Somewhere around the middle of the night at about the 90-mile mark, the course of the marathon fell in with a “seismic line” — a straight swath cut through the bush and used by energy companies to explore for oil with bulldozers and explosives — and began to follow it up and down hill regardless of the terrain. The night was pretty cold, somewhere below zero, but bright with stars and the aurora. I remember being amazed that Venus was bright enough to cast the shadow of my mittened hand onto the snow.
Dudley and I had been shuffling along for hours since the last checkpoint — Swix Polar was the wax de la nuit— and I was asleep on my feet. I just fixed my gaze on the back of Dud’s slow-moving pulk and fought drowsiness. The cat track was rough, solid ice, so we skied atop its bank, about two feet higher. Suddenly my pulk and I fell over sideways into the track with a terrific crash. I’d fallen asleep. Dudley never stopped or turned around, “You OK?” he asked dully. More than a little disgruntled at his lack of concern, I climbed back up onto the bank and caught up to him.
With the news this week that the Iditarod Sled Dog Race was taking off on its celebrated annual thrash to Nome, Alaska, the memories of those days in the Alaskan bush came flooding back.
The year was 1985. My buddy, Dudley, and I were into long-distance skiing, from the improbable, annual Geriatric Adventure Society Sub-Arctic Bushwhack in northern New Hampshire to the 100-mile Canadian Ski Marathon, and we trained daily — he in the dark of morning before going to work at the hospital (he was an ear, nose, and throat doc), and I in the dark after supper, bashing through the woods around my house. Then I read somewhere about an upcoming 207-mile race in Alaska called the Iditaski, which would start at Knik Lake, follow the Iditarod Trail for about 100 miles, and loop back toward its start. I managed to get a magazine assignment, free air tickets, free entry, and a place to stay in Anchorage. Dud managed to get some time free, and we were off on our great adventure.
Dud had spent some years in Alaska as a young doctor, but I’d never been there before. And to tell you the truth, after all that skiing, I’m still not sure where we went or were. Google helps a little, as does GoogleEarth. We followed the Iditarod Trail as far as Skwentna Crossing, the halfway point of the race, then skied down the frozen Skwentna River and cross-lots back to the finish at Knik Lake. Those first two nights were memorable, illuminated by only our headlamps (in those days we carried four D-cell batteries in a steel box inside our jackets and connected to our lamps by a wire), by starlight, and by the aurora.
Dud was a doc to his bones, and couldn’t pass anyone in distress. The first night he excised, disinfected, and wrapped a suppurated blister on my heel. My boots no longer fit, so we swapped boots and skis and went on that way. At the next checkpoint he repaired a neurologist from Anchorage, who was both blistered and feeling low (he subsequently quit). And on our way down the Skwentna River, we stopped at a sign that proclaimed, “Skiers Welcome! Chili!” In a cabin at the top of the river bluff we found an elderly couple — squatters. His face was a scarred mess; one eye wouldn’t close. But Dud, instead of pretending, as I was, not to notice it, asked, “What happened?” The poor guy’d had the muscle to his eyelid severed by shrapnel at Iwo Jima. He and Dud sat knee-to-knee while Dud asked him to do different things with his facial muscles. Then he told him the damage was fixable, and gave him the name of a surgeon in Anchorage who could do it. We got rather a warm farewell; the old guy was still weeping with gratitude.
You know how when you travel to a new place, everything seems exotic? That’s how it was for me. Shortly after I fell over sideways, I smelled wood smoke in the still, icy air, and about 20 minutes later we came to a wall tent checkpoint, where two neophyte Alaskans lay shivering in their sleeping bags beside a cold, smoking box stove. Dudley opened it, and asked, “Where’s your axe?” Within half an hour the tent was up to at least 60, and the checkpoint ladies had learned a lesson in the virtues of split firewood, especially spruce. The next day, skiing down a river in bright sunshine, I was fascinated to see the locals cruising up the river in their ski planes, about 10 feet above the surface, headed for the roadhouse for, I suppose, a beer and a bump. They waved to us as they soared slowly past.
We skied all that night on the frozen river in bitter cold while a new crescent moon worked its way across the sky. I don’t know where we slept after that — or even if — but a couple of days later, just at dusk, we finally slid down a steep slope onto the surface of Knik Lake again. They gave me the trophy as the oldest finisher — I was only 50! But the real trophy was the experience, and the great guy beside me.
We can lose our possessions, but as long as our minds hold, we can always cherish memories.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.