Awakening

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


A near death experience in the magical land of the Arctic becomes a catalyst for self-preservation

Submitted: November 19, 2017

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Submitted: November 19, 2017

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AWAKENING


 

The ice gave way beneath my feet as the frigid waters of Selawik Lake engulfed my body. A sharp inhale felt the grip of death, yet my last thoughts were anything but panicked, “I got the dogs over, they will be okay…… this is my death; under the ice, in the middle of nowhere.”

A fleeting thought bid farewell to my parents as I calmly faced my fate.

 

******

 

My feet hit a layer of shelf ice, momentarily stopping the fall. Aquamarine water laced with snow-white ice chunks permeated my body over my breast line. Unstable ice surrounded me. The only hope was the metal end of the sled runner, now balanced above my head on an edge of slab ice. The slightest movement of my 12- dog team would pull this lifeline out of reach.

 

******

 

“ The earliest and fastest break-up we’ve ever seen,” the Natives later claimed of that first weekend in April, 2004.

In less than 12 hours, the seemingly frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers had turned to slush, to overflow, to open running water under a glaring April sun that brought temperatures into the high 40’s.

 

The 440-mile Kobuk Sled Dog Race travels through the Kobuk River Valley, above the Arctic Circle. Starting in the village of Kotzebue, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, it follows the Kobuk River through six different Native villages, passing by the Baird, Jade and Waring Mountain ranges, through the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and skirts the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

On the verge of cancelling the race all together, officials considered re-routing the trail over land to avoid the highway of rivers and tributaries that were melting at an alarming rate. With only 5-6 hours of true darkness, ice and snow pack had little time to harden, let alone freeze during the nights.  The progressive effects of nearly 18 hours of daylight and the sudden heat wave, obliterated the trail.

 

Still the race commenced, with a group of some of the best mushers in the world, gathered to do what they do best, despite and against the odds of Mother Nature, who never fails to test and challenge the most hardened and proven of venturous souls.

Over the years, I thought I had been through it all with my team, from enduring -65 below 0 and blinding snow storms, to battling winds so strong it’s hard to breathe and impossible to keep the sled upright and in line behind the team. We had faced  endless, bone -racking miles of dirt, sand, stumps, rocks, glare ice and glacial moraine, and been drenched in rain storms, pelted by freezing rains and navigated through open water and overflow of all kinds.

However, we had never run through water for hundreds of miles, nor had we ever encountered a pressure ridge.

******

For three days we had been running through water at least ankle deep, sometimes up to mid-calf. A pair of rubber boots would have spared my feet days of misery.  My Iditarod proven system of mukluks and waterproof NEOS overboots failed in the deep water.

 A few hours submerged in water is one thing, days is another.

When not immersed in water, we ran over snowless sand beaches, soft, muddy bogs and brown tundra. The best sections of trail were the miles of glare ice that glittered in brilliant hues of turquoise, royal blues and jade greens. Intricate mosaic webs cracked the slippery surface, over which movement was effortless, even too fast. The ice moaned, cackled and gurgled beneath our weight. The sharp tines of the brake bar were worn down to nothing over the miles of ice, as I was constantly breaking to keep the team at a safe paced trot.

******

Welcome to Spring above latitude 66, ground zero for climate change.

I had been training in sneakers just days before, expecting my flight north to land me in a much colder climate, which was a foolish assumption. Springtime in the North is anything but predictable.

 

Anything is tolerable when you are doing what you love.  

Running my team through the Kobuk Valley was a dream come true.

Weeks earlier we had finished our fifth, 1,049 mile Iditarod Race in 23rd position. After just a few days of rest, the beautiful Spring days found us back on the trails in our home territory. Stronger than ever, the team I had hooked up every day since the previous August, was still screaming to go! My young team and I were in peak condition, so I paid my entry fee and booked a ticket to Kotzebue. The money I had won in the Iditarod bought the 12 dog kennels that would be secured in their own “igloo,” along with my sled, dog food and gear in the belly of the plane. I would be traveling alone, and if I managed to finish in a paying position, the trip would at least pay for itself.

The dogs I had raised from puppies were now in their prime and they could never seem to get enough of the trail. Nothing, not even the unimaginably wet, warm days we found in Kotzebue, could slow them down or hinder their spirit. Like me, they were excited to travel through new country and were completely unphased by the water. Having raised them all as swimmers, the endless horizon of moving water was a non-issue for them. Certainly it helped keep them cool in the unusual heat and they could lap up a drink of water whenever they pleased. Northern husky breeds are happiest running at -5 to -10 degrees below zero. Anything above freezing takes some serious adaptation and the hardest working dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Every half hour or so, I took short “cool down” breaks to prevent any problems. Over ten or twelve hours of running, it made all the difference in our performance. During our long rests, the warmth of the intense sun worked to our advantage. After the usual routine of feeding the team and rubbing every paw, wrist and shoulder with my homemade magic oil, all the harnesses, wet gear, boot liners and clothing were sprawled out over dry straw or hung on the sled to dry. As the dogs slept, I ate, re-hydrated and tried to catch an hour or two of sleep on top of the sled before cooking their second meal and packing everything to go.

******

 

My nerves were wearing thin, yet the enthusiasm of the dogs never waned. Race trail markers had been non-existent except for those seen floating down stream. Finding and keeping on the right trail, any trail, had demanded constant attention since there was really no defined trail to follow. One river looked like three or four, with wide, muddy channels branching in all directions. Most markers tied to willow or alder bushes, especially leaving the villages, marked only the local snowmachine trails, and were unrelated to the race. Many frustrated attempts following these flags, led to narrow impassible channels of deep water and thick messes of ingrown brush, in which I had to let all the dogs loose to get turned around. Then, retracing my steps to the entrance of the maze, I would try another, and another, until finally we would find a ‘through’ path. Relying merely on instinct, as maps, compasses and GPS’s are not allowed, I followed the lay of the land, using the riverbanks, and lines of the valleys and mountains as landmarks to keep my sense of direction.

 

Speed triples moving over glare ice, but then there is the constant worry that a dog will slip, pull a shoulder, sprain a wrist or fall through the ice. I had no choice but to trust their instincts. Countless times before my leaders had avoided dangerous obstacles without my command, or chosen a better path than the team before us had taken. Their instincts and senses were sharp, and reliable.

But with every passing every hour, the ice was becoming more unstable.

Mile after mile I could see moving water below the ice.

“How can they let us keep going, this is so unsafe?”  My worried thoughts were nagging. “ This is so insane! What am I doing here? This can’t possibly be the trail! If the river opens any more we’ll be stuck here, and it’s too late to turn back!” I started to think that all the other mushers had been directed to another route, and somehow we had not been informed, forgotten.

 

******

 

 Awe prevailed over the stress and discomfort. With every mile of hardship, the enchantment of the Arctic stole my heart.

The vast landscape was breathtaking, and wild. The spirit of the ancient Inupiat permeated the valley of  “half a million caribou.” The light of the high North, lasting until midnight, cast ethereal shadows and painted boundless sunsets and sunrises of striking beauty. Vivid shades of purples, blues, oranges and pinks lingered until the black veil of night set the backdrop for the Northern lights. They danced to a silent rhythm, illuminating the isolated world into a surreal masterpiece of radiant reds, purples and greens. Some stretched down so far they seemed to touch us, infusing our cells with the magic of the heavens.

 

Natives of all ages welcomed our team into their villages ,with twinkling eyes, and wide, toothless grins. They stood proud in their hand-stitched mukluks and beaver tail hats. The remote communities of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and Selawik, some well over 100 miles apart, look forward to the annual race event and spend days preparing tables of food for mushers and volunteers. Cheers, hugs, and pats on the shoulder from total strangers, made me feel like a family member coming home. Their smiles and hospitality made it hard to leave. In fact, had I not had 50 other huskies and puppies waiting for me at home, I would have stayed.

 

I loved the tiny community I called home, that sat at the ‘end of the road,’ where three massive rivers running out of the Alaska Range converged into one.  These rivers, mountains and trails had become an integral part of my livelihood, but my inescapable “partnership” was a living nightmare that ended up consuming a decade of my young life.

 

I was tempted to just stay in the village of Ambler, and leave it all.  I could raise and train my dogs in the bosom of the Arctic.  Living among the Natives, I could truly practice a life of subsistence and continue my path as I had intended, free from the daily abuse I had grown accustomed to.

I felt akin to this place; this remote region teeming with life, not yet ruined by the outside world. A place called a “barren wasteland” by some of our politicians, that is so very alive, and inspiringly intimidating in its silent expanse.  Words cannot evoke its many moods.

One dreaded day they will drill for oil here.

No part of me wanted to leave.

A strong force was pulling at the fringes of my soul. Something as abstract as the Arctic mirror of land and sky, and as defined as the polar bear print left at the trails edge, rapidly melting into the bog carpet of low bush cranberries and Labrador tea.

 

******

 

I spotted the pressure ridge from a distance. The long wall of chunky jumble ice and seeping holes, stretched as far as I could see across the lake to the North and cut through the trail we had been following. Under our feet, fresh lake water was colliding with salty water from the Chukchi Sea. During the process of constant warming, melting and re-freezing, the ice layers were expanding, forming cracks that were refilling with water. The pressure of the current was forcing the ice to push its broken, fragmented layers to the top, forming a formidable mass of ice chunks and slabs. This ridge had risen four feet high and four feet wide in places. While the rest of Selawik lake was still frozen white, dozens of trail markers had been placed in x formations, warning of this impassible danger. There was, however, no visible alternative. I wondered how long it had been since someone had been here. According to the sled runner tracks, barely recognizable after hours in the sun, the few mushers ahead of me had still been able to go straight ahead. The pressure ridge had opened up significantly in the last few hours and now going straight was no longer an option. Someone had been here to block off the trail, and the gaping holes, but they had failed to mark another safe through trail. To the left, the thinner ice leading to shore would bring me to land. I could then follow the shoreline for as long as needed. But would I lose the trail on the other end of lake, or even be able to get back on? Shore ice would be less stable than where we were presently stopped. Not knowing the depth of the lake and being in unfamiliar territory, that option seemed too risky.  There were no tracks of any kind leading off the ice, so my reasoning felt validated. My eyes scanned the ridge to the right, towards the mountains in the distance. The team stilled,  assessing the situation, sensing the obstacle before us. Finally I spotted a break in the markers, indicating a safe way over.

“Gee!”

A sharp 90 degree turn led us parallel along the ridge. My heart accelerated, as I kept the team at a walk. Unnamed and unknown to me, this natural phenomenon evoked a primal fear. The danger was palpable.

Before having a chance to command “haw”, my leaders Jane and Isis immediately saw where the markers stopped and performed a miracle leap. Fearlessly, without hesitation, they jumped up and over the mess of ice, pulling the next four dogs with them. Four dogs landed in the center. The two wheel dogs, the sled and myself were still on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Whoa!” If the leaders moved forward, dogs were going to get injured, as they were now all balancing in-between ice slabs and fissures. Where one could move freely over, another could not. I had no choice but to get off my sled, unhook most of the dogs and help the others over. I grabbed my ski pole to test the ice, though I knew this was no comparison to my weight.

I cautiously placed one foot on the ice, still holding the sled, looking for a safe place to put my other foot farther up the length of the team. In one super stride I could reach the dogs in the middle. I couldn’t unhook them all, as I needed their momentum to help pull the sled over. The jumble ice was terrifying. It felt as though a river was moving below us.

I was dizzy and hot with adrenaline.

Working quickly, I  lifted each dog to safety, moving my feet as little as possible. I unhooked the last two dogs. If the sled got caught on the way over, it wouldn’t pull them down with it.

Now just the sled and my lanky self had to get over.  

The final step onto the runner nearly became the last step of my life.

 

******

 

The cry that escaped my lips cut the heavy silence. The dogs knew exactly what had happened and they did not budge.

The shelf ice, five feet under the surface, held long enough for me to assess the situation and realize, that by some small miracle, the sled was still within my reach.

I seized the end of the runner with my left hand and yelled, “GO!”

In one synchronized motion, the team pulled me up out of the Arctic water, over the pressure ridge, on to stable ice.

As I came to standing, I felt like I was swimming.

Everything inside me was moving in slow motion, I could not even react.

I looked down at myself, soaked through to bottom layers, in complete shock.

I was already wearing the ‘emergency’ stash of dry socks, glove liners and long underwear,  that lived in my sled until needed. On races, these things are sent in resupply bags to the villages and checkpoints with all of our food.  We travel light, carrying only what we need to get to the next re-supply, but always with enough food and fuel to handle 24-48 hours of possibly being stuck in a severe storm, or any number of unexpected situations that can arise out on the trail. The last four water- saturated days had certainly used up all of my dry reserves, and now it seemed the final test was upon me.

The finish line was still about 70 miles away, which could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on the conditions and our speed, my abilities to run, kick and pole.

The autonomic part of my nervous system kicked into gear, as it had before in extreme weather, working under sleep deprivation. Frivolous thoughts cease to exist and the body operates robotically. Emotions are wasteful and no movement is without purpose. The body and mind work synergistically in survival mode.

I knew the danger of the eerie warmth that came over my ice bitten core. Movement was suddenly excruciatingly exhausting, my speech slow, the muscles in my cheeks uncooperative, “Good dogs! “ I managed to sound cheery.

“ Hang out for bit,” I instructed, “I’ve got to try to get dry.” I didn’t recognize the sound of myself. I felt stiff and slow, like glue.

Hollow.

I stripped down, thinking of my thermos still half filled with lukewarm hot chocolate and peppermint tea, wishing I had more, and started ringing out each layer of clothing.

No firewood within 100 miles or more. No people either. The group of mushers behind me had opted to camp at the last checkpoint to dry out their clothes and gear. As tempting as it had been to stay and join them, I had decided to keep going since my team was so strong and happy. Conditions were only getting worse and we were in the money, with only half a day’s journey left to the finish line.

I knew I would soon be hypothermic if I didn’t keep my limbs moving and working constantly. We would be running into the night, and temperatures would only be dropping. The situation could become dire.

Breathe, I thought to myself.

Focus.

No energy for negativity.

Once all the excess water was squeezed out, I tried to warm myself up by rubbing each of the dogs. I talked outloud in my chipper voice, praising each one. My hands and fingers were too stiff to work well. My mind felt as paralyzed as my body. Emotions were overwhelming, as was the numbness. Deep in my belly a fire burned, stoking the furnace that would keep me alive until we reached civilization.

I jumped up and down, did some jumping jacks, and stomped my feet. I knew my light-weight, synthetic insulated clothing, layered with wool, would do its’ job of retaining my body heat although wet. I drank a third of my remaining beverage, saving the rest for the long journey ahead. I had a few bites of my homemade smoked salmon, some goldfish crackers and a fig newton. Over thousands and thousands of trail miles, my selective diet had managed to keep me nourished, energized and quelled the bundle of nerves in my gut, preventing me from feeling sick.

I had to proceed as though nothing had happened. The near fatal event could in no way hinder our progress.  

Life was counting.

“All right guys, let’s go!”

We were off.  

The pressure ridge faded into the scenery behind us.

What else could we possibly face during these 440 miles?

******

The rest of the massive lake, stretching on for 50 miles or more, still looked stable enough. Thankfully, there were now markers placed every few miles. No open water in sight. Or ridges of ice.

Of course it could change at any moment.

I got into my usual rhythm of kicking beside the sled, 10 minutes with the right leg, switch to the left. I simultaneously poled with my ski pole, not missing a beat.

Hypothermia would have no chance unless I stopped moving.

Pushing myself during any race, especially the last 100 miles, was routine. However, I could not remember a time, in all my thousands of miles of racing, I had ever felt so depleted and bitterly exhausted. I was on the verge of collapsing. Arctic waters had zapped the last of my reserves and I wondered from where my strength was coming.

At one point,  I concluded that I was having an out of body experience. While my body and mind were working as a single entity to overcome the odds, my body did not feel my own. I felt entirely separated from it.

In feeling so much, I felt nothing.

I could feel my spirit rising above my physical reality of being in shock.

Was I dying?

The lack of sleep over the last months was teasing all of my weak points.

Unless I caught up to another musher, or an arbitrary snowmachiner, I would see no sign of human life until the finish line in Kotzebue. I felt as though even the most basic communication would be more energy than I could spare, especially since no one could help me anyway.

Pushing to the end was the only option.

Singing out loud, and chatting to the dogs helped to keep my mind awake. The dogs  were  running like champs, still in good spirits and in perfect health. I was now the weak link who could not allow myself to lapse for a second.

******

 

After what felt like an eternity, the lake shore finally met land. The last 3 or 4 hours we would be running through gentle, rolling hills on the brown, sweet smelling tundra, where only small patches of snow remained. With no glide under the metal runners, our speed noticeably slowed. Running to keep weight off the runners helped, but I couldn’t keep up with their speed for miles on end. I could only run in short bursts, which was better than nothing.

Fatigue brought tears to my eyes, and at moments I thought I could no longer stand.

I sang louder, calling the names of the dogs, and prayed to higher powers to give me the strength to make it home.

The meandering trail stretched into eternity, and my delusional mind believed that we were hopelessly lost, that my body would never leave this tundra. The markers could be from any trail, and out here trails intertwine like mazes, all headed somewhere through more nowhere with nothing in-between.

This kind of doubt I seldom ever had. My sense of direction had always served me well navigating Alaska.

I was unraveling stitch by stitch, as I battled exhaustion. The only confidence remaining was in the ability of my dog team. They had never let me down, and as a team, we had never failed.

At times I ran with my eyes closed.

I stopped as we always did, every hour, to snack the dogs pieces of salmon and beef. All tails were wagging, and their smiles injected me with the same positive energy that I had I given them their whole lives.

******

Unlike all the other nights since the start of the race, the vibrant colors of sunset eluded us and dusk mirrored my mood in every shade of grey.  I longed for the black of night to tell me we were close to the end. My earliest estimated time of arrival to the finish line in Kotzebue was 12:00 midnight, any time after dark. Grey dragged on in every step, every breath, and I wondered why I subjected myself to this kind torture.

Grassy knoll after grassy knoll, held the hope that civilization would suddenly appear and the pain would be over.

Watches can lie in this sport, as Nature fools our perceptions of time and relative distance. More accurate are the natural landmarks and angles of light.

The dull light of this day seemed it would never leave, the hours until dark felt to be an unbearable bending of time. Lost to the infinity of tundra and sky, our existence could remain forever forgotten here.

Solace lay in knowing my dogs were faring better than I.

They blew me away. Had they felt as I did, we would have been crawling.

They showed no weakness.

******

 

Time and solitude play tricks on a sleep deprived soul. Add in the wild landscape, a body and mind being pushed beyond their limits, and you have a recipe for life altering experiences and realizations.

In this window of space, there is no escape from weakness. No help, no place and no one to run to. No shelter, no phone, no GPS, mile signs, or short cut. No comfort. No distraction. No mercy.

Surrounded by life, simple and raw, there comes a point of total surrender to the power of this Nature.

It swallows you whole, leaves you inseparable.

Truth reveals itself in blinding clarity.

******

As the rivers had been melting under our feet, it was the flood of my life that felt to be drowning me.

Yet it could all end here, the fighting, and the fear.

The ancient trail of the Kobuk had been breaking me down, mile by mile and I could no longer deny the truth; in staying loyal to my animals, and dedicating my life to raising this dog team, I had sacrificed my heart, and my integrity.  

If I completed this impossible journey, maybe I would be ready. Ready to stand up for myself, for the last and final time. Ready to risk my life, for the inevitable break away that would win me back my freedom of self. I deserved so much better.

His threats hung heavy like a noose around my neck.

Something in the eyes of the Natives, in their stance, gave me courage. Like a wise hunter, I knew I needed an abundance of patience, and had to keep waiting until the time was right to make my escape. I would take my dogs with me.

I had been letting this man slowly kill me, day after day, year after year.

There was nothing more for him to take.

******

In the arms of the Kobuk Valley, death had pulled me under water, to find me still alive. The warrior within had awakened.

In this still fog of realization, muteness became me. Words seemed a waste, but new melodies flowed from a heart still warm.

A heart emptied and so entirely full.


 

******

 

Darkness came and we moved flawlessly through the night, without a headlamp, our eyes adjusted and keen.  My brain was foggy, half shut down, preventing me from succumbing to the intolerable physical fatigue, while directing all available energy to producing the adrenaline necessary to keep me moving.

 

Then suddenly, the beacons of mercy appeared, LIGHTS!

“Home!” I cried. The dogs bolted at the excited tone of my voice. “Kotzebue, we made it!” The team had power in reserve, and plowed ahead as if they had just rested for 12 hours.

“You guys are awesome! “ I shrieked. We were still across the inlet, at least an hour away.  An eternity, but the end was within sight.

 

I had never been so happy to see the distant blur of white, twinkling lights.

Humanity.

For hours I had been convinced we were on the wrong trail, and many miles off course.

As we grew closer, what seemed a black hole, reflecting light, sat between us and the village. What now? Was I hallucinating? I turned on the headlamp, and still was confused. It couldn’t be……. all water?

Oh my God, it was. Not just a little bit, it looked to be the entire ocean stretching out before us.

Well, what is a few more miles of standing water? It must be safe, right? Did I miss a turn, X markers?

I had no energy left to think. Or question.

The dogs showed no hesitation, I would not question them.

What had been the starting line 4 days ago, now the finish line, was a lake. Six inches of water sat on top of the ice. No markers, no finishing banner in sight.

It was a little after 1:00 a.m., and I was headed to the closest possible building. The dogs were thinking the same thing.

The night scene was surreal, as we ran over 12 m.p.h. towards the lights, completely surrounded by water, leaving a wake behind us.

Slowly, the outlines of the buildings and cabins became more defined. Village dogs yipped and barked at our approach. No sign of anyone. The village would of course be sleeping, but where were the race officials, waiting to clock in my time?

Finally we hit land, a gravel dirt road to be more precise. Still there was no sign of anything or anyone related to the race.

Did they even know I had left the last checkpoint? Did they think I had stayed with the group of mushers behind me, who wouldn’t be getting in until after the light of morning? What the hell was I supposed to do now?

The gravel was sharp on the dogs feet and my temper flared. I fought tears.

What kind of finish was this? Where was I supposed to go? Nobody, not a soul to welcome our hard earned arrival. Dismayed, I realized I could be in the wrong village. Perhaps this wasn’t Kotzebue and we had run over 80 miles in the wrong direction.

I refused to ask my dogs go any further, and I could not run beside the sled another step. I stopped, secured the sled and praised the dogs profusely. I took off their booties, gave them a snack and proceeded to search for someone.

“Hello! Is there anybody here? “ I hollered. “I just finished the Kobuk race!” I felt like screaming, “do you have any idea what I’ve been through?” I couldn’t believe how the night was continuing.  The numbness was debilitating, my body wanted to collapse. I knocked on doors, making my way up the street. Finally, a sleepy someone appeared and said he’d go find a race official.

So, we had made it home.

I returned to the team, and as emotions swelled to the surface, I struggled to keep myself together. I removed harnesses and fed them more snacks. Their big meal would come whenever we got back to the house of our host family, who would be soundly sleeping. There I had bags of food and straw awaiting our return. Unlike all the other mushers, I had no handler waiting to help me.

“We weren’t expecting you,” the bundled body said. A few men sauntered from the village. “We will take you to your host families house. It’s a little way from here, in the center of the village. A truck is on the way.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”  

I told them what time I hit land, according to my watch. No one seemed to care. No other words were exchanged. I was speechless, as they too seemed to be. I wanted to tell them what happened, but I thought I might start crying. Worse, the story now seemed unbelievable. They might think I was just an emotional, un-rational woman talking gibberish, complaining or just a fool who made a stupid decision. It all seemed indescribable. The term pressure ridge was still unknown to my vocabulary. To say I fell in hole sounded ridiculous. So I said nothing. I just focused on my dogs, rubbing shoulders and wrists, while the Natives stood and watched me. All I managed to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m a little tired, we had kind of a crazy run.” No one wanted to carry on a conversation at such a horrid time of the morning anyway.

I thanked them profusely as they helped me load the team and sled into the back of a pick-up. When I sat down in the warm vehicle, I came close to passing out. My clothes were soaking wet, and now the fine outer layer of ice quickly dissipated. Still no one knew I had fallen over my breasts into Arctic water. No one had seen. My body began to throb. I thought I might not be able to stand up again.

We unloaded the dogs and after a hundred more “thank-you’s,” I was left alone with my team outside the small blue house.

******

3:15 a.m.

I fed the dogs dry kibble and lit my cooker to heat water enough to thaw meat for a soup. Somehow the meat had managed to stay frozen.  I divided the bale of straw into 12 thick beds, which the dogs could not be more elated about.

The pride I felt was overwhelming. The love and appreciation for my animals surpassed anything I had ever felt before. My dogs were beyond perfect, beyond exceptional and this day they had saved my life, after running flawlessly for 370 miles through horrendous conditions.

15 minutes later they were lapping up their beaver and lamb broth.

 

******

 

I stumbled into the house, to the bathroom. Heat was nirvana. I barely had the energy to undress.  The hot water was like stinging pellets against my frozen shell. It made my head spin, restored my breath. My body tingled and swelled. I kept the shower short, afraid I might black out.

The bed threw me into another realm, one I thought I may never return from.

Perhaps I would never fully return to my body.

I slipped away.

Only until it was time to feed the dogs again.

 

******

 

Mushers raised hell at the finishers meeting, ranting about the unprofessionalism, the dangers, the liabilities of the race trail. “They never should have let the teams continue!”

I sat silently drinking tea at the small round table with Iditarod champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, as they enjoyed their coca cola. I listened to their stories, but my mind was elsewhere. I was present, but not really there. As I had guessed, the pressure ridge hadn’t been as bad for those ahead of me. The trail had been re-routed by the time the guys behind me made it to that point. Today the pro’s looked at me differently, talking to me as an equal, asking me my opinions. Had I earned another notch of respect in “their” sport? Little no-named me and my wild, over-sized, mix matched wolf dogs?

I didn’t care.

As much as the mushers complained, I knew they would all come back. I almost felt bad for the race crew, dealing with the wrath of these powerful men. Knowing, unlike the famous Iditarod, the resources for the Kobuk are very limited and they make due with what they have.

Suffering needlessly out on the drowning trail, I certainly had done my share of mental cursing. Now it all just seemed a twist of Mother Nature’s fate.

We are only human, after all. No one can control the nature of ice, hour to hour, minute to minute. It was too late to place blame. We were the ones who left the starting line and never turned back. Thankfully no dogs or mushers were seriously hurt.

 

******

 

Shock lingers.

Life goes on.

The body copes, work routine keeps the pain at bay, but it never forgets. Memories re-surface when you least expect it and bring you back to the feelings, the place, and the unspoken emotions.

 

I did return with my team to the rich river valley and finish another Kobuk 440, and I did finally leave the man who brought so much darkness to my life.

The man who told me I could never do the things I did indeed do, and more successfully than he.

 

******

Shorelines are disappearing, and villages are being re-located.  

Long struggling to maintain their cultural identity and lifestyle, Native tribes have been forced to depend on unsustainable means of survival and empty promises of the white man. The first people most severely affected by modern industry and climate change are the last thought of in crisis. They are the first to be taken from, the last to be re-paid.

 

The Arctic personifies the web of life that has been dismembered throughout the rest of the world.

To travel through it, to experience it on a spiritual level, is to become it.

Therefore, in leaving, one abandons a part of themself.

 

My life was saved.

My dogs, they carried me.

The Native spirits who inhabit the Kobuk, they guided me.

Without their bloodlines, there would be no team.

Without their trail, I would have smaller eyes.

Without their wisdom, I would be ignorant.

Without their collective presence, I would be lost.

Now, living in this other world, my heart beats to a different drummer.

The beat is never heard here, only in the wind, and the running water.

My veins.











 

AWAKENING


 

The ice gave way beneath my feet as the frigid waters of Selawik Lake engulfed my body. A sharp inhale felt the grip of death, yet my last thoughts were anything but panicked, “I got the dogs over, they will be okay…… this is my death; under the ice, in the middle of nowhere.”

A fleeting thought bid farewell to my parents as I calmly faced my fate.

 

******

 

My feet hit a layer of shelf ice, momentarily stopping the fall. Aquamarine water laced with snow-white ice chunks permeated my body over my breast line. Unstable ice surrounded me. The only hope was the metal end of the sled runner, now balanced above my head on an edge of slab ice. The slightest movement of my 12- dog team would pull this lifeline out of reach.

 

******

 

“ The earliest and fastest break-up we’ve ever seen,” the Natives later claimed of that first weekend in April, 2004.

In less than 12 hours, the seemingly frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers had turned to slush, to overflow, to open running water under a glaring April sun that brought temperatures into the high 40’s.

 

The 440-mile Kobuk Sled Dog Race travels through the Kobuk River Valley, above the Arctic Circle. Starting in the village of Kotzebue, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, it follows the Kobuk River through six different Native villages, passing by the Baird, Jade and Waring Mountain ranges, through the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and skirts the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

On the verge of cancelling the race all together, officials considered re-routing the trail over land to avoid the highway of rivers and tributaries that were melting at an alarming rate. With only 5-6 hours of true darkness, ice and snow pack had little time to harden, let alone freeze during the nights.  The progressive effects of nearly 18 hours of daylight and the sudden heat wave, obliterated the trail.

 

Still the race commenced, with a group of some of the best mushers in the world, gathered to do what they do best, despite and against the odds of Mother Nature, who never fails to test and challenge the most hardened and proven of venturous souls.

Over the years, I thought I had been through it all with my team, from enduring -65 below 0 and blinding snow storms, to battling winds so strong it’s hard to breathe and impossible to keep the sled upright and in line behind the team. We had faced  endless, bone -racking miles of dirt, sand, stumps, rocks, glare ice and glacial moraine, and been drenched in rain storms, pelted by freezing rains and navigated through open water and overflow of all kinds.

However, we had never run through water for hundreds of miles, nor had we ever encountered a pressure ridge.

 

For three days we had been running through water at least ankle deep, sometimes up to mid-calf. A pair of rubber boots would have spared my feet days of misery.  My Iditarod proven system of mukluks and waterproof NEOS overboots failed in the deep water.

 A few hours submerged in water is one thing, days is another.

When not immersed in water, we ran over snowless sand beaches, soft, muddy bogs and brown tundra. The best sections of trail were the miles of glare ice that glittered in brilliant hues of turquoise, royal blues and jade greens. Intricate mosaic webs cracked the slippery surface, over which movement was effortless, even too fast. The ice moaned, cackled and gurgled beneath our weight. The sharp tines of the brake bar were worn down to nothing over the miles of ice, as I was constantly breaking to keep the team at a safe paced trot.

 

Welcome to Spring above latitude 66, ground zero for climate change.

I had been training in sneakers just days before, expecting my flight north to land me in a much colder climate, which was a foolish assumption. Springtime in the North is anything but predictable.

 

Anything is tolerable when you are doing what you love.  

Running my team through the Kobuk Valley was a dream come true.

Weeks earlier we had finished our fifth, 1,049 mile Iditarod Race in 23rd position. After just a few days of rest, the beautiful Spring days found us back on the trails in our home territory. Stronger than ever, the team I had hooked up every day since the previous August, was still screaming to go! My young team and I were in peak condition, so I paid my entry fee and booked a ticket to Kotzebue. The money I had won in the Iditarod bought the 12 dog kennels that would be secured in their own “igloo,” along with my sled, dog food and gear in the belly of the plane. I would be traveling alone, and if I managed to finish in a paying position, the trip would at least pay for itself.

The dogs I had raised from puppies were now in their prime and they could never seem to get enough of the trail. Nothing, not even the unimaginably wet, warm days we found in Kotzebue, could slow them down or hinder their spirit. Like me, they were excited to travel through new country and were completely unphased by the water. Having raised them all as swimmers, the endless horizon of moving water was a non-issue for them. Certainly it helped keep them cool in the unusual heat and they could lap up a drink of water whenever they pleased. Northern husky breeds are happiest running at -5 to -10 degrees below zero. Anything above freezing takes some serious adaptation and the hardest working dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Every half hour or so, I took short “cool down” breaks to prevent any problems. Over ten or twelve hours of running, it made all the difference in our performance. During our long rests, the warmth of the intense sun worked to our advantage. After the usual routine of feeding the team and rubbing every paw, wrist and shoulder with my homemade magic oil, all the harnesses, wet gear, boot liners and clothing were sprawled out over dry straw or hung on the sled to dry. As the dogs slept, I ate, re-hydrated and tried to catch an hour or two of sleep on top of the sled before cooking their second meal and packing everything to go.

 

My nerves were wearing thin, yet the enthusiasm of the dogs never waned. Race trail markers had been non-existent except for those seen floating down stream. Finding and keeping on the right trail, any trail, had demanded constant attention since there was really no defined trail to follow. One river looked like three or four, with wide, muddy channels branching in all directions. Most markers tied to willow or alder bushes, especially leaving the villages, marked only the local snowmachine trails, and were unrelated to the race. Many frustrated attempts following these flags, led to narrow impassible channels of deep water and thick messes of ingrown brush, in which I had to let all the dogs loose to get turned around. Then, retracing my steps to the entrance of the maze, I would try another, and another, until finally we would find a ‘through’ path. Relying merely on instinct, as maps, compasses and GPS’s are not allowed, I followed the lay of the land, using the riverbanks, and lines of the valleys and mountains as landmarks to keep my sense of direction.

 

Speed triples moving over glare ice, but then there is the constant worry that a dog will slip, pull a shoulder, sprain a wrist or fall through the ice. I had no choice but to trust their instincts. Countless times before my leaders had avoided dangerous obstacles without my command, or chosen a better path than the team before us had taken. Their instincts and senses were sharp, and reliable.

But with every passing every hour, the ice was becoming more unstable.

Mile after mile I could see moving water below the ice.

“How can they let us keep going, this is so unsafe?”  My worried thoughts were nagging. “ This is so insane! What am I doing here? This can’t possibly be the trail! If the river opens any more we’ll be stuck here, and it’s too late to turn back!” I started to think that all the other mushers had been directed to another route, and somehow we had not been informed, forgotten.

 

******

 

 Awe prevailed over the stress and discomfort. With every mile of hardship, the enchantment of the Arctic stole my heart.

The vast landscape was breathtaking, and wild. The spirit of the ancient Inupiaq permeated the valley of  “half a million caribou.” The light of the high North, lasting until midnight, cast ethereal shadows and painted boundless sunsets and sunrises of striking beauty. Vivid shades of purples, blues, oranges and pinks lingered until the black veil of night set the backdrop for the Northern lights. They danced to a silent rhythm, illuminating the isolated world into a surreal masterpiece of radiant reds, purples and greens. Some stretched down so far they seemed to touch us, infusing our cells with the magic of the heavens.

 

Natives of all ages welcomed our team into their villages ,with twinkling eyes, and wide, toothless grins. They stood proud in their hand-stitched mukluks and beaver tail hats. The remote communities of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and Selawik, some well over 100 miles apart, look forward to the annual race event and spend days preparing tables of food for mushers and volunteers. Cheers, hugs, and pats on the shoulder from total strangers, made me feel like a family member coming home. Their smiles and hospitality made it hard to leave. In fact, had I not had 50 other huskies and puppies waiting for me at home, I would have stayed.

 

I loved the tiny community I called home, that sat at the ‘end of the road,’ where three massive rivers running out of the Alaska Range converged into one.  These rivers, mountains and trails had become an integral part of my livelihood, but my inescapable “partnership” was a living nightmare that ended up consuming a decade of my young life.

 

I was tempted to just stay in the village of Ambler, and leave it all.  I could raise and train my dogs in the bosom of the Arctic.  Living among the Natives, I could truly practice a life of subsistence and continue my path as I had intended, free from the daily abuse I had grown accustomed to.

I felt akin to this place; this remote region teeming with life, not yet ruined by the outside world. A place called a “barren wasteland” by some of our politicians, that is so very alive, and inspiringly intimidating in its’ silent expanse.  Words cannot evoke its many moods.

One dreaded day they will drill for oil here.

No part of me wanted to leave.

A strong force was pulling at the fringes of my soul. Something as abstract as the Arctic mirror of land and sky, and as defined as the polar bear print left at the trails edge, rapidly melting into the bog carpet of low bush cranberries and Labrador tea.

 

******

 

I spotted the pressure ridge from a distance. The long wall of chunky jumble ice and seeping holes, stretched as far as I could see across the lake to the North and cut through the trail we had been following. Under our feet, fresh lake water was colliding with salty water from the Chukchi Sea. During the process of constant warming, melting and re-freezing, the ice layers were expanding, forming cracks that were refilling with water. The pressure of the current was forcing the ice to push its broken, fragmented layers to the top, forming a formidable mass of ice chunks and slabs. This ridge had risen four feet high and four feet wide in places. While the rest of Selawik lake was still frozen white, dozens of trail markers had been placed in x formations, warning of this impassible danger. There was, however, no visible alternative. I wondered how long it had been since someone had been here. According to the sled runner tracks, barely recognizable after hours in the sun, the few mushers ahead of me had still been able to go straight ahead. The pressure ridge had opened up significantly in the last few hours and now going straight was no longer an option. Someone had been here to block off the trail, and the gaping holes, but they had failed to mark another safe through trail. To the left, the thinner ice leading to shore would bring me to land. I could then follow the shoreline for as long as needed. But would I lose the trail on the other end of lake, or even be able to get back on? Shore ice would be less stable than where we were presently stopped. Not knowing the depth of the lake and being in unfamiliar territory, that option seemed too risky.  There were no tracks of any kind leading off the ice, so my reasoning felt validated. My eyes scanned the ridge to the right, towards the mountains in the distance. The team stilled,  assessing the situation, sensing the obstacle before us. Finally I spotted a break in the markers, indicating a safe way over.

“Gee!”

A sharp 90 degree turn led us parallel along the ridge. My heart accelerated, as I kept the team at a walk. Unnamed and unknown to me, this natural phenomenon evoked a primal fear. The danger was palpable.

Before having a chance to command “haw”, my leaders Jane and Isis immediately saw where the markers stopped and performed a miracle leap. Fearlessly, without hesitation, they jumped up and over the mess of ice, pulling the next four dogs with them. Four dogs landed in the center. The two wheel dogs, the sled and myself were still on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Whoa!” If the leaders moved forward, dogs were going to get injured, as they were now all balancing in-between ice slabs and fissures. Where one could move freely over, another could not. I had no choice but to get off my sled, unhook most of the dogs and help the others over. I grabbed my ski pole to test the ice, though I knew this was no comparison to my weight.

I cautiously placed one foot on the ice, still holding the sled, looking for a safe place to put my other foot farther up the length of the team. In one super stride I could reach the dogs in the middle. I couldn’t unhook them all, as I needed their momentum to help pull the sled over. The jumble ice was terrifying. It felt as though a river was moving below us.

I was dizzy and hot with adrenaline.

Working quickly, I  lifted each dog to safety, moving my feet as little as possible. I unhooked the last two dogs. If the sled got caught on the way over, it wouldn’t pull them down with it.

Now just the sled and my lanky self had to get over.  

The final step onto the runner nearly became the last step of my life.

 

******

 

The cry that escaped my lips cut the heavy silence. The dogs knew exactly what had happened and they did not budge.

The shelf ice, five feet under the surface, held long enough for me to assess the situation and realize, that by some small miracle, the sled was still within my reach.

I seized the end of the runner with my left hand and yelled, “GO!”

In one synchronized motion, the team pulled me up out of the Arctic water, over the pressure ridge, on to stable ice.

As I came to standing, I felt like I was swimming.

Everything inside me was moving in slow motion, I could not even react.

I looked down at myself, soaked through to bottom layers, in complete shock.

I was already wearing the ‘emergency’ stash of dry socks, glove liners and long underwear,  that lived in my sled until needed. On races, these things are sent in resupply bags to the villages and checkpoints with all of our food.  We travel light, carrying only what we need to get to the next re-supply, but always with enough food and fuel to handle 24-48 hours of possibly being stuck in a severe storm, or any number of unexpected situations that can arise out on the trail. The last four water- saturated days had certainly used up all of my dry reserves, and now it seemed the final test was upon me.

The finish line was still about 70 miles away, which could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on the conditions and our speed, my abilities to run, kick and pole.

The autonomic part of my nervous system kicked into gear, as it had before in extreme weather, working under sleep deprivation. Frivolous thoughts cease to exist and the body operates robotically. Emotions are wasteful and no movement is without purpose. The body and mind work synergistically in survival mode.

I knew the danger of the eerie warmth that came over my ice bitten core. Movement was suddenly excruciatingly exhausting, my speech slow, the muscles in my cheeks uncooperative, “Good dogs! “ I managed to sound cheery.

“ Hang out for bit,” I instructed, “I’ve got to try to get dry.” I didn’t recognize the sound of myself. I felt stiff and slow, like glue.

Hollow.

I stripped down, thinking of my thermos still half filled with lukewarm hot chocolate and peppermint tea, wishing I had more, and started ringing out each layer of clothing.

No firewood within 100 miles or more. No people either. The group of mushers behind me had opted to camp at the last checkpoint to dry out their clothes and gear. As tempting as it had been to stay and join them, I had decided to keep going since my team was so strong and happy. Conditions were only getting worse and we were in the money, with only half a day’s journey left to the finish line.

I knew I would soon be hypothermic if I didn’t keep my limbs moving and working constantly. We would be running into the night, and temperatures would only be dropping. The situation could become dire.

Breathe, I thought to myself.

Focus.

No energy for negativity.

Once all the excess water was squeezed out, I tried to warm myself up by rubbing each of the dogs. I talked outloud in my chipper voice, praising each one, checking their booties, making sure none were iced up, and if they were, changing them. My hands and fingers were too stiff to work well. My mind felt as paralyzed as my body. Emotions were overwhelming, as was the numbness. Deep in my belly a fire burned, stoking the furnace that would keep me alive until we reached civilization.

I jumped up and down, did some jumping jacks, and stomped my feet. I knew my light-weight, synthetic insulated clothing, layered with wool, would do its’ job of retaining my body heat although wet. I drank a third of my remaining beverage, saving the rest for the long journey ahead. I had a few bites of my homemade smoked salmon, some goldfish crackers and a fig newton. Over thousands and thousands of trail miles, my selective diet had managed to keep me nourished, energized and quelled the bundle of nerves in my gut, preventing me from feeling sick.

I had to proceed as though nothing had happened. The near fatal event could in no way hinder our progress.  

Life was counting.

“All right guys, let’s go!”

We were off.  

The pressure ridge faded into the scenery behind us.

What else could we possibly face during these 440 miles?

The rest of the massive lake, stretching on for 50 miles or more, still looked stable enough. Thankfully, there were now markers placed every few miles. No open water in sight. Or ridges of ice.

Of course it could change at any moment.

I got into my usual rhythm of kicking beside the sled, 10 minutes with the right leg, switch to the left. I simultaneously poled with my ski pole, not missing a beat.

Hypothermia would have no chance unless I stopped moving.

Pushing myself during any race, especially the last 100 miles, was routine. However, I could not remember a time, in all my thousands of miles of racing, I had ever felt so depleted and bitterly exhausted. I was on the verge of collapsing. Arctic waters had zapped the last of my reserves and I wondered from where my strength was coming.

At one point,  I concluded that I was having an out of body experience. While my body and mind were working as a single entity to overcome the odds, my body did not feel my own. I felt entirely separated from it.

In feeling so much, I felt nothing.

I could feel my spirit rising above my physical reality of being in shock.

Was I dying?

The lack of sleep over the last months was teasing all of my weak points.

Unless I caught up to another musher, or an arbitrary snowmachiner, I would see no sign of human life until the finish line in Kotzebue. I felt as though even the most basic communication would be more energy than I could spare, especially since no one could help me anyway.

Pushing to the end was the only option.

Singing out loud, and chatting to the dogs helped to keep my mind awake. The dogs  were  running like champs, still in good spirits and in perfect health. I was now the weak link who could not allow myself to lapse for a second.

 

After what felt like an eternity, the lake shore finally met land. The last 3 or 4 hours we would be running through gentle, rolling hills on the brown, sweet smelling tundra, where only small patches of snow remained. With no glide under the metal runners, our speed noticeably slowed. Running to keep weight off the runners helped, but I couldn’t keep up with their speed for miles on end. I could only run in short bursts, which was better than nothing.

Fatigue brought tears to my eyes, and at moments I thought I could no longer stand.

I sang louder, calling the names of the dogs, and prayed to higher powers to give me the strength to make it home.

The meandering trail stretched into eternity, and my delusional mind believed that we were hopelessly lost, that my body would never leave this tundra. The markers could be from any trail, and out here trails intertwine like mazes, all headed somewhere through more nowhere with nothing in-between.

This kind of doubt I seldom ever had. My sense of direction had always served me well navigating Alaska.

I was unraveling stitch by stitch, as I battled exhaustion. The only confidence remaining was in the ability of my dog team. They had never let me down, and as a team, we had never failed.

At times I ran with my eyes closed.

I stopped as we always did, every hour, to snack the dogs pieces of salmon and beef. All tails were wagging, and their smiles injected me with the same positive energy that I had I given them their whole lives.

 

Unlike all the other nights since the start of the race, the vibrant colors of sunset eluded us and dusk mirrored my mood in every shade of grey.  I longed for the black of night to tell me we were close to the end. My earliest estimated time of arrival to the finish line in Kotzebue was 12:00 midnight, any time after dark. Grey dragged on in every step, every breath, and I wondered why I subjected myself to this kind torture.

Grassy knoll after grassy knoll, held the hope that civilization would suddenly appear and the pain would be over.

Watches can lie in this sport, as Nature fools our perceptions of time and relative distance. More accurate are the natural landmarks and angles of light.

The dull light of this day seemed it would never leave, the hours until dark felt to be an unbearable bending of time. Lost to the infinity of tundra and sky, our existence could remain forever forgotten here.

Solace lay in knowing my dogs were faring better than I.

They blew me away. Had they felt as I did, we would have been crawling.

They showed no weakness.

 

Time and solitude play tricks on a sleep deprived soul. Add in the wild landscape, a body and mind being pushed beyond their limits, and you have a recipe for life altering experiences and realizations.

In this window of space, there is no escape from weakness. No help, no place and no one to run to. No shelter, no phone, no GPS, mile signs, or short cut. No comfort. No distraction. No mercy.

Surrounded by life, simple and raw, there comes a point of total surrender to the power of this Nature.

It swallows you whole, leaves you inseparable.

Truth reveals itself in blinding clarity.

 

 

As the rivers had been melting under our feet, it was the flood of my life that felt to be drowning me.

Yet it could all end here, the fighting, and the fear.

The ancient trail of the Kobuk had been breaking me down, mile by mile and I could no longer deny the truth; in staying loyal to my animals, and dedicating my life to raising this dog team, I had sacrificed my heart, and my integrity.  

If I completed this impossible journey, maybe I would be ready. Ready to stand up for myself, for the last and final time. Ready to risk my life, for the inevitable break away that would win me back my freedom of self. I deserved so much better.

Yet his threats hung heavy like a noose around my neck.

Something in the eyes of the Natives, in their stance, gave me courage. Like a wise hunter, I knew I needed an abundance of patience, and had to keep waiting until the time was right to make my escape. I would take my dogs with me.

I had been letting this man slowly kill me, day after day, year after year.

There was nothing more for him to take.

 

In the arms of the Kobuk Valley, death had pulled me under water, to find me still alive. The warrior within had awakened.

In this still fog of realization, muteness became me. Words seemed a waste, but new melodies flowed from a heart still warm.

A heart emptied and so entirely full.


 

******

 

Darkness came and we moved flawlessly through the night, without a headlamp, our eyes adjusted and keen.  My brain was foggy, half shut down, preventing me from succumbing to the intolerable physical fatigue, while directing all available energy to producing the adrenaline necessary to keep me moving.

 

Then suddenly, the beacons of mercy appeared, lights!

“Home!” I cried. The dogs bolted at the excited tone of my voice. “Kotzebue, we made it!” The team had power in reserve, and plowed ahead as if they had just rested for 12 hours.

“You guys are awesome! “ I shrieked. We were still across the inlet, at least an hour away.  An eternity, but the end was within sight.

 

I had never been so happy to see the distant blur of white, twinkling lights.

Humanity.

For hours I had been convinced we were on the wrong trail, and many miles off course.

As we grew closer, what seemed a black hole, reflecting light, sat between us and the village. What now? Was I hallucinating? I turned on the headlamp, and still was confused. It couldn’t be……. all water?

Oh my God, it was. Not just a little bit, it looked to be the entire ocean stretching out before us.

Well, what is a few more miles of standing water? It must be safe, right? Did I miss a turn, X markers?

I had no energy left to think. Or question.

The dogs showed no hesitation, I would not question them.

What had been the starting line 4 days ago, now the finish line, was a lake. Six inches of water sat on top of the ice. No markers, no finishing banner in sight.

It was a little after 1:00 a.m., and I was headed to the closest possible building. The dogs were thinking the same thing.

The night scene was surreal, as we ran over 12 m.p.h. towards the lights, completely surrounded by water, leaving a wake behind us.

Slowly, the outlines of the buildings and cabins became more defined. Village dogs yipped and barked at our approach. No sign of anyone. The village would of course be sleeping, but where were the race officials, waiting to clock in my time?

Finally we hit land, a gravel dirt road to be more precise. Still there was no sign of anything or anyone related to the race. Did they even know I had left the last checkpoint? Did they think I had stayed with the group of mushers behind me, who wouldn’t be getting in until after the light of morning? What the hell was I supposed to do now?

The gravel was sharp on the dogs feet and my temper flared. I fought tears.

What kind of finish was this? Where was I supposed to go? Nobody, not a soul to welcome our hard earned arrival. Dismayed, I realized I could be in the wrong village. Perhaps this wasn’t Kotzebue and I had just made my team run over 80 miles in the wrong direction.

I refused to make my dogs go any further, and I could not run beside the sled another step. I stopped, secured the sled and praised the dogs profusely. I took off their booties, gave them a snack and proceeded to search for someone.

“Hello! Is there anybody here? “ I hollered. “I just finished the Kobuk race!” I felt like screaming, “do you have any idea what I’ve been through?” I couldn’t believe how the night was continuing.  The numbness was debilitating, my body wanted to collapse. I knocked on doors, making my way up the street. Finally, a sleepy someone appeared and said he’d go find a race official.

So, we had made it home.

I returned to the team, and as emotions swelled to the surface, I struggled to keep myself together. I removed harnesses and fed them more snacks. Their big meal would come whenever we got back to the house of our host family, who would be soundly sleeping. There I had bags of food and straw awaiting our return. Unlike all the other mushers, I had no handler waiting to help me.

“We weren’t expecting you,” the bundled body said. A few men sauntered from the village. “We will take you to your host families house. It’s a little way from here, in the center of the village. A truck is on the way.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”  

I told them what time I hit land, according to my watch. No one seemed to care. No other words were exchanged. I was speechless, as they too seemed to be. I wanted to tell them what happened, but I thought I might start crying. Worse, I thought the story seemed unbelievable. They might think I was just an emotional, un-rational woman talking gibberish, complaining or just a fool who made a stupid decision. It all seemed indescribable. The term pressure ridge was still unknown to my vocabulary. To say I fell in hole sounded ridiculous. So I said nothing. I just focused on my dogs, rubbing shoulders and wrists, while the Natives stood and watched me. All I managed to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m a little tired, we had kind of a crazy run.” No one wanted to carry on a conversation at such a horrid time of the morning anyway.

I thanked them profusely as they helped me load the team and sled into the back of a pick-up. When I sat down in the warm vehicle, I came close to passing out. My clothes were soaking wet, and now the fine outer layer of ice quickly dissipated. Still no one knew I had fallen over my breasts into Arctic water. No one had seen. My body began to throb. I thought I might not be able to stand up again.

We unloaded the dogs and after a hundred more “thank-you’s,” I was left alone with my team outside the small blue house.

3:15 a.m.

I fed the dogs dry kibble and lit my cooker to heat water enough to thaw meat for a soup.  I divided the bale of straw into 12 thick beds, which the dogs could not be more elated about.

The pride I felt was overwhelming. The love and appreciation for my animals surpassed anything I had ever felt before. My dogs were beyond perfect, beyond exceptional and this day they had saved my life, after running flawlessly for 370 miles through horrendous conditions.

15 minutes later they were lapping up their beaver and lamb broth.

 

I stumbled into the house, to the bathroom. Heat was nirvana. I barely had the energy to undress.  The hot water was like stinging pellets against my frozen shell. It made my head spin, restored my breath. My body tingled and swelled. I kept the shower short, afraid I might black out.

The bed threw me into another realm, one I thought I may never return from.

Perhaps I would never fully return to my body.

I slipped away.

Only until it was time to feed the dogs again.

 

******

 

Mushers raised hell at the finishers meeting, ranting about the unprofessionalism, the dangers, the liabilities of the race trail. “They never should have let the teams continue!”

I sat silently drinking tea at the small round table with Iditarod champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, as they enjoyed their coca cola. I listened to their stories, but my mind was elsewhere. I was present, but not really there. As I had guessed, the pressure ridge hadn’t been as bad for those ahead of me. The trail had been re-routed by the time the guys behind me made it to that point. Today the pro’s looked at me differently, talking to me as an equal, asking me my opinions. Had I earned another notch of respect in “their” sport? Little no-named me and my wild, over-sized, mix matched wolf dogs?

I didn’t care.

As much as the mushers complained, I knew they would all come back. I almost felt bad for the race crew, dealing with the wrath of these powerful men. Knowing, unlike the famous Iditarod, the resources for the Kobuk are very limited and they make due with what they have.

Suffering needlessly out on the drowning trail, I certainly had done my share of mental cursing. Now it all just seemed a twist of Mother Nature’s fate.

We are only human, after all. No one can control the nature of ice, hour to hour, minute to minute. It was too late to place blame. We were the ones who left the starting line and never turned back. Thankfully no dogs or mushers were seriously hurt.

 

******

 

Shock lingers. Life goes on. The body copes, work routine keeps the pain at bay, but it never forgets. Memories re-surface when you least expect it and bring you back to the feelings, the place, and the unspoken emotions.

 

I did return with my team to the rich river valley and finish another Kobuk 440, and I did finally leave the man who brought so much darkness to my life.

The man who told me I could never do the things I did indeed do.

 

******

Shorelines are disappearing, and villages are being re-located.  Long struggling to maintain their cultural identity and lifestyle, Native tribes have been forced to depend on unsustainable means of survival and empty promises of the white man. The first people most severely affected by modern industry and climate change are the last thought of in crisis. They are the first to be taken from, the last to be re-paid.

 

The Arctic personifies the web of life that has been dismembered throughout the rest of the world.

To travel through it, to experience it on a spiritual level, is to become it.

Therefore, in leaving, one abandons a part of themself.

 

My life was saved.

My dogs, they carried me.

The Native spirits who inhabit the Kobuk, they guided me.

Without their bloodlines, there would be no team.

Without their trail, I would have smaller eyes.

Without their wisdom, I would be ignorant.

Without their collective presence, I would be lost.

Now, living in this other world, my heart beats to a different drummer.

The beat is never heard here, only in the wind, and the running water.

My veins.











 

AWAKENING


 

The ice gave way beneath my feet as the frigid waters of Selawik Lake engulfed my body. A sharp inhale felt the grip of death, yet my last thoughts were anything but panicked, “I got the dogs over, they will be okay…… this is my death; under the ice, in the middle of nowhere.”

A fleeting thought bid farewell to my parents as I calmly faced my fate.

 

******

 

My feet hit a layer of shelf ice, momentarily stopping the fall. Aquamarine water laced with snow-white ice chunks permeated my body over my breast line. Unstable ice surrounded me. The only hope was the metal end of the sled runner, now balanced above my head on an edge of slab ice. The slightest movement of my 12- dog team would pull this lifeline out of reach.

 

******

 

“ The earliest and fastest break-up we’ve ever seen,” the Natives later claimed of that first weekend in April, 2004.

In less than 12 hours, the seemingly frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers had turned to slush, to overflow, to open running water under a glaring April sun that brought temperatures into the high 40’s.

 

The 440-mile Kobuk Sled Dog Race travels through the Kobuk River Valley, above the Arctic Circle. Starting in the village of Kotzebue, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, it follows the Kobuk River through six different Native villages, passing by the Baird, Jade and Waring Mountain ranges, through the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and skirts the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

On the verge of cancelling the race all together, officials considered re-routing the trail over land to avoid the highway of rivers and tributaries that were melting at an alarming rate. With only 5-6 hours of true darkness, ice and snow pack had little time to harden, let alone freeze during the nights.  The progressive effects of nearly 18 hours of daylight and the sudden heat wave, obliterated the trail.

 

Still the race commenced, with a group of some of the best mushers in the world, gathered to do what they do best, despite and against the odds of Mother Nature, who never fails to test and challenge the most hardened and proven of venturous souls.

Over the years, I thought I had been through it all with my team, from enduring -65 below 0 and blinding snow storms, to battling winds so strong it’s hard to breathe and impossible to keep the sled upright and in line behind the team. We had faced  endless, bone -racking miles of dirt, sand, stumps, rocks, glare ice and glacial moraine, and been drenched in rain storms, pelted by freezing rains and navigated through open water and overflow of all kinds.

However, we had never run through water for hundreds of miles, nor had we ever encountered a pressure ridge.

 

For three days we had been running through water at least ankle deep, sometimes up to mid-calf. A pair of rubber boots would have spared my feet days of misery.  My Iditarod proven system of mukluks and waterproof NEOS overboots failed in the deep water.

 A few hours submerged in water is one thing, days is another.

When not immersed in water, we ran over snowless sand beaches, soft, muddy bogs and brown tundra. The best sections of trail were the miles of glare ice that glittered in brilliant hues of turquoise, royal blues and jade greens. Intricate mosaic webs cracked the slippery surface, over which movement was effortless, even too fast. The ice moaned, cackled and gurgled beneath our weight. The sharp tines of the brake bar were worn down to nothing over the miles of ice, as I was constantly breaking to keep the team at a safe paced trot.

 

Welcome to Spring above latitude 66, ground zero for climate change.

I had been training in sneakers just days before, expecting my flight north to land me in a much colder climate, which was a foolish assumption. Springtime in the North is anything but predictable.

 

Anything is tolerable when you are doing what you love.  

Running my team through the Kobuk Valley was a dream come true.

Weeks earlier we had finished our fifth, 1,049 mile Iditarod Race in 23rd position. After just a few days of rest, the beautiful Spring days found us back on the trails in our home territory. Stronger than ever, the team I had hooked up every day since the previous August, was still screaming to go! My young team and I were in peak condition, so I paid my entry fee and booked a ticket to Kotzebue. The money I had won in the Iditarod bought the 12 dog kennels that would be secured in their own “igloo,” along with my sled, dog food and gear in the belly of the plane. I would be traveling alone, and if I managed to finish in a paying position, the trip would at least pay for itself.

The dogs I had raised from puppies were now in their prime and they could never seem to get enough of the trail. Nothing, not even the unimaginably wet, warm days we found in Kotzebue, could slow them down or hinder their spirit. Like me, they were excited to travel through new country and were completely unphased by the water. Having raised them all as swimmers, the endless horizon of moving water was a non-issue for them. Certainly it helped keep them cool in the unusual heat and they could lap up a drink of water whenever they pleased. Northern husky breeds are happiest running at -5 to -10 degrees below zero. Anything above freezing takes some serious adaptation and the hardest working dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Every half hour or so, I took short “cool down” breaks to prevent any problems. Over ten or twelve hours of running, it made all the difference in our performance. During our long rests, the warmth of the intense sun worked to our advantage. After the usual routine of feeding the team and rubbing every paw, wrist and shoulder with my homemade magic oil, all the harnesses, wet gear, boot liners and clothing were sprawled out over dry straw or hung on the sled to dry. As the dogs slept, I ate, re-hydrated and tried to catch an hour or two of sleep on top of the sled before cooking their second meal and packing everything to go.

 

My nerves were wearing thin, yet the enthusiasm of the dogs never waned. Race trail markers had been non-existent except for those seen floating down stream. Finding and keeping on the right trail, any trail, had demanded constant attention since there was really no defined trail to follow. One river looked like three or four, with wide, muddy channels branching in all directions. Most markers tied to willow or alder bushes, especially leaving the villages, marked only the local snowmachine trails, and were unrelated to the race. Many frustrated attempts following these flags, led to narrow impassible channels of deep water and thick messes of ingrown brush, in which I had to let all the dogs loose to get turned around. Then, retracing my steps to the entrance of the maze, I would try another, and another, until finally we would find a ‘through’ path. Relying merely on instinct, as maps, compasses and GPS’s are not allowed, I followed the lay of the land, using the riverbanks, and lines of the valleys and mountains as landmarks to keep my sense of direction.

 

Speed triples moving over glare ice, but then there is the constant worry that a dog will slip, pull a shoulder, sprain a wrist or fall through the ice. I had no choice but to trust their instincts. Countless times before my leaders had avoided dangerous obstacles without my command, or chosen a better path than the team before us had taken. Their instincts and senses were sharp, and reliable.

But with every passing every hour, the ice was becoming more unstable.

Mile after mile I could see moving water below the ice.

“How can they let us keep going, this is so unsafe?”  My worried thoughts were nagging. “ This is so insane! What am I doing here? This can’t possibly be the trail! If the river opens any more we’ll be stuck here, and it’s too late to turn back!” I started to think that all the other mushers had been directed to another route, and somehow we had not been informed, forgotten.

 

******

 

 Awe prevailed over the stress and discomfort. With every mile of hardship, the enchantment of the Arctic stole my heart.

The vast landscape was breathtaking, and wild. The spirit of the ancient Inupiaq permeated the valley of  “half a million caribou.” The light of the high North, lasting until midnight, cast ethereal shadows and painted boundless sunsets and sunrises of striking beauty. Vivid shades of purples, blues, oranges and pinks lingered until the black veil of night set the backdrop for the Northern lights. They danced to a silent rhythm, illuminating the isolated world into a surreal masterpiece of radiant reds, purples and greens. Some stretched down so far they seemed to touch us, infusing our cells with the magic of the heavens.

 

Natives of all ages welcomed our team into their villages ,with twinkling eyes, and wide, toothless grins. They stood proud in their hand-stitched mukluks and beaver tail hats. The remote communities of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and Selawik, some well over 100 miles apart, look forward to the annual race event and spend days preparing tables of food for mushers and volunteers. Cheers, hugs, and pats on the shoulder from total strangers, made me feel like a family member coming home. Their smiles and hospitality made it hard to leave. In fact, had I not had 50 other huskies and puppies waiting for me at home, I would have stayed.

 

I loved the tiny community I called home, that sat at the ‘end of the road,’ where three massive rivers running out of the Alaska Range converged into one.  These rivers, mountains and trails had become an integral part of my livelihood, but my inescapable “partnership” was a living nightmare that ended up consuming a decade of my young life.

 

I was tempted to just stay in the village of Ambler, and leave it all.  I could raise and train my dogs in the bosom of the Arctic.  Living among the Natives, I could truly practice a life of subsistence and continue my path as I had intended, free from the daily abuse I had grown accustomed to.

I felt akin to this place; this remote region teeming with life, not yet ruined by the outside world. A place called a “barren wasteland” by some of our politicians, that is so very alive, and inspiringly intimidating in its’ silent expanse.  Words cannot evoke its many moods.

One dreaded day they will drill for oil here.

No part of me wanted to leave.

A strong force was pulling at the fringes of my soul. Something as abstract as the Arctic mirror of land and sky, and as defined as the polar bear print left at the trails edge, rapidly melting into the bog carpet of low bush cranberries and Labrador tea.

 

******

 

I spotted the pressure ridge from a distance. The long wall of chunky jumble ice and seeping holes, stretched as far as I could see across the lake to the North and cut through the trail we had been following. Under our feet, fresh lake water was colliding with salty water from the Chukchi Sea. During the process of constant warming, melting and re-freezing, the ice layers were expanding, forming cracks that were refilling with water. The pressure of the current was forcing the ice to push its broken, fragmented layers to the top, forming a formidable mass of ice chunks and slabs. This ridge had risen four feet high and four feet wide in places. While the rest of Selawik lake was still frozen white, dozens of trail markers had been placed in x formations, warning of this impassible danger. There was, however, no visible alternative. I wondered how long it had been since someone had been here. According to the sled runner tracks, barely recognizable after hours in the sun, the few mushers ahead of me had still been able to go straight ahead. The pressure ridge had opened up significantly in the last few hours and now going straight was no longer an option. Someone had been here to block off the trail, and the gaping holes, but they had failed to mark another safe through trail. To the left, the thinner ice leading to shore would bring me to land. I could then follow the shoreline for as long as needed. But would I lose the trail on the other end of lake, or even be able to get back on? Shore ice would be less stable than where we were presently stopped. Not knowing the depth of the lake and being in unfamiliar territory, that option seemed too risky.  There were no tracks of any kind leading off the ice, so my reasoning felt validated. My eyes scanned the ridge to the right, towards the mountains in the distance. The team stilled,  assessing the situation, sensing the obstacle before us. Finally I spotted a break in the markers, indicating a safe way over.

“Gee!”

A sharp 90 degree turn led us parallel along the ridge. My heart accelerated, as I kept the team at a walk. Unnamed and unknown to me, this natural phenomenon evoked a primal fear. The danger was palpable.

Before having a chance to command “haw”, my leaders Jane and Isis immediately saw where the markers stopped and performed a miracle leap. Fearlessly, without hesitation, they jumped up and over the mess of ice, pulling the next four dogs with them. Four dogs landed in the center. The two wheel dogs, the sled and myself were still on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Whoa!” If the leaders moved forward, dogs were going to get injured, as they were now all balancing in-between ice slabs and fissures. Where one could move freely over, another could not. I had no choice but to get off my sled, unhook most of the dogs and help the others over. I grabbed my ski pole to test the ice, though I knew this was no comparison to my weight.

I cautiously placed one foot on the ice, still holding the sled, looking for a safe place to put my other foot farther up the length of the team. In one super stride I could reach the dogs in the middle. I couldn’t unhook them all, as I needed their momentum to help pull the sled over. The jumble ice was terrifying. It felt as though a river was moving below us.

I was dizzy and hot with adrenaline.

Working quickly, I  lifted each dog to safety, moving my feet as little as possible. I unhooked the last two dogs. If the sled got caught on the way over, it wouldn’t pull them down with it.

Now just the sled and my lanky self had to get over.  

The final step onto the runner nearly became the last step of my life.

 

******

 

The cry that escaped my lips cut the heavy silence. The dogs knew exactly what had happened and they did not budge.

The shelf ice, five feet under the surface, held long enough for me to assess the situation and realize, that by some small miracle, the sled was still within my reach.

I seized the end of the runner with my left hand and yelled, “GO!”

In one synchronized motion, the team pulled me up out of the Arctic water, over the pressure ridge, on to stable ice.

As I came to standing, I felt like I was swimming.

Everything inside me was moving in slow motion, I could not even react.

I looked down at myself, soaked through to bottom layers, in complete shock.

I was already wearing the ‘emergency’ stash of dry socks, glove liners and long underwear,  that lived in my sled until needed. On races, these things are sent in resupply bags to the villages and checkpoints with all of our food.  We travel light, carrying only what we need to get to the next re-supply, but always with enough food and fuel to handle 24-48 hours of possibly being stuck in a severe storm, or any number of unexpected situations that can arise out on the trail. The last four water- saturated days had certainly used up all of my dry reserves, and now it seemed the final test was upon me.

The finish line was still about 70 miles away, which could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on the conditions and our speed, my abilities to run, kick and pole.

The autonomic part of my nervous system kicked into gear, as it had before in extreme weather, working under sleep deprivation. Frivolous thoughts cease to exist and the body operates robotically. Emotions are wasteful and no movement is without purpose. The body and mind work synergistically in survival mode.

I knew the danger of the eerie warmth that came over my ice bitten core. Movement was suddenly excruciatingly exhausting, my speech slow, the muscles in my cheeks uncooperative, “Good dogs! “ I managed to sound cheery.

“ Hang out for bit,” I instructed, “I’ve got to try to get dry.” I didn’t recognize the sound of myself. I felt stiff and slow, like glue.

Hollow.

I stripped down, thinking of my thermos still half filled with lukewarm hot chocolate and peppermint tea, wishing I had more, and started ringing out each layer of clothing.

No firewood within 100 miles or more. No people either. The group of mushers behind me had opted to camp at the last checkpoint to dry out their clothes and gear. As tempting as it had been to stay and join them, I had decided to keep going since my team was so strong and happy. Conditions were only getting worse and we were in the money, with only half a day’s journey left to the finish line.

I knew I would soon be hypothermic if I didn’t keep my limbs moving and working constantly. We would be running into the night, and temperatures would only be dropping. The situation could become dire.

Breathe, I thought to myself.

Focus.

No energy for negativity.

Once all the excess water was squeezed out, I tried to warm myself up by rubbing each of the dogs. I talked outloud in my chipper voice, praising each one, checking their booties, making sure none were iced up, and if they were, changing them. My hands and fingers were too stiff to work well. My mind felt as paralyzed as my body. Emotions were overwhelming, as was the numbness. Deep in my belly a fire burned, stoking the furnace that would keep me alive until we reached civilization.

I jumped up and down, did some jumping jacks, and stomped my feet. I knew my light-weight, synthetic insulated clothing, layered with wool, would do its’ job of retaining my body heat although wet. I drank a third of my remaining beverage, saving the rest for the long journey ahead. I had a few bites of my homemade smoked salmon, some goldfish crackers and a fig newton. Over thousands and thousands of trail miles, my selective diet had managed to keep me nourished, energized and quelled the bundle of nerves in my gut, preventing me from feeling sick.

I had to proceed as though nothing had happened. The near fatal event could in no way hinder our progress.  

Life was counting.

“All right guys, let’s go!”

We were off.  

The pressure ridge faded into the scenery behind us.

What else could we possibly face during these 440 miles?

The rest of the massive lake, stretching on for 50 miles or more, still looked stable enough. Thankfully, there were now markers placed every few miles. No open water in sight. Or ridges of ice.

Of course it could change at any moment.

I got into my usual rhythm of kicking beside the sled, 10 minutes with the right leg, switch to the left. I simultaneously poled with my ski pole, not missing a beat.

Hypothermia would have no chance unless I stopped moving.

Pushing myself during any race, especially the last 100 miles, was routine. However, I could not remember a time, in all my thousands of miles of racing, I had ever felt so depleted and bitterly exhausted. I was on the verge of collapsing. Arctic waters had zapped the last of my reserves and I wondered from where my strength was coming.

At one point,  I concluded that I was having an out of body experience. While my body and mind were working as a single entity to overcome the odds, my body did not feel my own. I felt entirely separated from it.

In feeling so much, I felt nothing.

I could feel my spirit rising above my physical reality of being in shock.

Was I dying?

The lack of sleep over the last months was teasing all of my weak points.

Unless I caught up to another musher, or an arbitrary snowmachiner, I would see no sign of human life until the finish line in Kotzebue. I felt as though even the most basic communication would be more energy than I could spare, especially since no one could help me anyway.

Pushing to the end was the only option.

Singing out loud, and chatting to the dogs helped to keep my mind awake. The dogs  were  running like champs, still in good spirits and in perfect health. I was now the weak link who could not allow myself to lapse for a second.

 

After what felt like an eternity, the lake shore finally met land. The last 3 or 4 hours we would be running through gentle, rolling hills on the brown, sweet smelling tundra, where only small patches of snow remained. With no glide under the metal runners, our speed noticeably slowed. Running to keep weight off the runners helped, but I couldn’t keep up with their speed for miles on end. I could only run in short bursts, which was better than nothing.

Fatigue brought tears to my eyes, and at moments I thought I could no longer stand.

I sang louder, calling the names of the dogs, and prayed to higher powers to give me the strength to make it home.

The meandering trail stretched into eternity, and my delusional mind believed that we were hopelessly lost, that my body would never leave this tundra. The markers could be from any trail, and out here trails intertwine like mazes, all headed somewhere through more nowhere with nothing in-between.

This kind of doubt I seldom ever had. My sense of direction had always served me well navigating Alaska.

I was unraveling stitch by stitch, as I battled exhaustion. The only confidence remaining was in the ability of my dog team. They had never let me down, and as a team, we had never failed.

At times I ran with my eyes closed.

I stopped as we always did, every hour, to snack the dogs pieces of salmon and beef. All tails were wagging, and their smiles injected me with the same positive energy that I had I given them their whole lives.

 

Unlike all the other nights since the start of the race, the vibrant colors of sunset eluded us and dusk mirrored my mood in every shade of grey.  I longed for the black of night to tell me we were close to the end. My earliest estimated time of arrival to the finish line in Kotzebue was 12:00 midnight, any time after dark. Grey dragged on in every step, every breath, and I wondered why I subjected myself to this kind torture.

Grassy knoll after grassy knoll, held the hope that civilization would suddenly appear and the pain would be over.

Watches can lie in this sport, as Nature fools our perceptions of time and relative distance. More accurate are the natural landmarks and angles of light.

The dull light of this day seemed it would never leave, the hours until dark felt to be an unbearable bending of time. Lost to the infinity of tundra and sky, our existence could remain forever forgotten here.

Solace lay in knowing my dogs were faring better than I.

They blew me away. Had they felt as I did, we would have been crawling.

They showed no weakness.

 

Time and solitude play tricks on a sleep deprived soul. Add in the wild landscape, a body and mind being pushed beyond their limits, and you have a recipe for life altering experiences and realizations.

In this window of space, there is no escape from weakness. No help, no place and no one to run to. No shelter, no phone, no GPS, mile signs, or short cut. No comfort. No distraction. No mercy.

Surrounded by life, simple and raw, there comes a point of total surrender to the power of this Nature.

It swallows you whole, leaves you inseparable.

Truth reveals itself in blinding clarity.

 

 

As the rivers had been melting under our feet, it was the flood of my life that felt to be drowning me.

Yet it could all end here, the fighting, and the fear.

The ancient trail of the Kobuk had been breaking me down, mile by mile and I could no longer deny the truth; in staying loyal to my animals, and dedicating my life to raising this dog team, I had sacrificed my heart, and my integrity.  

If I completed this impossible journey, maybe I would be ready. Ready to stand up for myself, for the last and final time. Ready to risk my life, for the inevitable break away that would win me back my freedom of self. I deserved so much better.

Yet his threats hung heavy like a noose around my neck.

Something in the eyes of the Natives, in their stance, gave me courage. Like a wise hunter, I knew I needed an abundance of patience, and had to keep waiting until the time was right to make my escape. I would take my dogs with me.

I had been letting this man slowly kill me, day after day, year after year.

There was nothing more for him to take.

 

In the arms of the Kobuk Valley, death had pulled me under water, to find me still alive. The warrior within had awakened.

In this still fog of realization, muteness became me. Words seemed a waste, but new melodies flowed from a heart still warm.

A heart emptied and so entirely full.


 

******

 

Darkness came and we moved flawlessly through the night, without a headlamp, our eyes adjusted and keen.  My brain was foggy, half shut down, preventing me from succumbing to the intolerable physical fatigue, while directing all available energy to producing the adrenaline necessary to keep me moving.

 

Then suddenly, the beacons of mercy appeared, lights!

“Home!” I cried. The dogs bolted at the excited tone of my voice. “Kotzebue, we made it!” The team had power in reserve, and plowed ahead as if they had just rested for 12 hours.

“You guys are awesome! “ I shrieked. We were still across the inlet, at least an hour away.  An eternity, but the end was within sight.

 

I had never been so happy to see the distant blur of white, twinkling lights.

Humanity.

For hours I had been convinced we were on the wrong trail, and many miles off course.

As we grew closer, what seemed a black hole, reflecting light, sat between us and the village. What now? Was I hallucinating? I turned on the headlamp, and still was confused. It couldn’t be……. all water?

Oh my God, it was. Not just a little bit, it looked to be the entire ocean stretching out before us.

Well, what is a few more miles of standing water? It must be safe, right? Did I miss a turn, X markers?

I had no energy left to think. Or question.

The dogs showed no hesitation, I would not question them.

What had been the starting line 4 days ago, now the finish line, was a lake. Six inches of water sat on top of the ice. No markers, no finishing banner in sight.

It was a little after 1:00 a.m., and I was headed to the closest possible building. The dogs were thinking the same thing.

The night scene was surreal, as we ran over 12 m.p.h. towards the lights, completely surrounded by water, leaving a wake behind us.

Slowly, the outlines of the buildings and cabins became more defined. Village dogs yipped and barked at our approach. No sign of anyone. The village would of course be sleeping, but where were the race officials, waiting to clock in my time?

Finally we hit land, a gravel dirt road to be more precise. Still there was no sign of anything or anyone related to the race. Did they even know I had left the last checkpoint? Did they think I had stayed with the group of mushers behind me, who wouldn’t be getting in until after the light of morning? What the hell was I supposed to do now?

The gravel was sharp on the dogs feet and my temper flared. I fought tears.

What kind of finish was this? Where was I supposed to go? Nobody, not a soul to welcome our hard earned arrival. Dismayed, I realized I could be in the wrong village. Perhaps this wasn’t Kotzebue and I had just made my team run over 80 miles in the wrong direction.

I refused to make my dogs go any further, and I could not run beside the sled another step. I stopped, secured the sled and praised the dogs profusely. I took off their booties, gave them a snack and proceeded to search for someone.

“Hello! Is there anybody here? “ I hollered. “I just finished the Kobuk race!” I felt like screaming, “do you have any idea what I’ve been through?” I couldn’t believe how the night was continuing.  The numbness was debilitating, my body wanted to collapse. I knocked on doors, making my way up the street. Finally, a sleepy someone appeared and said he’d go find a race official.

So, we had made it home.

I returned to the team, and as emotions swelled to the surface, I struggled to keep myself together. I removed harnesses and fed them more snacks. Their big meal would come whenever we got back to the house of our host family, who would be soundly sleeping. There I had bags of food and straw awaiting our return. Unlike all the other mushers, I had no handler waiting to help me.

“We weren’t expecting you,” the bundled body said. A few men sauntered from the village. “We will take you to your host families house. It’s a little way from here, in the center of the village. A truck is on the way.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”  

I told them what time I hit land, according to my watch. No one seemed to care. No other words were exchanged. I was speechless, as they too seemed to be. I wanted to tell them what happened, but I thought I might start crying. Worse, I thought the story seemed unbelievable. They might think I was just an emotional, un-rational woman talking gibberish, complaining or just a fool who made a stupid decision. It all seemed indescribable. The term pressure ridge was still unknown to my vocabulary. To say I fell in hole sounded ridiculous. So I said nothing. I just focused on my dogs, rubbing shoulders and wrists, while the Natives stood and watched me. All I managed to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m a little tired, we had kind of a crazy run.” No one wanted to carry on a conversation at such a horrid time of the morning anyway.

I thanked them profusely as they helped me load the team and sled into the back of a pick-up. When I sat down in the warm vehicle, I came close to passing out. My clothes were soaking wet, and now the fine outer layer of ice quickly dissipated. Still no one knew I had fallen over my breasts into Arctic water. No one had seen. My body began to throb. I thought I might not be able to stand up again.

We unloaded the dogs and after a hundred more “thank-you’s,” I was left alone with my team outside the small blue house.

3:15 a.m.

I fed the dogs dry kibble and lit my cooker to heat water enough to thaw meat for a soup.  I divided the bale of straw into 12 thick beds, which the dogs could not be more elated about.

The pride I felt was overwhelming. The love and appreciation for my animals surpassed anything I had ever felt before. My dogs were beyond perfect, beyond exceptional and this day they had saved my life, after running flawlessly for 370 miles through horrendous conditions.

15 minutes later they were lapping up their beaver and lamb broth.

 

I stumbled into the house, to the bathroom. Heat was nirvana. I barely had the energy to undress.  The hot water was like stinging pellets against my frozen shell. It made my head spin, restored my breath. My body tingled and swelled. I kept the shower short, afraid I might black out.

The bed threw me into another realm, one I thought I may never return from.

Perhaps I would never fully return to my body.

I slipped away.

Only until it was time to feed the dogs again.

 

******

 

Mushers raised hell at the finishers meeting, ranting about the unprofessionalism, the dangers, the liabilities of the race trail. “They never should have let the teams continue!”

I sat silently drinking tea at the small round table with Iditarod champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, as they enjoyed their coca cola. I listened to their stories, but my mind was elsewhere. I was present, but not really there. As I had guessed, the pressure ridge hadn’t been as bad for those ahead of me. The trail had been re-routed by the time the guys behind me made it to that point. Today the pro’s looked at me differently, talking to me as an equal, asking me my opinions. Had I earned another notch of respect in “their” sport? Little no-named me and my wild, over-sized, mix matched wolf dogs?

I didn’t care.

As much as the mushers complained, I knew they would all come back. I almost felt bad for the race crew, dealing with the wrath of these powerful men. Knowing, unlike the famous Iditarod, the resources for the Kobuk are very limited and they make due with what they have.

Suffering needlessly out on the drowning trail, I certainly had done my share of mental cursing. Now it all just seemed a twist of Mother Nature’s fate.

We are only human, after all. No one can control the nature of ice, hour to hour, minute to minute. It was too late to place blame. We were the ones who left the starting line and never turned back. Thankfully no dogs or mushers were seriously hurt.

 

******

 

Shock lingers. Life goes on. The body copes, work routine keeps the pain at bay, but it never forgets. Memories re-surface when you least expect it and bring you back to the feelings, the place, and the unspoken emotions.

 

I did return with my team to the rich river valley and finish another Kobuk 440, and I did finally leave the man who brought so much darkness to my life.

The man who told me I could never do the things I did indeed do.

 

******

Shorelines are disappearing, and villages are being re-located.  Long struggling to maintain their cultural identity and lifestyle, Native tribes have been forced to depend on unsustainable means of survival and empty promises of the white man. The first people most severely affected by modern industry and climate change are the last thought of in crisis. They are the first to be taken from, the last to be re-paid.

 

The Arctic personifies the web of life that has been dismembered throughout the rest of the world.

To travel through it, to experience it on a spiritual level, is to become it.

Therefore, in leaving, one abandons a part of themself.

 

My life was saved.

My dogs, they carried me.

The Native spirits who inhabit the Kobuk, they guided me.

Without their bloodlines, there would be no team.

Without their trail, I would have smaller eyes.

Without their wisdom, I would be ignorant.

Without their collective presence, I would be lost.

Now, living in this other world, my heart beats to a different drummer.

The beat is never heard here, only in the wind, and the running water.

My veins.











 

AWAKENING


 

The ice gave way beneath my feet as the frigid waters of Selawik Lake engulfed my body. A sharp inhale felt the grip of death, yet my last thoughts were anything but panicked, “I got the dogs over, they will be okay…… this is my death; under the ice, in the middle of nowhere.”

A fleeting thought bid farewell to my parents as I calmly faced my fate.

 

******

 

My feet hit a layer of shelf ice, momentarily stopping the fall. Aquamarine water laced with snow-white ice chunks permeated my body over my breast line. Unstable ice surrounded me. The only hope was the metal end of the sled runner, now balanced above my head on an edge of slab ice. The slightest movement of my 12- dog team would pull this lifeline out of reach.

 

******

 

“ The earliest and fastest break-up we’ve ever seen,” the Natives later claimed of that first weekend in April, 2004.

In less than 12 hours, the seemingly frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers had turned to slush, to overflow, to open running water under a glaring April sun that brought temperatures into the high 40’s.

 

The 440-mile Kobuk Sled Dog Race travels through the Kobuk River Valley, above the Arctic Circle. Starting in the village of Kotzebue, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, it follows the Kobuk River through six different Native villages, passing by the Baird, Jade and Waring Mountain ranges, through the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and skirts the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

On the verge of cancelling the race all together, officials considered re-routing the trail over land to avoid the highway of rivers and tributaries that were melting at an alarming rate. With only 5-6 hours of true darkness, ice and snow pack had little time to harden, let alone freeze during the nights.  The progressive effects of nearly 18 hours of daylight and the sudden heat wave, obliterated the trail.

 

Still the race commenced, with a group of some of the best mushers in the world, gathered to do what they do best, despite and against the odds of Mother Nature, who never fails to test and challenge the most hardened and proven of venturous souls.

Over the years, I thought I had been through it all with my team, from enduring -65 below 0 and blinding snow storms, to battling winds so strong it’s hard to breathe and impossible to keep the sled upright and in line behind the team. We had faced  endless, bone -racking miles of dirt, sand, stumps, rocks, glare ice and glacial moraine, and been drenched in rain storms, pelted by freezing rains and navigated through open water and overflow of all kinds.

However, we had never run through water for hundreds of miles, nor had we ever encountered a pressure ridge.

 

For three days we had been running through water at least ankle deep, sometimes up to mid-calf. A pair of rubber boots would have spared my feet days of misery.  My Iditarod proven system of mukluks and waterproof NEOS overboots failed in the deep water.

 A few hours submerged in water is one thing, days is another.

When not immersed in water, we ran over snowless sand beaches, soft, muddy bogs and brown tundra. The best sections of trail were the miles of glare ice that glittered in brilliant hues of turquoise, royal blues and jade greens. Intricate mosaic webs cracked the slippery surface, over which movement was effortless, even too fast. The ice moaned, cackled and gurgled beneath our weight. The sharp tines of the brake bar were worn down to nothing over the miles of ice, as I was constantly breaking to keep the team at a safe paced trot.

 

Welcome to Spring above latitude 66, ground zero for climate change.

I had been training in sneakers just days before, expecting my flight north to land me in a much colder climate, which was a foolish assumption. Springtime in the North is anything but predictable.

 

Anything is tolerable when you are doing what you love.  

Running my team through the Kobuk Valley was a dream come true.

Weeks earlier we had finished our fifth, 1,049 mile Iditarod Race in 23rd position. After just a few days of rest, the beautiful Spring days found us back on the trails in our home territory. Stronger than ever, the team I had hooked up every day since the previous August, was still screaming to go! My young team and I were in peak condition, so I paid my entry fee and booked a ticket to Kotzebue. The money I had won in the Iditarod bought the 12 dog kennels that would be secured in their own “igloo,” along with my sled, dog food and gear in the belly of the plane. I would be traveling alone, and if I managed to finish in a paying position, the trip would at least pay for itself.

The dogs I had raised from puppies were now in their prime and they could never seem to get enough of the trail. Nothing, not even the unimaginably wet, warm days we found in Kotzebue, could slow them down or hinder their spirit. Like me, they were excited to travel through new country and were completely unphased by the water. Having raised them all as swimmers, the endless horizon of moving water was a non-issue for them. Certainly it helped keep them cool in the unusual heat and they could lap up a drink of water whenever they pleased. Northern husky breeds are happiest running at -5 to -10 degrees below zero. Anything above freezing takes some serious adaptation and the hardest working dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Every half hour or so, I took short “cool down” breaks to prevent any problems. Over ten or twelve hours of running, it made all the difference in our performance. During our long rests, the warmth of the intense sun worked to our advantage. After the usual routine of feeding the team and rubbing every paw, wrist and shoulder with my homemade magic oil, all the harnesses, wet gear, boot liners and clothing were sprawled out over dry straw or hung on the sled to dry. As the dogs slept, I ate, re-hydrated and tried to catch an hour or two of sleep on top of the sled before cooking their second meal and packing everything to go.

 

My nerves were wearing thin, yet the enthusiasm of the dogs never waned. Race trail markers had been non-existent except for those seen floating down stream. Finding and keeping on the right trail, any trail, had demanded constant attention since there was really no defined trail to follow. One river looked like three or four, with wide, muddy channels branching in all directions. Most markers tied to willow or alder bushes, especially leaving the villages, marked only the local snowmachine trails, and were unrelated to the race. Many frustrated attempts following these flags, led to narrow impassible channels of deep water and thick messes of ingrown brush, in which I had to let all the dogs loose to get turned around. Then, retracing my steps to the entrance of the maze, I would try another, and another, until finally we would find a ‘through’ path. Relying merely on instinct, as maps, compasses and GPS’s are not allowed, I followed the lay of the land, using the riverbanks, and lines of the valleys and mountains as landmarks to keep my sense of direction.

 

Speed triples moving over glare ice, but then there is the constant worry that a dog will slip, pull a shoulder, sprain a wrist or fall through the ice. I had no choice but to trust their instincts. Countless times before my leaders had avoided dangerous obstacles without my command, or chosen a better path than the team before us had taken. Their instincts and senses were sharp, and reliable.

But with every passing every hour, the ice was becoming more unstable.

Mile after mile I could see moving water below the ice.

“How can they let us keep going, this is so unsafe?”  My worried thoughts were nagging. “ This is so insane! What am I doing here? This can’t possibly be the trail! If the river opens any more we’ll be stuck here, and it’s too late to turn back!” I started to think that all the other mushers had been directed to another route, and somehow we had not been informed, forgotten.

 

******

 

 Awe prevailed over the stress and discomfort. With every mile of hardship, the enchantment of the Arctic stole my heart.

The vast landscape was breathtaking, and wild. The spirit of the ancient Inupiaq permeated the valley of  “half a million caribou.” The light of the high North, lasting until midnight, cast ethereal shadows and painted boundless sunsets and sunrises of striking beauty. Vivid shades of purples, blues, oranges and pinks lingered until the black veil of night set the backdrop for the Northern lights. They danced to a silent rhythm, illuminating the isolated world into a surreal masterpiece of radiant reds, purples and greens. Some stretched down so far they seemed to touch us, infusing our cells with the magic of the heavens.

 

Natives of all ages welcomed our team into their villages ,with twinkling eyes, and wide, toothless grins. They stood proud in their hand-stitched mukluks and beaver tail hats. The remote communities of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and Selawik, some well over 100 miles apart, look forward to the annual race event and spend days preparing tables of food for mushers and volunteers. Cheers, hugs, and pats on the shoulder from total strangers, made me feel like a family member coming home. Their smiles and hospitality made it hard to leave. In fact, had I not had 50 other huskies and puppies waiting for me at home, I would have stayed.

 

I loved the tiny community I called home, that sat at the ‘end of the road,’ where three massive rivers running out of the Alaska Range converged into one.  These rivers, mountains and trails had become an integral part of my livelihood, but my inescapable “partnership” was a living nightmare that ended up consuming a decade of my young life.

 

I was tempted to just stay in the village of Ambler, and leave it all.  I could raise and train my dogs in the bosom of the Arctic.  Living among the Natives, I could truly practice a life of subsistence and continue my path as I had intended, free from the daily abuse I had grown accustomed to.

I felt akin to this place; this remote region teeming with life, not yet ruined by the outside world. A place called a “barren wasteland” by some of our politicians, that is so very alive, and inspiringly intimidating in its’ silent expanse.  Words cannot evoke its many moods.

One dreaded day they will drill for oil here.

No part of me wanted to leave.

A strong force was pulling at the fringes of my soul. Something as abstract as the Arctic mirror of land and sky, and as defined as the polar bear print left at the trails edge, rapidly melting into the bog carpet of low bush cranberries and Labrador tea.

 

******

 

I spotted the pressure ridge from a distance. The long wall of chunky jumble ice and seeping holes, stretched as far as I could see across the lake to the North and cut through the trail we had been following. Under our feet, fresh lake water was colliding with salty water from the Chukchi Sea. During the process of constant warming, melting and re-freezing, the ice layers were expanding, forming cracks that were refilling with water. The pressure of the current was forcing the ice to push its broken, fragmented layers to the top, forming a formidable mass of ice chunks and slabs. This ridge had risen four feet high and four feet wide in places. While the rest of Selawik lake was still frozen white, dozens of trail markers had been placed in x formations, warning of this impassible danger. There was, however, no visible alternative. I wondered how long it had been since someone had been here. According to the sled runner tracks, barely recognizable after hours in the sun, the few mushers ahead of me had still been able to go straight ahead. The pressure ridge had opened up significantly in the last few hours and now going straight was no longer an option. Someone had been here to block off the trail, and the gaping holes, but they had failed to mark another safe through trail. To the left, the thinner ice leading to shore would bring me to land. I could then follow the shoreline for as long as needed. But would I lose the trail on the other end of lake, or even be able to get back on? Shore ice would be less stable than where we were presently stopped. Not knowing the depth of the lake and being in unfamiliar territory, that option seemed too risky.  There were no tracks of any kind leading off the ice, so my reasoning felt validated. My eyes scanned the ridge to the right, towards the mountains in the distance. The team stilled,  assessing the situation, sensing the obstacle before us. Finally I spotted a break in the markers, indicating a safe way over.

“Gee!”

A sharp 90 degree turn led us parallel along the ridge. My heart accelerated, as I kept the team at a walk. Unnamed and unknown to me, this natural phenomenon evoked a primal fear. The danger was palpable.

Before having a chance to command “haw”, my leaders Jane and Isis immediately saw where the markers stopped and performed a miracle leap. Fearlessly, without hesitation, they jumped up and over the mess of ice, pulling the next four dogs with them. Four dogs landed in the center. The two wheel dogs, the sled and myself were still on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Whoa!” If the leaders moved forward, dogs were going to get injured, as they were now all balancing in-between ice slabs and fissures. Where one could move freely over, another could not. I had no choice but to get off my sled, unhook most of the dogs and help the others over. I grabbed my ski pole to test the ice, though I knew this was no comparison to my weight.

I cautiously placed one foot on the ice, still holding the sled, looking for a safe place to put my other foot farther up the length of the team. In one super stride I could reach the dogs in the middle. I couldn’t unhook them all, as I needed their momentum to help pull the sled over. The jumble ice was terrifying. It felt as though a river was moving below us.

I was dizzy and hot with adrenaline.

Working quickly, I  lifted each dog to safety, moving my feet as little as possible. I unhooked the last two dogs. If the sled got caught on the way over, it wouldn’t pull them down with it.

Now just the sled and my lanky self had to get over.  

The final step onto the runner nearly became the last step of my life.

 

******

 

The cry that escaped my lips cut the heavy silence. The dogs knew exactly what had happened and they did not budge.

The shelf ice, five feet under the surface, held long enough for me to assess the situation and realize, that by some small miracle, the sled was still within my reach.

I seized the end of the runner with my left hand and yelled, “GO!”

In one synchronized motion, the team pulled me up out of the Arctic water, over the pressure ridge, on to stable ice.

As I came to standing, I felt like I was swimming.

Everything inside me was moving in slow motion, I could not even react.

I looked down at myself, soaked through to bottom layers, in complete shock.

I was already wearing the ‘emergency’ stash of dry socks, glove liners and long underwear,  that lived in my sled until needed. On races, these things are sent in resupply bags to the villages and checkpoints with all of our food.  We travel light, carrying only what we need to get to the next re-supply, but always with enough food and fuel to handle 24-48 hours of possibly being stuck in a severe storm, or any number of unexpected situations that can arise out on the trail. The last four water- saturated days had certainly used up all of my dry reserves, and now it seemed the final test was upon me.

The finish line was still about 70 miles away, which could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on the conditions and our speed, my abilities to run, kick and pole.

The autonomic part of my nervous system kicked into gear, as it had before in extreme weather, working under sleep deprivation. Frivolous thoughts cease to exist and the body operates robotically. Emotions are wasteful and no movement is without purpose. The body and mind work synergistically in survival mode.

I knew the danger of the eerie warmth that came over my ice bitten core. Movement was suddenly excruciatingly exhausting, my speech slow, the muscles in my cheeks uncooperative, “Good dogs! “ I managed to sound cheery.

“ Hang out for bit,” I instructed, “I’ve got to try to get dry.” I didn’t recognize the sound of myself. I felt stiff and slow, like glue.

Hollow.

I stripped down, thinking of my thermos still half filled with lukewarm hot chocolate and peppermint tea, wishing I had more, and started ringing out each layer of clothing.

No firewood within 100 miles or more. No people either. The group of mushers behind me had opted to camp at the last checkpoint to dry out their clothes and gear. As tempting as it had been to stay and join them, I had decided to keep going since my team was so strong and happy. Conditions were only getting worse and we were in the money, with only half a day’s journey left to the finish line.

I knew I would soon be hypothermic if I didn’t keep my limbs moving and working constantly. We would be running into the night, and temperatures would only be dropping. The situation could become dire.

Breathe, I thought to myself.

Focus.

No energy for negativity.

Once all the excess water was squeezed out, I tried to warm myself up by rubbing each of the dogs. I talked outloud in my chipper voice, praising each one, checking their booties, making sure none were iced up, and if they were, changing them. My hands and fingers were too stiff to work well. My mind felt as paralyzed as my body. Emotions were overwhelming, as was the numbness. Deep in my belly a fire burned, stoking the furnace that would keep me alive until we reached civilization.

I jumped up and down, did some jumping jacks, and stomped my feet. I knew my light-weight, synthetic insulated clothing, layered with wool, would do its’ job of retaining my body heat although wet. I drank a third of my remaining beverage, saving the rest for the long journey ahead. I had a few bites of my homemade smoked salmon, some goldfish crackers and a fig newton. Over thousands and thousands of trail miles, my selective diet had managed to keep me nourished, energized and quelled the bundle of nerves in my gut, preventing me from feeling sick.

I had to proceed as though nothing had happened. The near fatal event could in no way hinder our progress.  

Life was counting.

“All right guys, let’s go!”

We were off.  

The pressure ridge faded into the scenery behind us.

What else could we possibly face during these 440 miles?

The rest of the massive lake, stretching on for 50 miles or more, still looked stable enough. Thankfully, there were now markers placed every few miles. No open water in sight. Or ridges of ice.

Of course it could change at any moment.

I got into my usual rhythm of kicking beside the sled, 10 minutes with the right leg, switch to the left. I simultaneously poled with my ski pole, not missing a beat.

Hypothermia would have no chance unless I stopped moving.

Pushing myself during any race, especially the last 100 miles, was routine. However, I could not remember a time, in all my thousands of miles of racing, I had ever felt so depleted and bitterly exhausted. I was on the verge of collapsing. Arctic waters had zapped the last of my reserves and I wondered from where my strength was coming.

At one point,  I concluded that I was having an out of body experience. While my body and mind were working as a single entity to overcome the odds, my body did not feel my own. I felt entirely separated from it.

In feeling so much, I felt nothing.

I could feel my spirit rising above my physical reality of being in shock.

Was I dying?

The lack of sleep over the last months was teasing all of my weak points.

Unless I caught up to another musher, or an arbitrary snowmachiner, I would see no sign of human life until the finish line in Kotzebue. I felt as though even the most basic communication would be more energy than I could spare, especially since no one could help me anyway.

Pushing to the end was the only option.

Singing out loud, and chatting to the dogs helped to keep my mind awake. The dogs  were  running like champs, still in good spirits and in perfect health. I was now the weak link who could not allow myself to lapse for a second.

 

After what felt like an eternity, the lake shore finally met land. The last 3 or 4 hours we would be running through gentle, rolling hills on the brown, sweet smelling tundra, where only small patches of snow remained. With no glide under the metal runners, our speed noticeably slowed. Running to keep weight off the runners helped, but I couldn’t keep up with their speed for miles on end. I could only run in short bursts, which was better than nothing.

Fatigue brought tears to my eyes, and at moments I thought I could no longer stand.

I sang louder, calling the names of the dogs, and prayed to higher powers to give me the strength to make it home.

The meandering trail stretched into eternity, and my delusional mind believed that we were hopelessly lost, that my body would never leave this tundra. The markers could be from any trail, and out here trails intertwine like mazes, all headed somewhere through more nowhere with nothing in-between.

This kind of doubt I seldom ever had. My sense of direction had always served me well navigating Alaska.

I was unraveling stitch by stitch, as I battled exhaustion. The only confidence remaining was in the ability of my dog team. They had never let me down, and as a team, we had never failed.

At times I ran with my eyes closed.

I stopped as we always did, every hour, to snack the dogs pieces of salmon and beef. All tails were wagging, and their smiles injected me with the same positive energy that I had I given them their whole lives.

 

Unlike all the other nights since the start of the race, the vibrant colors of sunset eluded us and dusk mirrored my mood in every shade of grey.  I longed for the black of night to tell me we were close to the end. My earliest estimated time of arrival to the finish line in Kotzebue was 12:00 midnight, any time after dark. Grey dragged on in every step, every breath, and I wondered why I subjected myself to this kind torture.

Grassy knoll after grassy knoll, held the hope that civilization would suddenly appear and the pain would be over.

Watches can lie in this sport, as Nature fools our perceptions of time and relative distance. More accurate are the natural landmarks and angles of light.

The dull light of this day seemed it would never leave, the hours until dark felt to be an unbearable bending of time. Lost to the infinity of tundra and sky, our existence could remain forever forgotten here.

Solace lay in knowing my dogs were faring better than I.

They blew me away. Had they felt as I did, we would have been crawling.

They showed no weakness.

 

Time and solitude play tricks on a sleep deprived soul. Add in the wild landscape, a body and mind being pushed beyond their limits, and you have a recipe for life altering experiences and realizations.

In this window of space, there is no escape from weakness. No help, no place and no one to run to. No shelter, no phone, no GPS, mile signs, or short cut. No comfort. No distraction. No mercy.

Surrounded by life, simple and raw, there comes a point of total surrender to the power of this Nature.

It swallows you whole, leaves you inseparable.

Truth reveals itself in blinding clarity.

 

 

As the rivers had been melting under our feet, it was the flood of my life that felt to be drowning me.

Yet it could all end here, the fighting, and the fear.

The ancient trail of the Kobuk had been breaking me down, mile by mile and I could no longer deny the truth; in staying loyal to my animals, and dedicating my life to raising this dog team, I had sacrificed my heart, and my integrity.  

If I completed this impossible journey, maybe I would be ready. Ready to stand up for myself, for the last and final time. Ready to risk my life, for the inevitable break away that would win me back my freedom of self. I deserved so much better.

Yet his threats hung heavy like a noose around my neck.

Something in the eyes of the Natives, in their stance, gave me courage. Like a wise hunter, I knew I needed an abundance of patience, and had to keep waiting until the time was right to make my escape. I would take my dogs with me.

I had been letting this man slowly kill me, day after day, year after year.

There was nothing more for him to take.

 

In the arms of the Kobuk Valley, death had pulled me under water, to find me still alive. The warrior within had awakened.

In this still fog of realization, muteness became me. Words seemed a waste, but new melodies flowed from a heart still warm.

A heart emptied and so entirely full.


 

******

 

Darkness came and we moved flawlessly through the night, without a headlamp, our eyes adjusted and keen.  My brain was foggy, half shut down, preventing me from succumbing to the intolerable physical fatigue, while directing all available energy to producing the adrenaline necessary to keep me moving.

 

Then suddenly, the beacons of mercy appeared, lights!

“Home!” I cried. The dogs bolted at the excited tone of my voice. “Kotzebue, we made it!” The team had power in reserve, and plowed ahead as if they had just rested for 12 hours.

“You guys are awesome! “ I shrieked. We were still across the inlet, at least an hour away.  An eternity, but the end was within sight.

 

I had never been so happy to see the distant blur of white, twinkling lights.

Humanity.

For hours I had been convinced we were on the wrong trail, and many miles off course.

As we grew closer, what seemed a black hole, reflecting light, sat between us and the village. What now? Was I hallucinating? I turned on the headlamp, and still was confused. It couldn’t be……. all water?

Oh my God, it was. Not just a little bit, it looked to be the entire ocean stretching out before us.

Well, what is a few more miles of standing water? It must be safe, right? Did I miss a turn, X markers?

I had no energy left to think. Or question.

The dogs showed no hesitation, I would not question them.

What had been the starting line 4 days ago, now the finish line, was a lake. Six inches of water sat on top of the ice. No markers, no finishing banner in sight.

It was a little after 1:00 a.m., and I was headed to the closest possible building. The dogs were thinking the same thing.

The night scene was surreal, as we ran over 12 m.p.h. towards the lights, completely surrounded by water, leaving a wake behind us.

Slowly, the outlines of the buildings and cabins became more defined. Village dogs yipped and barked at our approach. No sign of anyone. The village would of course be sleeping, but where were the race officials, waiting to clock in my time?

Finally we hit land, a gravel dirt road to be more precise. Still there was no sign of anything or anyone related to the race. Did they even know I had left the last checkpoint? Did they think I had stayed with the group of mushers behind me, who wouldn’t be getting in until after the light of morning? What the hell was I supposed to do now?

The gravel was sharp on the dogs feet and my temper flared. I fought tears.

What kind of finish was this? Where was I supposed to go? Nobody, not a soul to welcome our hard earned arrival. Dismayed, I realized I could be in the wrong village. Perhaps this wasn’t Kotzebue and I had just made my team run over 80 miles in the wrong direction.

I refused to make my dogs go any further, and I could not run beside the sled another step. I stopped, secured the sled and praised the dogs profusely. I took off their booties, gave them a snack and proceeded to search for someone.

“Hello! Is there anybody here? “ I hollered. “I just finished the Kobuk race!” I felt like screaming, “do you have any idea what I’ve been through?” I couldn’t believe how the night was continuing.  The numbness was debilitating, my body wanted to collapse. I knocked on doors, making my way up the street. Finally, a sleepy someone appeared and said he’d go find a race official.

So, we had made it home.

I returned to the team, and as emotions swelled to the surface, I struggled to keep myself together. I removed harnesses and fed them more snacks. Their big meal would come whenever we got back to the house of our host family, who would be soundly sleeping. There I had bags of food and straw awaiting our return. Unlike all the other mushers, I had no handler waiting to help me.

“We weren’t expecting you,” the bundled body said. A few men sauntered from the village. “We will take you to your host families house. It’s a little way from here, in the center of the village. A truck is on the way.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”  

I told them what time I hit land, according to my watch. No one seemed to care. No other words were exchanged. I was speechless, as they too seemed to be. I wanted to tell them what happened, but I thought I might start crying. Worse, I thought the story seemed unbelievable. They might think I was just an emotional, un-rational woman talking gibberish, complaining or just a fool who made a stupid decision. It all seemed indescribable. The term pressure ridge was still unknown to my vocabulary. To say I fell in hole sounded ridiculous. So I said nothing. I just focused on my dogs, rubbing shoulders and wrists, while the Natives stood and watched me. All I managed to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m a little tired, we had kind of a crazy run.” No one wanted to carry on a conversation at such a horrid time of the morning anyway.

I thanked them profusely as they helped me load the team and sled into the back of a pick-up. When I sat down in the warm vehicle, I came close to passing out. My clothes were soaking wet, and now the fine outer layer of ice quickly dissipated. Still no one knew I had fallen over my breasts into Arctic water. No one had seen. My body began to throb. I thought I might not be able to stand up again.

We unloaded the dogs and after a hundred more “thank-you’s,” I was left alone with my team outside the small blue house.

3:15 a.m.

I fed the dogs dry kibble and lit my cooker to heat water enough to thaw meat for a soup.  I divided the bale of straw into 12 thick beds, which the dogs could not be more elated about.

The pride I felt was overwhelming. The love and appreciation for my animals surpassed anything I had ever felt before. My dogs were beyond perfect, beyond exceptional and this day they had saved my life, after running flawlessly for 370 miles through horrendous conditions.

15 minutes later they were lapping up their beaver and lamb broth.

 

I stumbled into the house, to the bathroom. Heat was nirvana. I barely had the energy to undress.  The hot water was like stinging pellets against my frozen shell. It made my head spin, restored my breath. My body tingled and swelled. I kept the shower short, afraid I might black out.

The bed threw me into another realm, one I thought I may never return from.

Perhaps I would never fully return to my body.

I slipped away.

Only until it was time to feed the dogs again.

 

******

 

Mushers raised hell at the finishers meeting, ranting about the unprofessionalism, the dangers, the liabilities of the race trail. “They never should have let the teams continue!”

I sat silently drinking tea at the small round table with Iditarod champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, as they enjoyed their coca cola. I listened to their stories, but my mind was elsewhere. I was present, but not really there. As I had guessed, the pressure ridge hadn’t been as bad for those ahead of me. The trail had been re-routed by the time the guys behind me made it to that point. Today the pro’s looked at me differently, talking to me as an equal, asking me my opinions. Had I earned another notch of respect in “their” sport? Little no-named me and my wild, over-sized, mix matched wolf dogs?

I didn’t care.

As much as the mushers complained, I knew they would all come back. I almost felt bad for the race crew, dealing with the wrath of these powerful men. Knowing, unlike the famous Iditarod, the resources for the Kobuk are very limited and they make due with what they have.

Suffering needlessly out on the drowning trail, I certainly had done my share of mental cursing. Now it all just seemed a twist of Mother Nature’s fate.

We are only human, after all. No one can control the nature of ice, hour to hour, minute to minute. It was too late to place blame. We were the ones who left the starting line and never turned back. Thankfully no dogs or mushers were seriously hurt.

 

******

 

Shock lingers. Life goes on. The body copes, work routine keeps the pain at bay, but it never forgets. Memories re-surface when you least expect it and bring you back to the feelings, the place, and the unspoken emotions.

 

I did return with my team to the rich river valley and finish another Kobuk 440, and I did finally leave the man who brought so much darkness to my life.

The man who told me I could never do the things I did indeed do.

 

******

Shorelines are disappearing, and villages are being re-located.  Long struggling to maintain their cultural identity and lifestyle, Native tribes have been forced to depend on unsustainable means of survival and empty promises of the white man. The first people most severely affected by modern industry and climate change are the last thought of in crisis. They are the first to be taken from, the last to be re-paid.

 

The Arctic personifies the web of life that has been dismembered throughout the rest of the world.

To travel through it, to experience it on a spiritual level, is to become it.

Therefore, in leaving, one abandons a part of themself.

 

My life was saved.

My dogs, they carried me.

The Native spirits who inhabit the Kobuk, they guided me.

Without their bloodlines, there would be no team.

Without their trail, I would have smaller eyes.

Without their wisdom, I would be ignorant.

Without their collective presence, I would be lost.

Now, living in this other world, my heart beats to a different drummer.

The beat is never heard here, only in the wind, and the running water.

My veins.











 

AWAKENING


 

The ice gave way beneath my feet as the frigid waters of Selawik Lake engulfed my body. A sharp inhale felt the grip of death, yet my last thoughts were anything but panicked, “I got the dogs over, they will be okay…… this is my death; under the ice, in the middle of nowhere.”

A fleeting thought bid farewell to my parents as I calmly faced my fate.

 

******

 

My feet hit a layer of shelf ice, momentarily stopping the fall. Aquamarine water laced with snow-white ice chunks permeated my body over my breast line. Unstable ice surrounded me. The only hope was the metal end of the sled runner, now balanced above my head on an edge of slab ice. The slightest movement of my 12- dog team would pull this lifeline out of reach.

 

******

 

“ The earliest and fastest break-up we’ve ever seen,” the Natives later claimed of that first weekend in April, 2004.

In less than 12 hours, the seemingly frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers had turned to slush, to overflow, to open running water under a glaring April sun that brought temperatures into the high 40’s.

 

The 440-mile Kobuk Sled Dog Race travels through the Kobuk River Valley, above the Arctic Circle. Starting in the village of Kotzebue, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, it follows the Kobuk River through six different Native villages, passing by the Baird, Jade and Waring Mountain ranges, through the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and skirts the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

On the verge of cancelling the race all together, officials considered re-routing the trail over land to avoid the highway of rivers and tributaries that were melting at an alarming rate. With only 5-6 hours of true darkness, ice and snow pack had little time to harden, let alone freeze during the nights.  The progressive effects of nearly 18 hours of daylight and the sudden heat wave, obliterated the trail.

 

Still the race commenced, with a group of some of the best mushers in the world, gathered to do what they do best, despite and against the odds of Mother Nature, who never fails to test and challenge the most hardened and proven of venturous souls.

Over the years, I thought I had been through it all with my team, from enduring -65 below 0 and blinding snow storms, to battling winds so strong it’s hard to breathe and impossible to keep the sled upright and in line behind the team. We had faced  endless, bone -racking miles of dirt, sand, stumps, rocks, glare ice and glacial moraine, and been drenched in rain storms, pelted by freezing rains and navigated through open water and overflow of all kinds.

However, we had never run through water for hundreds of miles, nor had we ever encountered a pressure ridge.

 

For three days we had been running through water at least ankle deep, sometimes up to mid-calf. A pair of rubber boots would have spared my feet days of misery.  My Iditarod proven system of mukluks and waterproof NEOS overboots failed in the deep water.

 A few hours submerged in water is one thing, days is another.

When not immersed in water, we ran over snowless sand beaches, soft, muddy bogs and brown tundra. The best sections of trail were the miles of glare ice that glittered in brilliant hues of turquoise, royal blues and jade greens. Intricate mosaic webs cracked the slippery surface, over which movement was effortless, even too fast. The ice moaned, cackled and gurgled beneath our weight. The sharp tines of the brake bar were worn down to nothing over the miles of ice, as I was constantly breaking to keep the team at a safe paced trot.

 

Welcome to Spring above latitude 66, ground zero for climate change.

I had been training in sneakers just days before, expecting my flight north to land me in a much colder climate, which was a foolish assumption. Springtime in the North is anything but predictable.

 

Anything is tolerable when you are doing what you love.  

Running my team through the Kobuk Valley was a dream come true.

Weeks earlier we had finished our fifth, 1,049 mile Iditarod Race in 23rd position. After just a few days of rest, the beautiful Spring days found us back on the trails in our home territory. Stronger than ever, the team I had hooked up every day since the previous August, was still screaming to go! My young team and I were in peak condition, so I paid my entry fee and booked a ticket to Kotzebue. The money I had won in the Iditarod bought the 12 dog kennels that would be secured in their own “igloo,” along with my sled, dog food and gear in the belly of the plane. I would be traveling alone, and if I managed to finish in a paying position, the trip would at least pay for itself.

The dogs I had raised from puppies were now in their prime and they could never seem to get enough of the trail. Nothing, not even the unimaginably wet, warm days we found in Kotzebue, could slow them down or hinder their spirit. Like me, they were excited to travel through new country and were completely unphased by the water. Having raised them all as swimmers, the endless horizon of moving water was a non-issue for them. Certainly it helped keep them cool in the unusual heat and they could lap up a drink of water whenever they pleased. Northern husky breeds are happiest running at -5 to -10 degrees below zero. Anything above freezing takes some serious adaptation and the hardest working dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Every half hour or so, I took short “cool down” breaks to prevent any problems. Over ten or twelve hours of running, it made all the difference in our performance. During our long rests, the warmth of the intense sun worked to our advantage. After the usual routine of feeding the team and rubbing every paw, wrist and shoulder with my homemade magic oil, all the harnesses, wet gear, boot liners and clothing were sprawled out over dry straw or hung on the sled to dry. As the dogs slept, I ate, re-hydrated and tried to catch an hour or two of sleep on top of the sled before cooking their second meal and packing everything to go.

 

My nerves were wearing thin, yet the enthusiasm of the dogs never waned. Race trail markers had been non-existent except for those seen floating down stream. Finding and keeping on the right trail, any trail, had demanded constant attention since there was really no defined trail to follow. One river looked like three or four, with wide, muddy channels branching in all directions. Most markers tied to willow or alder bushes, especially leaving the villages, marked only the local snowmachine trails, and were unrelated to the race. Many frustrated attempts following these flags, led to narrow impassible channels of deep water and thick messes of ingrown brush, in which I had to let all the dogs loose to get turned around. Then, retracing my steps to the entrance of the maze, I would try another, and another, until finally we would find a ‘through’ path. Relying merely on instinct, as maps, compasses and GPS’s are not allowed, I followed the lay of the land, using the riverbanks, and lines of the valleys and mountains as landmarks to keep my sense of direction.

 

Speed triples moving over glare ice, but then there is the constant worry that a dog will slip, pull a shoulder, sprain a wrist or fall through the ice. I had no choice but to trust their instincts. Countless times before my leaders had avoided dangerous obstacles without my command, or chosen a better path than the team before us had taken. Their instincts and senses were sharp, and reliable.

But with every passing every hour, the ice was becoming more unstable.

Mile after mile I could see moving water below the ice.

“How can they let us keep going, this is so unsafe?”  My worried thoughts were nagging. “ This is so insane! What am I doing here? This can’t possibly be the trail! If the river opens any more we’ll be stuck here, and it’s too late to turn back!” I started to think that all the other mushers had been directed to another route, and somehow we had not been informed, forgotten.

 

******

 

 Awe prevailed over the stress and discomfort. With every mile of hardship, the enchantment of the Arctic stole my heart.

The vast landscape was breathtaking, and wild. The spirit of the ancient Inupiaq permeated the valley of  “half a million caribou.” The light of the high North, lasting until midnight, cast ethereal shadows and painted boundless sunsets and sunrises of striking beauty. Vivid shades of purples, blues, oranges and pinks lingered until the black veil of night set the backdrop for the Northern lights. They danced to a silent rhythm, illuminating the isolated world into a surreal masterpiece of radiant reds, purples and greens. Some stretched down so far they seemed to touch us, infusing our cells with the magic of the heavens.

 

Natives of all ages welcomed our team into their villages ,with twinkling eyes, and wide, toothless grins. They stood proud in their hand-stitched mukluks and beaver tail hats. The remote communities of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and Selawik, some well over 100 miles apart, look forward to the annual race event and spend days preparing tables of food for mushers and volunteers. Cheers, hugs, and pats on the shoulder from total strangers, made me feel like a family member coming home. Their smiles and hospitality made it hard to leave. In fact, had I not had 50 other huskies and puppies waiting for me at home, I would have stayed.

 

I loved the tiny community I called home, that sat at the ‘end of the road,’ where three massive rivers running out of the Alaska Range converged into one.  These rivers, mountains and trails had become an integral part of my livelihood, but my inescapable “partnership” was a living nightmare that ended up consuming a decade of my young life.

 

I was tempted to just stay in the village of Ambler, and leave it all.  I could raise and train my dogs in the bosom of the Arctic.  Living among the Natives, I could truly practice a life of subsistence and continue my path as I had intended, free from the daily abuse I had grown accustomed to.

I felt akin to this place; this remote region teeming with life, not yet ruined by the outside world. A place called a “barren wasteland” by some of our politicians, that is so very alive, and inspiringly intimidating in its’ silent expanse.  Words cannot evoke its many moods.

One dreaded day they will drill for oil here.

No part of me wanted to leave.

A strong force was pulling at the fringes of my soul. Something as abstract as the Arctic mirror of land and sky, and as defined as the polar bear print left at the trails edge, rapidly melting into the bog carpet of low bush cranberries and Labrador tea.

 

******

 

I spotted the pressure ridge from a distance. The long wall of chunky jumble ice and seeping holes, stretched as far as I could see across the lake to the North and cut through the trail we had been following. Under our feet, fresh lake water was colliding with salty water from the Chukchi Sea. During the process of constant warming, melting and re-freezing, the ice layers were expanding, forming cracks that were refilling with water. The pressure of the current was forcing the ice to push its broken, fragmented layers to the top, forming a formidable mass of ice chunks and slabs. This ridge had risen four feet high and four feet wide in places. While the rest of Selawik lake was still frozen white, dozens of trail markers had been placed in x formations, warning of this impassible danger. There was, however, no visible alternative. I wondered how long it had been since someone had been here. According to the sled runner tracks, barely recognizable after hours in the sun, the few mushers ahead of me had still been able to go straight ahead. The pressure ridge had opened up significantly in the last few hours and now going straight was no longer an option. Someone had been here to block off the trail, and the gaping holes, but they had failed to mark another safe through trail. To the left, the thinner ice leading to shore would bring me to land. I could then follow the shoreline for as long as needed. But would I lose the trail on the other end of lake, or even be able to get back on? Shore ice would be less stable than where we were presently stopped. Not knowing the depth of the lake and being in unfamiliar territory, that option seemed too risky.  There were no tracks of any kind leading off the ice, so my reasoning felt validated. My eyes scanned the ridge to the right, towards the mountains in the distance. The team stilled,  assessing the situation, sensing the obstacle before us. Finally I spotted a break in the markers, indicating a safe way over.

“Gee!”

A sharp 90 degree turn led us parallel along the ridge. My heart accelerated, as I kept the team at a walk. Unnamed and unknown to me, this natural phenomenon evoked a primal fear. The danger was palpable.

Before having a chance to command “haw”, my leaders Jane and Isis immediately saw where the markers stopped and performed a miracle leap. Fearlessly, without hesitation, they jumped up and over the mess of ice, pulling the next four dogs with them. Four dogs landed in the center. The two wheel dogs, the sled and myself were still on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Whoa!” If the leaders moved forward, dogs were going to get injured, as they were now all balancing in-between ice slabs and fissures. Where one could move freely over, another could not. I had no choice but to get off my sled, unhook most of the dogs and help the others over. I grabbed my ski pole to test the ice, though I knew this was no comparison to my weight.

I cautiously placed one foot on the ice, still holding the sled, looking for a safe place to put my other foot farther up the length of the team. In one super stride I could reach the dogs in the middle. I couldn’t unhook them all, as I needed their momentum to help pull the sled over. The jumble ice was terrifying. It felt as though a river was moving below us.

I was dizzy and hot with adrenaline.

Working quickly, I  lifted each dog to safety, moving my feet as little as possible. I unhooked the last two dogs. If the sled got caught on the way over, it wouldn’t pull them down with it.

Now just the sled and my lanky self had to get over.  

The final step onto the runner nearly became the last step of my life.

 

******

 

The cry that escaped my lips cut the heavy silence. The dogs knew exactly what had happened and they did not budge.

The shelf ice, five feet under the surface, held long enough for me to assess the situation and realize, that by some small miracle, the sled was still within my reach.

I seized the end of the runner with my left hand and yelled, “GO!”

In one synchronized motion, the team pulled me up out of the Arctic water, over the pressure ridge, on to stable ice.

As I came to standing, I felt like I was swimming.

Everything inside me was moving in slow motion, I could not even react.

I looked down at myself, soaked through to bottom layers, in complete shock.

I was already wearing the ‘emergency’ stash of dry socks, glove liners and long underwear,  that lived in my sled until needed. On races, these things are sent in resupply bags to the villages and checkpoints with all of our food.  We travel light, carrying only what we need to get to the next re-supply, but always with enough food and fuel to handle 24-48 hours of possibly being stuck in a severe storm, or any number of unexpected situations that can arise out on the trail. The last four water- saturated days had certainly used up all of my dry reserves, and now it seemed the final test was upon me.

The finish line was still about 70 miles away, which could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on the conditions and our speed, my abilities to run, kick and pole.

The autonomic part of my nervous system kicked into gear, as it had before in extreme weather, working under sleep deprivation. Frivolous thoughts cease to exist and the body operates robotically. Emotions are wasteful and no movement is without purpose. The body and mind work synergistically in survival mode.

I knew the danger of the eerie warmth that came over my ice bitten core. Movement was suddenly excruciatingly exhausting, my speech slow, the muscles in my cheeks uncooperative, “Good dogs! “ I managed to sound cheery.

“ Hang out for bit,” I instructed, “I’ve got to try to get dry.” I didn’t recognize the sound of myself. I felt stiff and slow, like glue.

Hollow.

I stripped down, thinking of my thermos still half filled with lukewarm hot chocolate and peppermint tea, wishing I had more, and started ringing out each layer of clothing.

No firewood within 100 miles or more. No people either. The group of mushers behind me had opted to camp at the last checkpoint to dry out their clothes and gear. As tempting as it had been to stay and join them, I had decided to keep going since my team was so strong and happy. Conditions were only getting worse and we were in the money, with only half a day’s journey left to the finish line.

I knew I would soon be hypothermic if I didn’t keep my limbs moving and working constantly. We would be running into the night, and temperatures would only be dropping. The situation could become dire.

Breathe, I thought to myself.

Focus.

No energy for negativity.

Once all the excess water was squeezed out, I tried to warm myself up by rubbing each of the dogs. I talked outloud in my chipper voice, praising each one, checking their booties, making sure none were iced up, and if they were, changing them. My hands and fingers were too stiff to work well. My mind felt as paralyzed as my body. Emotions were overwhelming, as was the numbness. Deep in my belly a fire burned, stoking the furnace that would keep me alive until we reached civilization.

I jumped up and down, did some jumping jacks, and stomped my feet. I knew my light-weight, synthetic insulated clothing, layered with wool, would do its’ job of retaining my body heat although wet. I drank a third of my remaining beverage, saving the rest for the long journey ahead. I had a few bites of my homemade smoked salmon, some goldfish crackers and a fig newton. Over thousands and thousands of trail miles, my selective diet had managed to keep me nourished, energized and quelled the bundle of nerves in my gut, preventing me from feeling sick.

I had to proceed as though nothing had happened. The near fatal event could in no way hinder our progress.  

Life was counting.

“All right guys, let’s go!”

We were off.  

The pressure ridge faded into the scenery behind us.

What else could we possibly face during these 440 miles?

The rest of the massive lake, stretching on for 50 miles or more, still looked stable enough. Thankfully, there were now markers placed every few miles. No open water in sight. Or ridges of ice.

Of course it could change at any moment.

I got into my usual rhythm of kicking beside the sled, 10 minutes with the right leg, switch to the left. I simultaneously poled with my ski pole, not missing a beat.

Hypothermia would have no chance unless I stopped moving.

Pushing myself during any race, especially the last 100 miles, was routine. However, I could not remember a time, in all my thousands of miles of racing, I had ever felt so depleted and bitterly exhausted. I was on the verge of collapsing. Arctic waters had zapped the last of my reserves and I wondered from where my strength was coming.

At one point,  I concluded that I was having an out of body experience. While my body and mind were working as a single entity to overcome the odds, my body did not feel my own. I felt entirely separated from it.

In feeling so much, I felt nothing.

I could feel my spirit rising above my physical reality of being in shock.

Was I dying?

The lack of sleep over the last months was teasing all of my weak points.

Unless I caught up to another musher, or an arbitrary snowmachiner, I would see no sign of human life until the finish line in Kotzebue. I felt as though even the most basic communication would be more energy than I could spare, especially since no one could help me anyway.

Pushing to the end was the only option.

Singing out loud, and chatting to the dogs helped to keep my mind awake. The dogs  were  running like champs, still in good spirits and in perfect health. I was now the weak link who could not allow myself to lapse for a second.

 

After what felt like an eternity, the lake shore finally met land. The last 3 or 4 hours we would be running through gentle, rolling hills on the brown, sweet smelling tundra, where only small patches of snow remained. With no glide under the metal runners, our speed noticeably slowed. Running to keep weight off the runners helped, but I couldn’t keep up with their speed for miles on end. I could only run in short bursts, which was better than nothing.

Fatigue brought tears to my eyes, and at moments I thought I could no longer stand.

I sang louder, calling the names of the dogs, and prayed to higher powers to give me the strength to make it home.

The meandering trail stretched into eternity, and my delusional mind believed that we were hopelessly lost, that my body would never leave this tundra. The markers could be from any trail, and out here trails intertwine like mazes, all headed somewhere through more nowhere with nothing in-between.

This kind of doubt I seldom ever had. My sense of direction had always served me well navigating Alaska.

I was unraveling stitch by stitch, as I battled exhaustion. The only confidence remaining was in the ability of my dog team. They had never let me down, and as a team, we had never failed.

At times I ran with my eyes closed.

I stopped as we always did, every hour, to snack the dogs pieces of salmon and beef. All tails were wagging, and their smiles injected me with the same positive energy that I had I given them their whole lives.

 

Unlike all the other nights since the start of the race, the vibrant colors of sunset eluded us and dusk mirrored my mood in every shade of grey.  I longed for the black of night to tell me we were close to the end. My earliest estimated time of arrival to the finish line in Kotzebue was 12:00 midnight, any time after dark. Grey dragged on in every step, every breath, and I wondered why I subjected myself to this kind torture.

Grassy knoll after grassy knoll, held the hope that civilization would suddenly appear and the pain would be over.

Watches can lie in this sport, as Nature fools our perceptions of time and relative distance. More accurate are the natural landmarks and angles of light.

The dull light of this day seemed it would never leave, the hours until dark felt to be an unbearable bending of time. Lost to the infinity of tundra and sky, our existence could remain forever forgotten here.

Solace lay in knowing my dogs were faring better than I.

They blew me away. Had they felt as I did, we would have been crawling.

They showed no weakness.

 

Time and solitude play tricks on a sleep deprived soul. Add in the wild landscape, a body and mind being pushed beyond their limits, and you have a recipe for life altering experiences and realizations.

In this window of space, there is no escape from weakness. No help, no place and no one to run to. No shelter, no phone, no GPS, mile signs, or short cut. No comfort. No distraction. No mercy.

Surrounded by life, simple and raw, there comes a point of total surrender to the power of this Nature.

It swallows you whole, leaves you inseparable.

Truth reveals itself in blinding clarity.

 

 

As the rivers had been melting under our feet, it was the flood of my life that felt to be drowning me.

Yet it could all end here, the fighting, and the fear.

The ancient trail of the Kobuk had been breaking me down, mile by mile and I could no longer deny the truth; in staying loyal to my animals, and dedicating my life to raising this dog team, I had sacrificed my heart, and my integrity.  

If I completed this impossible journey, maybe I would be ready. Ready to stand up for myself, for the last and final time. Ready to risk my life, for the inevitable break away that would win me back my freedom of self. I deserved so much better.

Yet his threats hung heavy like a noose around my neck.

Something in the eyes of the Natives, in their stance, gave me courage. Like a wise hunter, I knew I needed an abundance of patience, and had to keep waiting until the time was right to make my escape. I would take my dogs with me.

I had been letting this man slowly kill me, day after day, year after year.

There was nothing more for him to take.

 

In the arms of the Kobuk Valley, death had pulled me under water, to find me still alive. The warrior within had awakened.

In this still fog of realization, muteness became me. Words seemed a waste, but new melodies flowed from a heart still warm.

A heart emptied and so entirely full.


 

******

 

Darkness came and we moved flawlessly through the night, without a headlamp, our eyes adjusted and keen.  My brain was foggy, half shut down, preventing me from succumbing to the intolerable physical fatigue, while directing all available energy to producing the adrenaline necessary to keep me moving.

 

Then suddenly, the beacons of mercy appeared, lights!

“Home!” I cried. The dogs bolted at the excited tone of my voice. “Kotzebue, we made it!” The team had power in reserve, and plowed ahead as if they had just rested for 12 hours.

“You guys are awesome! “ I shrieked. We were still across the inlet, at least an hour away.  An eternity, but the end was within sight.

 

I had never been so happy to see the distant blur of white, twinkling lights.

Humanity.

For hours I had been convinced we were on the wrong trail, and many miles off course.

As we grew closer, what seemed a black hole, reflecting light, sat between us and the village. What now? Was I hallucinating? I turned on the headlamp, and still was confused. It couldn’t be……. all water?

Oh my God, it was. Not just a little bit, it looked to be the entire ocean stretching out before us.

Well, what is a few more miles of standing water? It must be safe, right? Did I miss a turn, X markers?

I had no energy left to think. Or question.

The dogs showed no hesitation, I would not question them.

What had been the starting line 4 days ago, now the finish line, was a lake. Six inches of water sat on top of the ice. No markers, no finishing banner in sight.

It was a little after 1:00 a.m., and I was headed to the closest possible building. The dogs were thinking the same thing.

The night scene was surreal, as we ran over 12 m.p.h. towards the lights, completely surrounded by water, leaving a wake behind us.

Slowly, the outlines of the buildings and cabins became more defined. Village dogs yipped and barked at our approach. No sign of anyone. The village would of course be sleeping, but where were the race officials, waiting to clock in my time?

Finally we hit land, a gravel dirt road to be more precise. Still there was no sign of anything or anyone related to the race. Did they even know I had left the last checkpoint? Did they think I had stayed with the group of mushers behind me, who wouldn’t be getting in until after the light of morning? What the hell was I supposed to do now?

The gravel was sharp on the dogs feet and my temper flared. I fought tears.

What kind of finish was this? Where was I supposed to go? Nobody, not a soul to welcome our hard earned arrival. Dismayed, I realized I could be in the wrong village. Perhaps this wasn’t Kotzebue and I had just made my team run over 80 miles in the wrong direction.

I refused to make my dogs go any further, and I could not run beside the sled another step. I stopped, secured the sled and praised the dogs profusely. I took off their booties, gave them a snack and proceeded to search for someone.

“Hello! Is there anybody here? “ I hollered. “I just finished the Kobuk race!” I felt like screaming, “do you have any idea what I’ve been through?” I couldn’t believe how the night was continuing.  The numbness was debilitating, my body wanted to collapse. I knocked on doors, making my way up the street. Finally, a sleepy someone appeared and said he’d go find a race official.

So, we had made it home.

I returned to the team, and as emotions swelled to the surface, I struggled to keep myself together. I removed harnesses and fed them more snacks. Their big meal would come whenever we got back to the house of our host family, who would be soundly sleeping. There I had bags of food and straw awaiting our return. Unlike all the other mushers, I had no handler waiting to help me.

“We weren’t expecting you,” the bundled body said. A few men sauntered from the village. “We will take you to your host families house. It’s a little way from here, in the center of the village. A truck is on the way.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”  

I told them what time I hit land, according to my watch. No one seemed to care. No other words were exchanged. I was speechless, as they too seemed to be. I wanted to tell them what happened, but I thought I might start crying. Worse, I thought the story seemed unbelievable. They might think I was just an emotional, un-rational woman talking gibberish, complaining or just a fool who made a stupid decision. It all seemed indescribable. The term pressure ridge was still unknown to my vocabulary. To say I fell in hole sounded ridiculous. So I said nothing. I just focused on my dogs, rubbing shoulders and wrists, while the Natives stood and watched me. All I managed to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m a little tired, we had kind of a crazy run.” No one wanted to carry on a conversation at such a horrid time of the morning anyway.

I thanked them profusely as they helped me load the team and sled into the back of a pick-up. When I sat down in the warm vehicle, I came close to passing out. My clothes were soaking wet, and now the fine outer layer of ice quickly dissipated. Still no one knew I had fallen over my breasts into Arctic water. No one had seen. My body began to throb. I thought I might not be able to stand up again.

We unloaded the dogs and after a hundred more “thank-you’s,” I was left alone with my team outside the small blue house.

3:15 a.m.

I fed the dogs dry kibble and lit my cooker to heat water enough to thaw meat for a soup.  I divided the bale of straw into 12 thick beds, which the dogs could not be more elated about.

The pride I felt was overwhelming. The love and appreciation for my animals surpassed anything I had ever felt before. My dogs were beyond perfect, beyond exceptional and this day they had saved my life, after running flawlessly for 370 miles through horrendous conditions.

15 minutes later they were lapping up their beaver and lamb broth.

 

I stumbled into the house, to the bathroom. Heat was nirvana. I barely had the energy to undress.  The hot water was like stinging pellets against my frozen shell. It made my head spin, restored my breath. My body tingled and swelled. I kept the shower short, afraid I might black out.

The bed threw me into another realm, one I thought I may never return from.

Perhaps I would never fully return to my body.

I slipped away.

Only until it was time to feed the dogs again.

 

******

 

Mushers raised hell at the finishers meeting, ranting about the unprofessionalism, the dangers, the liabilities of the race trail. “They never should have let the teams continue!”

I sat silently drinking tea at the small round table with Iditarod champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, as they enjoyed their coca cola. I listened to their stories, but my mind was elsewhere. I was present, but not really there. As I had guessed, the pressure ridge hadn’t been as bad for those ahead of me. The trail had been re-routed by the time the guys behind me made it to that point. Today the pro’s looked at me differently, talking to me as an equal, asking me my opinions. Had I earned another notch of respect in “their” sport? Little no-named me and my wild, over-sized, mix matched wolf dogs?

I didn’t care.

As much as the mushers complained, I knew they would all come back. I almost felt bad for the race crew, dealing with the wrath of these powerful men. Knowing, unlike the famous Iditarod, the resources for the Kobuk are very limited and they make due with what they have.

Suffering needlessly out on the drowning trail, I certainly had done my share of mental cursing. Now it all just seemed a twist of Mother Nature’s fate.

We are only human, after all. No one can control the nature of ice, hour to hour, minute to minute. It was too late to place blame. We were the ones who left the starting line and never turned back. Thankfully no dogs or mushers were seriously hurt.

 

******

 

Shock lingers. Life goes on. The body copes, work routine keeps the pain at bay, but it never forgets. Memories re-surface when you least expect it and bring you back to the feelings, the place, and the unspoken emotions.

 

I did return with my team to the rich river valley and finish another Kobuk 440, and I did finally leave the man who brought so much darkness to my life.

The man who told me I could never do the things I did indeed do.

 

******

Shorelines are disappearing, and villages are being re-located.  Long struggling to maintain their cultural identity and lifestyle, Native tribes have been forced to depend on unsustainable means of survival and empty promises of the white man. The first people most severely affected by modern industry and climate change are the last thought of in crisis. They are the first to be taken from, the last to be re-paid.

 

The Arctic personifies the web of life that has been dismembered throughout the rest of the world.

To travel through it, to experience it on a spiritual level, is to become it.

Therefore, in leaving, one abandons a part of themself.

 

My life was saved.

My dogs, they carried me.

The Native spirits who inhabit the Kobuk, they guided me.

Without their bloodlines, there would be no team.

Without their trail, I would have smaller eyes.

Without their wisdom, I would be ignorant.

Without their collective presence, I would be lost.

Now, living in this other world, my heart beats to a different drummer.

The beat is never heard here, only in the wind, and the running water.

My veins.











 

AWAKENING


 

The ice gave way beneath my feet as the frigid waters of Selawik Lake engulfed my body. A sharp inhale felt the grip of death, yet my last thoughts were anything but panicked, “I got the dogs over, they will be okay…… this is my death; under the ice, in the middle of nowhere.”

A fleeting thought bid farewell to my parents as I calmly faced my fate.

 

******

 

My feet hit a layer of shelf ice, momentarily stopping the fall. Aquamarine water laced with snow-white ice chunks permeated my body over my breast line. Unstable ice surrounded me. The only hope was the metal end of the sled runner, now balanced above my head on an edge of slab ice. The slightest movement of my 12- dog team would pull this lifeline out of reach.

 

******

 

“ The earliest and fastest break-up we’ve ever seen,” the Natives later claimed of that first weekend in April, 2004.

In less than 12 hours, the seemingly frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers had turned to slush, to overflow, to open running water under a glaring April sun that brought temperatures into the high 40’s.

 

The 440-mile Kobuk Sled Dog Race travels through the Kobuk River Valley, above the Arctic Circle. Starting in the village of Kotzebue, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, it follows the Kobuk River through six different Native villages, passing by the Baird, Jade and Waring Mountain ranges, through the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and skirts the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

On the verge of cancelling the race all together, officials considered re-routing the trail over land to avoid the highway of rivers and tributaries that were melting at an alarming rate. With only 5-6 hours of true darkness, ice and snow pack had little time to harden, let alone freeze during the nights.  The progressive effects of nearly 18 hours of daylight and the sudden heat wave, obliterated the trail.

 

Still the race commenced, with a group of some of the best mushers in the world, gathered to do what they do best, despite and against the odds of Mother Nature, who never fails to test and challenge the most hardened and proven of venturous souls.

Over the years, I thought I had been through it all with my team, from enduring -65 below 0 and blinding snow storms, to battling winds so strong it’s hard to breathe and impossible to keep the sled upright and in line behind the team. We had faced  endless, bone -racking miles of dirt, sand, stumps, rocks, glare ice and glacial moraine, and been drenched in rain storms, pelted by freezing rains and navigated through open water and overflow of all kinds.

However, we had never run through water for hundreds of miles, nor had we ever encountered a pressure ridge.

 

For three days we had been running through water at least ankle deep, sometimes up to mid-calf. A pair of rubber boots would have spared my feet days of misery.  My Iditarod proven system of mukluks and waterproof NEOS overboots failed in the deep water.

 A few hours submerged in water is one thing, days is another.

When not immersed in water, we ran over snowless sand beaches, soft, muddy bogs and brown tundra. The best sections of trail were the miles of glare ice that glittered in brilliant hues of turquoise, royal blues and jade greens. Intricate mosaic webs cracked the slippery surface, over which movement was effortless, even too fast. The ice moaned, cackled and gurgled beneath our weight. The sharp tines of the brake bar were worn down to nothing over the miles of ice, as I was constantly breaking to keep the team at a safe paced trot.

 

Welcome to Spring above latitude 66, ground zero for climate change.

I had been training in sneakers just days before, expecting my flight north to land me in a much colder climate, which was a foolish assumption. Springtime in the North is anything but predictable.

 

Anything is tolerable when you are doing what you love.  

Running my team through the Kobuk Valley was a dream come true.

Weeks earlier we had finished our fifth, 1,049 mile Iditarod Race in 23rd position. After just a few days of rest, the beautiful Spring days found us back on the trails in our home territory. Stronger than ever, the team I had hooked up every day since the previous August, was still screaming to go! My young team and I were in peak condition, so I paid my entry fee and booked a ticket to Kotzebue. The money I had won in the Iditarod bought the 12 dog kennels that would be secured in their own “igloo,” along with my sled, dog food and gear in the belly of the plane. I would be traveling alone, and if I managed to finish in a paying position, the trip would at least pay for itself.

The dogs I had raised from puppies were now in their prime and they could never seem to get enough of the trail. Nothing, not even the unimaginably wet, warm days we found in Kotzebue, could slow them down or hinder their spirit. Like me, they were excited to travel through new country and were completely unphased by the water. Having raised them all as swimmers, the endless horizon of moving water was a non-issue for them. Certainly it helped keep them cool in the unusual heat and they could lap up a drink of water whenever they pleased. Northern husky breeds are happiest running at -5 to -10 degrees below zero. Anything above freezing takes some serious adaptation and the hardest working dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Every half hour or so, I took short “cool down” breaks to prevent any problems. Over ten or twelve hours of running, it made all the difference in our performance. During our long rests, the warmth of the intense sun worked to our advantage. After the usual routine of feeding the team and rubbing every paw, wrist and shoulder with my homemade magic oil, all the harnesses, wet gear, boot liners and clothing were sprawled out over dry straw or hung on the sled to dry. As the dogs slept, I ate, re-hydrated and tried to catch an hour or two of sleep on top of the sled before cooking their second meal and packing everything to go.

 

My nerves were wearing thin, yet the enthusiasm of the dogs never waned. Race trail markers had been non-existent except for those seen floating down stream. Finding and keeping on the right trail, any trail, had demanded constant attention since there was really no defined trail to follow. One river looked like three or four, with wide, muddy channels branching in all directions. Most markers tied to willow or alder bushes, especially leaving the villages, marked only the local snowmachine trails, and were unrelated to the race. Many frustrated attempts following these flags, led to narrow impassible channels of deep water and thick messes of ingrown brush, in which I had to let all the dogs loose to get turned around. Then, retracing my steps to the entrance of the maze, I would try another, and another, until finally we would find a ‘through’ path. Relying merely on instinct, as maps, compasses and GPS’s are not allowed, I followed the lay of the land, using the riverbanks, and lines of the valleys and mountains as landmarks to keep my sense of direction.

 

Speed triples moving over glare ice, but then there is the constant worry that a dog will slip, pull a shoulder, sprain a wrist or fall through the ice. I had no choice but to trust their instincts. Countless times before my leaders had avoided dangerous obstacles without my command, or chosen a better path than the team before us had taken. Their instincts and senses were sharp, and reliable.

But with every passing every hour, the ice was becoming more unstable.

Mile after mile I could see moving water below the ice.

“How can they let us keep going, this is so unsafe?”  My worried thoughts were nagging. “ This is so insane! What am I doing here? This can’t possibly be the trail! If the river opens any more we’ll be stuck here, and it’s too late to turn back!” I started to think that all the other mushers had been directed to another route, and somehow we had not been informed, forgotten.

 

******

 

 Awe prevailed over the stress and discomfort. With every mile of hardship, the enchantment of the Arctic stole my heart.

The vast landscape was breathtaking, and wild. The spirit of the ancient Inupiaq permeated the valley of  “half a million caribou.” The light of the high North, lasting until midnight, cast ethereal shadows and painted boundless sunsets and sunrises of striking beauty. Vivid shades of purples, blues, oranges and pinks lingered until the black veil of night set the backdrop for the Northern lights. They danced to a silent rhythm, illuminating the isolated world into a surreal masterpiece of radiant reds, purples and greens. Some stretched down so far they seemed to touch us, infusing our cells with the magic of the heavens.

 

Natives of all ages welcomed our team into their villages ,with twinkling eyes, and wide, toothless grins. They stood proud in their hand-stitched mukluks and beaver tail hats. The remote communities of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and Selawik, some well over 100 miles apart, look forward to the annual race event and spend days preparing tables of food for mushers and volunteers. Cheers, hugs, and pats on the shoulder from total strangers, made me feel like a family member coming home. Their smiles and hospitality made it hard to leave. In fact, had I not had 50 other huskies and puppies waiting for me at home, I would have stayed.

 

I loved the tiny community I called home, that sat at the ‘end of the road,’ where three massive rivers running out of the Alaska Range converged into one.  These rivers, mountains and trails had become an integral part of my livelihood, but my inescapable “partnership” was a living nightmare that ended up consuming a decade of my young life.

 

I was tempted to just stay in the village of Ambler, and leave it all.  I could raise and train my dogs in the bosom of the Arctic.  Living among the Natives, I could truly practice a life of subsistence and continue my path as I had intended, free from the daily abuse I had grown accustomed to.

I felt akin to this place; this remote region teeming with life, not yet ruined by the outside world. A place called a “barren wasteland” by some of our politicians, that is so very alive, and inspiringly intimidating in its’ silent expanse.  Words cannot evoke its many moods.

One dreaded day they will drill for oil here.

No part of me wanted to leave.

A strong force was pulling at the fringes of my soul. Something as abstract as the Arctic mirror of land and sky, and as defined as the polar bear print left at the trails edge, rapidly melting into the bog carpet of low bush cranberries and Labrador tea.

 

******

 

I spotted the pressure ridge from a distance. The long wall of chunky jumble ice and seeping holes, stretched as far as I could see across the lake to the North and cut through the trail we had been following. Under our feet, fresh lake water was colliding with salty water from the Chukchi Sea. During the process of constant warming, melting and re-freezing, the ice layers were expanding, forming cracks that were refilling with water. The pressure of the current was forcing the ice to push its broken, fragmented layers to the top, forming a formidable mass of ice chunks and slabs. This ridge had risen four feet high and four feet wide in places. While the rest of Selawik lake was still frozen white, dozens of trail markers had been placed in x formations, warning of this impassible danger. There was, however, no visible alternative. I wondered how long it had been since someone had been here. According to the sled runner tracks, barely recognizable after hours in the sun, the few mushers ahead of me had still been able to go straight ahead. The pressure ridge had opened up significantly in the last few hours and now going straight was no longer an option. Someone had been here to block off the trail, and the gaping holes, but they had failed to mark another safe through trail. To the left, the thinner ice leading to shore would bring me to land. I could then follow the shoreline for as long as needed. But would I lose the trail on the other end of lake, or even be able to get back on? Shore ice would be less stable than where we were presently stopped. Not knowing the depth of the lake and being in unfamiliar territory, that option seemed too risky.  There were no tracks of any kind leading off the ice, so my reasoning felt validated. My eyes scanned the ridge to the right, towards the mountains in the distance. The team stilled,  assessing the situation, sensing the obstacle before us. Finally I spotted a break in the markers, indicating a safe way over.

“Gee!”

A sharp 90 degree turn led us parallel along the ridge. My heart accelerated, as I kept the team at a walk. Unnamed and unknown to me, this natural phenomenon evoked a primal fear. The danger was palpable.

Before having a chance to command “haw”, my leaders Jane and Isis immediately saw where the markers stopped and performed a miracle leap. Fearlessly, without hesitation, they jumped up and over the mess of ice, pulling the next four dogs with them. Four dogs landed in the center. The two wheel dogs, the sled and myself were still on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Whoa!” If the leaders moved forward, dogs were going to get injured, as they were now all balancing in-between ice slabs and fissures. Where one could move freely over, another could not. I had no choice but to get off my sled, unhook most of the dogs and help the others over. I grabbed my ski pole to test the ice, though I knew this was no comparison to my weight.

I cautiously placed one foot on the ice, still holding the sled, looking for a safe place to put my other foot farther up the length of the team. In one super stride I could reach the dogs in the middle. I couldn’t unhook them all, as I needed their momentum to help pull the sled over. The jumble ice was terrifying. It felt as though a river was moving below us.

I was dizzy and hot with adrenaline.

Working quickly, I  lifted each dog to safety, moving my feet as little as possible. I unhooked the last two dogs. If the sled got caught on the way over, it wouldn’t pull them down with it.

Now just the sled and my lanky self had to get over.  

The final step onto the runner nearly became the last step of my life.

 

******

 

The cry that escaped my lips cut the heavy silence. The dogs knew exactly what had happened and they did not budge.

The shelf ice, five feet under the surface, held long enough for me to assess the situation and realize, that by some small miracle, the sled was still within my reach.

I seized the end of the runner with my left hand and yelled, “GO!”

In one synchronized motion, the team pulled me up out of the Arctic water, over the pressure ridge, on to stable ice.

As I came to standing, I felt like I was swimming.

Everything inside me was moving in slow motion, I could not even react.

I looked down at myself, soaked through to bottom layers, in complete shock.

I was already wearing the ‘emergency’ stash of dry socks, glove liners and long underwear,  that lived in my sled until needed. On races, these things are sent in resupply bags to the villages and checkpoints with all of our food.  We travel light, carrying only what we need to get to the next re-supply, but always with enough food and fuel to handle 24-48 hours of possibly being stuck in a severe storm, or any number of unexpected situations that can arise out on the trail. The last four water- saturated days had certainly used up all of my dry reserves, and now it seemed the final test was upon me.

The finish line was still about 70 miles away, which could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on the conditions and our speed, my abilities to run, kick and pole.

The autonomic part of my nervous system kicked into gear, as it had before in extreme weather, working under sleep deprivation. Frivolous thoughts cease to exist and the body operates robotically. Emotions are wasteful and no movement is without purpose. The body and mind work synergistically in survival mode.

I knew the danger of the eerie warmth that came over my ice bitten core. Movement was suddenly excruciatingly exhausting, my speech slow, the muscles in my cheeks uncooperative, “Good dogs! “ I managed to sound cheery.

“ Hang out for bit,” I instructed, “I’ve got to try to get dry.” I didn’t recognize the sound of myself. I felt stiff and slow, like glue.

Hollow.

I stripped down, thinking of my thermos still half filled with lukewarm hot chocolate and peppermint tea, wishing I had more, and started ringing out each layer of clothing.

No firewood within 100 miles or more. No people either. The group of mushers behind me had opted to camp at the last checkpoint to dry out their clothes and gear. As tempting as it had been to stay and join them, I had decided to keep going since my team was so strong and happy. Conditions were only getting worse and we were in the money, with only half a day’s journey left to the finish line.

I knew I would soon be hypothermic if I didn’t keep my limbs moving and working constantly. We would be running into the night, and temperatures would only be dropping. The situation could become dire.

Breathe, I thought to myself.

Focus.

No energy for negativity.

Once all the excess water was squeezed out, I tried to warm myself up by rubbing each of the dogs. I talked outloud in my chipper voice, praising each one, checking their booties, making sure none were iced up, and if they were, changing them. My hands and fingers were too stiff to work well. My mind felt as paralyzed as my body. Emotions were overwhelming, as was the numbness. Deep in my belly a fire burned, stoking the furnace that would keep me alive until we reached civilization.

I jumped up and down, did some jumping jacks, and stomped my feet. I knew my light-weight, synthetic insulated clothing, layered with wool, would do its’ job of retaining my body heat although wet. I drank a third of my remaining beverage, saving the rest for the long journey ahead. I had a few bites of my homemade smoked salmon, some goldfish crackers and a fig newton. Over thousands and thousands of trail miles, my selective diet had managed to keep me nourished, energized and quelled the bundle of nerves in my gut, preventing me from feeling sick.

I had to proceed as though nothing had happened. The near fatal event could in no way hinder our progress.  

Life was counting.

“All right guys, let’s go!”

We were off.  

The pressure ridge faded into the scenery behind us.

What else could we possibly face during these 440 miles?

The rest of the massive lake, stretching on for 50 miles or more, still looked stable enough. Thankfully, there were now markers placed every few miles. No open water in sight. Or ridges of ice.

Of course it could change at any moment.

I got into my usual rhythm of kicking beside the sled, 10 minutes with the right leg, switch to the left. I simultaneously poled with my ski pole, not missing a beat.

Hypothermia would have no chance unless I stopped moving.

Pushing myself during any race, especially the last 100 miles, was routine. However, I could not remember a time, in all my thousands of miles of racing, I had ever felt so depleted and bitterly exhausted. I was on the verge of collapsing. Arctic waters had zapped the last of my reserves and I wondered from where my strength was coming.

At one point,  I concluded that I was having an out of body experience. While my body and mind were working as a single entity to overcome the odds, my body did not feel my own. I felt entirely separated from it.

In feeling so much, I felt nothing.

I could feel my spirit rising above my physical reality of being in shock.

Was I dying?

The lack of sleep over the last months was teasing all of my weak points.

Unless I caught up to another musher, or an arbitrary snowmachiner, I would see no sign of human life until the finish line in Kotzebue. I felt as though even the most basic communication would be more energy than I could spare, especially since no one could help me anyway.

Pushing to the end was the only option.

Singing out loud, and chatting to the dogs helped to keep my mind awake. The dogs  were  running like champs, still in good spirits and in perfect health. I was now the weak link who could not allow myself to lapse for a second.

 

After what felt like an eternity, the lake shore finally met land. The last 3 or 4 hours we would be running through gentle, rolling hills on the brown, sweet smelling tundra, where only small patches of snow remained. With no glide under the metal runners, our speed noticeably slowed. Running to keep weight off the runners helped, but I couldn’t keep up with their speed for miles on end. I could only run in short bursts, which was better than nothing.

Fatigue brought tears to my eyes, and at moments I thought I could no longer stand.

I sang louder, calling the names of the dogs, and prayed to higher powers to give me the strength to make it home.

The meandering trail stretched into eternity, and my delusional mind believed that we were hopelessly lost, that my body would never leave this tundra. The markers could be from any trail, and out here trails intertwine like mazes, all headed somewhere through more nowhere with nothing in-between.

This kind of doubt I seldom ever had. My sense of direction had always served me well navigating Alaska.

I was unraveling stitch by stitch, as I battled exhaustion. The only confidence remaining was in the ability of my dog team. They had never let me down, and as a team, we had never failed.

At times I ran with my eyes closed.

I stopped as we always did, every hour, to snack the dogs pieces of salmon and beef. All tails were wagging, and their smiles injected me with the same positive energy that I had I given them their whole lives.

 

Unlike all the other nights since the start of the race, the vibrant colors of sunset eluded us and dusk mirrored my mood in every shade of grey.  I longed for the black of night to tell me we were close to the end. My earliest estimated time of arrival to the finish line in Kotzebue was 12:00 midnight, any time after dark. Grey dragged on in every step, every breath, and I wondered why I subjected myself to this kind torture.

Grassy knoll after grassy knoll, held the hope that civilization would suddenly appear and the pain would be over.

Watches can lie in this sport, as Nature fools our perceptions of time and relative distance. More accurate are the natural landmarks and angles of light.

The dull light of this day seemed it would never leave, the hours until dark felt to be an unbearable bending of time. Lost to the infinity of tundra and sky, our existence could remain forever forgotten here.

Solace lay in knowing my dogs were faring better than I.

They blew me away. Had they felt as I did, we would have been crawling.

They showed no weakness.

 

Time and solitude play tricks on a sleep deprived soul. Add in the wild landscape, a body and mind being pushed beyond their limits, and you have a recipe for life altering experiences and realizations.

In this window of space, there is no escape from weakness. No help, no place and no one to run to. No shelter, no phone, no GPS, mile signs, or short cut. No comfort. No distraction. No mercy.

Surrounded by life, simple and raw, there comes a point of total surrender to the power of this Nature.

It swallows you whole, leaves you inseparable.

Truth reveals itself in blinding clarity.

 

 

As the rivers had been melting under our feet, it was the flood of my life that felt to be drowning me.

Yet it could all end here, the fighting, and the fear.

The ancient trail of the Kobuk had been breaking me down, mile by mile and I could no longer deny the truth; in staying loyal to my animals, and dedicating my life to raising this dog team, I had sacrificed my heart, and my integrity.  

If I completed this impossible journey, maybe I would be ready. Ready to stand up for myself, for the last and final time. Ready to risk my life, for the inevitable break away that would win me back my freedom of self. I deserved so much better.

Yet his threats hung heavy like a noose around my neck.

Something in the eyes of the Natives, in their stance, gave me courage. Like a wise hunter, I knew I needed an abundance of patience, and had to keep waiting until the time was right to make my escape. I would take my dogs with me.

I had been letting this man slowly kill me, day after day, year after year.

There was nothing more for him to take.

 

In the arms of the Kobuk Valley, death had pulled me under water, to find me still alive. The warrior within had awakened.

In this still fog of realization, muteness became me. Words seemed a waste, but new melodies flowed from a heart still warm.

A heart emptied and so entirely full.


 

******

 

Darkness came and we moved flawlessly through the night, without a headlamp, our eyes adjusted and keen.  My brain was foggy, half shut down, preventing me from succumbing to the intolerable physical fatigue, while directing all available energy to producing the adrenaline necessary to keep me moving.

 

Then suddenly, the beacons of mercy appeared, lights!

“Home!” I cried. The dogs bolted at the excited tone of my voice. “Kotzebue, we made it!” The team had power in reserve, and plowed ahead as if they had just rested for 12 hours.

“You guys are awesome! “ I shrieked. We were still across the inlet, at least an hour away.  An eternity, but the end was within sight.

 

I had never been so happy to see the distant blur of white, twinkling lights.

Humanity.

For hours I had been convinced we were on the wrong trail, and many miles off course.

As we grew closer, what seemed a black hole, reflecting light, sat between us and the village. What now? Was I hallucinating? I turned on the headlamp, and still was confused. It couldn’t be……. all water?

Oh my God, it was. Not just a little bit, it looked to be the entire ocean stretching out before us.

Well, what is a few more miles of standing water? It must be safe, right? Did I miss a turn, X markers?

I had no energy left to think. Or question.

The dogs showed no hesitation, I would not question them.

What had been the starting line 4 days ago, now the finish line, was a lake. Six inches of water sat on top of the ice. No markers, no finishing banner in sight.

It was a little after 1:00 a.m., and I was headed to the closest possible building. The dogs were thinking the same thing.

The night scene was surreal, as we ran over 12 m.p.h. towards the lights, completely surrounded by water, leaving a wake behind us.

Slowly, the outlines of the buildings and cabins became more defined. Village dogs yipped and barked at our approach. No sign of anyone. The village would of course be sleeping, but where were the race officials, waiting to clock in my time?

Finally we hit land, a gravel dirt road to be more precise. Still there was no sign of anything or anyone related to the race. Did they even know I had left the last checkpoint? Did they think I had stayed with the group of mushers behind me, who wouldn’t be getting in until after the light of morning? What the hell was I supposed to do now?

The gravel was sharp on the dogs feet and my temper flared. I fought tears.

What kind of finish was this? Where was I supposed to go? Nobody, not a soul to welcome our hard earned arrival. Dismayed, I realized I could be in the wrong village. Perhaps this wasn’t Kotzebue and I had just made my team run over 80 miles in the wrong direction.

I refused to make my dogs go any further, and I could not run beside the sled another step. I stopped, secured the sled and praised the dogs profusely. I took off their booties, gave them a snack and proceeded to search for someone.

“Hello! Is there anybody here? “ I hollered. “I just finished the Kobuk race!” I felt like screaming, “do you have any idea what I’ve been through?” I couldn’t believe how the night was continuing.  The numbness was debilitating, my body wanted to collapse. I knocked on doors, making my way up the street. Finally, a sleepy someone appeared and said he’d go find a race official.

So, we had made it home.

I returned to the team, and as emotions swelled to the surface, I struggled to keep myself together. I removed harnesses and fed them more snacks. Their big meal would come whenever we got back to the house of our host family, who would be soundly sleeping. There I had bags of food and straw awaiting our return. Unlike all the other mushers, I had no handler waiting to help me.

“We weren’t expecting you,” the bundled body said. A few men sauntered from the village. “We will take you to your host families house. It’s a little way from here, in the center of the village. A truck is on the way.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”  

I told them what time I hit land, according to my watch. No one seemed to care. No other words were exchanged. I was speechless, as they too seemed to be. I wanted to tell them what happened, but I thought I might start crying. Worse, I thought the story seemed unbelievable. They might think I was just an emotional, un-rational woman talking gibberish, complaining or just a fool who made a stupid decision. It all seemed indescribable. The term pressure ridge was still unknown to my vocabulary. To say I fell in hole sounded ridiculous. So I said nothing. I just focused on my dogs, rubbing shoulders and wrists, while the Natives stood and watched me. All I managed to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m a little tired, we had kind of a crazy run.” No one wanted to carry on a conversation at such a horrid time of the morning anyway.

I thanked them profusely as they helped me load the team and sled into the back of a pick-up. When I sat down in the warm vehicle, I came close to passing out. My clothes were soaking wet, and now the fine outer layer of ice quickly dissipated. Still no one knew I had fallen over my breasts into Arctic water. No one had seen. My body began to throb. I thought I might not be able to stand up again.

We unloaded the dogs and after a hundred more “thank-you’s,” I was left alone with my team outside the small blue house.

3:15 a.m.

I fed the dogs dry kibble and lit my cooker to heat water enough to thaw meat for a soup.  I divided the bale of straw into 12 thick beds, which the dogs could not be more elated about.

The pride I felt was overwhelming. The love and appreciation for my animals surpassed anything I had ever felt before. My dogs were beyond perfect, beyond exceptional and this day they had saved my life, after running flawlessly for 370 miles through horrendous conditions.

15 minutes later they were lapping up their beaver and lamb broth.

 

I stumbled into the house, to the bathroom. Heat was nirvana. I barely had the energy to undress.  The hot water was like stinging pellets against my frozen shell. It made my head spin, restored my breath. My body tingled and swelled. I kept the shower short, afraid I might black out.

The bed threw me into another realm, one I thought I may never return from.

Perhaps I would never fully return to my body.

I slipped away.

Only until it was time to feed the dogs again.

 

******

 

Mushers raised hell at the finishers meeting, ranting about the unprofessionalism, the dangers, the liabilities of the race trail. “They never should have let the teams continue!”

I sat silently drinking tea at the small round table with Iditarod champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, as they enjoyed their coca cola. I listened to their stories, but my mind was elsewhere. I was present, but not really there. As I had guessed, the pressure ridge hadn’t been as bad for those ahead of me. The trail had been re-routed by the time the guys behind me made it to that point. Today the pro’s looked at me differently, talking to me as an equal, asking me my opinions. Had I earned another notch of respect in “their” sport? Little no-named me and my wild, over-sized, mix matched wolf dogs?

I didn’t care.

As much as the mushers complained, I knew they would all come back. I almost felt bad for the race crew, dealing with the wrath of these powerful men. Knowing, unlike the famous Iditarod, the resources for the Kobuk are very limited and they make due with what they have.

Suffering needlessly out on the drowning trail, I certainly had done my share of mental cursing. Now it all just seemed a twist of Mother Nature’s fate.

We are only human, after all. No one can control the nature of ice, hour to hour, minute to minute. It was too late to place blame. We were the ones who left the starting line and never turned back. Thankfully no dogs or mushers were seriously hurt.

 

******

 

Shock lingers. Life goes on. The body copes, work routine keeps the pain at bay, but it never forgets. Memories re-surface when you least expect it and bring you back to the feelings, the place, and the unspoken emotions.

 

I did return with my team to the rich river valley and finish another Kobuk 440, and I did finally leave the man who brought so much darkness to my life.

The man who told me I could never do the things I did indeed do.

 

******

Shorelines are disappearing, and villages are being re-located.  Long struggling to maintain their cultural identity and lifestyle, Native tribes have been forced to depend on unsustainable means of survival and empty promises of the white man. The first people most severely affected by modern industry and climate change are the last thought of in crisis. They are the first to be taken from, the last to be re-paid.

 

The Arctic personifies the web of life that has been dismembered throughout the rest of the world.

To travel through it, to experience it on a spiritual level, is to become it.

Therefore, in leaving, one abandons a part of themself.

 

My life was saved.

My dogs, they carried me.

The Native spirits who inhabit the Kobuk, they guided me.

Without their bloodlines, there would be no team.

Without their trail, I would have smaller eyes.

Without their wisdom, I would be ignorant.

Without their collective presence, I would be lost.

Now, living in this other world, my heart beats to a different drummer.

The beat is never heard here, only in the wind, and the running water.

My veins.











 

AWAKENING


 

The ice gave way beneath my feet as the frigid waters of Selawik Lake engulfed my body. A sharp inhale felt the grip of death, yet my last thoughts were anything but panicked, “I got the dogs over, they will be okay…… this is my death; under the ice, in the middle of nowhere.”

A fleeting thought bid farewell to my parents as I calmly faced my fate.

 

******

 

My feet hit a layer of shelf ice, momentarily stopping the fall. Aquamarine water laced with snow-white ice chunks permeated my body over my breast line. Unstable ice surrounded me. The only hope was the metal end of the sled runner, now balanced above my head on an edge of slab ice. The slightest movement of my 12- dog team would pull this lifeline out of reach.

 

******

 

“ The earliest and fastest break-up we’ve ever seen,” the Natives later claimed of that first weekend in April, 2004.

In less than 12 hours, the seemingly frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers had turned to slush, to overflow, to open running water under a glaring April sun that brought temperatures into the high 40’s.

 

The 440-mile Kobuk Sled Dog Race travels through the Kobuk River Valley, above the Arctic Circle. Starting in the village of Kotzebue, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, it follows the Kobuk River through six different Native villages, passing by the Baird, Jade and Waring Mountain ranges, through the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and skirts the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

On the verge of cancelling the race all together, officials considered re-routing the trail over land to avoid the highway of rivers and tributaries that were melting at an alarming rate. With only 5-6 hours of true darkness, ice and snow pack had little time to harden, let alone freeze during the nights.  The progressive effects of nearly 18 hours of daylight and the sudden heat wave, obliterated the trail.

 

Still the race commenced, with a group of some of the best mushers in the world, gathered to do what they do best, despite and against the odds of Mother Nature, who never fails to test and challenge the most hardened and proven of venturous souls.

Over the years, I thought I had been through it all with my team, from enduring -65 below 0 and blinding snow storms, to battling winds so strong it’s hard to breathe and impossible to keep the sled upright and in line behind the team. We had faced  endless, bone -racking miles of dirt, sand, stumps, rocks, glare ice and glacial moraine, and been drenched in rain storms, pelted by freezing rains and navigated through open water and overflow of all kinds.

However, we had never run through water for hundreds of miles, nor had we ever encountered a pressure ridge.

 

For three days we had been running through water at least ankle deep, sometimes up to mid-calf. A pair of rubber boots would have spared my feet days of misery.  My Iditarod proven system of mukluks and waterproof NEOS overboots failed in the deep water.

 A few hours submerged in water is one thing, days is another.

When not immersed in water, we ran over snowless sand beaches, soft, muddy bogs and brown tundra. The best sections of trail were the miles of glare ice that glittered in brilliant hues of turquoise, royal blues and jade greens. Intricate mosaic webs cracked the slippery surface, over which movement was effortless, even too fast. The ice moaned, cackled and gurgled beneath our weight. The sharp tines of the brake bar were worn down to nothing over the miles of ice, as I was constantly breaking to keep the team at a safe paced trot.

 

Welcome to Spring above latitude 66, ground zero for climate change.

I had been training in sneakers just days before, expecting my flight north to land me in a much colder climate, which was a foolish assumption. Springtime in the North is anything but predictable.

 

Anything is tolerable when you are doing what you love.  

Running my team through the Kobuk Valley was a dream come true.

Weeks earlier we had finished our fifth, 1,049 mile Iditarod Race in 23rd position. After just a few days of rest, the beautiful Spring days found us back on the trails in our home territory. Stronger than ever, the team I had hooked up every day since the previous August, was still screaming to go! My young team and I were in peak condition, so I paid my entry fee and booked a ticket to Kotzebue. The money I had won in the Iditarod bought the 12 dog kennels that would be secured in their own “igloo,” along with my sled, dog food and gear in the belly of the plane. I would be traveling alone, and if I managed to finish in a paying position, the trip would at least pay for itself.

The dogs I had raised from puppies were now in their prime and they could never seem to get enough of the trail. Nothing, not even the unimaginably wet, warm days we found in Kotzebue, could slow them down or hinder their spirit. Like me, they were excited to travel through new country and were completely unphased by the water. Having raised them all as swimmers, the endless horizon of moving water was a non-issue for them. Certainly it helped keep them cool in the unusual heat and they could lap up a drink of water whenever they pleased. Northern husky breeds are happiest running at -5 to -10 degrees below zero. Anything above freezing takes some serious adaptation and the hardest working dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Every half hour or so, I took short “cool down” breaks to prevent any problems. Over ten or twelve hours of running, it made all the difference in our performance. During our long rests, the warmth of the intense sun worked to our advantage. After the usual routine of feeding the team and rubbing every paw, wrist and shoulder with my homemade magic oil, all the harnesses, wet gear, boot liners and clothing were sprawled out over dry straw or hung on the sled to dry. As the dogs slept, I ate, re-hydrated and tried to catch an hour or two of sleep on top of the sled before cooking their second meal and packing everything to go.

 

My nerves were wearing thin, yet the enthusiasm of the dogs never waned. Race trail markers had been non-existent except for those seen floating down stream. Finding and keeping on the right trail, any trail, had demanded constant attention since there was really no defined trail to follow. One river looked like three or four, with wide, muddy channels branching in all directions. Most markers tied to willow or alder bushes, especially leaving the villages, marked only the local snowmachine trails, and were unrelated to the race. Many frustrated attempts following these flags, led to narrow impassible channels of deep water and thick messes of ingrown brush, in which I had to let all the dogs loose to get turned around. Then, retracing my steps to the entrance of the maze, I would try another, and another, until finally we would find a ‘through’ path. Relying merely on instinct, as maps, compasses and GPS’s are not allowed, I followed the lay of the land, using the riverbanks, and lines of the valleys and mountains as landmarks to keep my sense of direction.

 

Speed triples moving over glare ice, but then there is the constant worry that a dog will slip, pull a shoulder, sprain a wrist or fall through the ice. I had no choice but to trust their instincts. Countless times before my leaders had avoided dangerous obstacles without my command, or chosen a better path than the team before us had taken. Their instincts and senses were sharp, and reliable.

But with every passing every hour, the ice was becoming more unstable.

Mile after mile I could see moving water below the ice.

“How can they let us keep going, this is so unsafe?”  My worried thoughts were nagging. “ This is so insane! What am I doing here? This can’t possibly be the trail! If the river opens any more we’ll be stuck here, and it’s too late to turn back!” I started to think that all the other mushers had been directed to another route, and somehow we had not been informed, forgotten.

 

******

 

 Awe prevailed over the stress and discomfort. With every mile of hardship, the enchantment of the Arctic stole my heart.

The vast landscape was breathtaking, and wild. The spirit of the ancient Inupiaq permeated the valley of  “half a million caribou.” The light of the high North, lasting until midnight, cast ethereal shadows and painted boundless sunsets and sunrises of striking beauty. Vivid shades of purples, blues, oranges and pinks lingered until the black veil of night set the backdrop for the Northern lights. They danced to a silent rhythm, illuminating the isolated world into a surreal masterpiece of radiant reds, purples and greens. Some stretched down so far they seemed to touch us, infusing our cells with the magic of the heavens.

 

Natives of all ages welcomed our team into their villages ,with twinkling eyes, and wide, toothless grins. They stood proud in their hand-stitched mukluks and beaver tail hats. The remote communities of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and Selawik, some well over 100 miles apart, look forward to the annual race event and spend days preparing tables of food for mushers and volunteers. Cheers, hugs, and pats on the shoulder from total strangers, made me feel like a family member coming home. Their smiles and hospitality made it hard to leave. In fact, had I not had 50 other huskies and puppies waiting for me at home, I would have stayed.

 

I loved the tiny community I called home, that sat at the ‘end of the road,’ where three massive rivers running out of the Alaska Range converged into one.  These rivers, mountains and trails had become an integral part of my livelihood, but my inescapable “partnership” was a living nightmare that ended up consuming a decade of my young life.

 

I was tempted to just stay in the village of Ambler, and leave it all.  I could raise and train my dogs in the bosom of the Arctic.  Living among the Natives, I could truly practice a life of subsistence and continue my path as I had intended, free from the daily abuse I had grown accustomed to.

I felt akin to this place; this remote region teeming with life, not yet ruined by the outside world. A place called a “barren wasteland” by some of our politicians, that is so very alive, and inspiringly intimidating in its’ silent expanse.  Words cannot evoke its many moods.

One dreaded day they will drill for oil here.

No part of me wanted to leave.

A strong force was pulling at the fringes of my soul. Something as abstract as the Arctic mirror of land and sky, and as defined as the polar bear print left at the trails edge, rapidly melting into the bog carpet of low bush cranberries and Labrador tea.

 

******

 

I spotted the pressure ridge from a distance. The long wall of chunky jumble ice and seeping holes, stretched as far as I could see across the lake to the North and cut through the trail we had been following. Under our feet, fresh lake water was colliding with salty water from the Chukchi Sea. During the process of constant warming, melting and re-freezing, the ice layers were expanding, forming cracks that were refilling with water. The pressure of the current was forcing the ice to push its broken, fragmented layers to the top, forming a formidable mass of ice chunks and slabs. This ridge had risen four feet high and four feet wide in places. While the rest of Selawik lake was still frozen white, dozens of trail markers had been placed in x formations, warning of this impassible danger. There was, however, no visible alternative. I wondered how long it had been since someone had been here. According to the sled runner tracks, barely recognizable after hours in the sun, the few mushers ahead of me had still been able to go straight ahead. The pressure ridge had opened up significantly in the last few hours and now going straight was no longer an option. Someone had been here to block off the trail, and the gaping holes, but they had failed to mark another safe through trail. To the left, the thinner ice leading to shore would bring me to land. I could then follow the shoreline for as long as needed. But would I lose the trail on the other end of lake, or even be able to get back on? Shore ice would be less stable than where we were presently stopped. Not knowing the depth of the lake and being in unfamiliar territory, that option seemed too risky.  There were no tracks of any kind leading off the ice, so my reasoning felt validated. My eyes scanned the ridge to the right, towards the mountains in the distance. The team stilled,  assessing the situation, sensing the obstacle before us. Finally I spotted a break in the markers, indicating a safe way over.

“Gee!”

A sharp 90 degree turn led us parallel along the ridge. My heart accelerated, as I kept the team at a walk. Unnamed and unknown to me, this natural phenomenon evoked a primal fear. The danger was palpable.

Before having a chance to command “haw”, my leaders Jane and Isis immediately saw where the markers stopped and performed a miracle leap. Fearlessly, without hesitation, they jumped up and over the mess of ice, pulling the next four dogs with them. Four dogs landed in the center. The two wheel dogs, the sled and myself were still on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Whoa!” If the leaders moved forward, dogs were going to get injured, as they were now all balancing in-between ice slabs and fissures. Where one could move freely over, another could not. I had no choice but to get off my sled, unhook most of the dogs and help the others over. I grabbed my ski pole to test the ice, though I knew this was no comparison to my weight.

I cautiously placed one foot on the ice, still holding the sled, looking for a safe place to put my other foot farther up the length of the team. In one super stride I could reach the dogs in the middle. I couldn’t unhook them all, as I needed their momentum to help pull the sled over. The jumble ice was terrifying. It felt as though a river was moving below us.

I was dizzy and hot with adrenaline.

Working quickly, I  lifted each dog to safety, moving my feet as little as possible. I unhooked the last two dogs. If the sled got caught on the way over, it wouldn’t pull them down with it.

Now just the sled and my lanky self had to get over.  

The final step onto the runner nearly became the last step of my life.

 

******

 

The cry that escaped my lips cut the heavy silence. The dogs knew exactly what had happened and they did not budge.

The shelf ice, five feet under the surface, held long enough for me to assess the situation and realize, that by some small miracle, the sled was still within my reach.

I seized the end of the runner with my left hand and yelled, “GO!”

In one synchronized motion, the team pulled me up out of the Arctic water, over the pressure ridge, on to stable ice.

As I came to standing, I felt like I was swimming.

Everything inside me was moving in slow motion, I could not even react.

I looked down at myself, soaked through to bottom layers, in complete shock.

I was already wearing the ‘emergency’ stash of dry socks, glove liners and long underwear,  that lived in my sled until needed. On races, these things are sent in resupply bags to the villages and checkpoints with all of our food.  We travel light, carrying only what we need to get to the next re-supply, but always with enough food and fuel to handle 24-48 hours of possibly being stuck in a severe storm, or any number of unexpected situations that can arise out on the trail. The last four water- saturated days had certainly used up all of my dry reserves, and now it seemed the final test was upon me.

The finish line was still about 70 miles away, which could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on the conditions and our speed, my abilities to run, kick and pole.

The autonomic part of my nervous system kicked into gear, as it had before in extreme weather, working under sleep deprivation. Frivolous thoughts cease to exist and the body operates robotically. Emotions are wasteful and no movement is without purpose. The body and mind work synergistically in survival mode.

I knew the danger of the eerie warmth that came over my ice bitten core. Movement was suddenly excruciatingly exhausting, my speech slow, the muscles in my cheeks uncooperative, “Good dogs! “ I managed to sound cheery.

“ Hang out for bit,” I instructed, “I’ve got to try to get dry.” I didn’t recognize the sound of myself. I felt stiff and slow, like glue.

Hollow.

I stripped down, thinking of my thermos still half filled with lukewarm hot chocolate and peppermint tea, wishing I had more, and started ringing out each layer of clothing.

No firewood within 100 miles or more. No people either. The group of mushers behind me had opted to camp at the last checkpoint to dry out their clothes and gear. As tempting as it had been to stay and join them, I had decided to keep going since my team was so strong and happy. Conditions were only getting worse and we were in the money, with only half a day’s journey left to the finish line.

I knew I would soon be hypothermic if I didn’t keep my limbs moving and working constantly. We would be running into the night, and temperatures would only be dropping. The situation could become dire.

Breathe, I thought to myself.

Focus.

No energy for negativity.

Once all the excess water was squeezed out, I tried to warm myself up by rubbing each of the dogs. I talked outloud in my chipper voice, praising each one, checking their booties, making sure none were iced up, and if they were, changing them. My hands and fingers were too stiff to work well. My mind felt as paralyzed as my body. Emotions were overwhelming, as was the numbness. Deep in my belly a fire burned, stoking the furnace that would keep me alive until we reached civilization.

I jumped up and down, did some jumping jacks, and stomped my feet. I knew my light-weight, synthetic insulated clothing, layered with wool, would do its’ job of retaining my body heat although wet. I drank a third of my remaining beverage, saving the rest for the long journey ahead. I had a few bites of my homemade smoked salmon, some goldfish crackers and a fig newton. Over thousands and thousands of trail miles, my selective diet had managed to keep me nourished, energized and quelled the bundle of nerves in my gut, preventing me from feeling sick.

I had to proceed as though nothing had happened. The near fatal event could in no way hinder our progress.  

Life was counting.

“All right guys, let’s go!”

We were off.  

The pressure ridge faded into the scenery behind us.

What else could we possibly face during these 440 miles?

The rest of the massive lake, stretching on for 50 miles or more, still looked stable enough. Thankfully, there were now markers placed every few miles. No open water in sight. Or ridges of ice.

Of course it could change at any moment.

I got into my usual rhythm of kicking beside the sled, 10 minutes with the right leg, switch to the left. I simultaneously poled with my ski pole, not missing a beat.

Hypothermia would have no chance unless I stopped moving.

Pushing myself during any race, especially the last 100 miles, was routine. However, I could not remember a time, in all my thousands of miles of racing, I had ever felt so depleted and bitterly exhausted. I was on the verge of collapsing. Arctic waters had zapped the last of my reserves and I wondered from where my strength was coming.

At one point,  I concluded that I was having an out of body experience. While my body and mind were working as a single entity to overcome the odds, my body did not feel my own. I felt entirely separated from it.

In feeling so much, I felt nothing.

I could feel my spirit rising above my physical reality of being in shock.

Was I dying?

The lack of sleep over the last months was teasing all of my weak points.

Unless I caught up to another musher, or an arbitrary snowmachiner, I would see no sign of human life until the finish line in Kotzebue. I felt as though even the most basic communication would be more energy than I could spare, especially since no one could help me anyway.

Pushing to the end was the only option.

Singing out loud, and chatting to the dogs helped to keep my mind awake. The dogs  were  running like champs, still in good spirits and in perfect health. I was now the weak link who could not allow myself to lapse for a second.

 

After what felt like an eternity, the lake shore finally met land. The last 3 or 4 hours we would be running through gentle, rolling hills on the brown, sweet smelling tundra, where only small patches of snow remained. With no glide under the metal runners, our speed noticeably slowed. Running to keep weight off the runners helped, but I couldn’t keep up with their speed for miles on end. I could only run in short bursts, which was better than nothing.

Fatigue brought tears to my eyes, and at moments I thought I could no longer stand.

I sang louder, calling the names of the dogs, and prayed to higher powers to give me the strength to make it home.

The meandering trail stretched into eternity, and my delusional mind believed that we were hopelessly lost, that my body would never leave this tundra. The markers could be from any trail, and out here trails intertwine like mazes, all headed somewhere through more nowhere with nothing in-between.

This kind of doubt I seldom ever had. My sense of direction had always served me well navigating Alaska.

I was unraveling stitch by stitch, as I battled exhaustion. The only confidence remaining was in the ability of my dog team. They had never let me down, and as a team, we had never failed.

At times I ran with my eyes closed.

I stopped as we always did, every hour, to snack the dogs pieces of salmon and beef. All tails were wagging, and their smiles injected me with the same positive energy that I had I given them their whole lives.

 

Unlike all the other nights since the start of the race, the vibrant colors of sunset eluded us and dusk mirrored my mood in every shade of grey.  I longed for the black of night to tell me we were close to the end. My earliest estimated time of arrival to the finish line in Kotzebue was 12:00 midnight, any time after dark. Grey dragged on in every step, every breath, and I wondered why I subjected myself to this kind torture.

Grassy knoll after grassy knoll, held the hope that civilization would suddenly appear and the pain would be over.

Watches can lie in this sport, as Nature fools our perceptions of time and relative distance. More accurate are the natural landmarks and angles of light.

The dull light of this day seemed it would never leave, the hours until dark felt to be an unbearable bending of time. Lost to the infinity of tundra and sky, our existence could remain forever forgotten here.

Solace lay in knowing my dogs were faring better than I.

They blew me away. Had they felt as I did, we would have been crawling.

They showed no weakness.

 

Time and solitude play tricks on a sleep deprived soul. Add in the wild landscape, a body and mind being pushed beyond their limits, and you have a recipe for life altering experiences and realizations.

In this window of space, there is no escape from weakness. No help, no place and no one to run to. No shelter, no phone, no GPS, mile signs, or short cut. No comfort. No distraction. No mercy.

Surrounded by life, simple and raw, there comes a point of total surrender to the power of this Nature.

It swallows you whole, leaves you inseparable.

Truth reveals itself in blinding clarity.

 

 

As the rivers had been melting under our feet, it was the flood of my life that felt to be drowning me.

Yet it could all end here, the fighting, and the fear.

The ancient trail of the Kobuk had been breaking me down, mile by mile and I could no longer deny the truth; in staying loyal to my animals, and dedicating my life to raising this dog team, I had sacrificed my heart, and my integrity.  

If I completed this impossible journey, maybe I would be ready. Ready to stand up for myself, for the last and final time. Ready to risk my life, for the inevitable break away that would win me back my freedom of self. I deserved so much better.

Yet his threats hung heavy like a noose around my neck.

Something in the eyes of the Natives, in their stance, gave me courage. Like a wise hunter, I knew I needed an abundance of patience, and had to keep waiting until the time was right to make my escape. I would take my dogs with me.

I had been letting this man slowly kill me, day after day, year after year.

There was nothing more for him to take.

 

In the arms of the Kobuk Valley, death had pulled me under water, to find me still alive. The warrior within had awakened.

In this still fog of realization, muteness became me. Words seemed a waste, but new melodies flowed from a heart still warm.

A heart emptied and so entirely full.


 

******

 

Darkness came and we moved flawlessly through the night, without a headlamp, our eyes adjusted and keen.  My brain was foggy, half shut down, preventing me from succumbing to the intolerable physical fatigue, while directing all available energy to producing the adrenaline necessary to keep me moving.

 

Then suddenly, the beacons of mercy appeared, lights!

“Home!” I cried. The dogs bolted at the excited tone of my voice. “Kotzebue, we made it!” The team had power in reserve, and plowed ahead as if they had just rested for 12 hours.

“You guys are awesome! “ I shrieked. We were still across the inlet, at least an hour away.  An eternity, but the end was within sight.

 

I had never been so happy to see the distant blur of white, twinkling lights.

Humanity.

For hours I had been convinced we were on the wrong trail, and many miles off course.

As we grew closer, what seemed a black hole, reflecting light, sat between us and the village. What now? Was I hallucinating? I turned on the headlamp, and still was confused. It couldn’t be……. all water?

Oh my God, it was. Not just a little bit, it looked to be the entire ocean stretching out before us.

Well, what is a few more miles of standing water? It must be safe, right? Did I miss a turn, X markers?

I had no energy left to think. Or question.

The dogs showed no hesitation, I would not question them.

What had been the starting line 4 days ago, now the finish line, was a lake. Six inches of water sat on top of the ice. No markers, no finishing banner in sight.

It was a little after 1:00 a.m., and I was headed to the closest possible building. The dogs were thinking the same thing.

The night scene was surreal, as we ran over 12 m.p.h. towards the lights, completely surrounded by water, leaving a wake behind us.

Slowly, the outlines of the buildings and cabins became more defined. Village dogs yipped and barked at our approach. No sign of anyone. The village would of course be sleeping, but where were the race officials, waiting to clock in my time?

Finally we hit land, a gravel dirt road to be more precise. Still there was no sign of anything or anyone related to the race. Did they even know I had left the last checkpoint? Did they think I had stayed with the group of mushers behind me, who wouldn’t be getting in until after the light of morning? What the hell was I supposed to do now?

The gravel was sharp on the dogs feet and my temper flared. I fought tears.

What kind of finish was this? Where was I supposed to go? Nobody, not a soul to welcome our hard earned arrival. Dismayed, I realized I could be in the wrong village. Perhaps this wasn’t Kotzebue and I had just made my team run over 80 miles in the wrong direction.

I refused to make my dogs go any further, and I could not run beside the sled another step. I stopped, secured the sled and praised the dogs profusely. I took off their booties, gave them a snack and proceeded to search for someone.

“Hello! Is there anybody here? “ I hollered. “I just finished the Kobuk race!” I felt like screaming, “do you have any idea what I’ve been through?” I couldn’t believe how the night was continuing.  The numbness was debilitating, my body wanted to collapse. I knocked on doors, making my way up the street. Finally, a sleepy someone appeared and said he’d go find a race official.

So, we had made it home.

I returned to the team, and as emotions swelled to the surface, I struggled to keep myself together. I removed harnesses and fed them more snacks. Their big meal would come whenever we got back to the house of our host family, who would be soundly sleeping. There I had bags of food and straw awaiting our return. Unlike all the other mushers, I had no handler waiting to help me.

“We weren’t expecting you,” the bundled body said. A few men sauntered from the village. “We will take you to your host families house. It’s a little way from here, in the center of the village. A truck is on the way.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”  

I told them what time I hit land, according to my watch. No one seemed to care. No other words were exchanged. I was speechless, as they too seemed to be. I wanted to tell them what happened, but I thought I might start crying. Worse, I thought the story seemed unbelievable. They might think I was just an emotional, un-rational woman talking gibberish, complaining or just a fool who made a stupid decision. It all seemed indescribable. The term pressure ridge was still unknown to my vocabulary. To say I fell in hole sounded ridiculous. So I said nothing. I just focused on my dogs, rubbing shoulders and wrists, while the Natives stood and watched me. All I managed to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m a little tired, we had kind of a crazy run.” No one wanted to carry on a conversation at such a horrid time of the morning anyway.

I thanked them profusely as they helped me load the team and sled into the back of a pick-up. When I sat down in the warm vehicle, I came close to passing out. My clothes were soaking wet, and now the fine outer layer of ice quickly dissipated. Still no one knew I had fallen over my breasts into Arctic water. No one had seen. My body began to throb. I thought I might not be able to stand up again.

We unloaded the dogs and after a hundred more “thank-you’s,” I was left alone with my team outside the small blue house.

3:15 a.m.

I fed the dogs dry kibble and lit my cooker to heat water enough to thaw meat for a soup.  I divided the bale of straw into 12 thick beds, which the dogs could not be more elated about.

The pride I felt was overwhelming. The love and appreciation for my animals surpassed anything I had ever felt before. My dogs were beyond perfect, beyond exceptional and this day they had saved my life, after running flawlessly for 370 miles through horrendous conditions.

15 minutes later they were lapping up their beaver and lamb broth.

 

I stumbled into the house, to the bathroom. Heat was nirvana. I barely had the energy to undress.  The hot water was like stinging pellets against my frozen shell. It made my head spin, restored my breath. My body tingled and swelled. I kept the shower short, afraid I might black out.

The bed threw me into another realm, one I thought I may never return from.

Perhaps I would never fully return to my body.

I slipped away.

Only until it was time to feed the dogs again.

 

******

 

Mushers raised hell at the finishers meeting, ranting about the unprofessionalism, the dangers, the liabilities of the race trail. “They never should have let the teams continue!”

I sat silently drinking tea at the small round table with Iditarod champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, as they enjoyed their coca cola. I listened to their stories, but my mind was elsewhere. I was present, but not really there. As I had guessed, the pressure ridge hadn’t been as bad for those ahead of me. The trail had been re-routed by the time the guys behind me made it to that point. Today the pro’s looked at me differently, talking to me as an equal, asking me my opinions. Had I earned another notch of respect in “their” sport? Little no-named me and my wild, over-sized, mix matched wolf dogs?

I didn’t care.

As much as the mushers complained, I knew they would all come back. I almost felt bad for the race crew, dealing with the wrath of these powerful men. Knowing, unlike the famous Iditarod, the resources for the Kobuk are very limited and they make due with what they have.

Suffering needlessly out on the drowning trail, I certainly had done my share of mental cursing. Now it all just seemed a twist of Mother Nature’s fate.

We are only human, after all. No one can control the nature of ice, hour to hour, minute to minute. It was too late to place blame. We were the ones who left the starting line and never turned back. Thankfully no dogs or mushers were seriously hurt.

 

******

 

Shock lingers. Life goes on. The body copes, work routine keeps the pain at bay, but it never forgets. Memories re-surface when you least expect it and bring you back to the feelings, the place, and the unspoken emotions.

 

I did return with my team to the rich river valley and finish another Kobuk 440, and I did finally leave the man who brought so much darkness to my life.

The man who told me I could never do the things I did indeed do.

 

******

Shorelines are disappearing, and villages are being re-located.  Long struggling to maintain their cultural identity and lifestyle, Native tribes have been forced to depend on unsustainable means of survival and empty promises of the white man. The first people most severely affected by modern industry and climate change are the last thought of in crisis. They are the first to be taken from, the last to be re-paid.

 

The Arctic personifies the web of life that has been dismembered throughout the rest of the world.

To travel through it, to experience it on a spiritual level, is to become it.

Therefore, in leaving, one abandons a part of themself.

 

My life was saved.

My dogs, they carried me.

The Native spirits who inhabit the Kobuk, they guided me.

Without their bloodlines, there would be no team.

Without their trail, I would have smaller eyes.

Without their wisdom, I would be ignorant.

Without their collective presence, I would be lost.

Now, living in this other world, my heart beats to a different drummer.

The beat is never heard here, only in the wind, and the running water.

My veins.











 

AWAKENING


 

The ice gave way beneath my feet as the frigid waters of Selawik Lake engulfed my body. A sharp inhale felt the grip of death, yet my last thoughts were anything but panicked, “I got the dogs over, they will be okay…… this is my death; under the ice, in the middle of nowhere.”

A fleeting thought bid farewell to my parents as I calmly faced my fate.

 

******

 

My feet hit a layer of shelf ice, momentarily stopping the fall. Aquamarine water laced with snow-white ice chunks permeated my body over my breast line. Unstable ice surrounded me. The only hope was the metal end of the sled runner, now balanced above my head on an edge of slab ice. The slightest movement of my 12- dog team would pull this lifeline out of reach.

 

******

 

“ The earliest and fastest break-up we’ve ever seen,” the Natives later claimed of that first weekend in April, 2004.

In less than 12 hours, the seemingly frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers had turned to slush, to overflow, to open running water under a glaring April sun that brought temperatures into the high 40’s.

 

The 440-mile Kobuk Sled Dog Race travels through the Kobuk River Valley, above the Arctic Circle. Starting in the village of Kotzebue, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, it follows the Kobuk River through six different Native villages, passing by the Baird, Jade and Waring Mountain ranges, through the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and skirts the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

On the verge of cancelling the race all together, officials considered re-routing the trail over land to avoid the highway of rivers and tributaries that were melting at an alarming rate. With only 5-6 hours of true darkness, ice and snow pack had little time to harden, let alone freeze during the nights.  The progressive effects of nearly 18 hours of daylight and the sudden heat wave, obliterated the trail.

 

Still the race commenced, with a group of some of the best mushers in the world, gathered to do what they do best, despite and against the odds of Mother Nature, who never fails to test and challenge the most hardened and proven of venturous souls.

Over the years, I thought I had been through it all with my team, from enduring -65 below 0 and blinding snow storms, to battling winds so strong it’s hard to breathe and impossible to keep the sled upright and in line behind the team. We had faced  endless, bone -racking miles of dirt, sand, stumps, rocks, glare ice and glacial moraine, and been drenched in rain storms, pelted by freezing rains and navigated through open water and overflow of all kinds.

However, we had never run through water for hundreds of miles, nor had we ever encountered a pressure ridge.

 

For three days we had been running through water at least ankle deep, sometimes up to mid-calf. A pair of rubber boots would have spared my feet days of misery.  My Iditarod proven system of mukluks and waterproof NEOS overboots failed in the deep water.

 A few hours submerged in water is one thing, days is another.

When not immersed in water, we ran over snowless sand beaches, soft, muddy bogs and brown tundra. The best sections of trail were the miles of glare ice that glittered in brilliant hues of turquoise, royal blues and jade greens. Intricate mosaic webs cracked the slippery surface, over which movement was effortless, even too fast. The ice moaned, cackled and gurgled beneath our weight. The sharp tines of the brake bar were worn down to nothing over the miles of ice, as I was constantly breaking to keep the team at a safe paced trot.

 

Welcome to Spring above latitude 66, ground zero for climate change.

I had been training in sneakers just days before, expecting my flight north to land me in a much colder climate, which was a foolish assumption. Springtime in the North is anything but predictable.

 

Anything is tolerable when you are doing what you love.  

Running my team through the Kobuk Valley was a dream come true.

Weeks earlier we had finished our fifth, 1,049 mile Iditarod Race in 23rd position. After just a few days of rest, the beautiful Spring days found us back on the trails in our home territory. Stronger than ever, the team I had hooked up every day since the previous August, was still screaming to go! My young team and I were in peak condition, so I paid my entry fee and booked a ticket to Kotzebue. The money I had won in the Iditarod bought the 12 dog kennels that would be secured in their own “igloo,” along with my sled, dog food and gear in the belly of the plane. I would be traveling alone, and if I managed to finish in a paying position, the trip would at least pay for itself.

The dogs I had raised from puppies were now in their prime and they could never seem to get enough of the trail. Nothing, not even the unimaginably wet, warm days we found in Kotzebue, could slow them down or hinder their spirit. Like me, they were excited to travel through new country and were completely unphased by the water. Having raised them all as swimmers, the endless horizon of moving water was a non-issue for them. Certainly it helped keep them cool in the unusual heat and they could lap up a drink of water whenever they pleased. Northern husky breeds are happiest running at -5 to -10 degrees below zero. Anything above freezing takes some serious adaptation and the hardest working dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Every half hour or so, I took short “cool down” breaks to prevent any problems. Over ten or twelve hours of running, it made all the difference in our performance. During our long rests, the warmth of the intense sun worked to our advantage. After the usual routine of feeding the team and rubbing every paw, wrist and shoulder with my homemade magic oil, all the harnesses, wet gear, boot liners and clothing were sprawled out over dry straw or hung on the sled to dry. As the dogs slept, I ate, re-hydrated and tried to catch an hour or two of sleep on top of the sled before cooking their second meal and packing everything to go.

 

My nerves were wearing thin, yet the enthusiasm of the dogs never waned. Race trail markers had been non-existent except for those seen floating down stream. Finding and keeping on the right trail, any trail, had demanded constant attention since there was really no defined trail to follow. One river looked like three or four, with wide, muddy channels branching in all directions. Most markers tied to willow or alder bushes, especially leaving the villages, marked only the local snowmachine trails, and were unrelated to the race. Many frustrated attempts following these flags, led to narrow impassible channels of deep water and thick messes of ingrown brush, in which I had to let all the dogs loose to get turned around. Then, retracing my steps to the entrance of the maze, I would try another, and another, until finally we would find a ‘through’ path. Relying merely on instinct, as maps, compasses and GPS’s are not allowed, I followed the lay of the land, using the riverbanks, and lines of the valleys and mountains as landmarks to keep my sense of direction.

 

Speed triples moving over glare ice, but then there is the constant worry that a dog will slip, pull a shoulder, sprain a wrist or fall through the ice. I had no choice but to trust their instincts. Countless times before my leaders had avoided dangerous obstacles without my command, or chosen a better path than the team before us had taken. Their instincts and senses were sharp, and reliable.

But with every passing every hour, the ice was becoming more unstable.

Mile after mile I could see moving water below the ice.

“How can they let us keep going, this is so unsafe?”  My worried thoughts were nagging. “ This is so insane! What am I doing here? This can’t possibly be the trail! If the river opens any more we’ll be stuck here, and it’s too late to turn back!” I started to think that all the other mushers had been directed to another route, and somehow we had not been informed, forgotten.

 

******

 

 Awe prevailed over the stress and discomfort. With every mile of hardship, the enchantment of the Arctic stole my heart.

The vast landscape was breathtaking, and wild. The spirit of the ancient Inupiaq permeated the valley of  “half a million caribou.” The light of the high North, lasting until midnight, cast ethereal shadows and painted boundless sunsets and sunrises of striking beauty. Vivid shades of purples, blues, oranges and pinks lingered until the black veil of night set the backdrop for the Northern lights. They danced to a silent rhythm, illuminating the isolated world into a surreal masterpiece of radiant reds, purples and greens. Some stretched down so far they seemed to touch us, infusing our cells with the magic of the heavens.

 

Natives of all ages welcomed our team into their villages ,with twinkling eyes, and wide, toothless grins. They stood proud in their hand-stitched mukluks and beaver tail hats. The remote communities of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and Selawik, some well over 100 miles apart, look forward to the annual race event and spend days preparing tables of food for mushers and volunteers. Cheers, hugs, and pats on the shoulder from total strangers, made me feel like a family member coming home. Their smiles and hospitality made it hard to leave. In fact, had I not had 50 other huskies and puppies waiting for me at home, I would have stayed.

 

I loved the tiny community I called home, that sat at the ‘end of the road,’ where three massive rivers running out of the Alaska Range converged into one.  These rivers, mountains and trails had become an integral part of my livelihood, but my inescapable “partnership” was a living nightmare that ended up consuming a decade of my young life.

 

I was tempted to just stay in the village of Ambler, and leave it all.  I could raise and train my dogs in the bosom of the Arctic.  Living among the Natives, I could truly practice a life of subsistence and continue my path as I had intended, free from the daily abuse I had grown accustomed to.

I felt akin to this place; this remote region teeming with life, not yet ruined by the outside world. A place called a “barren wasteland” by some of our politicians, that is so very alive, and inspiringly intimidating in its’ silent expanse.  Words cannot evoke its many moods.

One dreaded day they will drill for oil here.

No part of me wanted to leave.

A strong force was pulling at the fringes of my soul. Something as abstract as the Arctic mirror of land and sky, and as defined as the polar bear print left at the trails edge, rapidly melting into the bog carpet of low bush cranberries and Labrador tea.

 

******

 

I spotted the pressure ridge from a distance. The long wall of chunky jumble ice and seeping holes, stretched as far as I could see across the lake to the North and cut through the trail we had been following. Under our feet, fresh lake water was colliding with salty water from the Chukchi Sea. During the process of constant warming, melting and re-freezing, the ice layers were expanding, forming cracks that were refilling with water. The pressure of the current was forcing the ice to push its broken, fragmented layers to the top, forming a formidable mass of ice chunks and slabs. This ridge had risen four feet high and four feet wide in places. While the rest of Selawik lake was still frozen white, dozens of trail markers had been placed in x formations, warning of this impassible danger. There was, however, no visible alternative. I wondered how long it had been since someone had been here. According to the sled runner tracks, barely recognizable after hours in the sun, the few mushers ahead of me had still been able to go straight ahead. The pressure ridge had opened up significantly in the last few hours and now going straight was no longer an option. Someone had been here to block off the trail, and the gaping holes, but they had failed to mark another safe through trail. To the left, the thinner ice leading to shore would bring me to land. I could then follow the shoreline for as long as needed. But would I lose the trail on the other end of lake, or even be able to get back on? Shore ice would be less stable than where we were presently stopped. Not knowing the depth of the lake and being in unfamiliar territory, that option seemed too risky.  There were no tracks of any kind leading off the ice, so my reasoning felt validated. My eyes scanned the ridge to the right, towards the mountains in the distance. The team stilled,  assessing the situation, sensing the obstacle before us. Finally I spotted a break in the markers, indicating a safe way over.

“Gee!”

A sharp 90 degree turn led us parallel along the ridge. My heart accelerated, as I kept the team at a walk. Unnamed and unknown to me, this natural phenomenon evoked a primal fear. The danger was palpable.

Before having a chance to command “haw”, my leaders Jane and Isis immediately saw where the markers stopped and performed a miracle leap. Fearlessly, without hesitation, they jumped up and over the mess of ice, pulling the next four dogs with them. Four dogs landed in the center. The two wheel dogs, the sled and myself were still on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Whoa!” If the leaders moved forward, dogs were going to get injured, as they were now all balancing in-between ice slabs and fissures. Where one could move freely over, another could not. I had no choice but to get off my sled, unhook most of the dogs and help the others over. I grabbed my ski pole to test the ice, though I knew this was no comparison to my weight.

I cautiously placed one foot on the ice, still holding the sled, looking for a safe place to put my other foot farther up the length of the team. In one super stride I could reach the dogs in the middle. I couldn’t unhook them all, as I needed their momentum to help pull the sled over. The jumble ice was terrifying. It felt as though a river was moving below us.

I was dizzy and hot with adrenaline.

Working quickly, I  lifted each dog to safety, moving my feet as little as possible. I unhooked the last two dogs. If the sled got caught on the way over, it wouldn’t pull them down with it.

Now just the sled and my lanky self had to get over.  

The final step onto the runner nearly became the last step of my life.

 

******

 

The cry that escaped my lips cut the heavy silence. The dogs knew exactly what had happened and they did not budge.

The shelf ice, five feet under the surface, held long enough for me to assess the situation and realize, that by some small miracle, the sled was still within my reach.

I seized the end of the runner with my left hand and yelled, “GO!”

In one synchronized motion, the team pulled me up out of the Arctic water, over the pressure ridge, on to stable ice.

As I came to standing, I felt like I was swimming.

Everything inside me was moving in slow motion, I could not even react.

I looked down at myself, soaked through to bottom layers, in complete shock.

I was already wearing the ‘emergency’ stash of dry socks, glove liners and long underwear,  that lived in my sled until needed. On races, these things are sent in resupply bags to the villages and checkpoints with all of our food.  We travel light, carrying only what we need to get to the next re-supply, but always with enough food and fuel to handle 24-48 hours of possibly being stuck in a severe storm, or any number of unexpected situations that can arise out on the trail. The last four water- saturated days had certainly used up all of my dry reserves, and now it seemed the final test was upon me.

The finish line was still about 70 miles away, which could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on the conditions and our speed, my abilities to run, kick and pole.

The autonomic part of my nervous system kicked into gear, as it had before in extreme weather, working under sleep deprivation. Frivolous thoughts cease to exist and the body operates robotically. Emotions are wasteful and no movement is without purpose. The body and mind work synergistically in survival mode.

I knew the danger of the eerie warmth that came over my ice bitten core. Movement was suddenly excruciatingly exhausting, my speech slow, the muscles in my cheeks uncooperative, “Good dogs! “ I managed to sound cheery.

“ Hang out for bit,” I instructed, “I’ve got to try to get dry.” I didn’t recognize the sound of myself. I felt stiff and slow, like glue.

Hollow.

I stripped down, thinking of my thermos still half filled with lukewarm hot chocolate and peppermint tea, wishing I had more, and started ringing out each layer of clothing.

No firewood within 100 miles or more. No people either. The group of mushers behind me had opted to camp at the last checkpoint to dry out their clothes and gear. As tempting as it had been to stay and join them, I had decided to keep going since my team was so strong and happy. Conditions were only getting worse and we were in the money, with only half a day’s journey left to the finish line.

I knew I would soon be hypothermic if I didn’t keep my limbs moving and working constantly. We would be running into the night, and temperatures would only be dropping. The situation could become dire.

Breathe, I thought to myself.

Focus.

No energy for negativity.

Once all the excess water was squeezed out, I tried to warm myself up by rubbing each of the dogs. I talked outloud in my chipper voice, praising each one, checking their booties, making sure none were iced up, and if they were, changing them. My hands and fingers were too stiff to work well. My mind felt as paralyzed as my body. Emotions were overwhelming, as was the numbness. Deep in my belly a fire burned, stoking the furnace that would keep me alive until we reached civilization.

I jumped up and down, did some jumping jacks, and stomped my feet. I knew my light-weight, synthetic insulated clothing, layered with wool, would do its’ job of retaining my body heat although wet. I drank a third of my remaining beverage, saving the rest for the long journey ahead. I had a few bites of my homemade smoked salmon, some goldfish crackers and a fig newton. Over thousands and thousands of trail miles, my selective diet had managed to keep me nourished, energized and quelled the bundle of nerves in my gut, preventing me from feeling sick.

I had to proceed as though nothing had happened. The near fatal event could in no way hinder our progress.  

Life was counting.

“All right guys, let’s go!”

We were off.  

The pressure ridge faded into the scenery behind us.

What else could we possibly face during these 440 miles?

The rest of the massive lake, stretching on for 50 miles or more, still looked stable enough. Thankfully, there were now markers placed every few miles. No open water in sight. Or ridges of ice.

Of course it could change at any moment.

I got into my usual rhythm of kicking beside the sled, 10 minutes with the right leg, switch to the left. I simultaneously poled with my ski pole, not missing a beat.

Hypothermia would have no chance unless I stopped moving.

Pushing myself during any race, especially the last 100 miles, was routine. However, I could not remember a time, in all my thousands of miles of racing, I had ever felt so depleted and bitterly exhausted. I was on the verge of collapsing. Arctic waters had zapped the last of my reserves and I wondered from where my strength was coming.

At one point,  I concluded that I was having an out of body experience. While my body and mind were working as a single entity to overcome the odds, my body did not feel my own. I felt entirely separated from it.

In feeling so much, I felt nothing.

I could feel my spirit rising above my physical reality of being in shock.

Was I dying?

The lack of sleep over the last months was teasing all of my weak points.

Unless I caught up to another musher, or an arbitrary snowmachiner, I would see no sign of human life until the finish line in Kotzebue. I felt as though even the most basic communication would be more energy than I could spare, especially since no one could help me anyway.

Pushing to the end was the only option.

Singing out loud, and chatting to the dogs helped to keep my mind awake. The dogs  were  running like champs, still in good spirits and in perfect health. I was now the weak link who could not allow myself to lapse for a second.

 

After what felt like an eternity, the lake shore finally met land. The last 3 or 4 hours we would be running through gentle, rolling hills on the brown, sweet smelling tundra, where only small patches of snow remained. With no glide under the metal runners, our speed noticeably slowed. Running to keep weight off the runners helped, but I couldn’t keep up with their speed for miles on end. I could only run in short bursts, which was better than nothing.

Fatigue brought tears to my eyes, and at moments I thought I could no longer stand.

I sang louder, calling the names of the dogs, and prayed to higher powers to give me the strength to make it home.

The meandering trail stretched into eternity, and my delusional mind believed that we were hopelessly lost, that my body would never leave this tundra. The markers could be from any trail, and out here trails intertwine like mazes, all headed somewhere through more nowhere with nothing in-between.

This kind of doubt I seldom ever had. My sense of direction had always served me well navigating Alaska.

I was unraveling stitch by stitch, as I battled exhaustion. The only confidence remaining was in the ability of my dog team. They had never let me down, and as a team, we had never failed.

At times I ran with my eyes closed.

I stopped as we always did, every hour, to snack the dogs pieces of salmon and beef. All tails were wagging, and their smiles injected me with the same positive energy that I had I given them their whole lives.

 

Unlike all the other nights since the start of the race, the vibrant colors of sunset eluded us and dusk mirrored my mood in every shade of grey.  I longed for the black of night to tell me we were close to the end. My earliest estimated time of arrival to the finish line in Kotzebue was 12:00 midnight, any time after dark. Grey dragged on in every step, every breath, and I wondered why I subjected myself to this kind torture.

Grassy knoll after grassy knoll, held the hope that civilization would suddenly appear and the pain would be over.

Watches can lie in this sport, as Nature fools our perceptions of time and relative distance. More accurate are the natural landmarks and angles of light.

The dull light of this day seemed it would never leave, the hours until dark felt to be an unbearable bending of time. Lost to the infinity of tundra and sky, our existence could remain forever forgotten here.

Solace lay in knowing my dogs were faring better than I.

They blew me away. Had they felt as I did, we would have been crawling.

They showed no weakness.

 

Time and solitude play tricks on a sleep deprived soul. Add in the wild landscape, a body and mind being pushed beyond their limits, and you have a recipe for life altering experiences and realizations.

In this window of space, there is no escape from weakness. No help, no place and no one to run to. No shelter, no phone, no GPS, mile signs, or short cut. No comfort. No distraction. No mercy.

Surrounded by life, simple and raw, there comes a point of total surrender to the power of this Nature.

It swallows you whole, leaves you inseparable.

Truth reveals itself in blinding clarity.

 

 

As the rivers had been melting under our feet, it was the flood of my life that felt to be drowning me.

Yet it could all end here, the fighting, and the fear.

The ancient trail of the Kobuk had been breaking me down, mile by mile and I could no longer deny the truth; in staying loyal to my animals, and dedicating my life to raising this dog team, I had sacrificed my heart, and my integrity.  

If I completed this impossible journey, maybe I would be ready. Ready to stand up for myself, for the last and final time. Ready to risk my life, for the inevitable break away that would win me back my freedom of self. I deserved so much better.

Yet his threats hung heavy like a noose around my neck.

Something in the eyes of the Natives, in their stance, gave me courage. Like a wise hunter, I knew I needed an abundance of patience, and had to keep waiting until the time was right to make my escape. I would take my dogs with me.

I had been letting this man slowly kill me, day after day, year after year.

There was nothing more for him to take.

 

In the arms of the Kobuk Valley, death had pulled me under water, to find me still alive. The warrior within had awakened.

In this still fog of realization, muteness became me. Words seemed a waste, but new melodies flowed from a heart still warm.

A heart emptied and so entirely full.


 

******

 

Darkness came and we moved flawlessly through the night, without a headlamp, our eyes adjusted and keen.  My brain was foggy, half shut down, preventing me from succumbing to the intolerable physical fatigue, while directing all available energy to producing the adrenaline necessary to keep me moving.

 

Then suddenly, the beacons of mercy appeared, lights!

“Home!” I cried. The dogs bolted at the excited tone of my voice. “Kotzebue, we made it!” The team had power in reserve, and plowed ahead as if they had just rested for 12 hours.

“You guys are awesome! “ I shrieked. We were still across the inlet, at least an hour away.  An eternity, but the end was within sight.

 

I had never been so happy to see the distant blur of white, twinkling lights.

Humanity.

For hours I had been convinced we were on the wrong trail, and many miles off course.

As we grew closer, what seemed a black hole, reflecting light, sat between us and the village. What now? Was I hallucinating? I turned on the headlamp, and still was confused. It couldn’t be……. all water?

Oh my God, it was. Not just a little bit, it looked to be the entire ocean stretching out before us.

Well, what is a few more miles of standing water? It must be safe, right? Did I miss a turn, X markers?

I had no energy left to think. Or question.

The dogs showed no hesitation, I would not question them.

What had been the starting line 4 days ago, now the finish line, was a lake. Six inches of water sat on top of the ice. No markers, no finishing banner in sight.

It was a little after 1:00 a.m., and I was headed to the closest possible building. The dogs were thinking the same thing.

The night scene was surreal, as we ran over 12 m.p.h. towards the lights, completely surrounded by water, leaving a wake behind us.

Slowly, the outlines of the buildings and cabins became more defined. Village dogs yipped and barked at our approach. No sign of anyone. The village would of course be sleeping, but where were the race officials, waiting to clock in my time?

Finally we hit land, a gravel dirt road to be more precise. Still there was no sign of anything or anyone related to the race. Did they even know I had left the last checkpoint? Did they think I had stayed with the group of mushers behind me, who wouldn’t be getting in until after the light of morning? What the hell was I supposed to do now?

The gravel was sharp on the dogs feet and my temper flared. I fought tears.

What kind of finish was this? Where was I supposed to go? Nobody, not a soul to welcome our hard earned arrival. Dismayed, I realized I could be in the wrong village. Perhaps this wasn’t Kotzebue and I had just made my team run over 80 miles in the wrong direction.

I refused to make my dogs go any further, and I could not run beside the sled another step. I stopped, secured the sled and praised the dogs profusely. I took off their booties, gave them a snack and proceeded to search for someone.

“Hello! Is there anybody here? “ I hollered. “I just finished the Kobuk race!” I felt like screaming, “do you have any idea what I’ve been through?” I couldn’t believe how the night was continuing.  The numbness was debilitating, my body wanted to collapse. I knocked on doors, making my way up the street. Finally, a sleepy someone appeared and said he’d go find a race official.

So, we had made it home.

I returned to the team, and as emotions swelled to the surface, I struggled to keep myself together. I removed harnesses and fed them more snacks. Their big meal would come whenever we got back to the house of our host family, who would be soundly sleeping. There I had bags of food and straw awaiting our return. Unlike all the other mushers, I had no handler waiting to help me.

“We weren’t expecting you,” the bundled body said. A few men sauntered from the village. “We will take you to your host families house. It’s a little way from here, in the center of the village. A truck is on the way.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”  

I told them what time I hit land, according to my watch. No one seemed to care. No other words were exchanged. I was speechless, as they too seemed to be. I wanted to tell them what happened, but I thought I might start crying. Worse, I thought the story seemed unbelievable. They might think I was just an emotional, un-rational woman talking gibberish, complaining or just a fool who made a stupid decision. It all seemed indescribable. The term pressure ridge was still unknown to my vocabulary. To say I fell in hole sounded ridiculous. So I said nothing. I just focused on my dogs, rubbing shoulders and wrists, while the Natives stood and watched me. All I managed to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m a little tired, we had kind of a crazy run.” No one wanted to carry on a conversation at such a horrid time of the morning anyway.

I thanked them profusely as they helped me load the team and sled into the back of a pick-up. When I sat down in the warm vehicle, I came close to passing out. My clothes were soaking wet, and now the fine outer layer of ice quickly dissipated. Still no one knew I had fallen over my breasts into Arctic water. No one had seen. My body began to throb. I thought I might not be able to stand up again.

We unloaded the dogs and after a hundred more “thank-you’s,” I was left alone with my team outside the small blue house.

3:15 a.m.

I fed the dogs dry kibble and lit my cooker to heat water enough to thaw meat for a soup.  I divided the bale of straw into 12 thick beds, which the dogs could not be more elated about.

The pride I felt was overwhelming. The love and appreciation for my animals surpassed anything I had ever felt before. My dogs were beyond perfect, beyond exceptional and this day they had saved my life, after running flawlessly for 370 miles through horrendous conditions.

15 minutes later they were lapping up their beaver and lamb broth.

 

I stumbled into the house, to the bathroom. Heat was nirvana. I barely had the energy to undress.  The hot water was like stinging pellets against my frozen shell. It made my head spin, restored my breath. My body tingled and swelled. I kept the shower short, afraid I might black out.

The bed threw me into another realm, one I thought I may never return from.

Perhaps I would never fully return to my body.

I slipped away.

Only until it was time to feed the dogs again.

 

******

 

Mushers raised hell at the finishers meeting, ranting about the unprofessionalism, the dangers, the liabilities of the race trail. “They never should have let the teams continue!”

I sat silently drinking tea at the small round table with Iditarod champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, as they enjoyed their coca cola. I listened to their stories, but my mind was elsewhere. I was present, but not really there. As I had guessed, the pressure ridge hadn’t been as bad for those ahead of me. The trail had been re-routed by the time the guys behind me made it to that point. Today the pro’s looked at me differently, talking to me as an equal, asking me my opinions. Had I earned another notch of respect in “their” sport? Little no-named me and my wild, over-sized, mix matched wolf dogs?

I didn’t care.

As much as the mushers complained, I knew they would all come back. I almost felt bad for the race crew, dealing with the wrath of these powerful men. Knowing, unlike the famous Iditarod, the resources for the Kobuk are very limited and they make due with what they have.

Suffering needlessly out on the drowning trail, I certainly had done my share of mental cursing. Now it all just seemed a twist of Mother Nature’s fate.

We are only human, after all. No one can control the nature of ice, hour to hour, minute to minute. It was too late to place blame. We were the ones who left the starting line and never turned back. Thankfully no dogs or mushers were seriously hurt.

 

******

 

Shock lingers. Life goes on. The body copes, work routine keeps the pain at bay, but it never forgets. Memories re-surface when you least expect it and bring you back to the feelings, the place, and the unspoken emotions.

 

I did return with my team to the rich river valley and finish another Kobuk 440, and I did finally leave the man who brought so much darkness to my life.

The man who told me I could never do the things I did indeed do.

 

******

Shorelines are disappearing, and villages are being re-located.  Long struggling to maintain their cultural identity and lifestyle, Native tribes have been forced to depend on unsustainable means of survival and empty promises of the white man. The first people most severely affected by modern industry and climate change are the last thought of in crisis. They are the first to be taken from, the last to be re-paid.

 

The Arctic personifies the web of life that has been dismembered throughout the rest of the world.

To travel through it, to experience it on a spiritual level, is to become it.

Therefore, in leaving, one abandons a part of themself.

 

My life was saved.

My dogs, they carried me.

The Native spirits who inhabit the Kobuk, they guided me.

Without their bloodlines, there would be no team.

Without their trail, I would have smaller eyes.

Without their wisdom, I would be ignorant.

Without their collective presence, I would be lost.

Now, living in this other world, my heart beats to a different drummer.

The beat is never heard here, only in the wind, and the running water.

My veins.











 

AWAKENING


 

The ice gave way beneath my feet as the frigid waters of Selawik Lake engulfed my body. A sharp inhale felt the grip of death, yet my last thoughts were anything but panicked, “I got the dogs over, they will be okay…… this is my death; under the ice, in the middle of nowhere.”

A fleeting thought bid farewell to my parents as I calmly faced my fate.

 

******

 

My feet hit a layer of shelf ice, momentarily stopping the fall. Aquamarine water laced with snow-white ice chunks permeated my body over my breast line. Unstable ice surrounded me. The only hope was the metal end of the sled runner, now balanced above my head on an edge of slab ice. The slightest movement of my 12- dog team would pull this lifeline out of reach.

 

******

 

“ The earliest and fastest break-up we’ve ever seen,” the Natives later claimed of that first weekend in April, 2004.

In less than 12 hours, the seemingly frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers had turned to slush, to overflow, to open running water under a glaring April sun that brought temperatures into the high 40’s.

 

The 440-mile Kobuk Sled Dog Race travels through the Kobuk River Valley, above the Arctic Circle. Starting in the village of Kotzebue, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, it follows the Kobuk River through six different Native villages, passing by the Baird, Jade and Waring Mountain ranges, through the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and skirts the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

On the verge of cancelling the race all together, officials considered re-routing the trail over land to avoid the highway of rivers and tributaries that were melting at an alarming rate. With only 5-6 hours of true darkness, ice and snow pack had little time to harden, let alone freeze during the nights.  The progressive effects of nearly 18 hours of daylight and the sudden heat wave, obliterated the trail.

 

Still the race commenced, with a group of some of the best mushers in the world, gathered to do what they do best, despite and against the odds of Mother Nature, who never fails to test and challenge the most hardened and proven of venturous souls.

Over the years, I thought I had been through it all with my team, from enduring -65 below 0 and blinding snow storms, to battling winds so strong it’s hard to breathe and impossible to keep the sled upright and in line behind the team. We had faced  endless, bone -racking miles of dirt, sand, stumps, rocks, glare ice and glacial moraine, and been drenched in rain storms, pelted by freezing rains and navigated through open water and overflow of all kinds.

However, we had never run through water for hundreds of miles, nor had we ever encountered a pressure ridge.

 

For three days we had been running through water at least ankle deep, sometimes up to mid-calf. A pair of rubber boots would have spared my feet days of misery.  My Iditarod proven system of mukluks and waterproof NEOS overboots failed in the deep water.

 A few hours submerged in water is one thing, days is another.

When not immersed in water, we ran over snowless sand beaches, soft, muddy bogs and brown tundra. The best sections of trail were the miles of glare ice that glittered in brilliant hues of turquoise, royal blues and jade greens. Intricate mosaic webs cracked the slippery surface, over which movement was effortless, even too fast. The ice moaned, cackled and gurgled beneath our weight. The sharp tines of the brake bar were worn down to nothing over the miles of ice, as I was constantly breaking to keep the team at a safe paced trot.

 

Welcome to Spring above latitude 66, ground zero for climate change.

I had been training in sneakers just days before, expecting my flight north to land me in a much colder climate, which was a foolish assumption. Springtime in the North is anything but predictable.

 

Anything is tolerable when you are doing what you love.  

Running my team through the Kobuk Valley was a dream come true.

Weeks earlier we had finished our fifth, 1,049 mile Iditarod Race in 23rd position. After just a few days of rest, the beautiful Spring days found us back on the trails in our home territory. Stronger than ever, the team I had hooked up every day since the previous August, was still screaming to go! My young team and I were in peak condition, so I paid my entry fee and booked a ticket to Kotzebue. The money I had won in the Iditarod bought the 12 dog kennels that would be secured in their own “igloo,” along with my sled, dog food and gear in the belly of the plane. I would be traveling alone, and if I managed to finish in a paying position, the trip would at least pay for itself.

The dogs I had raised from puppies were now in their prime and they could never seem to get enough of the trail. Nothing, not even the unimaginably wet, warm days we found in Kotzebue, could slow them down or hinder their spirit. Like me, they were excited to travel through new country and were completely unphased by the water. Having raised them all as swimmers, the endless horizon of moving water was a non-issue for them. Certainly it helped keep them cool in the unusual heat and they could lap up a drink of water whenever they pleased. Northern husky breeds are happiest running at -5 to -10 degrees below zero. Anything above freezing takes some serious adaptation and the hardest working dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Every half hour or so, I took short “cool down” breaks to prevent any problems. Over ten or twelve hours of running, it made all the difference in our performance. During our long rests, the warmth of the intense sun worked to our advantage. After the usual routine of feeding the team and rubbing every paw, wrist and shoulder with my homemade magic oil, all the harnesses, wet gear, boot liners and clothing were sprawled out over dry straw or hung on the sled to dry. As the dogs slept, I ate, re-hydrated and tried to catch an hour or two of sleep on top of the sled before cooking their second meal and packing everything to go.

 

My nerves were wearing thin, yet the enthusiasm of the dogs never waned. Race trail markers had been non-existent except for those seen floating down stream. Finding and keeping on the right trail, any trail, had demanded constant attention since there was really no defined trail to follow. One river looked like three or four, with wide, muddy channels branching in all directions. Most markers tied to willow or alder bushes, especially leaving the villages, marked only the local snowmachine trails, and were unrelated to the race. Many frustrated attempts following these flags, led to narrow impassible channels of deep water and thick messes of ingrown brush, in which I had to let all the dogs loose to get turned around. Then, retracing my steps to the entrance of the maze, I would try another, and another, until finally we would find a ‘through’ path. Relying merely on instinct, as maps, compasses and GPS’s are not allowed, I followed the lay of the land, using the riverbanks, and lines of the valleys and mountains as landmarks to keep my sense of direction.

 

Speed triples moving over glare ice, but then there is the constant worry that a dog will slip, pull a shoulder, sprain a wrist or fall through the ice. I had no choice but to trust their instincts. Countless times before my leaders had avoided dangerous obstacles without my command, or chosen a better path than the team before us had taken. Their instincts and senses were sharp, and reliable.

But with every passing every hour, the ice was becoming more unstable.

Mile after mile I could see moving water below the ice.

“How can they let us keep going, this is so unsafe?”  My worried thoughts were nagging. “ This is so insane! What am I doing here? This can’t possibly be the trail! If the river opens any more we’ll be stuck here, and it’s too late to turn back!” I started to think that all the other mushers had been directed to another route, and somehow we had not been informed, forgotten.

 

******

 

 Awe prevailed over the stress and discomfort. With every mile of hardship, the enchantment of the Arctic stole my heart.

The vast landscape was breathtaking, and wild. The spirit of the ancient Inupiaq permeated the valley of  “half a million caribou.” The light of the high North, lasting until midnight, cast ethereal shadows and painted boundless sunsets and sunrises of striking beauty. Vivid shades of purples, blues, oranges and pinks lingered until the black veil of night set the backdrop for the Northern lights. They danced to a silent rhythm, illuminating the isolated world into a surreal masterpiece of radiant reds, purples and greens. Some stretched down so far they seemed to touch us, infusing our cells with the magic of the heavens.

 

Natives of all ages welcomed our team into their villages ,with twinkling eyes, and wide, toothless grins. They stood proud in their hand-stitched mukluks and beaver tail hats. The remote communities of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and Selawik, some well over 100 miles apart, look forward to the annual race event and spend days preparing tables of food for mushers and volunteers. Cheers, hugs, and pats on the shoulder from total strangers, made me feel like a family member coming home. Their smiles and hospitality made it hard to leave. In fact, had I not had 50 other huskies and puppies waiting for me at home, I would have stayed.

 

I loved the tiny community I called home, that sat at the ‘end of the road,’ where three massive rivers running out of the Alaska Range converged into one.  These rivers, mountains and trails had become an integral part of my livelihood, but my inescapable “partnership” was a living nightmare that ended up consuming a decade of my young life.

 

I was tempted to just stay in the village of Ambler, and leave it all.  I could raise and train my dogs in the bosom of the Arctic.  Living among the Natives, I could truly practice a life of subsistence and continue my path as I had intended, free from the daily abuse I had grown accustomed to.

I felt akin to this place; this remote region teeming with life, not yet ruined by the outside world. A place called a “barren wasteland” by some of our politicians, that is so very alive, and inspiringly intimidating in its’ silent expanse.  Words cannot evoke its many moods.

One dreaded day they will drill for oil here.

No part of me wanted to leave.

A strong force was pulling at the fringes of my soul. Something as abstract as the Arctic mirror of land and sky, and as defined as the polar bear print left at the trails edge, rapidly melting into the bog carpet of low bush cranberries and Labrador tea.

 

******

 

I spotted the pressure ridge from a distance. The long wall of chunky jumble ice and seeping holes, stretched as far as I could see across the lake to the North and cut through the trail we had been following. Under our feet, fresh lake water was colliding with salty water from the Chukchi Sea. During the process of constant warming, melting and re-freezing, the ice layers were expanding, forming cracks that were refilling with water. The pressure of the current was forcing the ice to push its broken, fragmented layers to the top, forming a formidable mass of ice chunks and slabs. This ridge had risen four feet high and four feet wide in places. While the rest of Selawik lake was still frozen white, dozens of trail markers had been placed in x formations, warning of this impassible danger. There was, however, no visible alternative. I wondered how long it had been since someone had been here. According to the sled runner tracks, barely recognizable after hours in the sun, the few mushers ahead of me had still been able to go straight ahead. The pressure ridge had opened up significantly in the last few hours and now going straight was no longer an option. Someone had been here to block off the trail, and the gaping holes, but they had failed to mark another safe through trail. To the left, the thinner ice leading to shore would bring me to land. I could then follow the shoreline for as long as needed. But would I lose the trail on the other end of lake, or even be able to get back on? Shore ice would be less stable than where we were presently stopped. Not knowing the depth of the lake and being in unfamiliar territory, that option seemed too risky.  There were no tracks of any kind leading off the ice, so my reasoning felt validated. My eyes scanned the ridge to the right, towards the mountains in the distance. The team stilled,  assessing the situation, sensing the obstacle before us. Finally I spotted a break in the markers, indicating a safe way over.

“Gee!”

A sharp 90 degree turn led us parallel along the ridge. My heart accelerated, as I kept the team at a walk. Unnamed and unknown to me, this natural phenomenon evoked a primal fear. The danger was palpable.

Before having a chance to command “haw”, my leaders Jane and Isis immediately saw where the markers stopped and performed a miracle leap. Fearlessly, without hesitation, they jumped up and over the mess of ice, pulling the next four dogs with them. Four dogs landed in the center. The two wheel dogs, the sled and myself were still on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Whoa!” If the leaders moved forward, dogs were going to get injured, as they were now all balancing in-between ice slabs and fissures. Where one could move freely over, another could not. I had no choice but to get off my sled, unhook most of the dogs and help the others over. I grabbed my ski pole to test the ice, though I knew this was no comparison to my weight.

I cautiously placed one foot on the ice, still holding the sled, looking for a safe place to put my other foot farther up the length of the team. In one super stride I could reach the dogs in the middle. I couldn’t unhook them all, as I needed their momentum to help pull the sled over. The jumble ice was terrifying. It felt as though a river was moving below us.

I was dizzy and hot with adrenaline.

Working quickly, I  lifted each dog to safety, moving my feet as little as possible. I unhooked the last two dogs. If the sled got caught on the way over, it wouldn’t pull them down with it.

Now just the sled and my lanky self had to get over.  

The final step onto the runner nearly became the last step of my life.

 

******

 

The cry that escaped my lips cut the heavy silence. The dogs knew exactly what had happened and they did not budge.

The shelf ice, five feet under the surface, held long enough for me to assess the situation and realize, that by some small miracle, the sled was still within my reach.

I seized the end of the runner with my left hand and yelled, “GO!”

In one synchronized motion, the team pulled me up out of the Arctic water, over the pressure ridge, on to stable ice.

As I came to standing, I felt like I was swimming.

Everything inside me was moving in slow motion, I could not even react.

I looked down at myself, soaked through to bottom layers, in complete shock.

I was already wearing the ‘emergency’ stash of dry socks, glove liners and long underwear,  that lived in my sled until needed. On races, these things are sent in resupply bags to the villages and checkpoints with all of our food.  We travel light, carrying only what we need to get to the next re-supply, but always with enough food and fuel to handle 24-48 hours of possibly being stuck in a severe storm, or any number of unexpected situations that can arise out on the trail. The last four water- saturated days had certainly used up all of my dry reserves, and now it seemed the final test was upon me.

The finish line was still about 70 miles away, which could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on the conditions and our speed, my abilities to run, kick and pole.

The autonomic part of my nervous system kicked into gear, as it had before in extreme weather, working under sleep deprivation. Frivolous thoughts cease to exist and the body operates robotically. Emotions are wasteful and no movement is without purpose. The body and mind work synergistically in survival mode.

I knew the danger of the eerie warmth that came over my ice bitten core. Movement was suddenly excruciatingly exhausting, my speech slow, the muscles in my cheeks uncooperative, “Good dogs! “ I managed to sound cheery.

“ Hang out for bit,” I instructed, “I’ve got to try to get dry.” I didn’t recognize the sound of myself. I felt stiff and slow, like glue.

Hollow.

I stripped down, thinking of my thermos still half filled with lukewarm hot chocolate and peppermint tea, wishing I had more, and started ringing out each layer of clothing.

No firewood within 100 miles or more. No people either. The group of mushers behind me had opted to camp at the last checkpoint to dry out their clothes and gear. As tempting as it had been to stay and join them, I had decided to keep going since my team was so strong and happy. Conditions were only getting worse and we were in the money, with only half a day’s journey left to the finish line.

I knew I would soon be hypothermic if I didn’t keep my limbs moving and working constantly. We would be running into the night, and temperatures would only be dropping. The situation could become dire.

Breathe, I thought to myself.

Focus.

No energy for negativity.

Once all the excess water was squeezed out, I tried to warm myself up by rubbing each of the dogs. I talked outloud in my chipper voice, praising each one, checking their booties, making sure none were iced up, and if they were, changing them. My hands and fingers were too stiff to work well. My mind felt as paralyzed as my body. Emotions were overwhelming, as was the numbness. Deep in my belly a fire burned, stoking the furnace that would keep me alive until we reached civilization.

I jumped up and down, did some jumping jacks, and stomped my feet. I knew my light-weight, synthetic insulated clothing, layered with wool, would do its’ job of retaining my body heat although wet. I drank a third of my remaining beverage, saving the rest for the long journey ahead. I had a few bites of my homemade smoked salmon, some goldfish crackers and a fig newton. Over thousands and thousands of trail miles, my selective diet had managed to keep me nourished, energized and quelled the bundle of nerves in my gut, preventing me from feeling sick.

I had to proceed as though nothing had happened. The near fatal event could in no way hinder our progress.  

Life was counting.

“All right guys, let’s go!”

We were off.  

The pressure ridge faded into the scenery behind us.

What else could we possibly face during these 440 miles?

The rest of the massive lake, stretching on for 50 miles or more, still looked stable enough. Thankfully, there were now markers placed every few miles. No open water in sight. Or ridges of ice.

Of course it could change at any moment.

I got into my usual rhythm of kicking beside the sled, 10 minutes with the right leg, switch to the left. I simultaneously poled with my ski pole, not missing a beat.

Hypothermia would have no chance unless I stopped moving.

Pushing myself during any race, especially the last 100 miles, was routine. However, I could not remember a time, in all my thousands of miles of racing, I had ever felt so depleted and bitterly exhausted. I was on the verge of collapsing. Arctic waters had zapped the last of my reserves and I wondered from where my strength was coming.

At one point,  I concluded that I was having an out of body experience. While my body and mind were working as a single entity to overcome the odds, my body did not feel my own. I felt entirely separated from it.

In feeling so much, I felt nothing.

I could feel my spirit rising above my physical reality of being in shock.

Was I dying?

The lack of sleep over the last months was teasing all of my weak points.

Unless I caught up to another musher, or an arbitrary snowmachiner, I would see no sign of human life until the finish line in Kotzebue. I felt as though even the most basic communication would be more energy than I could spare, especially since no one could help me anyway.

Pushing to the end was the only option.

Singing out loud, and chatting to the dogs helped to keep my mind awake. The dogs  were  running like champs, still in good spirits and in perfect health. I was now the weak link who could not allow myself to lapse for a second.

 

After what felt like an eternity, the lake shore finally met land. The last 3 or 4 hours we would be running through gentle, rolling hills on the brown, sweet smelling tundra, where only small patches of snow remained. With no glide under the metal runners, our speed noticeably slowed. Running to keep weight off the runners helped, but I couldn’t keep up with their speed for miles on end. I could only run in short bursts, which was better than nothing.

Fatigue brought tears to my eyes, and at moments I thought I could no longer stand.

I sang louder, calling the names of the dogs, and prayed to higher powers to give me the strength to make it home.

The meandering trail stretched into eternity, and my delusional mind believed that we were hopelessly lost, that my body would never leave this tundra. The markers could be from any trail, and out here trails intertwine like mazes, all headed somewhere through more nowhere with nothing in-between.

This kind of doubt I seldom ever had. My sense of direction had always served me well navigating Alaska.

I was unraveling stitch by stitch, as I battled exhaustion. The only confidence remaining was in the ability of my dog team. They had never let me down, and as a team, we had never failed.

At times I ran with my eyes closed.

I stopped as we always did, every hour, to snack the dogs pieces of salmon and beef. All tails were wagging, and their smiles injected me with the same positive energy that I had I given them their whole lives.

 

Unlike all the other nights since the start of the race, the vibrant colors of sunset eluded us and dusk mirrored my mood in every shade of grey.  I longed for the black of night to tell me we were close to the end. My earliest estimated time of arrival to the finish line in Kotzebue was 12:00 midnight, any time after dark. Grey dragged on in every step, every breath, and I wondered why I subjected myself to this kind torture.

Grassy knoll after grassy knoll, held the hope that civilization would suddenly appear and the pain would be over.

Watches can lie in this sport, as Nature fools our perceptions of time and relative distance. More accurate are the natural landmarks and angles of light.

The dull light of this day seemed it would never leave, the hours until dark felt to be an unbearable bending of time. Lost to the infinity of tundra and sky, our existence could remain forever forgotten here.

Solace lay in knowing my dogs were faring better than I.

They blew me away. Had they felt as I did, we would have been crawling.

They showed no weakness.

 

Time and solitude play tricks on a sleep deprived soul. Add in the wild landscape, a body and mind being pushed beyond their limits, and you have a recipe for life altering experiences and realizations.

In this window of space, there is no escape from weakness. No help, no place and no one to run to. No shelter, no phone, no GPS, mile signs, or short cut. No comfort. No distraction. No mercy.

Surrounded by life, simple and raw, there comes a point of total surrender to the power of this Nature.

It swallows you whole, leaves you inseparable.

Truth reveals itself in blinding clarity.

 

 

As the rivers had been melting under our feet, it was the flood of my life that felt to be drowning me.

Yet it could all end here, the fighting, and the fear.

The ancient trail of the Kobuk had been breaking me down, mile by mile and I could no longer deny the truth; in staying loyal to my animals, and dedicating my life to raising this dog team, I had sacrificed my heart, and my integrity.  

If I completed this impossible journey, maybe I would be ready. Ready to stand up for myself, for the last and final time. Ready to risk my life, for the inevitable break away that would win me back my freedom of self. I deserved so much better.

Yet his threats hung heavy like a noose around my neck.

Something in the eyes of the Natives, in their stance, gave me courage. Like a wise hunter, I knew I needed an abundance of patience, and had to keep waiting until the time was right to make my escape. I would take my dogs with me.

I had been letting this man slowly kill me, day after day, year after year.

There was nothing more for him to take.

 

In the arms of the Kobuk Valley, death had pulled me under water, to find me still alive. The warrior within had awakened.

In this still fog of realization, muteness became me. Words seemed a waste, but new melodies flowed from a heart still warm.

A heart emptied and so entirely full.


 

******

 

Darkness came and we moved flawlessly through the night, without a headlamp, our eyes adjusted and keen.  My brain was foggy, half shut down, preventing me from succumbing to the intolerable physical fatigue, while directing all available energy to producing the adrenaline necessary to keep me moving.

 

Then suddenly, the beacons of mercy appeared, lights!

“Home!” I cried. The dogs bolted at the excited tone of my voice. “Kotzebue, we made it!” The team had power in reserve, and plowed ahead as if they had just rested for 12 hours.

“You guys are awesome! “ I shrieked. We were still across the inlet, at least an hour away.  An eternity, but the end was within sight.

 

I had never been so happy to see the distant blur of white, twinkling lights.

Humanity.

For hours I had been convinced we were on the wrong trail, and many miles off course.

As we grew closer, what seemed a black hole, reflecting light, sat between us and the village. What now? Was I hallucinating? I turned on the headlamp, and still was confused. It couldn’t be……. all water?

Oh my God, it was. Not just a little bit, it looked to be the entire ocean stretching out before us.

Well, what is a few more miles of standing water? It must be safe, right? Did I miss a turn, X markers?

I had no energy left to think. Or question.

The dogs showed no hesitation, I would not question them.

What had been the starting line 4 days ago, now the finish line, was a lake. Six inches of water sat on top of the ice. No markers, no finishing banner in sight.

It was a little after 1:00 a.m., and I was headed to the closest possible building. The dogs were thinking the same thing.

The night scene was surreal, as we ran over 12 m.p.h. towards the lights, completely surrounded by water, leaving a wake behind us.

Slowly, the outlines of the buildings and cabins became more defined. Village dogs yipped and barked at our approach. No sign of anyone. The village would of course be sleeping, but where were the race officials, waiting to clock in my time?

Finally we hit land, a gravel dirt road to be more precise. Still there was no sign of anything or anyone related to the race. Did they even know I had left the last checkpoint? Did they think I had stayed with the group of mushers behind me, who wouldn’t be getting in until after the light of morning? What the hell was I supposed to do now?

The gravel was sharp on the dogs feet and my temper flared. I fought tears.

What kind of finish was this? Where was I supposed to go? Nobody, not a soul to welcome our hard earned arrival. Dismayed, I realized I could be in the wrong village. Perhaps this wasn’t Kotzebue and I had just made my team run over 80 miles in the wrong direction.

I refused to make my dogs go any further, and I could not run beside the sled another step. I stopped, secured the sled and praised the dogs profusely. I took off their booties, gave them a snack and proceeded to search for someone.

“Hello! Is there anybody here? “ I hollered. “I just finished the Kobuk race!” I felt like screaming, “do you have any idea what I’ve been through?” I couldn’t believe how the night was continuing.  The numbness was debilitating, my body wanted to collapse. I knocked on doors, making my way up the street. Finally, a sleepy someone appeared and said he’d go find a race official.

So, we had made it home.

I returned to the team, and as emotions swelled to the surface, I struggled to keep myself together. I removed harnesses and fed them more snacks. Their big meal would come whenever we got back to the house of our host family, who would be soundly sleeping. There I had bags of food and straw awaiting our return. Unlike all the other mushers, I had no handler waiting to help me.

“We weren’t expecting you,” the bundled body said. A few men sauntered from the village. “We will take you to your host families house. It’s a little way from here, in the center of the village. A truck is on the way.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”  

I told them what time I hit land, according to my watch. No one seemed to care. No other words were exchanged. I was speechless, as they too seemed to be. I wanted to tell them what happened, but I thought I might start crying. Worse, I thought the story seemed unbelievable. They might think I was just an emotional, un-rational woman talking gibberish, complaining or just a fool who made a stupid decision. It all seemed indescribable. The term pressure ridge was still unknown to my vocabulary. To say I fell in hole sounded ridiculous. So I said nothing. I just focused on my dogs, rubbing shoulders and wrists, while the Natives stood and watched me. All I managed to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m a little tired, we had kind of a crazy run.” No one wanted to carry on a conversation at such a horrid time of the morning anyway.

I thanked them profusely as they helped me load the team and sled into the back of a pick-up. When I sat down in the warm vehicle, I came close to passing out. My clothes were soaking wet, and now the fine outer layer of ice quickly dissipated. Still no one knew I had fallen over my breasts into Arctic water. No one had seen. My body began to throb. I thought I might not be able to stand up again.

We unloaded the dogs and after a hundred more “thank-you’s,” I was left alone with my team outside the small blue house.

3:15 a.m.

I fed the dogs dry kibble and lit my cooker to heat water enough to thaw meat for a soup.  I divided the bale of straw into 12 thick beds, which the dogs could not be more elated about.

The pride I felt was overwhelming. The love and appreciation for my animals surpassed anything I had ever felt before. My dogs were beyond perfect, beyond exceptional and this day they had saved my life, after running flawlessly for 370 miles through horrendous conditions.

15 minutes later they were lapping up their beaver and lamb broth.

 

I stumbled into the house, to the bathroom. Heat was nirvana. I barely had the energy to undress.  The hot water was like stinging pellets against my frozen shell. It made my head spin, restored my breath. My body tingled and swelled. I kept the shower short, afraid I might black out.

The bed threw me into another realm, one I thought I may never return from.

Perhaps I would never fully return to my body.

I slipped away.

Only until it was time to feed the dogs again.

 

******

 

Mushers raised hell at the finishers meeting, ranting about the unprofessionalism, the dangers, the liabilities of the race trail. “They never should have let the teams continue!”

I sat silently drinking tea at the small round table with Iditarod champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, as they enjoyed their coca cola. I listened to their stories, but my mind was elsewhere. I was present, but not really there. As I had guessed, the pressure ridge hadn’t been as bad for those ahead of me. The trail had been re-routed by the time the guys behind me made it to that point. Today the pro’s looked at me differently, talking to me as an equal, asking me my opinions. Had I earned another notch of respect in “their” sport? Little no-named me and my wild, over-sized, mix matched wolf dogs?

I didn’t care.

As much as the mushers complained, I knew they would all come back. I almost felt bad for the race crew, dealing with the wrath of these powerful men. Knowing, unlike the famous Iditarod, the resources for the Kobuk are very limited and they make due with what they have.

Suffering needlessly out on the drowning trail, I certainly had done my share of mental cursing. Now it all just seemed a twist of Mother Nature’s fate.

We are only human, after all. No one can control the nature of ice, hour to hour, minute to minute. It was too late to place blame. We were the ones who left the starting line and never turned back. Thankfully no dogs or mushers were seriously hurt.

 

******

 

Shock lingers. Life goes on. The body copes, work routine keeps the pain at bay, but it never forgets. Memories re-surface when you least expect it and bring you back to the feelings, the place, and the unspoken emotions.

 

I did return with my team to the rich river valley and finish another Kobuk 440, and I did finally leave the man who brought so much darkness to my life.

The man who told me I could never do the things I did indeed do.

 

******

Shorelines are disappearing, and villages are being re-located.  Long struggling to maintain their cultural identity and lifestyle, Native tribes have been forced to depend on unsustainable means of survival and empty promises of the white man. The first people most severely affected by modern industry and climate change are the last thought of in crisis. They are the first to be taken from, the last to be re-paid.

 

The Arctic personifies the web of life that has been dismembered throughout the rest of the world.

To travel through it, to experience it on a spiritual level, is to become it.

Therefore, in leaving, one abandons a part of themself.

 

My life was saved.

My dogs, they carried me.

The Native spirits who inhabit the Kobuk, they guided me.

Without their bloodlines, there would be no team.

Without their trail, I would have smaller eyes.

Without their wisdom, I would be ignorant.

Without their collective presence, I would be lost.

Now, living in this other world, my heart beats to a different drummer.

The beat is never heard here, only in the wind, and the running water.

My veins.











 

AWAKENING


 

The ice gave way beneath my feet as the frigid waters of Selawik Lake engulfed my body. A sharp inhale felt the grip of death, yet my last thoughts were anything but panicked, “I got the dogs over, they will be okay…… this is my death; under the ice, in the middle of nowhere.”

A fleeting thought bid farewell to my parents as I calmly faced my fate.

 

******

 

My feet hit a layer of shelf ice, momentarily stopping the fall. Aquamarine water laced with snow-white ice chunks permeated my body over my breast line. Unstable ice surrounded me. The only hope was the metal end of the sled runner, now balanced above my head on an edge of slab ice. The slightest movement of my 12- dog team would pull this lifeline out of reach.

 

******

 

“ The earliest and fastest break-up we’ve ever seen,” the Natives later claimed of that first weekend in April, 2004.

In less than 12 hours, the seemingly frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers had turned to slush, to overflow, to open running water under a glaring April sun that brought temperatures into the high 40’s.

 

The 440-mile Kobuk Sled Dog Race travels through the Kobuk River Valley, above the Arctic Circle. Starting in the village of Kotzebue, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, it follows the Kobuk River through six different Native villages, passing by the Baird, Jade and Waring Mountain ranges, through the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and skirts the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

On the verge of cancelling the race all together, officials considered re-routing the trail over land to avoid the highway of rivers and tributaries that were melting at an alarming rate. With only 5-6 hours of true darkness, ice and snow pack had little time to harden, let alone freeze during the nights.  The progressive effects of nearly 18 hours of daylight and the sudden heat wave, obliterated the trail.

 

Still the race commenced, with a group of some of the best mushers in the world, gathered to do what they do best, despite and against the odds of Mother Nature, who never fails to test and challenge the most hardened and proven of venturous souls.

Over the years, I thought I had been through it all with my team, from enduring -65 below 0 and blinding snow storms, to battling winds so strong it’s hard to breathe and impossible to keep the sled upright and in line behind the team. We had faced  endless, bone -racking miles of dirt, sand, stumps, rocks, glare ice and glacial moraine, and been drenched in rain storms, pelted by freezing rains and navigated through open water and overflow of all kinds.

However, we had never run through water for hundreds of miles, nor had we ever encountered a pressure ridge.

 

For three days we had been running through water at least ankle deep, sometimes up to mid-calf. A pair of rubber boots would have spared my feet days of misery.  My Iditarod proven system of mukluks and waterproof NEOS overboots failed in the deep water.

 A few hours submerged in water is one thing, days is another.

When not immersed in water, we ran over snowless sand beaches, soft, muddy bogs and brown tundra. The best sections of trail were the miles of glare ice that glittered in brilliant hues of turquoise, royal blues and jade greens. Intricate mosaic webs cracked the slippery surface, over which movement was effortless, even too fast. The ice moaned, cackled and gurgled beneath our weight. The sharp tines of the brake bar were worn down to nothing over the miles of ice, as I was constantly breaking to keep the team at a safe paced trot.

 

Welcome to Spring above latitude 66, ground zero for climate change.

I had been training in sneakers just days before, expecting my flight north to land me in a much colder climate, which was a foolish assumption. Springtime in the North is anything but predictable.

 

Anything is tolerable when you are doing what you love.  

Running my team through the Kobuk Valley was a dream come true.

Weeks earlier we had finished our fifth, 1,049 mile Iditarod Race in 23rd position. After just a few days of rest, the beautiful Spring days found us back on the trails in our home territory. Stronger than ever, the team I had hooked up every day since the previous August, was still screaming to go! My young team and I were in peak condition, so I paid my entry fee and booked a ticket to Kotzebue. The money I had won in the Iditarod bought the 12 dog kennels that would be secured in their own “igloo,” along with my sled, dog food and gear in the belly of the plane. I would be traveling alone, and if I managed to finish in a paying position, the trip would at least pay for itself.

The dogs I had raised from puppies were now in their prime and they could never seem to get enough of the trail. Nothing, not even the unimaginably wet, warm days we found in Kotzebue, could slow them down or hinder their spirit. Like me, they were excited to travel through new country and were completely unphased by the water. Having raised them all as swimmers, the endless horizon of moving water was a non-issue for them. Certainly it helped keep them cool in the unusual heat and they could lap up a drink of water whenever they pleased. Northern husky breeds are happiest running at -5 to -10 degrees below zero. Anything above freezing takes some serious adaptation and the hardest working dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Every half hour or so, I took short “cool down” breaks to prevent any problems. Over ten or twelve hours of running, it made all the difference in our performance. During our long rests, the warmth of the intense sun worked to our advantage. After the usual routine of feeding the team and rubbing every paw, wrist and shoulder with my homemade magic oil, all the harnesses, wet gear, boot liners and clothing were sprawled out over dry straw or hung on the sled to dry. As the dogs slept, I ate, re-hydrated and tried to catch an hour or two of sleep on top of the sled before cooking their second meal and packing everything to go.

 

My nerves were wearing thin, yet the enthusiasm of the dogs never waned. Race trail markers had been non-existent except for those seen floating down stream. Finding and keeping on the right trail, any trail, had demanded constant attention since there was really no defined trail to follow. One river looked like three or four, with wide, muddy channels branching in all directions. Most markers tied to willow or alder bushes, especially leaving the villages, marked only the local snowmachine trails, and were unrelated to the race. Many frustrated attempts following these flags, led to narrow impassible channels of deep water and thick messes of ingrown brush, in which I had to let all the dogs loose to get turned around. Then, retracing my steps to the entrance of the maze, I would try another, and another, until finally we would find a ‘through’ path. Relying merely on instinct, as maps, compasses and GPS’s are not allowed, I followed the lay of the land, using the riverbanks, and lines of the valleys and mountains as landmarks to keep my sense of direction.

 

Speed triples moving over glare ice, but then there is the constant worry that a dog will slip, pull a shoulder, sprain a wrist or fall through the ice. I had no choice but to trust their instincts. Countless times before my leaders had avoided dangerous obstacles without my command, or chosen a better path than the team before us had taken. Their instincts and senses were sharp, and reliable.

But with every passing every hour, the ice was becoming more unstable.

Mile after mile I could see moving water below the ice.

“How can they let us keep going, this is so unsafe?”  My worried thoughts were nagging. “ This is so insane! What am I doing here? This can’t possibly be the trail! If the river opens any more we’ll be stuck here, and it’s too late to turn back!” I started to think that all the other mushers had been directed to another route, and somehow we had not been informed, forgotten.

 

******

 

 Awe prevailed over the stress and discomfort. With every mile of hardship, the enchantment of the Arctic stole my heart.

The vast landscape was breathtaking, and wild. The spirit of the ancient Inupiaq permeated the valley of  “half a million caribou.” The light of the high North, lasting until midnight, cast ethereal shadows and painted boundless sunsets and sunrises of striking beauty. Vivid shades of purples, blues, oranges and pinks lingered until the black veil of night set the backdrop for the Northern lights. They danced to a silent rhythm, illuminating the isolated world into a surreal masterpiece of radiant reds, purples and greens. Some stretched down so far they seemed to touch us, infusing our cells with the magic of the heavens.

 

Natives of all ages welcomed our team into their villages ,with twinkling eyes, and wide, toothless grins. They stood proud in their hand-stitched mukluks and beaver tail hats. The remote communities of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and Selawik, some well over 100 miles apart, look forward to the annual race event and spend days preparing tables of food for mushers and volunteers. Cheers, hugs, and pats on the shoulder from total strangers, made me feel like a family member coming home. Their smiles and hospitality made it hard to leave. In fact, had I not had 50 other huskies and puppies waiting for me at home, I would have stayed.

 

I loved the tiny community I called home, that sat at the ‘end of the road,’ where three massive rivers running out of the Alaska Range converged into one.  These rivers, mountains and trails had become an integral part of my livelihood, but my inescapable “partnership” was a living nightmare that ended up consuming a decade of my young life.

 

I was tempted to just stay in the village of Ambler, and leave it all.  I could raise and train my dogs in the bosom of the Arctic.  Living among the Natives, I could truly practice a life of subsistence and continue my path as I had intended, free from the daily abuse I had grown accustomed to.

I felt akin to this place; this remote region teeming with life, not yet ruined by the outside world. A place called a “barren wasteland” by some of our politicians, that is so very alive, and inspiringly intimidating in its’ silent expanse.  Words cannot evoke its many moods.

One dreaded day they will drill for oil here.

No part of me wanted to leave.

A strong force was pulling at the fringes of my soul. Something as abstract as the Arctic mirror of land and sky, and as defined as the polar bear print left at the trails edge, rapidly melting into the bog carpet of low bush cranberries and Labrador tea.

 

******

 

I spotted the pressure ridge from a distance. The long wall of chunky jumble ice and seeping holes, stretched as far as I could see across the lake to the North and cut through the trail we had been following. Under our feet, fresh lake water was colliding with salty water from the Chukchi Sea. During the process of constant warming, melting and re-freezing, the ice layers were expanding, forming cracks that were refilling with water. The pressure of the current was forcing the ice to push its broken, fragmented layers to the top, forming a formidable mass of ice chunks and slabs. This ridge had risen four feet high and four feet wide in places. While the rest of Selawik lake was still frozen white, dozens of trail markers had been placed in x formations, warning of this impassible danger. There was, however, no visible alternative. I wondered how long it had been since someone had been here. According to the sled runner tracks, barely recognizable after hours in the sun, the few mushers ahead of me had still been able to go straight ahead. The pressure ridge had opened up significantly in the last few hours and now going straight was no longer an option. Someone had been here to block off the trail, and the gaping holes, but they had failed to mark another safe through trail. To the left, the thinner ice leading to shore would bring me to land. I could then follow the shoreline for as long as needed. But would I lose the trail on the other end of lake, or even be able to get back on? Shore ice would be less stable than where we were presently stopped. Not knowing the depth of the lake and being in unfamiliar territory, that option seemed too risky.  There were no tracks of any kind leading off the ice, so my reasoning felt validated. My eyes scanned the ridge to the right, towards the mountains in the distance. The team stilled,  assessing the situation, sensing the obstacle before us. Finally I spotted a break in the markers, indicating a safe way over.

“Gee!”

A sharp 90 degree turn led us parallel along the ridge. My heart accelerated, as I kept the team at a walk. Unnamed and unknown to me, this natural phenomenon evoked a primal fear. The danger was palpable.

Before having a chance to command “haw”, my leaders Jane and Isis immediately saw where the markers stopped and performed a miracle leap. Fearlessly, without hesitation, they jumped up and over the mess of ice, pulling the next four dogs with them. Four dogs landed in the center. The two wheel dogs, the sled and myself were still on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Whoa!” If the leaders moved forward, dogs were going to get injured, as they were now all balancing in-between ice slabs and fissures. Where one could move freely over, another could not. I had no choice but to get off my sled, unhook most of the dogs and help the others over. I grabbed my ski pole to test the ice, though I knew this was no comparison to my weight.

I cautiously placed one foot on the ice, still holding the sled, looking for a safe place to put my other foot farther up the length of the team. In one super stride I could reach the dogs in the middle. I couldn’t unhook them all, as I needed their momentum to help pull the sled over. The jumble ice was terrifying. It felt as though a river was moving below us.

I was dizzy and hot with adrenaline.

Working quickly, I  lifted each dog to safety, moving my feet as little as possible. I unhooked the last two dogs. If the sled got caught on the way over, it wouldn’t pull them down with it.

Now just the sled and my lanky self had to get over.  

The final step onto the runner nearly became the last step of my life.

 

******

 

The cry that escaped my lips cut the heavy silence. The dogs knew exactly what had happened and they did not budge.

The shelf ice, five feet under the surface, held long enough for me to assess the situation and realize, that by some small miracle, the sled was still within my reach.

I seized the end of the runner with my left hand and yelled, “GO!”

In one synchronized motion, the team pulled me up out of the Arctic water, over the pressure ridge, on to stable ice.

As I came to standing, I felt like I was swimming.

Everything inside me was moving in slow motion, I could not even react.

I looked down at myself, soaked through to bottom layers, in complete shock.

I was already wearing the ‘emergency’ stash of dry socks, glove liners and long underwear,  that lived in my sled until needed. On races, these things are sent in resupply bags to the villages and checkpoints with all of our food.  We travel light, carrying only what we need to get to the next re-supply, but always with enough food and fuel to handle 24-48 hours of possibly being stuck in a severe storm, or any number of unexpected situations that can arise out on the trail. The last four water- saturated days had certainly used up all of my dry reserves, and now it seemed the final test was upon me.

The finish line was still about 70 miles away, which could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on the conditions and our speed, my abilities to run, kick and pole.

The autonomic part of my nervous system kicked into gear, as it had before in extreme weather, working under sleep deprivation. Frivolous thoughts cease to exist and the body operates robotically. Emotions are wasteful and no movement is without purpose. The body and mind work synergistically in survival mode.

I knew the danger of the eerie warmth that came over my ice bitten core. Movement was suddenly excruciatingly exhausting, my speech slow, the muscles in my cheeks uncooperative, “Good dogs! “ I managed to sound cheery.

“ Hang out for bit,” I instructed, “I’ve got to try to get dry.” I didn’t recognize the sound of myself. I felt stiff and slow, like glue.

Hollow.

I stripped down, thinking of my thermos still half filled with lukewarm hot chocolate and peppermint tea, wishing I had more, and started ringing out each layer of clothing.

No firewood within 100 miles or more. No people either. The group of mushers behind me had opted to camp at the last checkpoint to dry out their clothes and gear. As tempting as it had been to stay and join them, I had decided to keep going since my team was so strong and happy. Conditions were only getting worse and we were in the money, with only half a day’s journey left to the finish line.

I knew I would soon be hypothermic if I didn’t keep my limbs moving and working constantly. We would be running into the night, and temperatures would only be dropping. The situation could become dire.

Breathe, I thought to myself.

Focus.

No energy for negativity.

Once all the excess water was squeezed out, I tried to warm myself up by rubbing each of the dogs. I talked outloud in my chipper voice, praising each one, checking their booties, making sure none were iced up, and if they were, changing them. My hands and fingers were too stiff to work well. My mind felt as paralyzed as my body. Emotions were overwhelming, as was the numbness. Deep in my belly a fire burned, stoking the furnace that would keep me alive until we reached civilization.

I jumped up and down, did some jumping jacks, and stomped my feet. I knew my light-weight, synthetic insulated clothing, layered with wool, would do its’ job of retaining my body heat although wet. I drank a third of my remaining beverage, saving the rest for the long journey ahead. I had a few bites of my homemade smoked salmon, some goldfish crackers and a fig newton. Over thousands and thousands of trail miles, my selective diet had managed to keep me nourished, energized and quelled the bundle of nerves in my gut, preventing me from feeling sick.

I had to proceed as though nothing had happened. The near fatal event could in no way hinder our progress.  

Life was counting.

“All right guys, let’s go!”

We were off.  

The pressure ridge faded into the scenery behind us.

What else could we possibly face during these 440 miles?

The rest of the massive lake, stretching on for 50 miles or more, still looked stable enough. Thankfully, there were now markers placed every few miles. No open water in sight. Or ridges of ice.

Of course it could change at any moment.

I got into my usual rhythm of kicking beside the sled, 10 minutes with the right leg, switch to the left. I simultaneously poled with my ski pole, not missing a beat.

Hypothermia would have no chance unless I stopped moving.

Pushing myself during any race, especially the last 100 miles, was routine. However, I could not remember a time, in all my thousands of miles of racing, I had ever felt so depleted and bitterly exhausted. I was on the verge of collapsing. Arctic waters had zapped the last of my reserves and I wondered from where my strength was coming.

At one point,  I concluded that I was having an out of body experience. While my body and mind were working as a single entity to overcome the odds, my body did not feel my own. I felt entirely separated from it.

In feeling so much, I felt nothing.

I could feel my spirit rising above my physical reality of being in shock.

Was I dying?

The lack of sleep over the last months was teasing all of my weak points.

Unless I caught up to another musher, or an arbitrary snowmachiner, I would see no sign of human life until the finish line in Kotzebue. I felt as though even the most basic communication would be more energy than I could spare, especially since no one could help me anyway.

Pushing to the end was the only option.

Singing out loud, and chatting to the dogs helped to keep my mind awake. The dogs  were  running like champs, still in good spirits and in perfect health. I was now the weak link who could not allow myself to lapse for a second.

 

After what felt like an eternity, the lake shore finally met land. The last 3 or 4 hours we would be running through gentle, rolling hills on the brown, sweet smelling tundra, where only small patches of snow remained. With no glide under the metal runners, our speed noticeably slowed. Running to keep weight off the runners helped, but I couldn’t keep up with their speed for miles on end. I could only run in short bursts, which was better than nothing.

Fatigue brought tears to my eyes, and at moments I thought I could no longer stand.

I sang louder, calling the names of the dogs, and prayed to higher powers to give me the strength to make it home.

The meandering trail stretched into eternity, and my delusional mind believed that we were hopelessly lost, that my body would never leave this tundra. The markers could be from any trail, and out here trails intertwine like mazes, all headed somewhere through more nowhere with nothing in-between.

This kind of doubt I seldom ever had. My sense of direction had always served me well navigating Alaska.

I was unraveling stitch by stitch, as I battled exhaustion. The only confidence remaining was in the ability of my dog team. They had never let me down, and as a team, we had never failed.

At times I ran with my eyes closed.

I stopped as we always did, every hour, to snack the dogs pieces of salmon and beef. All tails were wagging, and their smiles injected me with the same positive energy that I had I given them their whole lives.

 

Unlike all the other nights since the start of the race, the vibrant colors of sunset eluded us and dusk mirrored my mood in every shade of grey.  I longed for the black of night to tell me we were close to the end. My earliest estimated time of arrival to the finish line in Kotzebue was 12:00 midnight, any time after dark. Grey dragged on in every step, every breath, and I wondered why I subjected myself to this kind torture.

Grassy knoll after grassy knoll, held the hope that civilization would suddenly appear and the pain would be over.

Watches can lie in this sport, as Nature fools our perceptions of time and relative distance. More accurate are the natural landmarks and angles of light.

The dull light of this day seemed it would never leave, the hours until dark felt to be an unbearable bending of time. Lost to the infinity of tundra and sky, our existence could remain forever forgotten here.

Solace lay in knowing my dogs were faring better than I.

They blew me away. Had they felt as I did, we would have been crawling.

They showed no weakness.

 

Time and solitude play tricks on a sleep deprived soul. Add in the wild landscape, a body and mind being pushed beyond their limits, and you have a recipe for life altering experiences and realizations.

In this window of space, there is no escape from weakness. No help, no place and no one to run to. No shelter, no phone, no GPS, mile signs, or short cut. No comfort. No distraction. No mercy.

Surrounded by life, simple and raw, there comes a point of total surrender to the power of this Nature.

It swallows you whole, leaves you inseparable.

Truth reveals itself in blinding clarity.

 

 

As the rivers had been melting under our feet, it was the flood of my life that felt to be drowning me.

Yet it could all end here, the fighting, and the fear.

The ancient trail of the Kobuk had been breaking me down, mile by mile and I could no longer deny the truth; in staying loyal to my animals, and dedicating my life to raising this dog team, I had sacrificed my heart, and my integrity.  

If I completed this impossible journey, maybe I would be ready. Ready to stand up for myself, for the last and final time. Ready to risk my life, for the inevitable break away that would win me back my freedom of self. I deserved so much better.

Yet his threats hung heavy like a noose around my neck.

Something in the eyes of the Natives, in their stance, gave me courage. Like a wise hunter, I knew I needed an abundance of patience, and had to keep waiting until the time was right to make my escape. I would take my dogs with me.

I had been letting this man slowly kill me, day after day, year after year.

There was nothing more for him to take.

 

In the arms of the Kobuk Valley, death had pulled me under water, to find me still alive. The warrior within had awakened.

In this still fog of realization, muteness became me. Words seemed a waste, but new melodies flowed from a heart still warm.

A heart emptied and so entirely full.


 

******

 

Darkness came and we moved flawlessly through the night, without a headlamp, our eyes adjusted and keen.  My brain was foggy, half shut down, preventing me from succumbing to the intolerable physical fatigue, while directing all available energy to producing the adrenaline necessary to keep me moving.

 

Then suddenly, the beacons of mercy appeared, lights!

“Home!” I cried. The dogs bolted at the excited tone of my voice. “Kotzebue, we made it!” The team had power in reserve, and plowed ahead as if they had just rested for 12 hours.

“You guys are awesome! “ I shrieked. We were still across the inlet, at least an hour away.  An eternity, but the end was within sight.

 

I had never been so happy to see the distant blur of white, twinkling lights.

Humanity.

For hours I had been convinced we were on the wrong trail, and many miles off course.

As we grew closer, what seemed a black hole, reflecting light, sat between us and the village. What now? Was I hallucinating? I turned on the headlamp, and still was confused. It couldn’t be……. all water?

Oh my God, it was. Not just a little bit, it looked to be the entire ocean stretching out before us.

Well, what is a few more miles of standing water? It must be safe, right? Did I miss a turn, X markers?

I had no energy left to think. Or question.

The dogs showed no hesitation, I would not question them.

What had been the starting line 4 days ago, now the finish line, was a lake. Six inches of water sat on top of the ice. No markers, no finishing banner in sight.

It was a little after 1:00 a.m., and I was headed to the closest possible building. The dogs were thinking the same thing.

The night scene was surreal, as we ran over 12 m.p.h. towards the lights, completely surrounded by water, leaving a wake behind us.

Slowly, the outlines of the buildings and cabins became more defined. Village dogs yipped and barked at our approach. No sign of anyone. The village would of course be sleeping, but where were the race officials, waiting to clock in my time?

Finally we hit land, a gravel dirt road to be more precise. Still there was no sign of anything or anyone related to the race. Did they even know I had left the last checkpoint? Did they think I had stayed with the group of mushers behind me, who wouldn’t be getting in until after the light of morning? What the hell was I supposed to do now?

The gravel was sharp on the dogs feet and my temper flared. I fought tears.

What kind of finish was this? Where was I supposed to go? Nobody, not a soul to welcome our hard earned arrival. Dismayed, I realized I could be in the wrong village. Perhaps this wasn’t Kotzebue and I had just made my team run over 80 miles in the wrong direction.

I refused to make my dogs go any further, and I could not run beside the sled another step. I stopped, secured the sled and praised the dogs profusely. I took off their booties, gave them a snack and proceeded to search for someone.

“Hello! Is there anybody here? “ I hollered. “I just finished the Kobuk race!” I felt like screaming, “do you have any idea what I’ve been through?” I couldn’t believe how the night was continuing.  The numbness was debilitating, my body wanted to collapse. I knocked on doors, making my way up the street. Finally, a sleepy someone appeared and said he’d go find a race official.

So, we had made it home.

I returned to the team, and as emotions swelled to the surface, I struggled to keep myself together. I removed harnesses and fed them more snacks. Their big meal would come whenever we got back to the house of our host family, who would be soundly sleeping. There I had bags of food and straw awaiting our return. Unlike all the other mushers, I had no handler waiting to help me.

“We weren’t expecting you,” the bundled body said. A few men sauntered from the village. “We will take you to your host families house. It’s a little way from here, in the center of the village. A truck is on the way.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”  

I told them what time I hit land, according to my watch. No one seemed to care. No other words were exchanged. I was speechless, as they too seemed to be. I wanted to tell them what happened, but I thought I might start crying. Worse, I thought the story seemed unbelievable. They might think I was just an emotional, un-rational woman talking gibberish, complaining or just a fool who made a stupid decision. It all seemed indescribable. The term pressure ridge was still unknown to my vocabulary. To say I fell in hole sounded ridiculous. So I said nothing. I just focused on my dogs, rubbing shoulders and wrists, while the Natives stood and watched me. All I managed to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m a little tired, we had kind of a crazy run.” No one wanted to carry on a conversation at such a horrid time of the morning anyway.

I thanked them profusely as they helped me load the team and sled into the back of a pick-up. When I sat down in the warm vehicle, I came close to passing out. My clothes were soaking wet, and now the fine outer layer of ice quickly dissipated. Still no one knew I had fallen over my breasts into Arctic water. No one had seen. My body began to throb. I thought I might not be able to stand up again.

We unloaded the dogs and after a hundred more “thank-you’s,” I was left alone with my team outside the small blue house.

3:15 a.m.

I fed the dogs dry kibble and lit my cooker to heat water enough to thaw meat for a soup.  I divided the bale of straw into 12 thick beds, which the dogs could not be more elated about.

The pride I felt was overwhelming. The love and appreciation for my animals surpassed anything I had ever felt before. My dogs were beyond perfect, beyond exceptional and this day they had saved my life, after running flawlessly for 370 miles through horrendous conditions.

15 minutes later they were lapping up their beaver and lamb broth.

 

I stumbled into the house, to the bathroom. Heat was nirvana. I barely had the energy to undress.  The hot water was like stinging pellets against my frozen shell. It made my head spin, restored my breath. My body tingled and swelled. I kept the shower short, afraid I might black out.

The bed threw me into another realm, one I thought I may never return from.

Perhaps I would never fully return to my body.

I slipped away.

Only until it was time to feed the dogs again.

 

******

 

Mushers raised hell at the finishers meeting, ranting about the unprofessionalism, the dangers, the liabilities of the race trail. “They never should have let the teams continue!”

I sat silently drinking tea at the small round table with Iditarod champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, as they enjoyed their coca cola. I listened to their stories, but my mind was elsewhere. I was present, but not really there. As I had guessed, the pressure ridge hadn’t been as bad for those ahead of me. The trail had been re-routed by the time the guys behind me made it to that point. Today the pro’s looked at me differently, talking to me as an equal, asking me my opinions. Had I earned another notch of respect in “their” sport? Little no-named me and my wild, over-sized, mix matched wolf dogs?

I didn’t care.

As much as the mushers complained, I knew they would all come back. I almost felt bad for the race crew, dealing with the wrath of these powerful men. Knowing, unlike the famous Iditarod, the resources for the Kobuk are very limited and they make due with what they have.

Suffering needlessly out on the drowning trail, I certainly had done my share of mental cursing. Now it all just seemed a twist of Mother Nature’s fate.

We are only human, after all. No one can control the nature of ice, hour to hour, minute to minute. It was too late to place blame. We were the ones who left the starting line and never turned back. Thankfully no dogs or mushers were seriously hurt.

 

******

 

Shock lingers. Life goes on. The body copes, work routine keeps the pain at bay, but it never forgets. Memories re-surface when you least expect it and bring you back to the feelings, the place, and the unspoken emotions.

 

I did return with my team to the rich river valley and finish another Kobuk 440, and I did finally leave the man who brought so much darkness to my life.

The man who told me I could never do the things I did indeed do.

 

******

Shorelines are disappearing, and villages are being re-located.  Long struggling to maintain their cultural identity and lifestyle, Native tribes have been forced to depend on unsustainable means of survival and empty promises of the white man. The first people most severely affected by modern industry and climate change are the last thought of in crisis. They are the first to be taken from, the last to be re-paid.

 

The Arctic personifies the web of life that has been dismembered throughout the rest of the world.

To travel through it, to experience it on a spiritual level, is to become it.

Therefore, in leaving, one abandons a part of themself.

 

My life was saved.

My dogs, they carried me.

The Native spirits who inhabit the Kobuk, they guided me.

Without their bloodlines, there would be no team.

Without their trail, I would have smaller eyes.

Without their wisdom, I would be ignorant.

Without their collective presence, I would be lost.

Now, living in this other world, my heart beats to a different drummer.

The beat is never heard here, only in the wind, and the running water.

My veins.











 

AWAKENING


 

The ice gave way beneath my feet as the frigid waters of Selawik Lake engulfed my body. A sharp inhale felt the grip of death, yet my last thoughts were anything but panicked, “I got the dogs over, they will be okay…… this is my death; under the ice, in the middle of nowhere.”

A fleeting thought bid farewell to my parents as I calmly faced my fate.

 

******

 

My feet hit a layer of shelf ice, momentarily stopping the fall. Aquamarine water laced with snow-white ice chunks permeated my body over my breast line. Unstable ice surrounded me. The only hope was the metal end of the sled runner, now balanced above my head on an edge of slab ice. The slightest movement of my 12- dog team would pull this lifeline out of reach.

 

******

 

“ The earliest and fastest break-up we’ve ever seen,” the Natives later claimed of that first weekend in April, 2004.

In less than 12 hours, the seemingly frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers had turned to slush, to overflow, to open running water under a glaring April sun that brought temperatures into the high 40’s.

 

The 440-mile Kobuk Sled Dog Race travels through the Kobuk River Valley, above the Arctic Circle. Starting in the village of Kotzebue, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, it follows the Kobuk River through six different Native villages, passing by the Baird, Jade and Waring Mountain ranges, through the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and skirts the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

On the verge of cancelling the race all together, officials considered re-routing the trail over land to avoid the highway of rivers and tributaries that were melting at an alarming rate. With only 5-6 hours of true darkness, ice and snow pack had little time to harden, let alone freeze during the nights.  The progressive effects of nearly 18 hours of daylight and the sudden heat wave, obliterated the trail.

 

Still the race commenced, with a group of some of the best mushers in the world, gathered to do what they do best, despite and against the odds of Mother Nature, who never fails to test and challenge the most hardened and proven of venturous souls.

Over the years, I thought I had been through it all with my team, from enduring -65 below 0 and blinding snow storms, to battling winds so strong it’s hard to breathe and impossible to keep the sled upright and in line behind the team. We had faced  endless, bone -racking miles of dirt, sand, stumps, rocks, glare ice and glacial moraine, and been drenched in rain storms, pelted by freezing rains and navigated through open water and overflow of all kinds.

However, we had never run through water for hundreds of miles, nor had we ever encountered a pressure ridge.

 

For three days we had been running through water at least ankle deep, sometimes up to mid-calf. A pair of rubber boots would have spared my feet days of misery.  My Iditarod proven system of mukluks and waterproof NEOS overboots failed in the deep water.

 A few hours submerged in water is one thing, days is another.

When not immersed in water, we ran over snowless sand beaches, soft, muddy bogs and brown tundra. The best sections of trail were the miles of glare ice that glittered in brilliant hues of turquoise, royal blues and jade greens. Intricate mosaic webs cracked the slippery surface, over which movement was effortless, even too fast. The ice moaned, cackled and gurgled beneath our weight. The sharp tines of the brake bar were worn down to nothing over the miles of ice, as I was constantly breaking to keep the team at a safe paced trot.

 

Welcome to Spring above latitude 66, ground zero for climate change.

I had been training in sneakers just days before, expecting my flight north to land me in a much colder climate, which was a foolish assumption. Springtime in the North is anything but predictable.

 

Anything is tolerable when you are doing what you love.  

Running my team through the Kobuk Valley was a dream come true.

Weeks earlier we had finished our fifth, 1,049 mile Iditarod Race in 23rd position. After just a few days of rest, the beautiful Spring days found us back on the trails in our home territory. Stronger than ever, the team I had hooked up every day since the previous August, was still screaming to go! My young team and I were in peak condition, so I paid my entry fee and booked a ticket to Kotzebue. The money I had won in the Iditarod bought the 12 dog kennels that would be secured in their own “igloo,” along with my sled, dog food and gear in the belly of the plane. I would be traveling alone, and if I managed to finish in a paying position, the trip would at least pay for itself.

The dogs I had raised from puppies were now in their prime and they could never seem to get enough of the trail. Nothing, not even the unimaginably wet, warm days we found in Kotzebue, could slow them down or hinder their spirit. Like me, they were excited to travel through new country and were completely unphased by the water. Having raised them all as swimmers, the endless horizon of moving water was a non-issue for them. Certainly it helped keep them cool in the unusual heat and they could lap up a drink of water whenever they pleased. Northern husky breeds are happiest running at -5 to -10 degrees below zero. Anything above freezing takes some serious adaptation and the hardest working dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Every half hour or so, I took short “cool down” breaks to prevent any problems. Over ten or twelve hours of running, it made all the difference in our performance. During our long rests, the warmth of the intense sun worked to our advantage. After the usual routine of feeding the team and rubbing every paw, wrist and shoulder with my homemade magic oil, all the harnesses, wet gear, boot liners and clothing were sprawled out over dry straw or hung on the sled to dry. As the dogs slept, I ate, re-hydrated and tried to catch an hour or two of sleep on top of the sled before cooking their second meal and packing everything to go.

 

My nerves were wearing thin, yet the enthusiasm of the dogs never waned. Race trail markers had been non-existent except for those seen floating down stream. Finding and keeping on the right trail, any trail, had demanded constant attention since there was really no defined trail to follow. One river looked like three or four, with wide, muddy channels branching in all directions. Most markers tied to willow or alder bushes, especially leaving the villages, marked only the local snowmachine trails, and were unrelated to the race. Many frustrated attempts following these flags, led to narrow impassible channels of deep water and thick messes of ingrown brush, in which I had to let all the dogs loose to get turned around. Then, retracing my steps to the entrance of the maze, I would try another, and another, until finally we would find a ‘through’ path. Relying merely on instinct, as maps, compasses and GPS’s are not allowed, I followed the lay of the land, using the riverbanks, and lines of the valleys and mountains as landmarks to keep my sense of direction.

 

Speed triples moving over glare ice, but then there is the constant worry that a dog will slip, pull a shoulder, sprain a wrist or fall through the ice. I had no choice but to trust their instincts. Countless times before my leaders had avoided dangerous obstacles without my command, or chosen a better path than the team before us had taken. Their instincts and senses were sharp, and reliable.

But with every passing every hour, the ice was becoming more unstable.

Mile after mile I could see moving water below the ice.

“How can they let us keep going, this is so unsafe?”  My worried thoughts were nagging. “ This is so insane! What am I doing here? This can’t possibly be the trail! If the river opens any more we’ll be stuck here, and it’s too late to turn back!” I started to think that all the other mushers had been directed to another route, and somehow we had not been informed, forgotten.

 

******

 

 Awe prevailed over the stress and discomfort. With every mile of hardship, the enchantment of the Arctic stole my heart.

The vast landscape was breathtaking, and wild. The spirit of the ancient Inupiaq permeated the valley of  “half a million caribou.” The light of the high North, lasting until midnight, cast ethereal shadows and painted boundless sunsets and sunrises of striking beauty. Vivid shades of purples, blues, oranges and pinks lingered until the black veil of night set the backdrop for the Northern lights. They danced to a silent rhythm, illuminating the isolated world into a surreal masterpiece of radiant reds, purples and greens. Some stretched down so far they seemed to touch us, infusing our cells with the magic of the heavens.

 

Natives of all ages welcomed our team into their villages ,with twinkling eyes, and wide, toothless grins. They stood proud in their hand-stitched mukluks and beaver tail hats. The remote communities of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and Selawik, some well over 100 miles apart, look forward to the annual race event and spend days preparing tables of food for mushers and volunteers. Cheers, hugs, and pats on the shoulder from total strangers, made me feel like a family member coming home. Their smiles and hospitality made it hard to leave. In fact, had I not had 50 other huskies and puppies waiting for me at home, I would have stayed.

 

I loved the tiny community I called home, that sat at the ‘end of the road,’ where three massive rivers running out of the Alaska Range converged into one.  These rivers, mountains and trails had become an integral part of my livelihood, but my inescapable “partnership” was a living nightmare that ended up consuming a decade of my young life.

 

I was tempted to just stay in the village of Ambler, and leave it all.  I could raise and train my dogs in the bosom of the Arctic.  Living among the Natives, I could truly practice a life of subsistence and continue my path as I had intended, free from the daily abuse I had grown accustomed to.

I felt akin to this place; this remote region teeming with life, not yet ruined by the outside world. A place called a “barren wasteland” by some of our politicians, that is so very alive, and inspiringly intimidating in its’ silent expanse.  Words cannot evoke its many moods.

One dreaded day they will drill for oil here.

No part of me wanted to leave.

A strong force was pulling at the fringes of my soul. Something as abstract as the Arctic mirror of land and sky, and as defined as the polar bear print left at the trails edge, rapidly melting into the bog carpet of low bush cranberries and Labrador tea.

 

******

 

I spotted the pressure ridge from a distance. The long wall of chunky jumble ice and seeping holes, stretched as far as I could see across the lake to the North and cut through the trail we had been following. Under our feet, fresh lake water was colliding with salty water from the Chukchi Sea. During the process of constant warming, melting and re-freezing, the ice layers were expanding, forming cracks that were refilling with water. The pressure of the current was forcing the ice to push its broken, fragmented layers to the top, forming a formidable mass of ice chunks and slabs. This ridge had risen four feet high and four feet wide in places. While the rest of Selawik lake was still frozen white, dozens of trail markers had been placed in x formations, warning of this impassible danger. There was, however, no visible alternative. I wondered how long it had been since someone had been here. According to the sled runner tracks, barely recognizable after hours in the sun, the few mushers ahead of me had still been able to go straight ahead. The pressure ridge had opened up significantly in the last few hours and now going straight was no longer an option. Someone had been here to block off the trail, and the gaping holes, but they had failed to mark another safe through trail. To the left, the thinner ice leading to shore would bring me to land. I could then follow the shoreline for as long as needed. But would I lose the trail on the other end of lake, or even be able to get back on? Shore ice would be less stable than where we were presently stopped. Not knowing the depth of the lake and being in unfamiliar territory, that option seemed too risky.  There were no tracks of any kind leading off the ice, so my reasoning felt validated. My eyes scanned the ridge to the right, towards the mountains in the distance. The team stilled,  assessing the situation, sensing the obstacle before us. Finally I spotted a break in the markers, indicating a safe way over.

“Gee!”

A sharp 90 degree turn led us parallel along the ridge. My heart accelerated, as I kept the team at a walk. Unnamed and unknown to me, this natural phenomenon evoked a primal fear. The danger was palpable.

Before having a chance to command “haw”, my leaders Jane and Isis immediately saw where the markers stopped and performed a miracle leap. Fearlessly, without hesitation, they jumped up and over the mess of ice, pulling the next four dogs with them. Four dogs landed in the center. The two wheel dogs, the sled and myself were still on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Whoa!” If the leaders moved forward, dogs were going to get injured, as they were now all balancing in-between ice slabs and fissures. Where one could move freely over, another could not. I had no choice but to get off my sled, unhook most of the dogs and help the others over. I grabbed my ski pole to test the ice, though I knew this was no comparison to my weight.

I cautiously placed one foot on the ice, still holding the sled, looking for a safe place to put my other foot farther up the length of the team. In one super stride I could reach the dogs in the middle. I couldn’t unhook them all, as I needed their momentum to help pull the sled over. The jumble ice was terrifying. It felt as though a river was moving below us.

I was dizzy and hot with adrenaline.

Working quickly, I  lifted each dog to safety, moving my feet as little as possible. I unhooked the last two dogs. If the sled got caught on the way over, it wouldn’t pull them down with it.

Now just the sled and my lanky self had to get over.  

The final step onto the runner nearly became the last step of my life.

 

******

 

The cry that escaped my lips cut the heavy silence. The dogs knew exactly what had happened and they did not budge.

The shelf ice, five feet under the surface, held long enough for me to assess the situation and realize, that by some small miracle, the sled was still within my reach.

I seized the end of the runner with my left hand and yelled, “GO!”

In one synchronized motion, the team pulled me up out of the Arctic water, over the pressure ridge, on to stable ice.

As I came to standing, I felt like I was swimming.

Everything inside me was moving in slow motion, I could not even react.

I looked down at myself, soaked through to bottom layers, in complete shock.

I was already wearing the ‘emergency’ stash of dry socks, glove liners and long underwear,  that lived in my sled until needed. On races, these things are sent in resupply bags to the villages and checkpoints with all of our food.  We travel light, carrying only what we need to get to the next re-supply, but always with enough food and fuel to handle 24-48 hours of possibly being stuck in a severe storm, or any number of unexpected situations that can arise out on the trail. The last four water- saturated days had certainly used up all of my dry reserves, and now it seemed the final test was upon me.

The finish line was still about 70 miles away, which could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on the conditions and our speed, my abilities to run, kick and pole.

The autonomic part of my nervous system kicked into gear, as it had before in extreme weather, working under sleep deprivation. Frivolous thoughts cease to exist and the body operates robotically. Emotions are wasteful and no movement is without purpose. The body and mind work synergistically in survival mode.

I knew the danger of the eerie warmth that came over my ice bitten core. Movement was suddenly excruciatingly exhausting, my speech slow, the muscles in my cheeks uncooperative, “Good dogs! “ I managed to sound cheery.

“ Hang out for bit,” I instructed, “I’ve got to try to get dry.” I didn’t recognize the sound of myself. I felt stiff and slow, like glue.

Hollow.

I stripped down, thinking of my thermos still half filled with lukewarm hot chocolate and peppermint tea, wishing I had more, and started ringing out each layer of clothing.

No firewood within 100 miles or more. No people either. The group of mushers behind me had opted to camp at the last checkpoint to dry out their clothes and gear. As tempting as it had been to stay and join them, I had decided to keep going since my team was so strong and happy. Conditions were only getting worse and we were in the money, with only half a day’s journey left to the finish line.

I knew I would soon be hypothermic if I didn’t keep my limbs moving and working constantly. We would be running into the night, and temperatures would only be dropping. The situation could become dire.

Breathe, I thought to myself.

Focus.

No energy for negativity.

Once all the excess water was squeezed out, I tried to warm myself up by rubbing each of the dogs. I talked outloud in my chipper voice, praising each one, checking their booties, making sure none were iced up, and if they were, changing them. My hands and fingers were too stiff to work well. My mind felt as paralyzed as my body. Emotions were overwhelming, as was the numbness. Deep in my belly a fire burned, stoking the furnace that would keep me alive until we reached civilization.

I jumped up and down, did some jumping jacks, and stomped my feet. I knew my light-weight, synthetic insulated clothing, layered with wool, would do its’ job of retaining my body heat although wet. I drank a third of my remaining beverage, saving the rest for the long journey ahead. I had a few bites of my homemade smoked salmon, some goldfish crackers and a fig newton. Over thousands and thousands of trail miles, my selective diet had managed to keep me nourished, energized and quelled the bundle of nerves in my gut, preventing me from feeling sick.

I had to proceed as though nothing had happened. The near fatal event could in no way hinder our progress.  

Life was counting.

“All right guys, let’s go!”

We were off.  

The pressure ridge faded into the scenery behind us.

What else could we possibly face during these 440 miles?

The rest of the massive lake, stretching on for 50 miles or more, still looked stable enough. Thankfully, there were now markers placed every few miles. No open water in sight. Or ridges of ice.

Of course it could change at any moment.

I got into my usual rhythm of kicking beside the sled, 10 minutes with the right leg, switch to the left. I simultaneously poled with my ski pole, not missing a beat.

Hypothermia would have no chance unless I stopped moving.

Pushing myself during any race, especially the last 100 miles, was routine. However, I could not remember a time, in all my thousands of miles of racing, I had ever felt so depleted and bitterly exhausted. I was on the verge of collapsing. Arctic waters had zapped the last of my reserves and I wondered from where my strength was coming.

At one point,  I concluded that I was having an out of body experience. While my body and mind were working as a single entity to overcome the odds, my body did not feel my own. I felt entirely separated from it.

In feeling so much, I felt nothing.

I could feel my spirit rising above my physical reality of being in shock.

Was I dying?

The lack of sleep over the last months was teasing all of my weak points.

Unless I caught up to another musher, or an arbitrary snowmachiner, I would see no sign of human life until the finish line in Kotzebue. I felt as though even the most basic communication would be more energy than I could spare, especially since no one could help me anyway.

Pushing to the end was the only option.

Singing out loud, and chatting to the dogs helped to keep my mind awake. The dogs  were  running like champs, still in good spirits and in perfect health. I was now the weak link who could not allow myself to lapse for a second.

 

After what felt like an eternity, the lake shore finally met land. The last 3 or 4 hours we would be running through gentle, rolling hills on the brown, sweet smelling tundra, where only small patches of snow remained. With no glide under the metal runners, our speed noticeably slowed. Running to keep weight off the runners helped, but I couldn’t keep up with their speed for miles on end. I could only run in short bursts, which was better than nothing.

Fatigue brought tears to my eyes, and at moments I thought I could no longer stand.

I sang louder, calling the names of the dogs, and prayed to higher powers to give me the strength to make it home.

The meandering trail stretched into eternity, and my delusional mind believed that we were hopelessly lost, that my body would never leave this tundra. The markers could be from any trail, and out here trails intertwine like mazes, all headed somewhere through more nowhere with nothing in-between.

This kind of doubt I seldom ever had. My sense of direction had always served me well navigating Alaska.

I was unraveling stitch by stitch, as I battled exhaustion. The only confidence remaining was in the ability of my dog team. They had never let me down, and as a team, we had never failed.

At times I ran with my eyes closed.

I stopped as we always did, every hour, to snack the dogs pieces of salmon and beef. All tails were wagging, and their smiles injected me with the same positive energy that I had I given them their whole lives.

 

Unlike all the other nights since the start of the race, the vibrant colors of sunset eluded us and dusk mirrored my mood in every shade of grey.  I longed for the black of night to tell me we were close to the end. My earliest estimated time of arrival to the finish line in Kotzebue was 12:00 midnight, any time after dark. Grey dragged on in every step, every breath, and I wondered why I subjected myself to this kind torture.

Grassy knoll after grassy knoll, held the hope that civilization would suddenly appear and the pain would be over.

Watches can lie in this sport, as Nature fools our perceptions of time and relative distance. More accurate are the natural landmarks and angles of light.

The dull light of this day seemed it would never leave, the hours until dark felt to be an unbearable bending of time. Lost to the infinity of tundra and sky, our existence could remain forever forgotten here.

Solace lay in knowing my dogs were faring better than I.

They blew me away. Had they felt as I did, we would have been crawling.

They showed no weakness.

 

Time and solitude play tricks on a sleep deprived soul. Add in the wild landscape, a body and mind being pushed beyond their limits, and you have a recipe for life altering experiences and realizations.

In this window of space, there is no escape from weakness. No help, no place and no one to run to. No shelter, no phone, no GPS, mile signs, or short cut. No comfort. No distraction. No mercy.

Surrounded by life, simple and raw, there comes a point of total surrender to the power of this Nature.

It swallows you whole, leaves you inseparable.

Truth reveals itself in blinding clarity.

 

 

As the rivers had been melting under our feet, it was the flood of my life that felt to be drowning me.

Yet it could all end here, the fighting, and the fear.

The ancient trail of the Kobuk had been breaking me down, mile by mile and I could no longer deny the truth; in staying loyal to my animals, and dedicating my life to raising this dog team, I had sacrificed my heart, and my integrity.  

If I completed this impossible journey, maybe I would be ready. Ready to stand up for myself, for the last and final time. Ready to risk my life, for the inevitable break away that would win me back my freedom of self. I deserved so much better.

Yet his threats hung heavy like a noose around my neck.

Something in the eyes of the Natives, in their stance, gave me courage. Like a wise hunter, I knew I needed an abundance of patience, and had to keep waiting until the time was right to make my escape. I would take my dogs with me.

I had been letting this man slowly kill me, day after day, year after year.

There was nothing more for him to take.

 

In the arms of the Kobuk Valley, death had pulled me under water, to find me still alive. The warrior within had awakened.

In this still fog of realization, muteness became me. Words seemed a waste, but new melodies flowed from a heart still warm.

A heart emptied and so entirely full.


 

******

 

Darkness came and we moved flawlessly through the night, without a headlamp, our eyes adjusted and keen.  My brain was foggy, half shut down, preventing me from succumbing to the intolerable physical fatigue, while directing all available energy to producing the adrenaline necessary to keep me moving.

 

Then suddenly, the beacons of mercy appeared, lights!

“Home!” I cried. The dogs bolted at the excited tone of my voice. “Kotzebue, we made it!” The team had power in reserve, and plowed ahead as if they had just rested for 12 hours.

“You guys are awesome! “ I shrieked. We were still across the inlet, at least an hour away.  An eternity, but the end was within sight.

 

I had never been so happy to see the distant blur of white, twinkling lights.

Humanity.

For hours I had been convinced we were on the wrong trail, and many miles off course.

As we grew closer, what seemed a black hole, reflecting light, sat between us and the village. What now? Was I hallucinating? I turned on the headlamp, and still was confused. It couldn’t be……. all water?

Oh my God, it was. Not just a little bit, it looked to be the entire ocean stretching out before us.

Well, what is a few more miles of standing water? It must be safe, right? Did I miss a turn, X markers?

I had no energy left to think. Or question.

The dogs showed no hesitation, I would not question them.

What had been the starting line 4 days ago, now the finish line, was a lake. Six inches of water sat on top of the ice. No markers, no finishing banner in sight.

It was a little after 1:00 a.m., and I was headed to the closest possible building. The dogs were thinking the same thing.

The night scene was surreal, as we ran over 12 m.p.h. towards the lights, completely surrounded by water, leaving a wake behind us.

Slowly, the outlines of the buildings and cabins became more defined. Village dogs yipped and barked at our approach. No sign of anyone. The village would of course be sleeping, but where were the race officials, waiting to clock in my time?

Finally we hit land, a gravel dirt road to be more precise. Still there was no sign of anything or anyone related to the race. Did they even know I had left the last checkpoint? Did they think I had stayed with the group of mushers behind me, who wouldn’t be getting in until after the light of morning? What the hell was I supposed to do now?

The gravel was sharp on the dogs feet and my temper flared. I fought tears.

What kind of finish was this? Where was I supposed to go? Nobody, not a soul to welcome our hard earned arrival. Dismayed, I realized I could be in the wrong village. Perhaps this wasn’t Kotzebue and I had just made my team run over 80 miles in the wrong direction.

I refused to make my dogs go any further, and I could not run beside the sled another step. I stopped, secured the sled and praised the dogs profusely. I took off their booties, gave them a snack and proceeded to search for someone.

“Hello! Is there anybody here? “ I hollered. “I just finished the Kobuk race!” I felt like screaming, “do you have any idea what I’ve been through?” I couldn’t believe how the night was continuing.  The numbness was debilitating, my body wanted to collapse. I knocked on doors, making my way up the street. Finally, a sleepy someone appeared and said he’d go find a race official.

So, we had made it home.

I returned to the team, and as emotions swelled to the surface, I struggled to keep myself together. I removed harnesses and fed them more snacks. Their big meal would come whenever we got back to the house of our host family, who would be soundly sleeping. There I had bags of food and straw awaiting our return. Unlike all the other mushers, I had no handler waiting to help me.

“We weren’t expecting you,” the bundled body said. A few men sauntered from the village. “We will take you to your host families house. It’s a little way from here, in the center of the village. A truck is on the way.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”  

I told them what time I hit land, according to my watch. No one seemed to care. No other words were exchanged. I was speechless, as they too seemed to be. I wanted to tell them what happened, but I thought I might start crying. Worse, I thought the story seemed unbelievable. They might think I was just an emotional, un-rational woman talking gibberish, complaining or just a fool who made a stupid decision. It all seemed indescribable. The term pressure ridge was still unknown to my vocabulary. To say I fell in hole sounded ridiculous. So I said nothing. I just focused on my dogs, rubbing shoulders and wrists, while the Natives stood and watched me. All I managed to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m a little tired, we had kind of a crazy run.” No one wanted to carry on a conversation at such a horrid time of the morning anyway.

I thanked them profusely as they helped me load the team and sled into the back of a pick-up. When I sat down in the warm vehicle, I came close to passing out. My clothes were soaking wet, and now the fine outer layer of ice quickly dissipated. Still no one knew I had fallen over my breasts into Arctic water. No one had seen. My body began to throb. I thought I might not be able to stand up again.

We unloaded the dogs and after a hundred more “thank-you’s,” I was left alone with my team outside the small blue house.

3:15 a.m.

I fed the dogs dry kibble and lit my cooker to heat water enough to thaw meat for a soup.  I divided the bale of straw into 12 thick beds, which the dogs could not be more elated about.

The pride I felt was overwhelming. The love and appreciation for my animals surpassed anything I had ever felt before. My dogs were beyond perfect, beyond exceptional and this day they had saved my life, after running flawlessly for 370 miles through horrendous conditions.

15 minutes later they were lapping up their beaver and lamb broth.

 

I stumbled into the house, to the bathroom. Heat was nirvana. I barely had the energy to undress.  The hot water was like stinging pellets against my frozen shell. It made my head spin, restored my breath. My body tingled and swelled. I kept the shower short, afraid I might black out.

The bed threw me into another realm, one I thought I may never return from.

Perhaps I would never fully return to my body.

I slipped away.

Only until it was time to feed the dogs again.

 

******

 

Mushers raised hell at the finishers meeting, ranting about the unprofessionalism, the dangers, the liabilities of the race trail. “They never should have let the teams continue!”

I sat silently drinking tea at the small round table with Iditarod champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, as they enjoyed their coca cola. I listened to their stories, but my mind was elsewhere. I was present, but not really there. As I had guessed, the pressure ridge hadn’t been as bad for those ahead of me. The trail had been re-routed by the time the guys behind me made it to that point. Today the pro’s looked at me differently, talking to me as an equal, asking me my opinions. Had I earned another notch of respect in “their” sport? Little no-named me and my wild, over-sized, mix matched wolf dogs?

I didn’t care.

As much as the mushers complained, I knew they would all come back. I almost felt bad for the race crew, dealing with the wrath of these powerful men. Knowing, unlike the famous Iditarod, the resources for the Kobuk are very limited and they make due with what they have.

Suffering needlessly out on the drowning trail, I certainly had done my share of mental cursing. Now it all just seemed a twist of Mother Nature’s fate.

We are only human, after all. No one can control the nature of ice, hour to hour, minute to minute. It was too late to place blame. We were the ones who left the starting line and never turned back. Thankfully no dogs or mushers were seriously hurt.

 

******

 

Shock lingers. Life goes on. The body copes, work routine keeps the pain at bay, but it never forgets. Memories re-surface when you least expect it and bring you back to the feelings, the place, and the unspoken emotions.

 

I did return with my team to the rich river valley and finish another Kobuk 440, and I did finally leave the man who brought so much darkness to my life.

The man who told me I could never do the things I did indeed do.

 

******

Shorelines are disappearing, and villages are being re-located.  Long struggling to maintain their cultural identity and lifestyle, Native tribes have been forced to depend on unsustainable means of survival and empty promises of the white man. The first people most severely affected by modern industry and climate change are the last thought of in crisis. They are the first to be taken from, the last to be re-paid.

 

The Arctic personifies the web of life that has been dismembered throughout the rest of the world.

To travel through it, to experience it on a spiritual level, is to become it.

Therefore, in leaving, one abandons a part of themself.

 

My life was saved.

My dogs, they carried me.

The Native spirits who inhabit the Kobuk, they guided me.

Without their bloodlines, there would be no team.

Without their trail, I would have smaller eyes.

Without their wisdom, I would be ignorant.

Without their collective presence, I would be lost.

Now, living in this other world, my heart beats to a different drummer.

The beat is never heard here, only in the wind, and the running water.

My veins.











 

AWAKENING


 

The ice gave way beneath my feet as the frigid waters of Selawik Lake engulfed my body. A sharp inhale felt the grip of death, yet my last thoughts were anything but panicked, “I got the dogs over, they will be okay…… this is my death; under the ice, in the middle of nowhere.”

A fleeting thought bid farewell to my parents as I calmly faced my fate.

 

******

 

My feet hit a layer of shelf ice, momentarily stopping the fall. Aquamarine water laced with snow-white ice chunks permeated my body over my breast line. Unstable ice surrounded me. The only hope was the metal end of the sled runner, now balanced above my head on an edge of slab ice. The slightest movement of my 12- dog team would pull this lifeline out of reach.

 

******

 

“ The earliest and fastest break-up we’ve ever seen,” the Natives later claimed of that first weekend in April, 2004.

In less than 12 hours, the seemingly frozen surfaces of lakes and rivers had turned to slush, to overflow, to open running water under a glaring April sun that brought temperatures into the high 40’s.

 

The 440-mile Kobuk Sled Dog Race travels through the Kobuk River Valley, above the Arctic Circle. Starting in the village of Kotzebue, on the coast of the Chukchi Sea, it follows the Kobuk River through six different Native villages, passing by the Baird, Jade and Waring Mountain ranges, through the Selawik Wildlife Refuge, and skirts the boundaries of the Gates of the Arctic National Preserve.

On the verge of cancelling the race all together, officials considered re-routing the trail over land to avoid the highway of rivers and tributaries that were melting at an alarming rate. With only 5-6 hours of true darkness, ice and snow pack had little time to harden, let alone freeze during the nights.  The progressive effects of nearly 18 hours of daylight and the sudden heat wave, obliterated the trail.

 

Still the race commenced, with a group of some of the best mushers in the world, gathered to do what they do best, despite and against the odds of Mother Nature, who never fails to test and challenge the most hardened and proven of venturous souls.

Over the years, I thought I had been through it all with my team, from enduring -65 below 0 and blinding snow storms, to battling winds so strong it’s hard to breathe and impossible to keep the sled upright and in line behind the team. We had faced  endless, bone -racking miles of dirt, sand, stumps, rocks, glare ice and glacial moraine, and been drenched in rain storms, pelted by freezing rains and navigated through open water and overflow of all kinds.

However, we had never run through water for hundreds of miles, nor had we ever encountered a pressure ridge.

 

For three days we had been running through water at least ankle deep, sometimes up to mid-calf. A pair of rubber boots would have spared my feet days of misery.  My Iditarod proven system of mukluks and waterproof NEOS overboots failed in the deep water.

 A few hours submerged in water is one thing, days is another.

When not immersed in water, we ran over snowless sand beaches, soft, muddy bogs and brown tundra. The best sections of trail were the miles of glare ice that glittered in brilliant hues of turquoise, royal blues and jade greens. Intricate mosaic webs cracked the slippery surface, over which movement was effortless, even too fast. The ice moaned, cackled and gurgled beneath our weight. The sharp tines of the brake bar were worn down to nothing over the miles of ice, as I was constantly breaking to keep the team at a safe paced trot.

 

Welcome to Spring above latitude 66, ground zero for climate change.

I had been training in sneakers just days before, expecting my flight north to land me in a much colder climate, which was a foolish assumption. Springtime in the North is anything but predictable.

 

Anything is tolerable when you are doing what you love.  

Running my team through the Kobuk Valley was a dream come true.

Weeks earlier we had finished our fifth, 1,049 mile Iditarod Race in 23rd position. After just a few days of rest, the beautiful Spring days found us back on the trails in our home territory. Stronger than ever, the team I had hooked up every day since the previous August, was still screaming to go! My young team and I were in peak condition, so I paid my entry fee and booked a ticket to Kotzebue. The money I had won in the Iditarod bought the 12 dog kennels that would be secured in their own “igloo,” along with my sled, dog food and gear in the belly of the plane. I would be traveling alone, and if I managed to finish in a paying position, the trip would at least pay for itself.

The dogs I had raised from puppies were now in their prime and they could never seem to get enough of the trail. Nothing, not even the unimaginably wet, warm days we found in Kotzebue, could slow them down or hinder their spirit. Like me, they were excited to travel through new country and were completely unphased by the water. Having raised them all as swimmers, the endless horizon of moving water was a non-issue for them. Certainly it helped keep them cool in the unusual heat and they could lap up a drink of water whenever they pleased. Northern husky breeds are happiest running at -5 to -10 degrees below zero. Anything above freezing takes some serious adaptation and the hardest working dogs are at risk for heatstroke. Every half hour or so, I took short “cool down” breaks to prevent any problems. Over ten or twelve hours of running, it made all the difference in our performance. During our long rests, the warmth of the intense sun worked to our advantage. After the usual routine of feeding the team and rubbing every paw, wrist and shoulder with my homemade magic oil, all the harnesses, wet gear, boot liners and clothing were sprawled out over dry straw or hung on the sled to dry. As the dogs slept, I ate, re-hydrated and tried to catch an hour or two of sleep on top of the sled before cooking their second meal and packing everything to go.

 

My nerves were wearing thin, yet the enthusiasm of the dogs never waned. Race trail markers had been non-existent except for those seen floating down stream. Finding and keeping on the right trail, any trail, had demanded constant attention since there was really no defined trail to follow. One river looked like three or four, with wide, muddy channels branching in all directions. Most markers tied to willow or alder bushes, especially leaving the villages, marked only the local snowmachine trails, and were unrelated to the race. Many frustrated attempts following these flags, led to narrow impassible channels of deep water and thick messes of ingrown brush, in which I had to let all the dogs loose to get turned around. Then, retracing my steps to the entrance of the maze, I would try another, and another, until finally we would find a ‘through’ path. Relying merely on instinct, as maps, compasses and GPS’s are not allowed, I followed the lay of the land, using the riverbanks, and lines of the valleys and mountains as landmarks to keep my sense of direction.

 

Speed triples moving over glare ice, but then there is the constant worry that a dog will slip, pull a shoulder, sprain a wrist or fall through the ice. I had no choice but to trust their instincts. Countless times before my leaders had avoided dangerous obstacles without my command, or chosen a better path than the team before us had taken. Their instincts and senses were sharp, and reliable.

But with every passing every hour, the ice was becoming more unstable.

Mile after mile I could see moving water below the ice.

“How can they let us keep going, this is so unsafe?”  My worried thoughts were nagging. “ This is so insane! What am I doing here? This can’t possibly be the trail! If the river opens any more we’ll be stuck here, and it’s too late to turn back!” I started to think that all the other mushers had been directed to another route, and somehow we had not been informed, forgotten.

 

******

 

 Awe prevailed over the stress and discomfort. With every mile of hardship, the enchantment of the Arctic stole my heart.

The vast landscape was breathtaking, and wild. The spirit of the ancient Inupiaq permeated the valley of  “half a million caribou.” The light of the high North, lasting until midnight, cast ethereal shadows and painted boundless sunsets and sunrises of striking beauty. Vivid shades of purples, blues, oranges and pinks lingered until the black veil of night set the backdrop for the Northern lights. They danced to a silent rhythm, illuminating the isolated world into a surreal masterpiece of radiant reds, purples and greens. Some stretched down so far they seemed to touch us, infusing our cells with the magic of the heavens.

 

Natives of all ages welcomed our team into their villages ,with twinkling eyes, and wide, toothless grins. They stood proud in their hand-stitched mukluks and beaver tail hats. The remote communities of Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk and Selawik, some well over 100 miles apart, look forward to the annual race event and spend days preparing tables of food for mushers and volunteers. Cheers, hugs, and pats on the shoulder from total strangers, made me feel like a family member coming home. Their smiles and hospitality made it hard to leave. In fact, had I not had 50 other huskies and puppies waiting for me at home, I would have stayed.

 

I loved the tiny community I called home, that sat at the ‘end of the road,’ where three massive rivers running out of the Alaska Range converged into one.  These rivers, mountains and trails had become an integral part of my livelihood, but my inescapable “partnership” was a living nightmare that ended up consuming a decade of my young life.

 

I was tempted to just stay in the village of Ambler, and leave it all.  I could raise and train my dogs in the bosom of the Arctic.  Living among the Natives, I could truly practice a life of subsistence and continue my path as I had intended, free from the daily abuse I had grown accustomed to.

I felt akin to this place; this remote region teeming with life, not yet ruined by the outside world. A place called a “barren wasteland” by some of our politicians, that is so very alive, and inspiringly intimidating in its’ silent expanse.  Words cannot evoke its many moods.

One dreaded day they will drill for oil here.

No part of me wanted to leave.

A strong force was pulling at the fringes of my soul. Something as abstract as the Arctic mirror of land and sky, and as defined as the polar bear print left at the trails edge, rapidly melting into the bog carpet of low bush cranberries and Labrador tea.

 

******

 

I spotted the pressure ridge from a distance. The long wall of chunky jumble ice and seeping holes, stretched as far as I could see across the lake to the North and cut through the trail we had been following. Under our feet, fresh lake water was colliding with salty water from the Chukchi Sea. During the process of constant warming, melting and re-freezing, the ice layers were expanding, forming cracks that were refilling with water. The pressure of the current was forcing the ice to push its broken, fragmented layers to the top, forming a formidable mass of ice chunks and slabs. This ridge had risen four feet high and four feet wide in places. While the rest of Selawik lake was still frozen white, dozens of trail markers had been placed in x formations, warning of this impassible danger. There was, however, no visible alternative. I wondered how long it had been since someone had been here. According to the sled runner tracks, barely recognizable after hours in the sun, the few mushers ahead of me had still been able to go straight ahead. The pressure ridge had opened up significantly in the last few hours and now going straight was no longer an option. Someone had been here to block off the trail, and the gaping holes, but they had failed to mark another safe through trail. To the left, the thinner ice leading to shore would bring me to land. I could then follow the shoreline for as long as needed. But would I lose the trail on the other end of lake, or even be able to get back on? Shore ice would be less stable than where we were presently stopped. Not knowing the depth of the lake and being in unfamiliar territory, that option seemed too risky.  There were no tracks of any kind leading off the ice, so my reasoning felt validated. My eyes scanned the ridge to the right, towards the mountains in the distance. The team stilled,  assessing the situation, sensing the obstacle before us. Finally I spotted a break in the markers, indicating a safe way over.

“Gee!”

A sharp 90 degree turn led us parallel along the ridge. My heart accelerated, as I kept the team at a walk. Unnamed and unknown to me, this natural phenomenon evoked a primal fear. The danger was palpable.

Before having a chance to command “haw”, my leaders Jane and Isis immediately saw where the markers stopped and performed a miracle leap. Fearlessly, without hesitation, they jumped up and over the mess of ice, pulling the next four dogs with them. Four dogs landed in the center. The two wheel dogs, the sled and myself were still on the opposite side of the ridge.

“Whoa!” If the leaders moved forward, dogs were going to get injured, as they were now all balancing in-between ice slabs and fissures. Where one could move freely over, another could not. I had no choice but to get off my sled, unhook most of the dogs and help the others over. I grabbed my ski pole to test the ice, though I knew this was no comparison to my weight.

I cautiously placed one foot on the ice, still holding the sled, looking for a safe place to put my other foot farther up the length of the team. In one super stride I could reach the dogs in the middle. I couldn’t unhook them all, as I needed their momentum to help pull the sled over. The jumble ice was terrifying. It felt as though a river was moving below us.

I was dizzy and hot with adrenaline.

Working quickly, I  lifted each dog to safety, moving my feet as little as possible. I unhooked the last two dogs. If the sled got caught on the way over, it wouldn’t pull them down with it.

Now just the sled and my lanky self had to get over.  

The final step onto the runner nearly became the last step of my life.

 

******

 

The cry that escaped my lips cut the heavy silence. The dogs knew exactly what had happened and they did not budge.

The shelf ice, five feet under the surface, held long enough for me to assess the situation and realize, that by some small miracle, the sled was still within my reach.

I seized the end of the runner with my left hand and yelled, “GO!”

In one synchronized motion, the team pulled me up out of the Arctic water, over the pressure ridge, on to stable ice.

As I came to standing, I felt like I was swimming.

Everything inside me was moving in slow motion, I could not even react.

I looked down at myself, soaked through to bottom layers, in complete shock.

I was already wearing the ‘emergency’ stash of dry socks, glove liners and long underwear,  that lived in my sled until needed. On races, these things are sent in resupply bags to the villages and checkpoints with all of our food.  We travel light, carrying only what we need to get to the next re-supply, but always with enough food and fuel to handle 24-48 hours of possibly being stuck in a severe storm, or any number of unexpected situations that can arise out on the trail. The last four water- saturated days had certainly used up all of my dry reserves, and now it seemed the final test was upon me.

The finish line was still about 70 miles away, which could take anywhere from 7 to 10 hours depending on the conditions and our speed, my abilities to run, kick and pole.

The autonomic part of my nervous system kicked into gear, as it had before in extreme weather, working under sleep deprivation. Frivolous thoughts cease to exist and the body operates robotically. Emotions are wasteful and no movement is without purpose. The body and mind work synergistically in survival mode.

I knew the danger of the eerie warmth that came over my ice bitten core. Movement was suddenly excruciatingly exhausting, my speech slow, the muscles in my cheeks uncooperative, “Good dogs! “ I managed to sound cheery.

“ Hang out for bit,” I instructed, “I’ve got to try to get dry.” I didn’t recognize the sound of myself. I felt stiff and slow, like glue.

Hollow.

I stripped down, thinking of my thermos still half filled with lukewarm hot chocolate and peppermint tea, wishing I had more, and started ringing out each layer of clothing.

No firewood within 100 miles or more. No people either. The group of mushers behind me had opted to camp at the last checkpoint to dry out their clothes and gear. As tempting as it had been to stay and join them, I had decided to keep going since my team was so strong and happy. Conditions were only getting worse and we were in the money, with only half a day’s journey left to the finish line.

I knew I would soon be hypothermic if I didn’t keep my limbs moving and working constantly. We would be running into the night, and temperatures would only be dropping. The situation could become dire.

Breathe, I thought to myself.

Focus.

No energy for negativity.

Once all the excess water was squeezed out, I tried to warm myself up by rubbing each of the dogs. I talked outloud in my chipper voice, praising each one, checking their booties, making sure none were iced up, and if they were, changing them. My hands and fingers were too stiff to work well. My mind felt as paralyzed as my body. Emotions were overwhelming, as was the numbness. Deep in my belly a fire burned, stoking the furnace that would keep me alive until we reached civilization.

I jumped up and down, did some jumping jacks, and stomped my feet. I knew my light-weight, synthetic insulated clothing, layered with wool, would do its’ job of retaining my body heat although wet. I drank a third of my remaining beverage, saving the rest for the long journey ahead. I had a few bites of my homemade smoked salmon, some goldfish crackers and a fig newton. Over thousands and thousands of trail miles, my selective diet had managed to keep me nourished, energized and quelled the bundle of nerves in my gut, preventing me from feeling sick.

I had to proceed as though nothing had happened. The near fatal event could in no way hinder our progress.  

Life was counting.

“All right guys, let’s go!”

We were off.  

The pressure ridge faded into the scenery behind us.

What else could we possibly face during these 440 miles?

The rest of the massive lake, stretching on for 50 miles or more, still looked stable enough. Thankfully, there were now markers placed every few miles. No open water in sight. Or ridges of ice.

Of course it could change at any moment.

I got into my usual rhythm of kicking beside the sled, 10 minutes with the right leg, switch to the left. I simultaneously poled with my ski pole, not missing a beat.

Hypothermia would have no chance unless I stopped moving.

Pushing myself during any race, especially the last 100 miles, was routine. However, I could not remember a time, in all my thousands of miles of racing, I had ever felt so depleted and bitterly exhausted. I was on the verge of collapsing. Arctic waters had zapped the last of my reserves and I wondered from where my strength was coming.

At one point,  I concluded that I was having an out of body experience. While my body and mind were working as a single entity to overcome the odds, my body did not feel my own. I felt entirely separated from it.

In feeling so much, I felt nothing.

I could feel my spirit rising above my physical reality of being in shock.

Was I dying?

The lack of sleep over the last months was teasing all of my weak points.

Unless I caught up to another musher, or an arbitrary snowmachiner, I would see no sign of human life until the finish line in Kotzebue. I felt as though even the most basic communication would be more energy than I could spare, especially since no one could help me anyway.

Pushing to the end was the only option.

Singing out loud, and chatting to the dogs helped to keep my mind awake. The dogs  were  running like champs, still in good spirits and in perfect health. I was now the weak link who could not allow myself to lapse for a second.

 

After what felt like an eternity, the lake shore finally met land. The last 3 or 4 hours we would be running through gentle, rolling hills on the brown, sweet smelling tundra, where only small patches of snow remained. With no glide under the metal runners, our speed noticeably slowed. Running to keep weight off the runners helped, but I couldn’t keep up with their speed for miles on end. I could only run in short bursts, which was better than nothing.

Fatigue brought tears to my eyes, and at moments I thought I could no longer stand.

I sang louder, calling the names of the dogs, and prayed to higher powers to give me the strength to make it home.

The meandering trail stretched into eternity, and my delusional mind believed that we were hopelessly lost, that my body would never leave this tundra. The markers could be from any trail, and out here trails intertwine like mazes, all headed somewhere through more nowhere with nothing in-between.

This kind of doubt I seldom ever had. My sense of direction had always served me well navigating Alaska.

I was unraveling stitch by stitch, as I battled exhaustion. The only confidence remaining was in the ability of my dog team. They had never let me down, and as a team, we had never failed.

At times I ran with my eyes closed.

I stopped as we always did, every hour, to snack the dogs pieces of salmon and beef. All tails were wagging, and their smiles injected me with the same positive energy that I had I given them their whole lives.

 

Unlike all the other nights since the start of the race, the vibrant colors of sunset eluded us and dusk mirrored my mood in every shade of grey.  I longed for the black of night to tell me we were close to the end. My earliest estimated time of arrival to the finish line in Kotzebue was 12:00 midnight, any time after dark. Grey dragged on in every step, every breath, and I wondered why I subjected myself to this kind torture.

Grassy knoll after grassy knoll, held the hope that civilization would suddenly appear and the pain would be over.

Watches can lie in this sport, as Nature fools our perceptions of time and relative distance. More accurate are the natural landmarks and angles of light.

The dull light of this day seemed it would never leave, the hours until dark felt to be an unbearable bending of time. Lost to the infinity of tundra and sky, our existence could remain forever forgotten here.

Solace lay in knowing my dogs were faring better than I.

They blew me away. Had they felt as I did, we would have been crawling.

They showed no weakness.

 

Time and solitude play tricks on a sleep deprived soul. Add in the wild landscape, a body and mind being pushed beyond their limits, and you have a recipe for life altering experiences and realizations.

In this window of space, there is no escape from weakness. No help, no place and no one to run to. No shelter, no phone, no GPS, mile signs, or short cut. No comfort. No distraction. No mercy.

Surrounded by life, simple and raw, there comes a point of total surrender to the power of this Nature.

It swallows you whole, leaves you inseparable.

Truth reveals itself in blinding clarity.

 

 

As the rivers had been melting under our feet, it was the flood of my life that felt to be drowning me.

Yet it could all end here, the fighting, and the fear.

The ancient trail of the Kobuk had been breaking me down, mile by mile and I could no longer deny the truth; in staying loyal to my animals, and dedicating my life to raising this dog team, I had sacrificed my heart, and my integrity.  

If I completed this impossible journey, maybe I would be ready. Ready to stand up for myself, for the last and final time. Ready to risk my life, for the inevitable break away that would win me back my freedom of self. I deserved so much better.

Yet his threats hung heavy like a noose around my neck.

Something in the eyes of the Natives, in their stance, gave me courage. Like a wise hunter, I knew I needed an abundance of patience, and had to keep waiting until the time was right to make my escape. I would take my dogs with me.

I had been letting this man slowly kill me, day after day, year after year.

There was nothing more for him to take.

 

In the arms of the Kobuk Valley, death had pulled me under water, to find me still alive. The warrior within had awakened.

In this still fog of realization, muteness became me. Words seemed a waste, but new melodies flowed from a heart still warm.

A heart emptied and so entirely full.


 

******

 

Darkness came and we moved flawlessly through the night, without a headlamp, our eyes adjusted and keen.  My brain was foggy, half shut down, preventing me from succumbing to the intolerable physical fatigue, while directing all available energy to producing the adrenaline necessary to keep me moving.

 

Then suddenly, the beacons of mercy appeared, lights!

“Home!” I cried. The dogs bolted at the excited tone of my voice. “Kotzebue, we made it!” The team had power in reserve, and plowed ahead as if they had just rested for 12 hours.

“You guys are awesome! “ I shrieked. We were still across the inlet, at least an hour away.  An eternity, but the end was within sight.

 

I had never been so happy to see the distant blur of white, twinkling lights.

Humanity.

For hours I had been convinced we were on the wrong trail, and many miles off course.

As we grew closer, what seemed a black hole, reflecting light, sat between us and the village. What now? Was I hallucinating? I turned on the headlamp, and still was confused. It couldn’t be……. all water?

Oh my God, it was. Not just a little bit, it looked to be the entire ocean stretching out before us.

Well, what is a few more miles of standing water? It must be safe, right? Did I miss a turn, X markers?

I had no energy left to think. Or question.

The dogs showed no hesitation, I would not question them.

What had been the starting line 4 days ago, now the finish line, was a lake. Six inches of water sat on top of the ice. No markers, no finishing banner in sight.

It was a little after 1:00 a.m., and I was headed to the closest possible building. The dogs were thinking the same thing.

The night scene was surreal, as we ran over 12 m.p.h. towards the lights, completely surrounded by water, leaving a wake behind us.

Slowly, the outlines of the buildings and cabins became more defined. Village dogs yipped and barked at our approach. No sign of anyone. The village would of course be sleeping, but where were the race officials, waiting to clock in my time?

Finally we hit land, a gravel dirt road to be more precise. Still there was no sign of anything or anyone related to the race. Did they even know I had left the last checkpoint? Did they think I had stayed with the group of mushers behind me, who wouldn’t be getting in until after the light of morning? What the hell was I supposed to do now?

The gravel was sharp on the dogs feet and my temper flared. I fought tears.

What kind of finish was this? Where was I supposed to go? Nobody, not a soul to welcome our hard earned arrival. Dismayed, I realized I could be in the wrong village. Perhaps this wasn’t Kotzebue and I had just made my team run over 80 miles in the wrong direction.

I refused to make my dogs go any further, and I could not run beside the sled another step. I stopped, secured the sled and praised the dogs profusely. I took off their booties, gave them a snack and proceeded to search for someone.

“Hello! Is there anybody here? “ I hollered. “I just finished the Kobuk race!” I felt like screaming, “do you have any idea what I’ve been through?” I couldn’t believe how the night was continuing.  The numbness was debilitating, my body wanted to collapse. I knocked on doors, making my way up the street. Finally, a sleepy someone appeared and said he’d go find a race official.

So, we had made it home.

I returned to the team, and as emotions swelled to the surface, I struggled to keep myself together. I removed harnesses and fed them more snacks. Their big meal would come whenever we got back to the house of our host family, who would be soundly sleeping. There I had bags of food and straw awaiting our return. Unlike all the other mushers, I had no handler waiting to help me.

“We weren’t expecting you,” the bundled body said. A few men sauntered from the village. “We will take you to your host families house. It’s a little way from here, in the center of the village. A truck is on the way.”

“Thanks, that’s great.”  

I told them what time I hit land, according to my watch. No one seemed to care. No other words were exchanged. I was speechless, as they too seemed to be. I wanted to tell them what happened, but I thought I might start crying. Worse, I thought the story seemed unbelievable. They might think I was just an emotional, un-rational woman talking gibberish, complaining or just a fool who made a stupid decision. It all seemed indescribable. The term pressure ridge was still unknown to my vocabulary. To say I fell in hole sounded ridiculous. So I said nothing. I just focused on my dogs, rubbing shoulders and wrists, while the Natives stood and watched me. All I managed to say was, “I’m sorry, I’m a little tired, we had kind of a crazy run.” No one wanted to carry on a conversation at such a horrid time of the morning anyway.

I thanked them profusely as they helped me load the team and sled into the back of a pick-up. When I sat down in the warm vehicle, I came close to passing out. My clothes were soaking wet, and now the fine outer layer of ice quickly dissipated. Still no one knew I had fallen over my breasts into Arctic water. No one had seen. My body began to throb. I thought I might not be able to stand up again.

We unloaded the dogs and after a hundred more “thank-you’s,” I was left alone with my team outside the small blue house.

3:15 a.m.

I fed the dogs dry kibble and lit my cooker to heat water enough to thaw meat for a soup.  I divided the bale of straw into 12 thick beds, which the dogs could not be more elated about.

The pride I felt was overwhelming. The love and appreciation for my animals surpassed anything I had ever felt before. My dogs were beyond perfect, beyond exceptional and this day they had saved my life, after running flawlessly for 370 miles through horrendous conditions.

15 minutes later they were lapping up their beaver and lamb broth.

 

I stumbled into the house, to the bathroom. Heat was nirvana. I barely had the energy to undress.  The hot water was like stinging pellets against my frozen shell. It made my head spin, restored my breath. My body tingled and swelled. I kept the shower short, afraid I might black out.

The bed threw me into another realm, one I thought I may never return from.

Perhaps I would never fully return to my body.

I slipped away.

Only until it was time to feed the dogs again.

 

******

 

Mushers raised hell at the finishers meeting, ranting about the unprofessionalism, the dangers, the liabilities of the race trail. “They never should have let the teams continue!”

I sat silently drinking tea at the small round table with Iditarod champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, as they enjoyed their coca cola. I listened to their stories, but my mind was elsewhere. I was present, but not really there. As I had guessed, the pressure ridge hadn’t been as bad for those ahead of me. The trail had been re-routed by the time the guys behind me made it to that point. Today the pro’s looked at me differently, talking to me as an equal, asking me my opinions. Had I earned another notch of respect in “their” sport? Little no-named me and my wild, over-sized, mix matched wolf dogs?

I didn’t care.

As much as the mushers complained, I knew they would all come back. I almost felt bad for the race crew, dealing with the wrath of these powerful men. Knowing, unlike the famous Iditarod, the resources for the Kobuk are very limited and they make due with what they have.

Suffering needlessly out on the drowning trail, I certainly had done my share of mental cursing. Now it all just seemed a twist of Mother Nature’s fate.

We are only human, after all. No one can control the nature of ice, hour to hour, minute to minute. It was too late to place blame. We were the ones who left the starting line and never turned back. Thankfully no dogs or mushers were seriously hurt.

 

******

 

Shock lingers. Life goes on. The body copes, work routine keeps the pain at bay, but it never forgets. Memories re-surface when you least expect it and bring you back to the feelings, the place, and the unspoken emotions.

 

I did return with my team to the rich river valley and finish another Kobuk 440, and I did finally leave the man who brought so much darkness to my life.

The man who told me I could never do the things I did indeed do.

 

******

Shorelines are disappearing, and villages are being re-located.  Long struggling to maintain their cultural identity and lifestyle, Native tribes have been forced to depend on unsustainable means of survival and empty promises of the white man. The first people most severely affected by modern industry and climate change are the last thought of in crisis. They are the first to be taken from, the last to be re-paid.

 

The Arctic personifies the web of life that has been dismembered throughout the rest of the world.

To travel through it, to experience it on a spiritual level, is to become it.

Therefore, in leaving, one abandons a part of themself.

 

My life was saved.

My dogs, they carried me.

The Native spirits who inhabit the Kobuk, they guided me.

Without their bloodlines, there would be no team.

Without their trail, I would have smaller eyes.

Without their wisdom, I would be ignorant.

Without their collective presence, I would be lost.

Now, living in this other world, my heart beats to a different drummer.

The beat is never heard here, only in the wind, and the running water.

My veins.












 


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