1 cabin, 50 frozen mushers, and us. An Iditarod Story.

 Mushers are an inspiration and I share my story in dedication to everyone who has dreamed of running with dogs in connection to the land and has been able to make their dream a reality in this 21st century.

March 7, 2015. Into the storm with Otis and Luzy.

 

As I write, most of the 2017 Iditarod teams are on their way to the village of Huslia, the birthplace of iconic dog mushing.  The village boasts 300 souls, Koyukuk-hotna Athabascans, who live in connection with the rich wilderness between the Yukon and Koyukuk rivers.  I can hear the Koyukon Ravens calling to me today and I am in a reminiscing mood, so I want to share some of my experience of that wild land.

I am in bed right now with a 7 day old nasty cold.   I want to be on an expedition of my own with Luzy, sleeping under the winter stars.  But instead, I am stalking the Iditarod -watching musher updates online and dreaming of my time in that magical realm of Alaska.  My body has decreed rest and so I am acquiescing, for a few more days.  I get time to celebrate my recent Find Your Frontier Retreat and the fabulous participants and dream the next one.  It is hard for us when our plans change, it can be disappointing and frustrating.  I keep learning to make the most of the moments whatever they are – and this skill was required for my 2015 trip in Koyukon country.  And it’s required right now – so I am using my time to rest and write to you.

Before I tell my story, I want to share how important this region is.  The Yukon-Koyukuk region is bigger than 47 of our 50 states and has the lowest human population density of any county in the U.S. with 0.0449 humans per square mile.  The Yukon has always called to me.  I am interested in the rich culture and the knowledge that comes from the people who survive and thrive here.

I know that places with more land than people have a sound and a presence all their own, which can teach and can heal if you listen carefully.

Each landscape carries its own wisdom and I had always wanted to listen in Koyukon country.

 

Have you seen the movie, Spirit of the Wind?  It is based on the remarkable story of George Attla Jr. from Huslia who remains one of the best dog drivers in the world.  The story is about love of land and animal and spirit and courage.  Which is what I am thinking about today.  Two of my very favorite books come from this land, books that will give you a taste of real Alaska and what it means to us, books that may light your life for what is possible:  Make Prayers to the Raven and Shadows on the Koyukuk.

Our Champions: Venus, Malek, Luzy & Otis

A hopeful Laura & Wendy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 2015, my fantastic friend and expedition partner, Laura Wright and I attempted to skijor (click skijor to see what it looks like) from Ruby to Koyukuk and beyond using the Iditarod Trail.  We were on skies, each with a sled for food and gear and 2 dogs for pulling.

It was a very strange and a hard trip.  It did not go according to plan,yet we made the most of our moments.

Here is what basically happened:

Ω  Raven flung us and our gear and dogs around the region and when we finally all came together, missing crucial gear, raven then led us on down the Yukon

Ω People talked to their ancestors in the middle of the grocery store and that felt right

Ω We used Bud Light bottles to carry our water

Ω We fed ravens and saved a wolf

Ω We almost lost our dogs and our fingers, I  frostbit my thigh

Ω I realized I once lived in a cabin by myself in the region long long ago

Ω I saw 1,000 ravens feeding and they tried to reteach me how to fly

Ω We barely skied but when we did it was pretty grand

Ω We smiled between grimaces, we laughed, we marveled, we did not cry (except that once)

Ω Everyone we met helped us.  Amazing wonderful soulful people.

Ω We were stuck in cabins and homes most of the trip, waiting waiting waiting while ravens sang

Ω We paid for services with bacon and gut bombs

Ω 33 degrees above zero with melting conditions turned to wind then 0, -20, -30, -60

All that was well and fine.  But today, as 70 mushers push on toward Nome at this very moment nearing Huslia, I want to tell you the story of how our crazy 2015 trip came to a crescendoing halt (I will write about the rest another time, if you’d like).

So, Laura and I and our dogs are on the trail, half way between Galena and Huslia in a 90 mile stretch of wild.  The temps start dropping fast from -20 to -35 and everything ices up. Not really skiing weather. We would have been fine hunkered down in our tent with the dogs piled on but lucky for us, we found a small shelter cabin.  And the temperature kept going down.

We were stuck in this cabin for 3 days but we did not completely loose our minds.

We spent the first night with lead mushers Martin Buser and Hugh Neff which was a treat.  They were in just behind Dallas Seavey but they were weary.  Martin gave us a huge chocolate bar and was worried about his dogs.  They both slept with one eye on the other, I think Martin snuck out in the middle of the night and Hugh woke around 5am and rushed out.  They could mush but it would be foolhardy for us at anything below -30, mostly due to the aerobics of skiing and sweating profusely and our relatively thin ski boots.  Even with gaiters, boot covers and double wool socks it is always hard to keep the toes warm.  The danger is mostly when you want to stop for a moment to snack or adjust or catch your breath.  

Laura and I had the usual foot issues, she nearly froze her fingers and mine were cracked and bled constantly so I taped them up with pretty duc tape and ignored them best I could. Our dogs were champions though.

The next 2 days and nights were a blur of more mushers pouring through the little cabin.  One night someone called out “It’s -60!”.  Laura and I kept the fire going and the water on. Some mushers stopped briefly to get warm before pushing out again, others napped a few hours or more. It was a revolving door of legends, characters, inspired humans. A dog yard soon developed out front filled with the Dog Olympians of the husky world and they were magnificent. By the 3rd night all 60+ mushers had come through or gone by, some missing the cabin in the night and the chance to warm up. Many mushers got frostbite during that cold snap. We heard Lance Mackey camped just a few miles away preferring a quieter spot and I was sorry to hear his frostbite worsened.  

Now, we had not planned on bunking with 50+mushers.  We wanted to use their trail, make our own camps and have the wilderness mostly to ourselves, but cheer them on as they passed us by.  This was a bit more intimate.

They were impressive; kind, cheerful mostly, and powerfully motivated. We were all out here to glory in the landscape, play with dogs and see what we could do. Laura and I were not racing though, we could choose our timing – while these men and women (so many strong women!) were pushing their bodies for 10 days in extreme conditions, it was truly a marvel.  The dogs were easily the most healthy beings on the trail.  Us humans were simply trying to keep up with the pace that our dogs wanted to set.  Jim Lanier was 77 that year and we loved visiting with him and his team, he told us, “What else can I do?  I know how to do this and I love it.”.  

At one point 20+ mushers were in that 14×14 cabin, taking naps laying on every available surface including the floor and each other, I lay across multiple people, everyone sleep deprived, cold and a bit woozy. We told tales about the trail and our dogs and our sleds and our wounds. Every time a new musher would come in and open the door a white frozen cloud would roll across the room so that all you could see was a big puffy creature silhouetted in the doorway like bigfoot with the brightest stars twinkling over their shoulder and looking like they had stepped out of a Jack London book. You prayed they would shut the door quick. There were a lot of holes in the cabin and many drafts.

We shoved so much wood in the barrel stove it turned red with the heat and the metal started to buckle. I burned a hole in my pants standing a foot away and a musher burned a hole in his boots. He still had 500 miles to go with those holey boots and I felt bad for him. I thought we’d burn the place down. Mushers are not allowed to bring their dogs inside during the race, but they encouraged us to bring ours in and they gave our dogs lots of loving – showing how dog crazy we all were. One man curled up with Luzy while she snuck mushers food and I think she got holey-boots’ burrito because he couldn’t find it and was really bummed. 

After 3 days it warmed up to minus 25 and we were so happy to get back on the trail.  Then we were turned around with a storm advisory a few hours later and brought to Galena where Karin and Tim Bodony treated us like family and gave us deluxe accommodations and best of all, their friendship.  It was a hard trip, but the people were the real treat and Laura and I kept our spirits up and did not lose our minds. We think.

Making the most of the moments means treasuring the things that are wonderful, breathing those in and seeing them as the gift of shelter they are so that when the temperature dips ridiculously low in your life, you can make it through and even thrive.  This 2015 trip became about the people and the animals.  I had planned to skijor, but the ravens took over.  Today, I had planned once again to skijor, but the moment is about resting and writing and that is okay too.

Yes, I want to return and complete a trip through this country.  But I am waiting for right timing and I am listening to the ravens.

May all who pass this way be safe.

Shelter

Otis is ready to GO!

Warming up in the dog yard at -20

 

Foot care is easy by a stove!

Duc tape fixes everything!

Laura checking and rechecking gear and watching the thermometer

 

 

It is good to travel with a Wolf ruff

2 Comments

  1. Kate
    March 10, 2017

    What a wonderful memory to have. Your stories make me crave winter wild places with my beauties

    Reply
    • Wendy Battino
      March 10, 2017

      That makes me happy Kate. How fortunate are we to appreciate this season.
      Perhaps one day I will get to meet your beauties and see your New Zealand winter wild!

      Reply

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