In Search of More Winter
It was back in 2000 when plans and money savings came together and I hopped in the car to move to Alaska. Failure or success didn’t matter, but trying it out did. The simple fact was that I loved winter (still do) and wasn’t afraid of the biting of cold winter winds. No, I relished harsh conditions and was ready for more winter. The Alaskan “sport” (more of a lifestyle) of racing sled dogs embraces winter fully, and both of the longest races – the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod – cover more than one thousand miles. This is the dream that drew me north.
I found my way into a couple of kennels, full of happy high-energy huskies, that I could really put my back into. Needless to say, I enjoyed the hard work and long hours. Being able not just to see remote parts of Alaska on the back of a whisper-quiet sled being pulled across frozen terrain, but to become part of the ecosystem, the non-frozen part anyway, was tangible enough pay for me. When you gain the dogs’ trust through time, caring for them 24/7 and making good decisions for them, you are in tune with the team and become a single being, the sled an extension of your sensory organs. You can feel the terrain slipping by, running across beautiful landscapes too big to capture with the lens of a camera.
Tucked into many layers, capped with a zipper-less parka, I preferred a wolverine ruff to keep the wind off my face. While wolf hair is fuzzy and warm, the under coat on it tended to trap a lot of moisture from my breathing and become a frozen half ring, so I chose the bristly wolverine hair which was easy to rid of the frost build-up. Sucking in minus 40-degree air through my balaclava was my cup of tea, especially after years of assembling the right and expensive gear. Each foot was encased in $200 worth of warm footwear and my 50 below sleeping bag was another $1000. We wouldn't just spend money on ourselves; each dog had a $50 coat to protect their understory, as the racing huskies have good warm fur but they can be susceptible to frostbite on their bellies and genitals.
It was money well spent when a blizzard out on the sea ice of Kotzebue turned to a cold snap, coinciding with my trip to town to get the dogs on the C-130 Hercules and flown to the Iditarod start. I mean, it was a real cold snap with a light wind combining for a -89 wind-chill. Whether you believe in wind-chill or not, I'm here to tell you it was cold, and the dangerous kind. The route to town was straightforward, 3 miles across the tundra on the low trail, jumping over piled up slabs of "lake" ice. Kobuk Lake is sort of a brackish inlet that is open to the Chukchi Sea, which freezes hard enough most winters to drive a road grader and cars on. It's a pancake flat 20 miles to town over featureless staked trail, completely exposed to the wind. I was bundled and my dogs were clad up and bootied up (to give their feet protection from many miles of abrasive snow or from stepping on a sharp piece of ice) and feeling good! It turned out the gear did its job and kept the icy temperatures off our warm mammalian bodies, allowing us to get to the start of the big race in time.
But your gear is only as good as your use of it. I pulled into the checkpoint Rainy Pass on the Iditarod that year and the checker asked if I was staying or going through. The checkpoints, especially early on, can be a bit of a zoo with media and people streaming around, which I didn't find to be relaxing for the dogs. I was going through and another racer, a veteran musher Kelly Williams, wife of Rick Swenson, overheard me declining the hospitality of a warm building and hot grub and said, "You know it's -40?" I didn't, but I wasn't fazed as we had trained, camped and tested all the gear and systems at those temperatures. "Oh that's fine with me,” I said, causing her to say with a shake her head, "You Kotzebue guys are tough." High praise from a very tough Fairbanks-area musher who had seen a lot more - 40 than I.
All was going smoothly. I had lashed my bale of straw to the sled, grabbed 60 pounds of frozen food for the dogs to cover their hot dinner, soupy high-caloric breakfast hydrated from melted snow, and their favorite frozen trail snacks to get us to the next checkpoint, Rohn. About 10 minutes down the trail, I found a nice pull-out off the main trail. To be ready, I had preheated (with body heat) my chore gloves inside my inner layers, along with a couple of water bottles and extra batteries (I wasn't rich enough to run with lithium batteries, so had to learn to deal with alkaline batteries that performed very poorly when they got cold). The little voice in my head reminded me that everything had to be all right at these temps, no mistakes. After the team was fed and bedded down on fresh straw - they truly loved it - I considered my own options: throw out the bag on the straw and risk getting an errant stream of pee from one of the young males or bed down in the sled. I chose to avoid the pee. The trick was to get in fully dressed except for the heaviest parka and lie down like a big frozen inchworm. The last view I had as sleep quickly overpowered my will power was the entire Milky Way amplified by the cold clear air on my first run of the storied Iditarod trail.
Sluggish thoughts that something wasn't right came to me as I realized my alarm clock in my marten hat hadn't gone off yet to tell me my 2-hour nap was up. Given all the excitement of the pre-race week and the 2 starts for the race, it felt like I had been drinking. Heavy sleep deprivation feels like your brain got a shot of Novocain. The “something wrong” feeling turned out to be that my marten hat hadn't been tied tightly under my chin, and had opened up, letting in arctic air to turn my ear into a meaningless frozen lump attached to my head. There wasn't much to do about it, but I retied my hat. Letting it slowly warm back up naturally seemed like a good option, also allowing me a few more minutes of precious snoozing time. What was getting all excited about it going to do? I did pass out, waking to not only the tinny chime but also to a sharp feeling of needles being stabbed in my ear which then turned to a burning feeling - good things, I surmised, while getting the team fed and evaluating their moods and body movements: dogs first, humans last.
You'd think I'd have learned my lesson by the second time I ran the Iditarod in '05. Camping out at -40 is risky but I still had both ears and all 10 precious digits. This time it was outside of Ophir on the way to Iditarod checkpoint. Doing the frozen inchworm, I slept in the 22-inch wide sled on my side. When the alarm went off telling me the race must go on, I couldn't reach up to shut the alarm off. Furthermore, I couldn't open my sleeping bag to get out. My hands weren't working, at all, and in the fuzzy perimeters of my mind that was slowly booting up I considered that somehow my hands were frozen. I needed to get the bag unzipped to get out of the sled as I was wedged in there. I took my only other option and tipped the whole sled on its side and spilled out onto the snow, the dogs looking up at the crash but still relatively unconcerned. Ahh - with more room I could get my wooden hands to the zipper and release myself from the mummy bag, which had been trying to turn me into a mummy. My hands had fallen asleep and weren't working too good until I got more blood flowing into them. What a relief! On with another day at the office; at least there weren’t likely to be any rush hour traffic jams out here.
In spite of the challenges of keeping warm for thousands of race miles and three times that in training miles, winter still has a special place in my warm heart. The aurora borealis are worth braving the cold; they never fail to stop me in my tracks and let me believe they could be alive, the way they shimmer and pulse, if not living then definitely magical. It's right there with the magic of salmon coming fresh out of the ocean, alive and magical.