Yukon Quest 2016, Part One

A few trees there, around a bend where the wind lied down a little. The sky had muted & flashed an intimation of clearing before swelling over again, falling back into the arms of the storm. At the last camp, I had snowshoed out to cut spruce boughs & saplings for the dogs to bed & burrow into, fed out the last of the kibble, hoping a four-hour break might suffice. I had knelt over a small fire I lit by the runners of the sled, thinking shit, we’d better run straight in after this. But here we were, the team parked at an angle off the trail, resting up. I wrote “dog team won’t go- please help” on a stray piece of cardboard, hung it from my ski-pole lodged trailside. I unhooked Kabob, laid out my sleeping bag, crawled in to nestle with her & waited for a headlight.

***

I have wondered often how precisely to articulate whatever it is that compels us to run 1,000 mile sled dog races. I know, for instance, that there is no finer company than our team of dogs. & I know that there is that long desire in us, the compulsion to allow endurance to define exploration. I realize, in the end, that I have a strange relationship with fear, & that over & again, even as I tremble & am repelled, I find a sort of ecstatic abandon in throwing myself headlong into its reach. It is, I think, what constitutes adventure. That expectation of a progress that embraces adversity rather than shying from it as we are so often taught to do. Maybe that’s why our dreaming is so peculiar in its fascination—its narratives are never, seemingly, self-produced, & so they are never hemmed in & orchestrated by what our waking minds might not seek to hazard. They are a sort of conflagration of every language our bodies speak. & so maybe I find that mirrored & enacted in distance mushing, where your will is both absolutely paramount & utterly secondary, depending on the second.

***

Solo knew to stop, even while Loretta lunged & shifted, focused forward. The jumble ice over the Yukon in 20-mile country, angry & angular, shot out in every direction. Picture an explosion of shale, fragmented boulders & shards cast in crevices. Volunteers had chainsawed the trail over the crossings. Somehow. & there, the alpenglow settling upon the far bluffs, the runners caught a jutting foot of ice, flipped the sled. We are taught always by experience never to let go, never to unclutch our grasp on the handlebar. There on the Yukon, my dog team could have run all the way to Slaven’s, & there I’d sit, a lonesome speck in all that expanse of white. Instead, I held on, flipping upside down with the sled, my back smashing into an ice boulder the size of a bear. Had my overmitts not been tied around my back, I suspect I’d have broken my spine, Instead, as so routinely happens along the trail, I took a breath, righted the sled, said “alright” to Solo & carried on, thinking all the while, that’s going to leave a mark.

***

I had to drop Solo in Eagle. It devastated me, almost beyond repair. A lead dog of his caliber is perhaps as difficult to describe as the compulsion to race in the first place. His passion always palpable, his drive unparalleled, he is the dog that rallies the entire team, infusing them with his spirit. He does not tire. He does not err. He is, however, a mortal like the rest of us, & had aspirated before we reached the village, showing signs of nascent pneumonia. Together, we had run some of the finest miles I’ve ever experienced. The leg from Circle to Slaven’s, through the crisp gloaming, traversing some of the most extraordinarily beautiful country I’ve ever seen, was perfection. Coming into Eagle, at the last crossing, a snowmachine inexplicably idled halfway down the chute to the river, blocking the one safe route for a dogteam. Without flinching, Solo geed us through a labyrinth of jumble ice, past the snowmachiner, & back along the trail to the slough, He is effortless in his Herculean efforts. With him in my team, I was precisely on my race plan. Without him, I found myself pulled over along the Top of the World Highway, my dog team asleep, a tattered scrap of cardboard hanging from a ski-pole fluttering in the wind.

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