Mush, Mush, Mush, Dammit, Mush!
|Outside magazine, December 1996
Mush, Mush, Mush, Dammit, Mush!
As it preps for its 25th running, the Iditarod considers a mangy history of PCism, marauding polar bears, and the occasional random murder. Trail notes from America’s last great race.
It’s five degrees above zero with a menacing wind blowing off Alaska’s Norton Sound. A half-dozen Inuits gather on the frozen slough of the Unalakleet River and stare east into the sun, toward the powdery Nulato Hills. An advance guard on a snow machine buzzes down the trail and then races back. “A mile out,” he reports, shifting the rifle strapped across his chest. Finally, a musher appears–an apparition in red Gore-Tex, hoarfrost glazing his mustache, the badges of corporate sponsors blazing against the monochromatic landscape. His dogs trot across the slough and into the village of Unalakleet. A cry goes up: “It’s Jeff King! Jeff King!” A gang of children with fox pelts draped over their heads clap their mittened hands. “Welcome to the Coast!” King favors them with a tight smile, squints his blue eyes, and hits the sled brake hard. The vanguard of the 1996 Iditarod sled-dog race has just slid into town.
Mobbed by the autograph-hungry kids, King shouts his bib number to the official with the clipboard and starts laying out straw for his dogs. King looks like he’s been poleaxed, but that’s nothing new–the stunned expression has been building since about mile 200 of the 1,150-mile route. King has spent the last 48 hours staring at nothing but snow and the dancing behinds of 11 trotting dogs. He hasn’t had a solid hour of sleep since the race left Anchorage seven days–and 882 miles–ago.
Working on autopilot, King knocks apart 11 metal dog bowls. The dogs curl up in the snow, their noses tucked under paws for warmth, their eyes watchful. They’re surprisingly petite–some weigh as little as 45 pounds. A minority have the classic good looks of purebred huskies; most come in mottled shades of black, white, yellow, red, and brown. Their tails are straight or curled, their ears flop-style or prick.
A young boy reaches to pet Canon, a lead dog, but King shoots him a look that says don’t. Bent double in the arctic wind, King yanks booties off 44 furry feet. Ethanol goes into a metal bucket. A match drops. Whoosh! Elbowing his way through the crowd, he fills another bucket with water and sets it over the flames. Kneeling in the snow now, bare-handed, he bashes apart frozen meat with an ax and tosses the chunks into a cooler. He dumps in warm water and sloshes the stew into the dog bowls. As the dogs ravenously eat, King tucks his hands under his armpits and quickly scans the town. Where’s Swingley? he’s thinking. Where’s Buser?
He doesn’t have long to wait. Within ten minutes, Doug Swingley pulls up with his trusty Elmer in the lead. A Montanan who won last year’s Iditarod in record time, Swingley has the measured, conservative look of a mergers and acquisitions guy. His high-tech snowsuit is black. Swingley makes no secret of his plan to dominate this race. He’s calling his team “superdogs” and telling the media that Iditarod ’96 feels a lot like Iditarod ’95. The word “cocky” floats in his wake. Oddsmakers in Reno sent him off as the Iditarod favorite at seven to one.
Right on Swingley’s tail is Martin Buser, a local hero from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley who won in 1992 and 1994. The name is pronounced “boozer,” and it’s a measure of the man’s popularity that no one gets it wrong. Buser is a boyish-looking giant, blond-haired and dimpled. A native of Switzerland, he coos to his dogs and pets them endlessly. For his unflagging optimism, his wife calls him Pollyanna.
King, Swingley, and Buser have been playing leapfrog ever since checkpoint Cripple, halfway through the race. Over the next four days, a total of 52 dog teams will dribble into Unalakleet, this tiny fishing village on Norton Sound, but it’s unlikely at this point that anyone will bust into this elite group. Still, there’s another 268 miles of hard trail to cover, and all manner of peculiarly Alaskan events could intrude.
For days now, there have been rumors of polar bear sightings on the pack ice just outside of Shaktoolik, which is only 40 miles north of here. And now a race official is passing around a fax: “The polar bear reports [are] not a hoax! Several mushers and snowmachines had encounters last nite. Exercize caution, keep your eyes open and aim straight.”
Not easily flappable, the mushers view the report with trepidation. A riled Ursus maritimus, they know, can be the most aggressive of animals, and little huskies make tasty snacks.
The notion that bad things can happen in the bush, that dogs can die, that a crabby polar bear can gambol through camp and make a meal of you, is part of the harsh romance of the North Country. It’s a romance that doesn’t easily jibe with Lower 48 civilization, with its insistence on safeguards and emergency backup plans, on telegenic heroes and pretty pictures for the nightly satellite feed. The Iditarod, sometimes referred to by media-savvy Alaskans as the Last Great Race on Earth, has from its inception found itself caught between two worlds, trying to preserve the raw verities of the old Alaska while coping with the demands of a corporate, digitalized, litigation-prone modernity that doesn’t like nasty surprises.
This winter finds Alaskans gearing up for the 25th anniversary of the Iditarod, a milestone that many believed the event would never see. Just a few years ago, this most grueling of endurance trials was going downhill fast, seemingly destined to become yet another bit of Last Frontier lore, a memento of the once mythically tough Alaskan character. First, in 1993, ABC’s Wide World of Sports, which had done much to popularize the event in the Lower 48, declined to renew its contract. Then animal rights groups began to intensify their protests against the perceived cruelty of the race. They accused mushers of running dogs to death, of culling puppy litters to improve the breed. At least one dog has died in every running of the Iditarod, and in 1985 alone, 12 dogs died of heart failure, exhaustion, or hypothermia. Over the years, others have succumbed to moose attacks, collisions with snow machines, or harsh weather. In 1994, under pressure from the Humane Society, national sponsors began pulling out–first Timberland, then Iams–for a combined loss of $675,000. The total purse dropped by 50 grand.
In 1994, the Iditarod’s chief veterinarian called for stiffer standards of dog care, requiring that vets thoroughly examine every animal at every checkpoint. Iditarod champs publicly denounced the practice of culling. The Trail Committee upped, from 200 to 500, the number of qualifying miles a musher must complete. By 1996, state sponsors, such as Alaska Dodge Dealers and the National Bank of Alaska, began to fill the large void left by the nationals. The Humane Society of the United States relaxed its jaw and let the subject drop.
But a safer, more culturally sensitive Iditarod is not by any means a sissified Iditarod. The race still crosses two densely forested mountain ranges and hundreds of miles of frozen tundra as it traces the old dog-team routes that once brought mail and supplies from coastal towns to interior mining camps. The Iditarod follows the Yukon River and then turns north over Norton Sound, notorious for brutal headwinds and merciless storms. Temperatures during the race dip to 40 below, with winds at speeds that turn snowflakes into bullets. From Koyuk it turns west and follows the barren coast to the old mining town of Nome, where crowds gather at the burled spruce arch on Main Street that serves as the finish line.
The organizational machinery that makes all this possible has evolved along its own tortuous route. In 1973, the Iditarod went off with a total purse of just $50,000. Thirty-four mushers, almost half of them Alaskan Natives, paid the $100 entry fee to compete, and a lone bush pilot delivered supplies to checkpoints. Those first Iditarod champions made it to Nome in what now seems a languorous 20 days, often traveling together, stopping to make bonfires and visit with friends along the way.
Nowadays mushers make the trip in ten days, and over the years, terms like “market share” and “presenting sponsor” have slipped into their vocabulary. The 1996 race budget is $2.2 million, the race manager draws a salary nine months of the year, and it takes an Iditarod air force of 25 pilots to shuttle personnel and gear. It’s estimated that to cover the $1,750 entry fee, equipment, dog food, freight, and other costs, a competitive musher needs to raise upward of $40,000. Meanwhile, some Alaskan Natives resent how expensive competing in the Iditarod has become; they feel that whites, with their sponsorship dollars, have stolen a part of their culture. (Only two Native mushers are competing in 1996.)
The start of the 1996 race has been overcast by a wholly different form of protest. The Iditarod Trail Committee has just instituted a rule that disqualifies any musher whose dog dies from anything but an external force beyond the musher’s control. The mushers have fought the rule–to no avail–and accused the committee of caving in to pressure from outsiders, namely those clueless sponsors who don’t understand that dogs often die for unknown reasons, that Alaska is a harsh land, and that anyone who tries to organize a race across it must confront unavoidable perils.
Like murder, for instance. Early on the morning of the start date, March 2, 1996, an unidentified assailant empties a pistol into an Anchorage man and dumps his body on Fourth Avenue, the starting chute for the race. The police eventually remove the corpse, bulldozers spread enough snow to make the street white, and 960 overstimulated dogs line up in front of 60 wooden sleds. At ten o’clock, with the mercury at 14 degrees, the emcee counts down to zero. “They’re off to Nome!” he cries, and the first musher momentarily lifts his foot from the brake. The crowd bellows as the dogs lunge forward, straining at their nylon harnesses. The musher will ride the brake for the entire run through Anchorage, trying to slow the surging team, trying to conserve its considerable energy.
For the first three days, the mushers fight their way through willow swamps and alder thickets barely covered by snow. The sun has liquefied bogs, and dogs are sinking into the soft, punchy drifts. Linda Joy, a rookie, trots into one checkpoint with an eye swollen shut and blood flowing from her lower lip. She’s ebullient. “I made love to a tree,” she crows. Despite the adverse conditions, Doug Swingley, who started 21st, manages to move up nine places in one day. Buser advances four, while Jeff King, improbably, slips back three.
Because of circumstances beyond my control–the crash landing of my plane and windstorms that keep fresh pilots stuck in Anchorage–I spend an extra day in Rainy Pass, the eighth of 27 checkpoints. The race leaders have all come and gone, so I’m stuck with an apparently stir-crazy employee of the hunting lodge, who insists on showing me a horse with five-inch-long fur. “That’s your story,” he keeps saying to me.
I wake in the morning to find that fate has delivered to me Rick Swenson, the pudgy-faced, irascible five-time Iditarod champ and the most famous man in Alaska sports history. In ordinary times, Swenson would not be eating pancakes in a heated lodge while the last-place musher signs into the checkpoint. Swenson has run the Iditarod 20 consecutive years and never finished out of the top ten. But 12 hours into Iditarod ’96, he plowed through two feet of overflow on the Yentna River and pulled out to discover one of his dogs, Ariel, dragging in her tangled tow line. For ten minutes, Swenson tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When he realized Ariel was beyond help, he placed her in the sled bag and mushed on to Skwentna, where he told his story to race officials. He left the dog for a necropsy and continued down the trail with his team of 15.
Were this 1995 or any other year, Swenson would finish his race. But this year he is subject to the dead-dog rule. At Rainy Pass, Swenson learns that the race marshal has withdrawn him. Defensive and angry, he tells me, “I think the decision is completely unfair. Their necropsy found no clinical sign of abuse or neglect. I haven’t lost a dog in a race in 20 years. Now my reputation is ruined.”
He sips coffee and shakes his head. Beyond his personal loss, Swenson sees larger issues at stake. He believes that the Iditarod has grown too fast and that sponsors worry too much about public relations. “The Trail Committee is more interested in selling T-shirts than in the race,” he says. Then he poses some interesting questions: “Do we really need sponsors? And do the sponsors really need a bunch of dirt-poor dog mushers?”
I ask Swenson, “If you protest the rule, aren’t you essentially saying that the Iditarod can’t be run without dogs dying?” Swenson doesn’t blink. “This is Alaska. Snow machines, grizzlies, moose, ice–those things can bite you. You have to be a realistic Alaskan. If you can’t accept that death is a part of life, you’re in for a big surprise.”
At noon, Swenson loads Funnel, Rocket, Oatmeal, and 12 other dogs into a plane. The team is going home. “See you next year,” says a vet as Swenson climbs in. He answers, “I don’t think so.”
Fifty-nine mushers make it over the Alaska range and wind down the sinuous Dalzell Gorge. They cross the Tatina and Kuskokwim Rivers, stop at checkpoint Rohn, and strike out across the long, bleak flats of the Farewell Burn. At the gateway to the Kuskokwim Mountains, the mushers sign in and out of Nikolai and continue on, through small stands of spruce and alder, into McGrath–four days and 413 miles into the race.
McGrath owes its existence to several rich veins of gold in the nearby mountains. It’s a major aviation center, with a couple of cafës and a supermarket that cashes checks. I ask Jack Niggemyer, the race manager, how things are shaping up so far. “Well,” he says, “so far no one’s gotten lost or banged up real bad. We haven’t broken any metal.” He means airplanes.
Niggemyer is a large man with flowing brown locks and a beard that lies like a pelt upon his ample chest. He chews tobacco while he smokes. In his backyard, he once head-butted a moose calf that was menacing his dog. Then he shot it. Though he appears to be doing nothing, Niggemyer is constantly at work. There’s always some fresh hell he must address: mushers getting lost on a section of unmarked trail, a vet who needs a place to lay a sleeping bag, a rampaging moose wreaking havoc with volunteers who’ve ridden ahead on snow machines to break fresh trail.
I dump my pack at a bunkhouse on the edge of the airfield. The place reeks of aviation fuel, but it’s cheap and warm. By the fuel pumps, I meet Betsy and Caroline and Betty, lively women who offer to take me with them on a snow machine to Takotna, an Athabascan village one checkpoint up the line toward Nome, where the leaders are taking a mandatory 24-hour rest. We set off in the early afternoon under improbably sunny skies, temperature in the midthirties. We have only 23 miles to ride, but the trip takes several hours, because we have to stop with great frequency. Betsy pulls over and digs out her “traveler,” a mixture of vodka and Kool-Aid powder. “Nobody around here goes anywhere without a traveler,” she tells me. We pass the bottle around, and then everybody lights up a smoke and Betsy hands me a small box. “Ever try snuff?” Betty pulls out a bag of dried salmon and we all gnaw on that. We discuss DeeDee Jonrowe. “I’d sure like to see her win,” Betsy says. Caroline agrees: DeeDee deserves it–she’s run the race 11 times. “But she always craps out toward the end.” We nod our heads and remount. We ride another 20 minutes and do it all again.
Finally we reach Takotna: a dozen wood-frame buildings on the side of a hill, tin-roofed shacks, dead trucks, birch trees, frozen river. Inside a log church, musher Timmy Osmar is just waking from a long, long nap. With hair matted and clothes in a twist, he stretches his arms to the ceiling and yawns. “You get a little sleep poisoning there?” asks another musher. “What time is it?” Osmar asks, dazzled by the sunlight streaming in the window.
I ask Osmar his plans. “Take care of the dogs, sleep, feed the dogs, sleep, work on their feet, reorganize the sled.” What about showering? I ask. “Oh, no, no,” he says, shaking his head. “Showering’s not a good idea. You build up an inner layer of warmth in your own stink.”
Outside the church, Swingley daubs ointment on the cracks in his dogs’ pads. “Your body is programmed to wake up every two hours, without an alarm clock,” he tells me. “All you do is care for the dogs.” Buser sorts through his gear. King is absent, though I’m sure he’s around here somewhere–laying low, scheming. The troika arrived, within minutes of one another, around 3:30 a.m.
For some mushers, the race is beginning to take on shades of the Bataan Death March. The toll shows in haggard faces, swollen hands, and strained backs. Hair stands up in greasy snarls; stained anoraks reek of sweat. Three teams have scratched. A hundred miles back, a moose jumped onto the leaders of musher Sven Engholm’s team. The crazed ungulate stomped one dog’s leg and injured three others before bouncing back into the forest. Engholm had a rifle, but he was reluctant to use it: The race rules require mushers to dress out and salvage the meat of any edible animal they kill on the trail, a time-consuming process.
Already, most of the mushers have “dropped” at least a couple of dogs deemed too exhausted or otherwise unfit to carry on. The dogs are left with veterinarians at checkpoints and then flown back to Anchorage, where they remain under the care of prisoners at the state penitentiary until the race is over.
While outwardly cordial, the most competitive mushers speak to one another mainly to discover their weaknesses: a dog that’s not pulling, equipment failure, any hint of mental collapse. Here in Takotna, King conserves energy by limiting his interactions with humans. Swingley’s air of superiority has the same effect. Only Buser, sharing stories of the trail with the press and fellow mushers, seems to be enjoying himself. The sunny days may turn out to be his secret weapon, since many of his dogs have unusually thin coats. “This is Martin weather,” one older musher says, scowling. “His dogs ain’t got no hair on ’em!”
Great speed, I’ve learned, isn’t always enough to win an Iditarod. Endurance counts, as does the ability to hold back. For the first half of the race, King rode the brake a lot, and sometimes he released the tug lines of certain dogs, letting them trot along the gang line without shouldering any weight. “It’s a little like pulling some spark plugs,” he explains. The mushers know that above all they must be flexible, able to accommodate illness, competitors’ unforeseen power surges, the weather.
Inside the Takotna community center, the mushers dine on moose stew. Osmar joins them at a long Formica table. “Man, that trail into McGrath was really bad,” he says to no one in particular. “My dogs were saying, ‘Come on, Dad, that’s a nice place to rest!'” The mushers nod their heads in agreement. One asks, “Does anyone know what day it is?”
The sun sets, the moon rises. My snow-machining friends meet up with their volunteer friends, big, burly guys who’ve been breaking Iditarod trail with their own snow machines. Beers are consumed. Sometime around 11, when the mercury has dipped below zero, Betsy tells me the gang’s about ready to go.
We race through stunted spruces toward McGrath, a convoy of ten machines. But soon it’s time for a short break, complete with a smoke and a round of travelers. We measure some wolf tracks: four inches across. Everyone weighs in on the quality of their machines’ heat exchangers, the style of struts they wish they had. Is the Yamaha really a finer machine than the Polaris?
The trailbreakers describe their jobs. Basically, they ride ahead of the lead mushers, packing down the trail, marking it, and building log and snow bridges where overflow has gotten out of hand. At night they cut down spruce boughs and stretch out in sleeping bags under the stars. Of course, there’s no money in the work, but the trailbreakers get a certain amount of prestige, all the food they can eat, and all the beer such prestige can parlay. Trailbreaker Frank sums up the deal for me: “This is our vacation. It’s hard work, but we enjoy ourselves.” His buddy agrees. “It’s a lifestyle, see? A lifestyle.”
In the Athabascan village of Ruby, mile 646, where the trail turns west for a long run down the frozen highway of the Yukon River, schoolchildren bolt from their classrooms as the mushers arrive. Inside the log-walled community center, the chef from Anchorage’s four-star Regal Alaskan Hotel, per tradition, is preparing a fancy dinner atop a camp stove for the first musher into town.
Last year Swingley had the honor, but he was in such a rush that he declined his meal, something that did not endear him to the locals. This year, it’s Buser who gets here first, and he’s hungry.
An air of pomp and hilarity pervades the community center. The portly chef wears a massive fox-pelt toque. Smiling gamely but looking exhausted, Buser tucks away king crab, scallops, venison, roast duck salad, and peach tart. Cameras flash and whir.
Throughout the afternoon, fans and officials buzz through the center, grabbing sandwiches and cups of coffee, checking the reams of stats that get faxed in every few hours. Wet snowsuits hang by a woodstove; boot liners litter the floor. Behind a plastic curtain, a few mushers who’ve trickled in since Buser arrived are tucked into their sleeping bags.
“I think Martin’s pretty stressed, trying to keep up with Swingley,” King whispers to Jonrowe over bowls of chili. “Yeah,” she agrees. But these two don’t seem too broken up about the state of Buser’s psyche. King describes Buser as “ingenious,” and he doesn’t mean it as a compliment.
I ask Jeff King what kind of pace he’s been keeping. “I haven’t dipped below ten miles an hour since leaving Wasilla,” he says, somewhat smugly. His GPS would tell him the dogs average 11.5, but King says he hardly ever looks at his GPS. He doesn’t need to.
King, who won in 1993, is trim and athletically built, with graying blond hair, sharp cheekbones, and a thick mustache. He can be a gruff bastard on the trail, but he has a secret soft spot. At the ceremonial start of the race, a little boy named C.J. Kolbe, who has bone cancer, rode with King on his sled. Kolbe gave King a good-luck penny, which the musher tied into a glove tip and hung around his neck on a string. The nine-year-old seems to have had a profound affect on King.”I do feel different about the race this year,” he tells me. “I’m not nearly so tense. I’ve been imagining what C.J.’s family has endured and what C.J. is going through now. What I’m doing just seems so much less important.”
Still, King’s philosophical conversion doesn’t seem to have tempered his trailside demeanor. He’s still analytical, high-strung, and supremely focused. His major shortcoming is a lack of discipline, which has in the past spurred him out of checkpoints on the heels of the leaders, having rested his dogs only an hour. His impatience extends to the press. Asked in Anchorage about his thinking on the dead-dog rule, he told a reporter, “Get the hell out of here if you don’t have a better question than that.”
At six o’clock, Buser completes his mandatory eight-hour rest and mushes out of Ruby amid the usual circus of media, locals, and volunteers. It’s a great relief for mushers finally to reach the Yukon River. The worst part of the trail is behind them. Now the wind will be at their backs, the weather cold, the trail hard and fast. King and Swingley, counting the hours till they’re free to go, can hardly wait.
The morning dawns pink and cold, with the lead mushers already down the river in Nulato and Kaltag. I round up my pilot, Rob Jones, who as usual is huddled with the other pilots discussing engine size, catalytic heaters, their preferred landing spots in the Brooks Range. They had exactly the same conversation last night.
Rob is apple-cheeked and boyish, with a thick mustache and an eager manner. Already we act like an old married couple: When we hop out of the Super Cub, I grab the engine cover, he does the elevators; I twist in the ice screws, he ropes down the wings. The Cub needs only enough runway to hit 32 miles per hour–and then we’re airborne. We can land just about anywhere we want, so long as it’s kind of flat and covered with snow. I talk Rob into a pit stop on the tundra so that I can investigate a herd of caribou. Rob, in turn, insists on landing at an abandoned mining camp so that he can examine ancient road-graders–apparently it’s an obsession of his.When I get cold, Rob chops down a tree and lights it on fire. A little aviation fuel helps.
From Ruby, we hop down the Yukon River and watch the mushers go by. It’s out here, away from checkpoints, sponsors, and rules, that I come to appreciate the artistry involved in tying together a mob of dogs and getting them to pull in one direction. I had thought of the musher as a drone, melting snow, tying on booties, and mediating the petty psychodramas of stressed-out dogs. Then I took a ride on a smooth, fast track and listened as the sled runners slinked through the snow. I raced past ghostly trees as the aurora borealis swept the sky, and I began to understand what mushers mean when they talk about the sport’s mystique.
Earlier, Matt Desalernos, a musher turned race official, had described for me the beauty of the musher-dog relationship. “It brings tears to your eyes to see them working,” he said. “It’s like a Testarossa: You tap the throttle, you feel the power under you. It just vibrates through your whole body.”
“Even on day six?” I asked, skeptical.
“No, you’re not exactly vibrating on day six,” he said. “You finally hit a wall. A lot of zip leaves the dogs’ step, and you start hallucinating.”
Out of their harnesses, Alaskan sled dogs, like any canines, mill and socialize; they urinate and try to have sex with each other. But out on the trail, they’re all business. Pound for pound, sled dogs have three times the oxygen-intake capacity of the best human athletes. They trot along at approximately 13 miles per hour for five to eight hours at a go, burning up to 11,000 calories every day.
Suddenly, Buser appears from the north, whistling encouragement at his dogs. He waves as he speeds past bare cottonwoods along the river’s edge. The dogs seem oblivious to their burden, clueless about the miles to come.
The trail splits from the Yukon and aims west for Unalakleet. Sometime during the night, King, with his 11 dogs, passes Buser, now down to nine. In Unalakleet, the mood is tense. With Swingley and Buser on his heels, the head games intensify. “Are you going to drop that dog, the one that’s limping?” King asks Swingley. “I don’t have a limping dog,” Swingley answers, not amused. But the germ of an idea has been planted.
I ask Jack Niggemyer whether he’s concerned about the growing number of polar bear reports. “Yeah, this is a first,” he says, calm as a stone. “Polar bears don’t usually come this far south.” He pauses. “Then again, they don’t usually shoot people on Fourth Avenue in Anchorage, either.”
King can’t be bothered with polar bear stories. After grabbing a bite inside the high school gym, he collapses in the straw alongside his sleeping dogs, oblivious to the cold and the crowd. Swingley follows suit. Buser settles into his sled bag, as does Jonrowe, who’s still in fourth place. Everyone desperately wants to sleep, but no one wants to be left behind. When Jonrowe leaves in late afternoon, King, Swingley, and Buser chase her out of town. It’s beginning to look like a horse race.
Fifteen hours later, Rob and I catch up with the leaders in Koyuk, an Inupiat village on Norton Sound. On wall-to-wall carpeting inside a small clapboard building, Buser sleeps in a fetal position. Swingley says, “My dogs are recovering from the diarrhea, but they’re not getting any faster.” This may or may not be true. After all, King is listening. He’s lying on the floor, pretending to sleep, with his head propped against the wall and cap pulled down low. A trace of a smile plays across his lips.
I aim for Jonrowe, who’s slumped amid coffee cups and data forms. Her hands are cracked and swollen, her long hair matted. “I’m a little confused,” she says to a checker. “Could you please help me figure something out?” Then she starts to count on her fingers: “9:15, 10:15, 11:30?” She needs to know what time it would be if she left after a four-hour rest.
Buser awakes as planned and heads out to put booties on his dogs. It’s five degrees, with a stiff wind. Anchorage Channel 11 asks how it was, coming across the Sound. Buser starts to ramble. “I was thinking we should have a Dog Hall of Fame, because it’s all about the dogs. You want to do the right thing, treat dogs right…” The cameraman gazes through the lens, but I imagine he’s hit the pause button. I’m thinking, “Man, is this musher tired.”
Sleep deprivation is one of the major hazards of long-distance mushing. It gets so bad that mushers talk to dead relatives and shove imaginary branches out of their faces. Coming into Koyuk, King fell off his sled. Last year, a musher was so tired that he actually got lost in the bathroom of the Unalakleet gym when the electricity went out. It’s during this last stretch of the race that a musher’s best or worst self rises up: Jonrowe remains polite, Buser thinks Big Picture, King focuses narrowly on his game plan, Swingley expresses disappointment in himself.
The mushers trot on, toward Elim, Golovin, and then White Mountain, where they must take another eight-hour rest before the final assault on Nome, 77 miles away. King pulls in at 11 p.m. with a two-inch icicle hanging from his mustache and tells the media, “I’m real pleased with the team. I haven’t seen a loose stool this entire race.”
Sometime around 4 a.m., Jonrowe slips out of Golovin, 40 miles back. The trail splits, and she goes right. Ten minutes later, Buser follows her onto Golovin Sound. Immediately, his headlamp burns out. In the distance, he can see Jonrowe’s light, sweeping back and forth. His compass tells him to head northwest; his competitive spirit tells him to sneak on by. But then he begins to doubt. He catches up to Jonrowe and they run together for several miles before agreeing that they’re off course. They start looking for a route that will reunite them with the official trail. But the snow-blanketed Sound, devoid of landmarks, is a spaghetti bowl of snow machine tracks, long looping trails, and straight runs that dead-end.
Buser and Jonrowe have each run this part of the trail a dozen times and never gotten lost. Now Buser is hoping to circle into White Mountain on an alternative route. They climb a hill and take a look around. Then another. For hours they continue this way, hoping to spot White Mountain, hoping their trail will reconnect.
By now the sun is beginning to rise. Back in White Mountain, Buser’s wife, Kathy, hurries toward the checkpoint, a worried look on her face: There have been more polar bear sightings during the night. The mayor of White Mountain, filled with pith and moment, organizes a search party.
Out on the Sound, an exhausted Jonrowe is losing all hope of finding the trail. One of her dogs strains a shoulder in the soft snow. Buser’s nerves are shot. His dogs start to look at him cross-eyed, doubting his control. He decides they should head back to Golovin. But before they can turn around, the sound of a snow machine rises out of the west. It’s the search party, here to lead them back to White Mountain. The dogs have mushed an extra 40 miles.
Safe in the village at last, Jonrowe waves off the press, too demoralized to speak. Buser insists that he knew the way out of Golovin, but decided to follow Jonrowe out of chivalry, an explanation that, given his reputation as a ruthless competitor, I’m not sure I buy.
“Racing is one thing,” he says, archly, “but survival and courtesy are another.”
While Jonrowe, Buser, and Osmar rest in White Mountain, King speeds on under an eerie white sky. He makes Safety, a smoky roadhouse perched on the sea cliffs 22 miles southeast of Nome, in seven hours. He spends all of five minutes here, pulling on his official racing bib and greeting a pair of dog handlers. “I’ve never seen his team look like that before,” one tells me. “They’re not socializing or wagging their tails. They look real serious. They know they’re almost done.”
Racing against no one now, King keeps up his 11.5-mph pace over the Topkok Hills, joins the Nome-Solomon Road, and sets off the fire sirens as he passes Swanberg’s Gold Dredge, a mile and a half out of town. At 3:45 on a Tuesday afternoon, Jeff King’s team trots down Front Street into Nome. Crowds line the snowy chute. Drunks howl like dogs. Under the burled arch, King throws his arms around his family. His daughter, Cali, passes him a latte. When King accepts his booty of $50,000 from the National Bank of Alaska, he shouts, “It’s great to have the trophy back in Alaska!”– a not-so-subtle dig at outsider Swingley. The crowd roars its delight. Asked what he’ll remember about this year’s trip, he answers, “I’ll remember it most for C.J. Kolbe.” Then King staggers to race headquarters to meet his adoring fans.
Three hours later, Swingley arrives to claim second place. Somewhere between White Mountain and Safety, Buser will pick up enough speed to pass Osmar, the difference between a $26,000 prize and a $22,500 prize. Jonrowe will take fifth, and at the awards banquet, three days after King’s arrival in Nome, the racers will choose Rick Swenson as Most Inspirational Musher.
Meanwhile, Nome celebrates. Drinkers from the Board of Trade Saloon, the Bering Sea, and the Nugget flow into the streets. The mayor emcees the annual wet T-shirt contest to a standing-room only crowd. For another week, mushers will trot, or drag, their teams down the chute on Front Street. The first 20 finishers will take home money, and the rest will settle for an Iditarod belt buckle.
Nearly all the contestants will take their shot again next year, and maybe Rick Swenson will join them. He’s not saying yet, but the allure of the 25th anniversary–in which anyone who’s ever finished the race will be encouraged to try again–is surely potent. King will want back-to-back trophies, Swingley has his honor to defend, and Buser may want to prove he knows the way out of Golovin. Rick Swenson, if he accepts his scripted role, will be playing the “realistic Alaskan,” to advance the proposition that peculiarly Alaskan events are precisely what make the Iditarod the classic struggle that it is.
A frequent contributor to Outside, Elizabeth Royte wrote about America’s least-toxic town in the May issue.