It was snowing like crazy, sideways, and we were bouncing off snowdrifts. I gripped the sled with all my might as I tried to see past Nickel’s head. It took a lot of work to keep faith in that she would keep us on the trail. We were going so fast that if she had taken us off a cliff I never would have been able to stop the team.
I was beginning to think I had a chance of catching Jesse because of how good my dogs looked. He had a very good team, something even Jeff had marveled at, but I had made up a lot of time in the last leg of the race. I started kicking the moment I reached the bottom of the long hill and together the dogs and I sailed up it.
I felt dizzy, like I was on some carnival ride spinning in different directions. The narrow beam of light from my headlamp was crowded with swirling flakes as I tried to see where I was going. Jumping back and forth on the sled runners, I tried to steer, tried to believe I would get out of this alive. I tried hard to keep the thrill of it all from taking away any of the concentration I knew I needed to keep from losing the team.
It must be the same kind of thrill one gets from shooting rapids in a raft down a wild river, or skiing some difficult black diamond course, or bungee jumping: utterly and completely thrilling with no way out. There were moments when I wanted to stop so bad, just to catch my breath, but, like taking a break in the middle of the steepest hill on a roller coaster, it was impossible. We were flying; I had control, but I didn’t. There was no past, no future, no trail other than what the sled runners were on at that precise moment. Things became quite simple, basic. And I even found that I didn’t have to hold my breath; I could breathe normally.
A mile or so out of McClaren the team came to a grinding halt. I could make out a figure in the trail, but I was so dazed it took me a moment to figure out it was a person whose parka was covered in snow. My first thought was "Why is the Tin Man here?" and then I realized it was Jesse Beebee and he was waving me past his team, which was parked in the trail. We quickly passed without even a chance to speak because the incline was so steep. For the first time in the race we were out in first place and the team seemed to know it. They started flying even faster toward McClaren.
| Lisa Frederic and her team.
The last turn and the drop onto the river came fast and sweet. We plunged into the deep snow of the parking area for the checkpoint and I searched for a place to put the dogs where I could secure my snow hook. A checker greeted me, and I was told I could park near the outbound trail, so I moved the team. I had thought a couple hours at the checkpoint would be good, though the idea of getting the dogs going again after such a short rest sounded difficult. As I prepared to get my cooker out of the sled, Jesse arrived right behind me. He signed the necessary paperwork and then, to my surprise, charged right by and continued on down the trail!
The Susitna checkpoint was 43 miles further, probably at least five more hours, and the snowfall ensured a difficult trail. Jeff came over to my sled, "It’s up to you, but I’d keep on going. You have a mandatory 6-hour rest at the Susitna River, but it’s your decision what you do here." I looked out into the darkness, and he added, "It is a race."
The dogs were now feeling tired, and I had to talk to them a lot, singing at times, calling out individual names in a sappy voice. I was also getting tired and having a hard time keeping my eyes open. I ran through all the Christmas songs I could think of, John Denver and Girl Scout favorites. I recited Robert Service poetry, the states in alphabetical order. I tried dancing around on the back of the sled, but my headlight mimicked my moves and it seemed to disturb the dogs.
Sled dog races are similar to halibut fishing. On a 24-hour opening you definitely do not sleep. On a 48-hour opening, you may need a brief nap, but adrenaline is still strong enough to keep you going. On a 72-hour opening, sleep-deprivation feels like a foggy hangover that comes in waves. If you don’t count the number of hours you have been awake, you can keep doing well, just as long as you don’t break your pace or get too warm. Movement and keeping cool are the keys to staying awake.
The snow fell harder and I let myself close my eyes for a moment, though I knew it was a really stupid thing to do. The packed part of the trail was quite narrow with deep snow on either side, and Nickel stepped wrong and plunged in over her head.
I was a split second too slow in getting my foot on the brake, so instantly the team looked like a collapsing accordion, each dog rear-ending the dog ahead of him or her, and tangling in the spider web of lines. I was shocked that it could happen so quickly, so completely.
Moose and Cream were politely, though purposely, working their way toward the front of the tangle. Nickel seemed to be smiling, looking at the boys like a teenage prom queen, coquettishly batting her blue eyes, holding her tail high. They wanted her and she wanted them. She was truly a bitch in heat.
There are a million reasons you don’t want a love encounter in a race. One is that it takes quite a bit of time, and the race comes to a complete halt until the date is over. Another, and the one which I was most concerned about, is that any normal breeding would be a carefully planned event. A valuable dog such as Nickel would only be coupled with a worthy male whose desirable characteristics had been found to be genetically transferable. Modern kennels can track certain traits through the lineage of their dogs for generations. I loved all the male dogs in my team, I really did, and how Jeff would feel about them fathering a litter of pups with Nickel I couldn’t imagine. But I could guess, and I knew I had to keep them away from her at all costs.
I reached into the middle of the canine mass and with strength I normally couldn’t possess, lifted the big dog from the mob and drug her back toward the sled. She didn’t really want to leave the boys though, and so like a pet that doesn’t want to get into the bathtub, she turned herself into a dead weight. The whole mess of dogs tried to follow us, but luckily the deep snow and the tangle of lines kept them in a ball giving me time to grab my small snow hook. I then carried Nickel down the trail a short way and anchored her in front of the team, so I could begin to unravel the mess.
I marveled at how patient each dog was, waiting in turn for me to free it from the lines that were often tightly wrapped around its legs. Even the necklines on some of the dogs were so tight I quickly undid the brass snaps to relieve the pressure. As the ball unraveled, I moved Nickel further down the trail to allow the team to stretch out. I was sweating and my arms grew numb with exhaustion from all the lifting. Finally the team was free and back in position.
I stood and stretched my aching back, then crawled along the team, petting each dog and speaking in a singsong voice. I wanted them all happy, happy and eager to get us down the trail to that carrot of a checkpoint. They were standing, looking good in the spotlight of my headlamps. Moose was beginning to cheer everyone on with his barks when I reached Nickel and hooked her back into lead position.
At that moment the snow hook gave again, allowing the sled to slide. Before I could finish wailing "No-o-o!" the dogs were surging forward into a living mass on top of Nickel and on top of me. It only took seconds.
There were several "peak" moments during the race, moments of feeling so intense they became something quite pure and basic. Later on in the race there were moments when I felt very afraid, but when the dogs piled once again into a writhing mass and my arms hung at my sides seemingly in useless exhaustion, what I felt was not fear but despair.