As the truck climbed the icy inclines of the Elliott Highway, the sun descended behind piles of remote, snow-covered domes. Its last wink before setting illuminated icy shingles that dangled off tree branches waving in the wind. Glass chandeliers on the verge of shattering, remnants of an epic ice storm. We continued our ascent to a windblown summit - a battlefield of hunched and wounded spruce bowing to the ground, struggling to remain on their feet. Sheets of snow packed into the crevices of truck doors and sledbag fabric as 50 mile-per-hour gusts whistled through stanchions and ratchet straps. Six hours of driving 25 to 30 miles per hour got us to Paige and Cody's spread in Eureka - a remote paradise for dog mushers whose entire lives are ruled by the trail. All 15 race dogs and all nine puppies were settled into their temporary homes as the wind chapped our hands and cheeks bright red, boxing our ears and watering our eyes. We stepped inside the arctic entry and pushed the door closed against the gale. Inside, the fire crackled and laughter filled the cabin, its windows frosted with an inch-thick layer of white ice crystals. From the dark outside, they glowed as though through wax paper. We made our plans for a big camping trip and awakened the next morning to the same violent winds as the temperature steadily creeped lower. Four degrees below zero with windchills of -40. These extreme conditions could easily occur on the races Andy and I are running this year, so we decided this would be an excellent opportunity to test our gear and to make sure the dogs were having fun through it all. As we took one last look around the cabin, a gust roared overhead and crashed onto the roof, creaking the stovepipe. It sounded like we were sheltered in a house under the ocean, waves booming onto sea cliffs above.
In a din of barking, we clipped each dog to the gangline. Everyone had booties on all their paws, along with T-shirts, harnesses and windproof coats that protect their flanks and genitals from frostbite in the wind. The mushers, covered head to toe in gear, breathed heavily as sweat dripped down our backs. We ran each dog to the line while wearing ten pounds of clothes and five pounds of boots, while unraveling tangles and knocking ice out of tiny snaps, while ensuring everything was perfectly aligned in a calm and collected manner, even though the entirety of the outside world was a swarm of chaotic noise. We pulled the hooks and...
Runners skidding out on ice, putting a foot out to keep the sled from toppling into the centrifugal force of a 90-degree turn with a hot team out of the driveway, wind slamming into the trees overhead, whistling through millions of branches and turning them into furiously sweeping broomsticks. Wind. Wind. Wind! The shhhhhh of the drag brake on windblown trail, the crrrrrrrr of the claw brake biting into the ice.
Then off the road and into the woods. Only as wide as a dogsled, the old mail trails provided us with a route to our "checkpoint" in Manley Hot Springs. Spruce trees brushed our shoulders for miles and willows switched our faces. With Brent leading the way, we ducked under branches and wove around broken-down trucks and snowmachines. Intermittently we emerged from the shelter of the trees onto open sloughs as the wind blew the sleds right out of their tracks. The dogs were unbroken in their forward advance, tails pushed to the side by the blast. The trail led back to a wide, plowed road and our powerful teams churned into the streets of Manley. We zoomed past houses adorned with Christmas lights, windows glowing softly onto the bitterly windswept street. One by one, five dogteams pranced across the one-lane trestled bridge, headlamps glancing off reflective harnesses that bounced rhythmically in the dark. We turned into the driveway of celebrated mushers Joee and Pam Redington. There we parked, fed and strawed our dogs and walked into a warm, clean home rife with Iditarod history. Joee's father, Joe Redington, Sr., was the founder of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Andy and I silently loaded our plates with salmon caught from a nearby river, mashed potatoes, lasagna, homemade bread and jam and a variety of berries. It was an honor just to sit at their kitchen table. We hardly spoke a word and instead listened to them tell stories about dogs and mushers over the years. Before we took off again with the dogs, Joee showed us his shop. There, the shelves were lined with unbelievable works of art made from jawbones, baleen, fish skins, wood, beads, fur and hide - amazing renditions of native Alaskans catching fish or otters, mushing their dogteams, dancing in costume. Every one imagined and then created by Joee in a manner fit for a museum. The very last thing one would expect to find after mushing to a remote Alaskan village for dinner.
We ran home fast, sailing through the forests as the umbriferous moonlight spliced the treetops and settled on the snow. We ate, slept, and got up the next day to do it again. This time, Andy and I went on our own to the top of a nearby pass. We wanted the dogs to get experience climbing steep hills while running into the wind. We skidded out onto the road and climbed up steep intervals as gusts blasted our faces and then came from behind, billowing out the dogs' coats. Swirls of spindrift surrounded our sleds as our brakes kicked up a fine powder, blinding us to everything but our wheel dogs. From the corner of my eye I noticed several discrete spotlights shining down onto the landscape. What was going on out there, some kind of mining project? How could someone shine such bright lights down from above in this extremely remote place? Then I realized it was moonlight illuminating the ice-glazed snow of treeless bluffs in the distance. Headlamp off, I looked in every direction at valleys unfurling to the four corners of the earth. Giant stars wobbled and then fell, burning up in the atmosphere above my dogs. Wind gusted into the hood of my parka, closing the furs over my face and then blasting them open again. Another star fell and then another. Meteors, I guess. And the shadow of my dogs and the shadow of my sled and the shadow of me on a snowbank. The moon harsh, resplendent, otherworldly.