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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Life in Alaska
51 Hours and 19 Minutes  -  Part III
By Lisa Frederic « Prev   Page 3 of 3  

By this time Jesse was directly behind me on the trail and patiently waiting for me to get going. I asked if he wanted to pass, but he said no, that his team needed to follow for awhile. He stood by his leaders, offering to help, which I declined until finally I reasoned it would benefit both of us to get me going sooner. He came forward and together we straightened out the dogs and repositioned some of the females to keep the males further away from Nickel.

After pulling away from Jesse I could tell we were traveling well, and I had a feeling his dogs weren’t keeping up, but I had to keep going as if they were right behind me. I ran; I kicked. I got tired and had to rest, but I never felt exhausted. At some point the Northern Lights came out in a brief green glow that confused me completely because it was snowing and I wondered if I was more tired than I felt. I decided I must be in a ground storm and loved the thought of stars and mountain peaks just out of sight but all around me.

I reached the Susitna checkpoint at 3:30 in the morning. Two checkers greeted me, but otherwise, I was alone to do my chores. After a small snack, the dogs quickly bedded down with the fresh straw I laid out for them, and I rubbed their feet with Algeval. I knew at this point that unless something went radically wrong, I had a good chance of winning the race.

* * *

White snow, white sky.
What I feared most at this point was the heat that would surely come in the middle of the day. There had been times fishing when I had seen my crews completely crumple before my eyes when a warm sun was coupled with fatigue. I knew it could just as easily happen to the dogs.

I decided an hour rest would do us all some good and I prayed I would be able to get the team going again. It was only 12:30 p.m. so there would still be a whole afternoon of possible sun left, but I didn’t want to think about that since I didn’t really have a choice. I could only hope the teams behind me also had to stop. I gave everyone a long pat and then lay down with my head on Nickel’s back. I wanted to bond with her; I wanted her to know I was tired too, but to love me enough to go on when I asked later.

I actually dozed off and slept hard. When I woke up it was exactly an hour since I had stopped and I stood up to eleven curled up dogs. It was another one of the "peak" moments of the race. I was so afraid my legs felt weak and my hands were shaking as I walked back to the sled and dug out the bag of snacks. I knew no one would be interested; it was too hot for anything to seem appealing except a long afternoon nap. Not knowing if I would ever get the team going again made for some of the most frightening moments in the race for me. During the other difficult times, I had enough adrenaline to keep me from sinking into any numbing fear, but this time was going to be different.

I started singing, forcing the tune to sound cheerful though I was sick to my stomach. I passed out the snacks, which no one but Paris and Beta even looked at. I lifted each dog up, massaging each neck, along each back, rubbing behind each pair of ears. Every single dog laid right back down, and by the time I got to the girls up front I was almost dizzy with fear.

I stared at the team and did a jig, clapping my hands and dancing around in circles. A few of the dogs, I could tell, were thinking "silly," but I was beginning to at least catch their interest. I had heard of using a dog in heat to your advantage, and it at least seemed like a small payment for all the trouble the dog’s condition had caused. The idea was that hormones can give a weary dog team something else to think about rather than how tired they are. I decided to try it and unhooked Nickel from her tug. I gave her a nice long back rub in front of everybody and then started walking her along the team. Pena and Kaladi of course didn’t budge, and I think Paris simply cracked an eyelid, but the boys were different. Things started to happen!

Cream, being the youngest on the team, was first on his feet. Wagging his tail, he immediately started pulling on his tug line. Beta stood up, stretched and leaned into his harness to sniff at Nickel as we went by. Moose leapt to his feet and started barking. I risked a smile; my team was waking up.

I let Nickel enjoy her popularity, batting her blue eyes and putting an extra sway in her strut as we passed each male in the team. I hooked her back into lead position with lots of praise. Once again I massaged the girls, rubbing their faces. I talked to them, clapped my hands, squealed in a high baby voice like a cartoon character, and twirled in circles. When I saw several dogs were wagging their tails, I ran back to the sled and yelled, "Hike!" We took off, slowly, but straight down the trail.

The last twenty miles of the race I stopped every half-hour or so just to pat the dogs. They looked good and the clouds that came mid-afternoon were a great boost to all of us. I knew there were lots of hills at the end, and that each one would fool me into believing that it was the last one, but still I was fooled. Believing so many were the last one kept me running up those steep inclines that looked so impossible at the bottom, and I’m sure the dogs appreciated the help. When at last I saw the small crowd and the banner marking the end of the race, I was too tired to be nervous. I was handed a cell phone and did an interview with Alaska Public Radio before I could even properly thank each dog.

Photographs ©2001 Rod Kieft / nbphotos.com.

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About the Author: Lisa Frederic has fished commercially on Kodiak Island for the past 19 years. She spent the last two winters training sled dogs at Good Lake Kennel in Denali Park for Jeff King.
 
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