Tails from the Trail

Posted: Tuesday, November 18, 2003

My husband, an Iditarod musher, has encountered many unique challenges while traveling throughout Alaska on the runners of a dog sled. From hair raising to humorous, these challenges have both inspired me, and made me question his sanity on occasion. Of the many "tails of the trail" that he has lived to tell about, one stands out as a neon reminder to me as to why I might think twice about stepping on the runners of a dog sled.

It was the 1999 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race - Paul's fourth time running this 1,100 mile trail to Nome. Having shared literally thousands of miles with this team of athletes, it was second nature for Paul to pull the snowhook in the middle of the night and head back onto the trail. He was over halfway into the race by now, and was glad to be leaving the long run up the frozen Yukon River behind him as he left the village of Kaltag.

Race officials had warned mushers leaving the Kaltag checkpoint that they should anticipate the possibility of some "mild" overflow on the next leg of their journey, but predicted it would only be about 6 inches deep or so. Reportedly the two mushers just ahead of Paul on the trial had passed through the area safely, with the minus 25 degree temperatures having created a veneer of ice over the frigid water. Paul had experienced overflow before, and noted the race official's warning as the team headed back into the darkness en route to the next checkpoint some 90 miles down the trail.

Now overflow, simply put, is water forced above the natural surface of the ice. Generally occurring when the outdoor temperatures fluctuate, this overflow can be anywhere from a minor nuisance to the source of a life and death scenario, depending on its' depth and the musher's ability to react to it. A couple of inches of water to contend with, as race officials had predicted, wouldn't be any big deal. When the teams would reach it, the mushers could simply hoist themselves up on the handle bar of their sled, and easily ride through it. At most, they would need to stop the team when they were through, and put dry booties on the dogs' feet.

Knowing this, and having a familiarity with the section of trail ahead, Paul guided the team confidently into the night, with only the thin beam of his headlamp piercing the darkness. He had an idea as to where the trail would cross a creek ahead, and knew that just a mile or so beyond the area was a cabin often used by mushers to stop and rest their teams.

Well what had been covered by a thin layer of ice just a short while before, and what race officials had termed "just a little overflow" turned out to be quite different as the team halted at the bank of the creek. The sound of rushing water filled the air, as Paul used his headlamp to assess the situation. By the thin beam of light it offered, he could see that the method of trail the snowmachiners had marked for the race several days earlier had followed the now submerged ice of the meandering creek bed. The banks offered no alternative, being choked with dense brush. The only option would be to go through the water, and follow the trail until it headed off the creek.

Anticipating the chance for open water, Paul had packed the supplies in his sled into heavy plastic bags when he left the checkpoint earlier. He had been certain to secure dry booties for the dogs, and fresh boot liners for his own feet. Despite this, he still was not entirely eager to walk out into the water and lead the team at twenty-five degrees below zero. Paul's lead dog at the time, Homer, shared this sentiment, and if he could have talked would have probably said "you go ahead, I'll follow".

At first, the water was only about mid-calf deep. Paul figured he could handle that. But as he got further into it, the water seeped thigh deep, saturating the foam lining of his snowsuit. Homer started to balk at the situation, and Paul knew he could not handle a mutiny in the team right then and there. At the same time, Paul looked back to see his sled starting to float in the water, and tilt slightly as it began filling up with water. Overcome with frustration, Paul hollered Homer's name with audible clarity. The reaction was instantaneous, and lead by Homer, the team bolted down the trail.

Because it all happened so quickly, Paul was in the middle of trying to right his sled at the same time the team took off. He grabbed for the sled, but just as his fingers wrapped around the handle bar, his feet slipped out beneath him on the ice below the water's surface. He managed to hang on, but in the process was being drug face first through the icy torrent. The water flushed down the collar of his parka, in a burning wave of cold that took his breath away. So there he was, dragging through the raw arctic water, yelling Homer's name with each intermittent gulp of air, at temperatures cold enough to freeze a tear drop right to your eye lashes. Each time he hollered, Homer just ran faster, and Paul would tell me later that he might have added a couple of colorful metaphors now and again, given the situation as it was.

It was only a quarter mile or so, then the trail broke up onto the bank of the creek. Knowing he had to get the dogs dried off, Paul stopped the team to let them roll in the soft snow. This instantly wicked the moisture from their fur, and prevented the harnesses from freezing to their bodies. Paul had removed their booties already, and dogs instinctively sat down and pulled the frozen bits of ice from between the pads on their feet.

Even though Paul knew there was a cabin just a short distance up the trail, he did not know if he would be the only musher in the area, and knew it would take a while to get a fire going. He had to be able to care for the dogs before anything else, and if he started to freeze up, he wouldn't be able to do this. Therefore, he knew he had to get whatever water he possibly could out of his clothing now before he started to resemble the tin man from the Wizard of Oz. So while the team stopped, Paul stripped down to his bare skin and proceeded to dump a gallon of water from each boot, and squish the rapidly solidifying liquid from his snowsuit and underwear. He would later comment that when he was wringing out his clothing on that frozen creek bed at twenty five below, it was in his words "pretty chilly".

When he was dressed and heading back down the trail with the team, he was relieved to catch the welcome scent of woodsmoke filtering from the cabin's chimney just ahead. He was greeted by two fellow mushers. They stated rather matter of factly "The fire is stoked - we knew you were coming. Could tell you had Homer in lead - and we figured you must have been having a revival or taken up religion, because we heard you holler something about God". When he finally stepped inside the cabin, Paul quickly spied the lines of wet gear drying above the woodstove - evidence that he wasn't the only one to have taken a midnight bath on the trail that night.

Later, as he was out feeding the dogs again and preparing to head back down the trail - his gear, now dry and warm - Paul started to laugh. Carried on the ebony hours of darkness were the distinct sounds of another musher plunging through the water. Paul poked his head back into the cabin door and chuckled as he told the mushers that had earlier greeted him, "Stoke the fire, Charlie Boulding will be here in a couple minutes. And by the way - it sounds like he found religion too!"

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