I had slept. No TV. No radio. No thermostat. But very low rates. Great place to take the kids. And leave them. But what do you expect? I have been here six days now, in The Lonely Country, and I have no one but myself to blame.
The mushers were toiling away on little fires. “Whatcha cooking?” I asked Kazoukojima, the only Japanese musher in this year’s Iditarod. He stirred what seemed to be a plastic crockpot full of mush.
“For dogs,” he said. “I make beef, honey, vitamins. Very good. They must eat.”
“Yeah, but what will you eat?” He smiled and pulled out a plastic pouch and dumped it into a tin saucer. “Lasagna!” he declared. Then he yanked out a pair of chopsticks, tapped them together, and there, in the middle of this huge frozen river, with his dogs stretched out in front of him like furry soldiers, he dug in.
“Mmm,” he said, the sauce dripping around his lips. “Is delicious.”
The Last Great Race on Earth. She talks to the animals It takes 11 days, the Iditarod, if you’re good. As much as four weeks if you’re bad. And don’t even think about trying it unless you know how to camp, fish, hunt, and at least hold off a moose, if not shoot him dead. Above all, the Iditarod is about survival. One look around this Skwentna River, where mushers were hauling bags of food, starting fires, dipping into an ice hole for water, and sleeping inside their sleds — in 10 degree weather! — well, you know these folks passed the Boy Scout test.
Which is more than I can say. I used to think “roughing it” was a Motel 6.
I walked past Joe Runyan, who won this race two years ago. He said he was going into the cabin to try to sleep for an hour, alongside a dozen other mushers who were snoring away. Further down the ice was Susan Butcher, the defending champion, who, rumor has it, talks with her dogs like family. As I approached, she was moving them around on a tethered line, looking to get the strongest dog in front.
“Come on up here,” she said.
Not to me. To a dog.
“What are you grumbling about?” she continued. “Oh, don’t be that way. .
. . And you, what’s the matter? . . . I know, yeah, I know. . . . “
I figured it was best to leave Susan alone, seeing as I was not on a leash.
I should tell you about Old Jim, and the time he had to extinguish the burning body of a CIA agent and fly him back from Vietnam, and I should also tell you about my fellow passengers, two Japanese photographers, Sato and Suda, who work for a big newspaper in Tokyo. They don’t speak much English. At one point in our flight, I turned around, real friendly-like, and said, “I am a newspaper columnist.”
And they said, “You are communist?”
And I said, “Never mind.”
But first, let me answer a few questions about the rigors of the Iditarod, seeing as you are probably reading this in front of a bowl of Cheerios.
1. How do the mushers carry all that dog food? It is flown, ahead of time, into designated checkpoints, thousands of pounds of beef, lamb, dried pellets, whatever. Each driver has his bags pre-marked, and only he can handle them, and only he can feed the dogs. Any help is breaking the rules.
2. What about sleep — can they sleep at the checkpoints? Well, some checkpoints are nothing more than a tent with a banner hung across two spruce trees. Not much sleeping there. Others are post offices, a community hall, a deserted cabin. You take your pick. Mushers will sometimes sleep in their sleds, or in sleeping bags on the ice, to be close to the dogs so they won’t run away.
3. Has that ever happened? Sure. One year, a team of dogs arrived in perfect stride at a checkpoint — without a musher. He had been plunked on the head by a low branch and had fallen out of the sled. The dogs, so excited to be running, never even stopped.
4. If the checkpoints are so primitive, where do mushers, you know, relieve themselves? Anywhere they want.
5. The race is 1,049 long. How do mushers know where to go? The trail is marked. At least it’s supposed to be marked. Sometimes a bad snowstorm will wipe out the trail, leaving mushers to figure it out themselves. It’s not unusual for a team to wind up 50 miles off course. Still, that’s better than what happened to a musher named Bert Bonhoff.
6. What happened to Bert Bonhoff? Six years ago, his team was behind the Iditarod race leader when the leader took a wrong turn, off the trail. Realizing his mistake, the leader turned his dogs around. But Bonhoff wasn’t so quick. And the next thing he knew, his lead dogs disappeared — over a cliff. They were dangling helplessly 1,000 feet above a river, like something from an Indiana Jones movie. Bonhoff locked his sled in place, crawled to the edge, pulled on the ropes, and managed to save them from death.
A few more feet, and they would have been pulling him out of the water. Old Jim knows his way around
Which brings me back to Old Jim, the pilot who, as I said, used to do that
sort of thing in Vietnam. Like a lot of people up here in Alaska, he doesn’t mind roughing it. He lived with his wife and two children in a remote house that had no electricity, no running water, and the way he tells it, no complaints. And I believe it. Old Jim is the rugged sort that survives here in The Lonely Country. And I trust him for two reasons:
1. He specialized in rescue operations — which is comforting, in case something happens between me and a moose.
2. He is prophetic. After we left Skwentna, we flew to the next checkpoint, an isolated, gorgeous spot called Finger Lake, nestled near the foot of the mountains. Jim landed the plane on a long, thin strip of packed snow. As I got out to walk toward the checkpoint — fwoooop! — I disappeared in a drift. Jim kind of laughed and I squirmed back to my feet. As I walked away, he said, “Hey, watch out for airplanes on this strip. They can sneak up on you.”
I smirked. Very funny.
And 10 minutes later, I was sitting on a tree stump, interviewing Joe Garnie, the native Alaskan musher who is leading this race and who, by being the first to reach Skwentna, at 3 a.m., won himself a brand new Dodge truck.
(“A new truck! This is great,” he said. And I said, “You really needed one, huh?” And he said, “Yeah, now all I have to do is get a driver’s license.”) And suddenly I look up and a small blue plane is coming in for a landing. And it touches down on the snow and begins to wobble. Someone standing next to me mumbled, “Uh-oh.” And the plane skids sharply to the left, toward three people who are standing there, and they run away frantically — except one woman falls in the snow and the plane runs her over with its landing ski then crashes into two other planes parked nearby.
And the next thing, I am running, with the others, toward the ugly scene, and someone is yelling, “Medic! Get a medic! . . . ”
* TOMORROW: Trouble in the wilderness.