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Willem Lange: Exploring Alaska’s Iditarod Trail, But Supplying My Own Power

East Montpelier

I opened the paper to discover that the Iditarod Sled Dog race had just begun on Saturday. An annual mania that grips the state of Alaska — “The Last Great Race on Earth” — the Iditarod covers just over 1,000 miles of forest, lakes, rivers and sea from Willow to Nome, commemorating an epic relay of serum from Anchorage to diphtheria-stricken Nome in 1925. The names of those mushers and their dogs have become legends on the Last Frontier; and there’s a statue of Balto, the dog who led the last relay into Nome, in Central Park in New York.

The sport has never held much attraction for me, though I’ve taken quite a few rides behind various teams over the years. A hitchhiker I picked up once near Anchorage allowed that “it’s a great sport, as long as you don’t care what your yard looks like in the spring.” Still, the obvious sheer childish joy the dogs have in running is infectious; and even when they’re hard at it over the long miles through the bush, you can tell they’re on the lookout for any animals that might cross the track, from ptarmigan to hares to moose.

Reading the names of some of the villages along the way, my mind reverts instantly to February of 1985, when my buddy Dudley and I skied a big chunk of the famous Iditarod Trail. I’d done a few articles for a magazine named Cross Country Skier, so when I stumbled across a mention somewhere of a ski/snowshoe race — they called it the Iditaski — to follow the trail a couple of weeks before the sled dog race, I queried the idea and got the job, along with air fare, entry fee and payment for the story.

I didn’t want to go alone. The race was over 335 kilometers, a little more than 200 miles, and skiing alone that far would be intensely boring. The first guy I asked (always asked) was Dudley. He was an ear, nose and throat doc at the Hitchcock Clinic, had lived in Alaska in the early days of his career, and was ever ready for any offbeat undertaking I might come up with.

He arranged the time off, we started collecting equipment — we’d be towing sleds called pulks — trained hard on skis in the dark after work, and in mid-February were off to Seattle and Anchorage. There was a list of items each racer had to carry: a tent, sleeping bag, saw, matches, extra food and so on.

There were probably 50 people lined up on Knik Lake at the start. As soon as the gun went off, you could see how it was going to go. A few guys with packs on their backs (no sleds) took off like a shot, skating across the lake and out of sight into the bush. Dudley and I followed at a sustainable pace, and behind us straggled a gaggle of young folks clearly out for a lark — especially a really good-looking Wellesley student with four or five college-age swains in attendance.

The race was set up with checkpoints about every 25 miles, where the race committee had radio contact, some warm Tang and doughnuts and emergency equipment. There were also sacks of food, socks and other stuff that we racers had made up and put our names on. The race organizers had ferried them to the checkpoints for us. Dudley and I stopped briefly at the first, picked up our next day’s food, and headed for the 50-mile check.

That first day was clear and fair, almost windless. We plugged along through the afternoon and into the night. We skied blind across a big lake — how Dudley spotted the holes in the ice left by the ski poles of the folks ahead of us, I’ll never know. Spectral spruces, like Giacometti bronzes, loomed out of the darkness ahead of us. About midnight, we spotted a Coleman lantern hanging in a tree and pulled into the checkpoint.

I had a bad blister. I also had a fantastic doc with me. He sniffed at the blister, declared it infected (I had suspected it, but was going to tough it out), and then, with the checkpoint attendant holding the light, excised it, sprinkled it with antibiotic powder, and bound it up. My boots would no longer fit; so we swapped boots and skis, and about 3 in the morning continued on by the illumination of our headlamps and the northern lights. At one point, stopping for a minute, I held my mittened hand down close to the snow and could see its shadow by the light of Venus.

It was a long, long grind, but everything was new and fascinating to me. Dudley patched up more people along the way; he demonstrated to two checkpoint attendants who’d been freezing in their tent that the stove worked better if you split the firewood; at the halfway point, almost exhausted, he left behind about half of the stuff he’d been lugging and towing. Approaching Skwentna Crossing, we were challenged by three moose who seemed to like the hard-packed trail. We took a big loop through the trees around them. Two weeks later we learned that those same moose had killed two sled dogs and injured six others belonging to the late Susan Butcher, who in subsequent years won the Iditarod four times.

Skiing just at dusk down the frozen Skwentna River, Dudley looked over his shoulder and said, “Look!” Behind us, the giant Alaska Range filled the horizon, lilac and purple in alpenglow. We stood gazing for some minutes; but that was the night it went to 26-below, and long lingering was contraindicated. The checkpoint, at 2 in the morning, featured hot, sweet tea and fresh, warm cinnamon rolls. We inhaled about a dozen each and kept going. Skiing on a river, you don’t need to be able to see all that well. In the dawn light, our faces and eyelashes were festooned in frost.

We finished in the evening of the fourth day. It was probably the most spectacular of all our adventures. Dudley’s gone now. But the memory of that long, long-ago trek will last me a lifetime.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached by email at willem.lange@comcast.net.