1: Night Fog
Leaving camp near Denali: January 2003, 4:30 a.m.
Juliet and Kanga watch me. Standing in lead at the front of the line, they turn and follow me with their eyes as I step onto the runners of my dogsled. For the past fifteen minutes they’ve been clamoring to go—yapping and singing for the night trail and the star-speckled sky. Now they tremble with quiet anticipation. They know I’m about to reach for the rope and set us free.
“Good girls,” I say. “Ready?”
I grab the end of the slipknot. Give it a tug. Juliet and Kanga leap, and so do the others. My ten huskies and I streak from camp in bright moonlight, slipping through shadows of gangly black spruce that line the outgoing trail.
For the first time all season conditions are perfect for mushing. It’s ten degrees below zero with eight inches of fresh snow. A big round moon lights the trail and lightens my spirits, but I cannot ignore the weight of my plan. Iditarod starts in six short weeks, and training has been miserable all winter. To ask these dogs for another fifty-five miles after a six-hour rest seems like a lot, but I have to try it. It’s time to make sure we’re ready.
As we sweep around a wide bend toward the river, I study each dog’s gait to make sure no one is sore. Shining my head lamp toward their feet, paw by moving paw I double-check that every bootie is on. I’m pleased that Kanga’s new harness fits well, and that Nacho runs with focus next to his buddy Teton. Young Sydney prances with spunk; her ears are frisky tall. I’m so consumed with my huskies, I don’t notice the wall of fog until we run right into it.
Ice crystals sting my eyes; the bright beam of my head lamp illuminates a mass of ice flecks. As the dogs accelerate, threads of silver rush toward me in a blinding onslaught. I struggle to see where we’re going, but they aren’t bothered. Bounding into the glitter, Juliet woofs and noses Kanga, who responds with a happy-dog shake on the run. No one misses a stride.
For the next hour and part of another, I shield my eyes with one hand and hold on to the handlebars with the other. Focusing on the dog team helps me ignore the fog, but after fifteen miles my eyes tire from the effort. I turn off my head lamp and run by feel.
It doesn’t take long to adjust—and to notice moonbeams sifting through billows of haze. The resulting shadows threaten at first. We run toward dark shapes that look like moose and approach an expanse of bare ground that turns out to be an ice-fog mirage. With every mile my fears subside, and then I give in.
Losing myself to the huff of their breathing and their steady pull on the line, I stop trying to gauge our tempo or analyze whether one dog is loping instead of trotting. It doesn’t matter if the trail ahead is strewn with rocks, and I no longer fret about what lurks in the willows.
My huskies and I cruise up and over those frosted hills for hours. As we move through murky light toward the faint glow of dawn, we share a primordial momentum. Although I cannot see them, at last I understand that they are ready.
Ready for Iditarod.
No matter how long the trail or how rough her conditions, I know we will go.
2003 Iditarod start: Fairbanks, Alaska. March 3, 11:00 A.M.
Sixteen huskies donning crimson harnesses charge into the chute. Four officials grab the bulging dogsled to make sure the team stays anchored for the two-minute countdown. Overhead, small planes arc in a bright March sky; the thwap of a helicopter blends with the buzz of fans cheering and of dogs yapping and yowling. Barricades line the outgoing trail, and throngs of people lean over them. Watching, waiting.
This is an annual ritual. I know it well. The sight of courageous Iditarod mushers and their canine athletes launching onto the one-thousand-mile trail usually casts me into a tearful state of awe. But I’m not crying now. The romantic in me had better not engage. I’m the small woman wearing bib #32, the musher who has just ridden the sled runners into the chute. After years of preparation, I’m the Iditarod rookie fighting for composure, seeking focus in a windstorm of hype.
The voice in my busy head speaks: It’s only about the dogs.
So I look to them, to my sixteen beauties with their glossy fur and feathered tails, paired on the long line ahead of me. They’re a rowdy bunch—barking and leaping—crazed with impatience for the trail. My husband, Mark, stands with the dogs, trying to calm them; so do our grown children, Andy and Hannah. The four of us have negotiated many race starts over the past fifteen years, most often for the kids. But this countdown is different, and we all know it. I need to pay attention.
“We got ’em, Debbie. Your rig isn’t goin’ anywhere. Feel free to get on up there with your team,” the official tells me.
I nod and step off the runners. That’s when I notice the clusters of school kids holding signs and calling my name. Their rosy cheeks and busy voices shout high expectations. These children believe in me. The mere hint that I’m their hero spins everything out of control. My stomach lurches and the snow beneath my feet rolls like a wave. I have to find my way to my huskies.
In two strides I’m with Zeppelin and his sweetheart, Fire. Running in wheel position, they’re responsible for keeping the sled clear of trees and other obstacles. Strong and agile, Zeppy is my rascal black-and-white hound dog. His floppy black ears frame an innocent gaze that doesn’t fool me today. Without my friend kneeling next to him, holding him by the harness, he’d be chewing up the gang line. She scratches him behind the ears, and for the moment he behaves. Meanwhile, mellow Fire nuzzles my leg and looks at me with sweet adoration. Her light-blue eyes promise that everything will be fine. She’s been to Nome several times with other mushers; I’ve paired her with Zeppy hoping she’ll be a good mentor. I coo at Fire, give Zeppy a stern hello, and then move on to Piney and Creek, who lean against each other wagging their tails. Creek is so bulked up this season, I call her my little bowling ball. I put my hands on either side of her face and look into her zany eyes—one blue and the other brown. Sweet Piney is jealous and nips my leg. I answer by shaking her paw.
Next are skinny-boy Nacho and the ever-focused Lil’ Su, two of Andy’s charges. They leap and bark while he stands smiling alongside them. I greet these spicy teammates before embracing my twenty-year-old son.
“You can do this, Mom,” he tells me. Andy should know—he’s the most experienced musher in the family. I pull him into a hug, as if to absorb some of his brassy nerve. If it weren’t for him, I would never be here. His words make me stand a little bit taller, and for the moment my jitters subside.
It’s hard to believe I’ve greeted six dogs and am not even halfway through the lineup. I usually tr...