Sample Chapters from
IDITAROD a novel of the Last Great Race
by André Jute
Big Jim and his offspring gradually established a 400 square mile pocket of Alaska as their exclusive territory, not out of greed or need but simply because Nature’s normal restraints on expansion of pack and territory were absent. The usual territory to sustain a troupe of eight wolves is 200 square miles; neither hunting ground nor troupe is normally bigger because neighboring troupes of wolves will ferociously defend their adjoining territories.
But Man interfered disastrously in the ecology of Alaska, as so often happens even when he acts from high motives. Conservationists and ethnic specialists blinded themselves with the obvious fact that the Eskimo’s livelihood depends solely on free-roaming herds of caribou, whose only natural predator was the wolf: eliminate the wolf and the survival quotient of the Eskimo must perforce increase. Altruistically these conservationists and ethnologists exposed themselves to great hardship and danger to hunt down every wolf in Alaska; such was their persistence that they killed 99% of Alaskan wolves.
Like most such grand schemes conceived in ignorance, this one backfired catastrophically and predictably. Without the wolves culling on the old, sick, and weak caribou, and the new calves least likely to contribute to the genetic pool, the caribou population doubled, trebled and quadrupled in a few years. The Eskimo looked on glumly: they knew what would happen next but no one consulted them for they did not proclaim themselves experts. The sparse vegetation of the tundra could not support the population-explosion of caribou and soon it was over-cropped and crumbling underfoot. The caribou were virtually exterminated in a famine and many Eskimo — for whose benefit the wolves were killed — came to the brink of starvation. Now, several decades later, the caribou herds have recovered almost to their natural-balance numbers; however, many previously self-sustaining Eskimo still live on government handouts, and the tundra will take another half-century to recover its prior splendor… if Man does not interfere again.
There is no possibility whatsoever of the timber wolf ever regaining sufficient numbers in Alaska to replace men with rifles for the essential annual chore of culling caribou.
Big Jim’s pack did not know all this but they did not need to. They established their original territory by instinct alone: since they found no contesting wolves on it, it was theirs. They claimed only enough to feed the troupe. When the pack grew larger in the good years, they tentatively explored beyond the instinct-drawn borders of their territory and found no packs hunting on adjacent territories to contest expansion. Conversely, had there been packs hunting on contiguous territories, Big Jim’s troupe would have refrained from breeding beyond the food-capability of its own territory. By destroying Nature’s constraints the conservationists created a mutant wolf-pack six to eight times larger than the natural maximum.
Yet at each stage of expansion instinct drew the wolves a new border, to be crossed only in great need and with dread. Thus, the first few times that hunger and the men from the logging village and salvage camp drove them to search elsewhere for food, they returned to their own territory as speedily as they safely could. But soon they learned that no danger lurked beyond the boundaries of instinct and did not return along their own tracks, falling asleep where they fed.
Finding no resistance to enlargement of their hunting range, the wolves continued to expand it as opportunity offered: they followed the available food, though in a northwesterly direction whenever that was possible, as in the spring the caribou trekked north from their forest wintering grounds. It was as though some instinct to travel away from the sun and Man replaced the territorial instinct. True, this expansion conflicted with the prior instinct and caused several wolves to behave neurotically. But wolves normally are highly strung and, while their body language is a marvelously complex and effective form of communication, it is also intricately specialized towards satisfying another instinct: hunger; it lacks the range of human communication. The few wolves whose territorial instincts were stronger than their fear and hunger could not deflect the ravenous will of the majority and either were disciplined by the pack — one was killed and eaten while a stronger wolf was driven out to die a lingering and lonely death — or submitted to their even stronger instinct for pack-conformity.
Wolf society is not so different from human society.
Thus the largest wolf-pack ever recorded was created by men, set on its travels by men, even guided by men in a direction which was bound to intersect with the Iditarod racers and their sled dogs on the way to Nome.
The moose behind her ran easily, athletically. Her dogs would tire before the moose: they were flat out, using every last ounce of reserve, while the moose could at any moment call up an extra spurt of speed and trample them.
It flashed into her mind that she was running from an attempt at rape. ‘What?’ she asked herself aloud, then shouted to the moose, ‘You stupid elk, I’m not your kind. Go find a doe.’
Perhaps her shout enraged the animal, perhaps it was tired of the game; whichever, the moose huffed and puffed and closed the gap at frightening speed. Rhodes breathed deeply, then jumped into the snow beside the track, grateful for the small mercy of not falling on cut-up and refrozen ridges of trail-ice. She rolled upright and ran, hoping to lead the moose away from her dogs: the dogs were tied to the sled whilst she was loose and free to act. The snow dragged at her calf muscles. But soft snow, unlike hard ice, would protect her, act as a cushion when the moose trampled her. Behind her she heard branches break and the thump of snow sliding off disturbed trees. Through her feet she felt the thundering hooves though, strangely, she could not hear them. The thumping reverberated in her body and head; after a while they fell into step with her and she realized she no longer heard the moose but her own frantic heart. She dared to look over her shoulder and a branch hit her across the side of her face. She fell to the snow to lie panting, without energy to rise, waiting to be trampled to death. It was a mercy to black out.
Later, when she recovered consciousness and opened her eyes, she saw the moose foraging twenty paces away. It just lost interest in her! She was tempted to curse it aloud but, instead, rose inch by inch, as quietly as she could, checking for broken bones, then raised one foot, looked at the moose to see if it would come after her again, turned to see where she was putting her hovering foot, took one step, glanced at the moose, praying there was no dry twig to snap under the blown snow, took another step—
Thirty excruciatingly slow steps later the moose turned to stare incuriously at her, then wandered away.
‘And the same to you!’ she whispered to the retreating back of the largest deer in North America.
Retracing her footsteps towards the trail, she laughed in nervous release. Whatever humor there was in the whole episode was pretty sick comedy: moose contesting the trail often trampled six or eight or ten dogs before they were shot, and there were reports of people badly trampled and even killed by the animals. A man — or a woman — could not expect to be a match for a 1500 pound moose. Nonetheless it was insulting that the moose should chase her for miles only to lose interest when she was beaten, literally down and out.
‘Watch it, Rhodes,’ she admonished herself. ‘That was a moose, not a human.’
Still, a moose looks like an animal designed by a committee, having the face of a camel on the neck of a horse with mulelike ears under a huge spread of antlers, all on the body of a water-ox carried high off the ground on the legs of a giraffe.
Blue. In her raggedly tired mind rose the sad specter of her own failed genetic experiment. An Eskimo gave her the little Arctic or Blue Fox and Rhodes hand-reared him as a pet. About fifteen million years ago the wolf, the fox and the dog sprung from a common ancestor, Tomarctus (who, a vet told Rhodes, was probably short and squat with stumpy legs, not unlike a Corgi). Rhodes therefore harbored high hopes for Blue… The Arctic Fox, in common with the polar bear, grows hair on the pad of its paw. Dogs do not. If she could cross-breed an arctic fox with her dogs and the pups inherited the hairy footprint, they would have better protected feet and — much more important because booties could as easily protect their feet — the hair would give them better grip on snow and far superior purchase on ice. And that no bootie could do, even when made of moose hide with the hair outside and guard hairs still in place: the moose hair wore off too easily. The musher who bred dogs with hairy undersides to their paws would steal a march on all other competitors, worth as much as two or three miles per hour — a devastating edge in a race as long as the Iditarod.
Blue, the Arctic Fox, did its duty by Rhodes’s malamute bitch and then ran off into the night in search of greater adventure; the Eskimo warned her that this would happen with even the most affectionate fox but Rhodes could not bring herself to chain Blue. The bitch pupped and — hallelujah! — the pups had hairy footpads. The pups grew apace. But there was something wrong with them. At first Rhodes thought only that they were uncommonly incurious and unadventurous, especially considering their parentage, staying too close to their mother all the time. Then the truth struck her and she brought a torch into the gloomy shed and shone it into their eyes. Not one of them blinked: they were all blind.
Her landlord, sent by his wife to call her to supper, found her standing at the shed door, peering at the unchanging sky. She hugged her body with both arms under the transparent plastic cape she wore, rain running off it distorting her body, lending her an air of fragile sadness. He was not a particularly sensitive man but, still ten paces from her, he asked, ‘What is it?’
‘My puppies are blind.’
‘All? You sure? Let’s see.’
But they were all blind. ‘You’ll have to put them down,’ he said, returning the last pup to its mother’s teat and resting the six-cell torch face-down on the shelf above the box.
‘I hate it! I know it’s necessary but I hate it.’
‘It’s crueler not to do it.’
‘Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll do it.’
‘The longer you put it off the worse it will be. I’ll do it for you.’
Relief flooded her. She would not have to look into the pups’ blind eyes and then kill them. She knew it was weak of her to let him do it: she tried to subvert evolution and was now evading the punishment for failure. But she could not…
‘Hold the bitch here.’ He took the five pups in his two hands and walked out of the shed.
With shock she realized he would kill them immediately. She opened her mouth to call out that tonight, after dark… but he was gone. She talked to the bitch, gentling her, scratching her ears, trying not to look into those trusting eyes. She knew the Eskimo was right: those pups would have grown up to sit staring at nothing all day. But their lives were so short; they harmed no one. After a while she carried a spade outside, closing the shed door on the bitch so that she would not see her dead pups.
The Eskimo stood beside a paraffin drum on which the pups lay spread in a fan, heads outwards. He crushed their skulls with his heel. She gagged, turned away, blinded by tears, and started digging a hole. She would not go in to eat. When he returned from his meal he took the spade from her hands and pulled her by her elbow out of the four-foot deep hole she hacked in violent distress through permafrost that engineers routinely dynamite.
They buried the tiny still-warm bodies to the sad accompaniment of the bitch whining softly for her pups.
Rhodes would never again be tempted to meddle with nature.
Rhodes wiped the tears from her cheeks before they could freeze on her skin. She was wrung out. She wanted to lie down in the snow to sleep, to recover her selfness, not to be blown hither and thither by the winds of chance. But she chose to run a race and she always prided herself on being a finisher, not a fader. And she was responsible for her dogs. Before she could rest she must find her team. She sat with head between her knees and counted slowly to one hundred. From seventy-nine, at each new number she saw Countess Mayo, Toots’s mother, jump over a stile. In a small corner of her mind she knew it was ludicrous to have hallucinations in broad daylight. First Blue and now Countess Mayo. She rose and marched determinedly along the trail she and the moose cut. It was faster returning than coming — well, almost — because the moose broke so many branches and trampled the snow. She found the main trail with its cheap-lipstick pink surveyor’s tape and started trudging along it. The dogs could have come back and passed the place where she rejoined the trail. She hoped not. She headed for the mountains. That was the right way, forward. While she was moving, there was hope. She started jogging, a pace she could maintain for hours.
‘I told them they shouldn’t let any bloody women on the trail. Of course they didn’t bloody listen. Now look at that bloody Susan Butcher, making us all look like bloody fools. You can guess who my wife is rooting for and it isn’t bloody me.’
He was short and slight, with jet black hair and yellow shooter’s glasses. For a moment she fancied he might be Emmitt Peters because he looked exactly like the legendary musher. But no, he was another trim, fit, Indian. He sat on a log beside the trail, holding his team and hers, waiting. Head down, she failed to see him until he started talking.
She stood on the trail, stared, then walked over to take her team’s gang line. ‘Thank you, Mr Bloody,’ she said, stroking Toots. ‘Oh, sorry.’
‘It’s all right. A lot of people call me Bloody Bobby Franks. What happened?’
‘A moose thought we were on its trail. My dogs weren’t going to make it so I jumped. After a while the moose lost interest. I hope I didn’t hold you up too long.’
He shook his head, then rose to look searchingly at her; even standing, he looked up at her. ‘The moose didn’t get you.’ Not a question; a statement. His fingers traced the bruise on the side of her face.
‘A branch. How bad does it look?’
‘Skin’s not broken. If you don’t keep bloody touching it, it’ll go away. You feel all right?’
‘Yes, thank you. You can carry on if you like.’
‘I can camp near you.’
She was tempted but James Whitbury gained several hours more while she played catch-me-if-you-can with the moose. ‘Thanks but I have a schedule to keep.’ She looked at her watch. ‘I’m four hours behind and my dogs look all right.’
‘They’re bloody okay. They bin bloody resting for about three mebbe four hours looks to me. You go first; I’ll follow to see you’re all right.’
After encountering the moose, running up Rainy Pass in broad daylight with the experienced ‘Bloody’ Bobby Franks behind her seemed more like a Girl Guide’s proving trip than a notoriously dangerous section of the Iditarod. Several times as she flashed past rocks that could shatter sleds or bones, she thought, I’m like those kids at college I sneered at, high on something. Only not drugs. Danger. She made Rainy Pass Lodge an hour before Franks, cared for her dogs and when he arrived was fast asleep, having wolfed a meal from the Meads’ bounty.
‘That bloody woman is crazy in the bloody head.’ Bobby Franks circled his finger at his temple. ‘She came up that mountain like she was running into town late for the bloody hairdresser. She frightened the bloody hell out of me. Wake me a bloody hour after she’s bloody gone.’
Rhodes left in good time to make the divide at dawn. She was back on her schedule and only seven hours behind James. The beauty of the final ascent exalted her and she felt sorry for the kids she met at college who needed a fix but would never be able to experience this genuine high. Dawn broke as she entered the ice chute.
She felt an intense need to thank God for beauty, for what He made. Normally she was not religious. When she was thirteen her father told her that he was not religious until he met her mother. Her father still went to church and Rhodes with him, less from overwhelming belief than from established duty. What was good enough for his late wife was good enough for her father and what was good enough for him was good enough for Rhodes; no further reason was necessary. But the grandeur of the ice chute, reaching on each side for a sere sky, was enough to turn agnostics into believers. Or into mystics, she told herself. But as a civilized and educated woman she could not permit the pathetic fallacy to interfere with her schedule, with her race — with beating James Whitbury to Nome.
Still, she ran down that mountain, driven by the exhilaration beyond reason of beauty, of fear, awe, terror and the self-destructive urge that lingers in the cobwebby corners of every mind, on a roller-coaster of glee, joyously speeding around huge rocks that her inviolate sanity remonstrated were best negotiated with extreme care. Though conscious of the danger she could not stop herself. ‘Fool!’ she told herself aloud and thought of how spiders and crabs breed young to live on their backs, eating them alive, dying excruciatingly for a natural impulse; she read that the male black widow spider knows the female will eat him after mating, tries to escape and sometimes succeeds, to mate with another female and then be eaten. This is precisely how Man pits himself against danger… As she steered it aside to avoid a huge chunk of ice rising out of the trail at one of the bridges that broke up under the weight of passing racers, the sled clipped a rock. It took her four hundred yards to halt the team, sparks flying from the rock as the brake cut through a thin layer of snow and ice into the mountain itself.
She was shocked cold sober, as if someone emptied a bucket of icy water over her. A stanchion was cracked. It was not serious; she decided not to replace it unless it broke before the Rohn River checkpoint. She set off at reduced pace, grimly restraining the impulse to watch the dropside of the trail at the difficult sections: something about this mountain induced suicidal tendencies. Even at this lesser pace she passed another musher who started out from the Lodge before her. But she refused to take that as a sign she was still traveling too fast: she chose what her bones told her was a good-sense speed and she would stick to it. It cramped her stomach to reduce speed and keep it down but the dogs trotted easily and Nome was a long way ahead… That burning desire to go, to get ahead, lead, would only betray her. A cool head, strategy, that was what she needed, not to go loco and kill herself and her dogs on this mountain, no matter how beautiful a memorial it would make. And what seemed like plodding obviously was faster than the pace the musher she passed thought safe.
She came to Pass Fork, then Dalzell Creek, and allowed the dogs gradually to pick up speed on the smoother trail-surface. She also permitted herself to look up from the trail to the spectacular beauty of the canyon formed by huge mountains rising over 5000 feet on each side.
They sped over a bank and onto the Tatina. Overflow soaked her boots before they could stop and almost immediately she felt the water starting to freeze her toes. Sitting on the sled, taking her boots off, she studied the water. It was several inches deep. The temperature was steady at around thirty below zero, so it was unlikely that anything more melted than was expected. She concluded that the trailblazer decided not to make it easy for the mushers. She would have preferred shoe-pacs with rubber soles and leather tops but they too would soon be wet through. She flung her soaked mukluks into the sled and put on vapor-barrier bunny boots.
In that brief pause to change her footwear the sled froze to the ice. Before trying to loosen it she inspected the booties on her dogs; she did not want her dogs’ feet to freeze either. The sled was frozen fast and she and the dogs could not pull it loose. Rhodes was terrified that her dogs would freeze to the ice where they stood. She took her axe to the ice, leaving splinters of her sled runners stuck in the ice under the overflow. She needed to work quickly: the water flowed into any crack she made on one side and froze again while she worked on the other side. This happened twice. She straightened her aching back briefly while she considered. Then she bent again, chopping beneath one runner, a small, deep, square hole rather than the elongated channels she cut until then. She stuck the head of the axe into the hole and called to the dogs: ‘Hike! Go!’ Then she jumped on the axe handle, thankful that she carried a workmanlike axe with full-size handle (hand-carved out of hardwood by her father) rather than a hand-axe like those of many other racers — some made of light alloy after James Whitbury’s example. The leverage broke the hold of the ice, tilting the sled dangerously; it teetered as she dived for its side to haul it down. The sled slammed back to the ice and surged forward violently. Rhodes jumped for the runners. Then she remembered her axe: without it she would be disqualified. She scooped it up and ran after the sled, slithering wildly on the glare ice, shouting at her dogs to wait, hearing the hoarseness in her voice, the note of fear.
Fortunately the dogs were averse to scrabbling on the glare ice and hated the overflow worse than cats; quickly they lost the exuberance of being able to move again and turned towards dry going in the snow on the riverbank.
Rhodes ran straight on in the splashing water: here she could run faster than the dogs could in the loose snow. Gaining on the dogs, she too turned into the snow, treading in the trail of an earlier musher who also found his dogs reluctant to stay on the river with its overflow and glare ice. (This was James’s team, but Rhodes could not know that.) She slowed to let her dogs pass, then grabbed the drive bow and stepped onto the runners as the sled swept by.
It’s at times like this, she thought, that I wish dogs were driven by reins and a whip instead of just your voice and the respect they have for you.
When she recovered her breath, she called ‘Gee! Gee!’, jumped off the runners and pushed the sled sideways to steer the dogs back onto the fast, if uncomfortable, river. The soft snow on the bank was too slow, a couple of feet deep in most places, deeper still in unpredictable patches, all of it slushy going.
On the river, traveling much faster, Rhodes became apprehensive that Toots, her other dogs, even her sled and she, could fall through a hole in the ice hidden by the overflow. She ran past the sled and took the gang line to lead her team from the front. From here it should be easier to spot the holes in the ice underneath the overflow. ‘We don’t want to wake up to a fanfare of winged musicians,’ she told Toots. Rhodes no longer glanced up at the scenic wonders: she stared grimly ten feet in front of her loping boots. ‘Anyone who comes down here at night is plain crazy and deserves everything that happens.’
She led the dogs and sled past a gaping mini-lake and then over an ice-bridge between two patches of deep-blue water, adding, ‘Anyone who comes through here at any time is plumb loco.’
And, she thought, if Toots ever answers me, I shall stop mushing.
‘You know,’ she told Toots, tempting fate, ‘the old-timers had the right idea. Before your time, before my time, the musher didn’t run behind his sled or ride the runners. He rode on skis in front of the sled, behind the wheel dogs. He was tied into the gang line and steered the sled with a pole tied to the right-hand side of the sled. Called a gee pole. Obviously. But the lighter racing sleds could be steered from the back and went a whack faster without the gee pole, so they did away with it. Except they didn’t foresee situations like this, did they?’
She reached a huge dark patch of open water surrounded by jagged upright slabs of ice. At first she thought she lost the trail: she could not believe there could be so much open water where many teams would be passing at night. But pieces of pink ribbon survived here and there. Whoever cut trail here isn’t just making things difficult for the mushers. This is so dangerous as to be malicious. She looked over her shoulder to see if Toots was on the scent of other teams veering right or left: Toots kept her nose to the ice, pointing straight ahead. This is impossible! Perhaps it was not open water, merely black glare ice recently covered by overflow. She would not take the chance. She led her team towards the bank, choosing the northern bank because the race was heading northwest and when in doubt she always turned in the direction of the race. From the bank she looked down at the large dark patch. Was she paranoid, losing time over some imaginary obstacle? Losing her nerve?
She grasped the pattern.
Slabs of ice, jagged points, crack lines, everything radiated from a kernel of violence, spreading a circular message up and down the river, towards each of the banks, to all points in between. She could not accept what she saw, though she knew it was true. She stared at the fallen trees on the far side of the river, leaning away from her, split and shattered trunks pointing accusingly towards her. On her own side of the river, around her, were more shattered trees. She picked up a jagged piece of branch and flung it as far as she could into the dark patch. It sank quickly, spreading ripples to within six feet of her feet.
Someone blew up the river. And recently: the tracks of a snow machine were visible right under her nose.
She led her team around the destruction, searching for anyone hurt in the explosion and needing help. If there was anyone, he was now under the ice, with dogs and sled. She set off on the trail at a rollicking pace that soon brought the dogs’ tongues lolling out.
She planned to rest her dogs and feed them short of Rohn, so that she would not run into James before he left there. But this was more important than tactics.
She was already turning off the river, following signposts to the checkpoint, when she remembered that she left the gaping hole in the river unprotected. But no, she carried nothing to mark it with and those jagged teeth of ice surrounding it would warn any musher not asleep on his sled.
She made Rohn in just over seven hours from Rainy Pass Lodge, a very brisk time compared to the ten hours she allowed.
‘Someone blew up the river five-six miles back,’ she told the checker.
He finished checking her gear.
‘I said, Somebody blew up the river back there.’
‘Spectacular, was it?’
‘I don’t know. I came afterwards. There’s a hole right across the river under the overflow. A musher could have drowned there during the night.’
He studied her carefully.
‘I’m not hallucinating. I was leading my dogs. There are sheets of ice standing up, pointing outwards. Exploded trees, pointing away from the epicenter. The man who did it left snow machine tracks. Look, you don’t have to believe me. Just check that everyone who left Rainy Pass Lodge before me arrived here.’
He stepped back before her vehemence. ‘Strange things happen on the trail.’
‘Yes, I know. I was starting to feel religious.’ She paused to remember giving herself over to that mountain. She shook her head to clear the memory. ‘But I was over all that when I saw the Tatina all blown. Just check, please!’
‘Sure. We check all the time. But that won’t tell us much. Four years ago, when I ran, I was lost for five days before I found the trail again. Still, at least half a dozen mushers took longer than me to make Nome. Go look after your dogs. Paul Fleming’s here if you want him to look at the bust stanchion this side. There’s a packet of spare stanchions waiting for you in the shed. Your father sent them with the food-plane. Also a message of love and good luck; they’ll see you in McGrath.’
‘Thanks. Can you send someone to put up a warning marker?’
‘Hey, the Iditarod isn’t the highway patrol! Guys who can’t look out for themselves aren’t allowed to run.’
‘Whoever you send with the marker can see for himself I’m not just talking.’
He looked embarrassed.
‘And you’d better radio the police about people with explosives blowing up the river.’
‘Police? You from the city, Miss? It’ll take the cops weeks to get here. Anyway, what do we tell them? That somebody blew up a piece of frozen river? Let’s not panic, eh?’
She shrugged and went about the routine of feeding her dogs, inspecting their paws for snow or water freezing between the pads and for cuts needing attention.
As always, Paul Fleming was there to enjoy the race. But he knew from experience that Rainy Pass would not be kind to lightweight racing sleds and brought the tools of his trade. He inspected the stanchions Rhodes fitted on the trail and pronounced them a competent job: he saw no need to retie them. He fitted a new stanchion in place of the last one broken and inspected the rest of her sled professionally. Her father made it well, he said.
Rhodes lay in her sleeping bag in the old cabin that might have been part of the original roadhouse there; she tried to sleep but the explosive rose of violence on the Tatina bothered her. When it was time to leave for Farewell she was tired and tense. But she was determind to stick to her schedule, start running at night again now that she was over Rainy Pass. Fondling her dogs and checking their booties before setting out, she wondered if anyone fell into that gaping hole on the Tatina.
‘Who didn’t turn up from the Lodge?’ she asked the checker.
‘Only one. But Darryl Edge — you passed him on the mountain — saw the hole and he also thinks it was explosives. So I popped out there on the snow tractor and you’re right, somebody blew up the river. There’s no sign that any musher was there at the time, though.’
‘There wouldn’t be. His tracks will be covered by the overflow.’
‘Sure. But there would be some sign. A musher and his sled and twelve dogs don’t just disappear like that, leaving no trace.’
‘How long has he been missing?’
‘He hasn’t actually been posted missing. But he left Rainy Pass Lodge eight, nine hours before you and he hasn’t arrived here yet. But you’d expect a rookie to take a long time down that mountain. Not everybody is in a crazy hurry like you. Though this one was the leading rookie when he left the Lodge. Now you’re the leading rookie, which isn’t bad for a girl, huh?’
‘Yes, thanks,’ she said dejectedly.
‘We’re not making a big thing about it yet. Maybe tomorrow, if he doesn’t turn up roundabout midday, we’ll start looking. He won’t be the first musher to lose the way on the mountain or in the canyon. I’m waiting to see his sled. They say he built it of the same metals that fly on the space shuttle.’
She never even considered the possibility. ‘It’s James Whitbury missing?’
The checker responded to the tone of alarm in her voice. ‘You’n’he have something going?’
‘Not like you think. A race within the race.’
‘He’ll turn up. He’s just lost. That hole in the river, that’s some trapper too lazy to set a trap line. He blows up the river once, goes downriver, blows another hole in it, scoops up the dead animals, goes downriver to blow another hole. There are people like that, you know. Only other people are so embarrassed by them, they don’t say much about it. Your James Whitbury—’
‘He’s not my James Whitbury!’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘He’ll turn up, a bit shamefaced about getting lost and giving you the lead. Use it while you can.’
Well, she thought, these people are vastly experienced in the ways of the Iditarod; there’s nothing more I can do.
She hoped to cover the thirty-eight miles to Farewell in ten hours or less. It was mostly flat and good going, except for the — by now expected — overflow on the shallower rivers and creeks. She flipped memorized notes in her mind until she came to one reading ‘Bison country.'
From Rohn Roadhouse she ran almost due north on the South Fork of theKuskokwim. The glare ice here made fast going but at places there was overflow that terrified her, and terror exhausted her beyond the demands of the trail. She did not want to slow the dogs by running in front. By now she convinced herself that James was only lost, that he would soon find the trail again and clear Rohn, pressing hard on her trailbecause he would believe shewas now twenty-four hours ahead of him. She was too tired to work out the implications of this but it was clear that, by becoming lost, he upset her strategy; hecould hurry right on past her, they would both take their twenty-four hour layover, he would be ahead with rested dogs and she would then have to push much harder and use up her dogs’ reserve long before they reached Nome. Unless… unless she pushed so much harder now that he could not possibly catch up, unless she raced ahead now and then rested her dogs, unless, unless… Thinking was too much bother.
The trailblazer decided to give the mushers a break after the horrors of the Tatina and she thanked him fervently when the trail left the river to enter the thick spruce forest. Once, on a narrow cut through the dense trees, she passed a dark hulk just off the trail and realized with shock that it was a bison. The animal was not native to the area: bison were introduced before World War II and flourished. Her light swiveled with her head and she saw, high on the trunk of a tree, four or five times her own height, a blaze that appeared as old as time itself. Though she was alone, chasing the shadowy legend that was Leonhard Seppala, there were people here before her, before Seppala even — twenty and thirty feet of spruce growth meant perhaps a hundred years ago. These veterans, who expected others to follow, cut and marked the trail for the followers, of whom she was proud to be one.
She was already on the Post River, silently cursing the overflow while she tried to keep her dogs from heading up the bank to the surer footing and dry going, when the moon rose over Tunis Mountain. Now she knew how the ancient Druids felt. The huge open expanse of ice before her was Lake Veleska and they zipped over it without incident. She studied the sky and the distant horizon of trees. ‘Severe, clear,’ she said aloud in weather forecaster’s tones. It would not last. There would be a storm — Nature also subscribes to Murphy’s Law because Murphy is Nature, random event piled onto random event. Unlike in a Colorado sprint, where bad weather would give her heavier dogs an advantage over competitors who mostly preferred lightweight sprinters, here she would prefer clear weather and easier going. Here a storm could catch her out in the middle of nowhere and she could die: she did not want to challenge Alaska that way.
Open water again. She led the team. Terrifying. She found herself thinking of the courage of little Daniel Brook, who was crippled by polio but refused to admit the limitations of leg irons, running, jumping and playing football just like other boys. He was at school with her and Margery and, instead of going to college, asked his father for a rundown Toyota agency that now, only a few years later, was making him rich. He once told her his personal mantra was nothing oriental, just the words ‘I can, I can, I can,’ repeated endlessly. ‘Thing is,’ he added, ‘you musn’t grit your teeth and carry on grimly. The light touch, right? Then you start thinking it’s fun. I can, I can, I can. Like can-can, with bright music and the Rockettes twirling under the lights.’
She wanted to sit down and wait for the dawn so that at least she could see better than by the twee light of her headlamp.
‘I can, I can, I can,’ she started chanting and soon she knew she could and shook the drive bow so that the dogs sped up from the crawl her fear reduced them to.
‘I can, I can, I can!’ she sang, ringing the far mountains.
She felt a glow starting from her and looked around to reassure Toots should it startle her. Light flowed from her until dogs and sled too glowed with her determination and belief that she would survive.
She thought it was about minus twenty. The northern lights found her and she switched off her light until she returned to the trees. Trees flashed past. Trees, trees, trees and more trees. Spruce taking over the world. Gutenberg’s Revenge, she thought tiredly. Why do I always have my best ideas just when I’m falling asleep and know they’ll be lost when I wake? Her aura faded and disappeared when she entered the forest. Primitive man feared the forest and burned it for more reasons than just to drive animals before the fire. Until recently Indians burned the forest to create clearings to grow corn, encourage new growth to attract game, destroy hiding places for enemies. They believed a man could spend only five days in the forest before the dread Wendigo claimed him or he went mad. Better to burn it.
She woke in the snow. She rose and plodded wearily until she remembered she was in a race, then broke into a reluctant trot. Her team stopped no more than half a mile from where she fell asleep and off the sled. She wondered if that was what happened to James in the mountain…
Perhaps the line of red repeatedly glimpsed on the horizon was James’s blood blown into the ether and the pulsing red light in the center of it his heart still pumping vainly, uselessly, angrily.
Dawn broke and stole the red lights. Her eyes adjusted and she saw the red light still blinked on its tower in front of the dawn. She was traveling eastward, back towards Anchorage…
‘You’re lost, Sister,’ a cheery female voice greeted her from shapeless Carhartt overalls. ‘Nome’s thataway. But since you haven’t checked in here, just as well you came back. If you miss a checkpoint, you’re disqualified.’
This must be Farewell, a village of five souls and more buildings, all dedicated to giving pilots weather forecasts and reorienting those who inevitably lost their bearings in the vastness of Alaska. ‘This is Farewell?’ Dawn was too soon to reach Farewell, Rhodes thought. I should be on the trail for another hour yet.
‘Sure! You’re three hundred miles from Anchorage, a quarter of the way to Nome. We have buildings with beds to sleep in. We have hot running water. Wonders to behold, we have a clothes dryer. We’ll give you a hot meal. Lot of mushers take their twenty-four here. You look like it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to declare here too.’
‘I’m meeting people in McGrath.’
‘You don’t look like a barfly to me.’
‘There’re only three bars between Anchorage and Nome and two of them are in McGrath. Declare your twenty-four anyway. If you want to continue after your rest, that’s okay.’
‘All right. Thanks.’
‘You’re the second woman and first rookie through here. You’re lying ninth. Can you believe it?’
‘Right now I just feel like lying — down.’ This woman was a tonic. ‘Is all my gear present?’
‘—and correct. Dog food’s arranged in that building at the end of the street. Big circle, alphabetical. Just walk around until you come to the Ds. And remember, I’m proud of you. Alaska is proud of you.’
Rhodes, already leading her dogs towards the food hall, felt her back straightening involuntarily.
Alaska is proud of you.
She turned around. ‘Is Susan leading?’
‘No. Swenson and Peters were an hour ahead of her out of here. You racing her?’
‘No, I’m racing myself,’ Rhodes said sadly, convinced that James was out of the race, even if still alive. ‘I just want to finish.’
‘You’re only five hours behind her and that’s pretty good over three hundred miles for a first-timer.’
‘Mmm. Any news from Rohn?’ She shivered at the irrational thought that mentioning James’s name would somehow lessen his chances of survival.
‘Nope. Business as usual.’
Rhodes hesitated. But the checker at Rohn told her they would not declare James missing until noon today, perhaps not even then. She turned away.
There were only two other mushers at Farewell, one taking his twenty-four hour mandatory break to allow dogs drained in the dog fight in Anchorage to recover their strength; he was fast asleep in a spare house of the three facing Farewell’s lone ‘street’. The other musher was preparing to leave, chasing the leaders. He was a big Eskimo of about fifty who nodded distantly to her as she passed, but the words he called after her were friendly: ‘You’re doing okay.’
She was startled: in Colorado the frontrunners did not welcome the girl who rose so fast in a man’s sport. ‘Thanks.’
‘See you in Nome. Hike!’ And he disappeared into the crisp morning like something from a magic tale. She was too tired to remember his name but he was a past winner and consistent high finisher.
The laundry room, where she found her flown-in food, almost overwhelmed her with fumes of Blazo and Coleman fuel, the lingering traces of heavy red meat the other mushers cooked with as much as half by volume of fat. The smell was nauseating. She swallowed, stopped breathing for a moment and then was all right.
While the dogs’ meal — ground lamb and chunks of horsemeat with an equal volume of fat to counter the cold — cooked on the double Coleman her father modified to burn separately off each cylinder, she fed each dog a quart of sour cream: this she substituted for the expensive cream cheese James Whitbury and other mushers with big sponsorship used for a quick boost. Rhodes, too, could have used cream cheese but refused all sponsorship because she would not paste sponsors’ stickers on the sled her father hand-carved for her. Sour cream was cheap, the dogs loved it, and it worked just as well.
After feeding her dogs she showered and changed into her last fresh clothes — oh, luxury! Emma Bovary in your louse-brown, what would have happened to you if your creator instead dressed you in vivid scarlet? She threw her laundry into the washer and then spun it in the dryer. She found an empty room with a made bed and crawled into it. But could not sleep — she long since crossed the border of exhaustion into washed-out wakefulness. The question nagged: how did she become lost and start traveling eastwards, arriving at Farewell fortuitously though from the wrong direction? It would forever be an unsolved mystery; she consciously put it out of her mind.
She thought of the smell in the laundry room: it reminded her of what she loved about Colorado in winter, why she felt so instantly at home in Alaska — Alaska is proud of you! — and suddenly she was rejuvenated. Alaska has no smell. Alaska always smells clean, as does Colorado in winter. She loved Spring, Summer and Fall in Colorado too; but Winter, the mushing season, was her favorite.
Her schedule called for a layover of nine hours here at Farewell, her main rest of the day. Two hours were now gone but still she could not sleep.
Of the race officials, pressmen and television crews who flew in to watch the front-runners pass, quite a few lingered to enjoy Farewell’s comforts while the racers slogged their way to the next checkpoint with an airstrip. She sat in the kitchen of a house and listened to the pilots talk of south winds blowing into McGrath, heralding a storm perhaps two days away.
The other storm struck Rainy Pass. A race official told her it would be ‘eight-ten-maybe-twelve-fourteen’ days before the last back marker passed through Farewell. Two mushers scratched at Rainy Pass Lodge and another at Rohn.
While she was in the shower another musher came in and declared he was scratching here. It was the man she met back… back where? An eternity ago, just out of Anchorage. He lost his lead dog and, with no other leader, brought his team this far only by willpower. He sat at the corner of the table, haggard face almost in his bowl of soup, spooning a mouthful every minute or two, forcing himself to eat politely the food his hosts offered him. When someone commiserated with him, he looked up with deadened eyes, nodded, returned to the soup he was scarcely eating.
‘It’s a magnificent feat for him to reach here,’ a man with a spread moustache told Rhodes. ‘Most of us, the officials, ran at one time or another. I heard they were thinking of telling him a couple of checkpoints back he should scratch. I told them not to be stupid. Sure, I’d agree if he was a danger to himself or other mushers. But he’s tough and experienced. You don’t tell a man like that he doesn’t know when to give up. Some other day you could be in trouble on the trail and be rescued by a man who doesn’t know how to give up. Three hundred miles — over Rainy Pass — without a leader! Can you believe it?’
Rhodes shook her head. The official she was talking to was a past winner and now president of the race organization; she was too tired to remember his name and too embarrassed to ask. He thought she was doing well but cautioned her against breaking trail for others all the time. ‘Sometimes, give your dogs a break and follow another musher even if he’s slower than you. Let him break trail for you.’
The woman in the Carhearts was large and plain but her smiling face radiated kindness. She told Rhodes, ‘That building wind you met coming in will turn into a right smart storm. Not now, maybe when you reach the far side of McGrath. But already it has chapped your skin. Wait, I’ll bring you some cream.’
When she returned with the lotion Rhodes was fast asleep, upright in a kitchen chair.
She did not want to wake, especially not to Harry Coignton of the Washington Post telling her she was dead. It was a nightmare, dream within a dream. She told herself, Soon I will wake once and be back in the dream, then I’ll wake again and be back in the Iditarod.
Coignton shook her shoulder.
‘Mr Coignton,’ she said coldly, ‘I came here running behind a dog sled, not sitting in an airplane. Go away, let me rest.’
Coignton studied her face closely. ‘Listen, James Whitbury is missing, presumed drowned.’
The alarm on her wrist bleeped plaintively, a mouse in a catless land. Time to go.
She noticed the journalist staring at her, trying to discern her reaction. She looked away, staring blankly at the corner of the ceiling.
‘Hey, what are you crying for? You keep telling us there’s nothing between you.’
Every sparrow that falls.
She rose and jerked her bright orange parka from the back of the chair and pulled it on as she stumbled out.
There was still her race to run, to Nome the fastest and best she could. For herself, for James, for all those vanquished by Alaska.
The reporters followed her, asking more questions. She ignored them while she harnessed her dogs and checked their booties, then drove them into the dusk gathering as slowly as a cinema queue. Their protests against exclusion from her thoughts rang hollow in the cold air, brushed aside by the crisp wind to startle a flock of ptarmigans into the sunset. Soon, puffing from the unaccustomed exercise of shambling runs beside her, the reporters fell away unnoticed by Rhodes.
Nikolai was forty-five miles away, McGrath another forty-five. Her father, with Margery and Harvey, would be waiting at McGrath, steadfast beacons of her life.
Ahead of her ran Number One, Leonhard Seppala; at her heels snapped the grinning skull of James Whitbury, picked clean by the fingerling spring salmon of the Tatina. After a while she stopped looking over her shoulder: he would forever be behind her, just as Leonhard Seppala would always lead the way.