Blair Braverman on the Iditarod, Fear, and Resilience

Last spring, in Wasilla, Alaska, I ran into another musher at a burrito shop and mentioned that I planned to sign up for the Iditarod, the thousand-mile dogsled race. “Why?” he said. “Why do that when you could be warm and dry and have money?” He had just finished his second Iditarod himself, and he wasn’t quite serious, but he wasn’t joking either. “Why does anyone do it?” I responded. A dodge. I didn’t really know the answer, which made me uncomfortable. The truth was that I’d run one dogsled race, a 20-miler, and it was too short. Then I ran a 100-miler, and a 300-miler, and each time at the finish line, I thought: I could keep going. We could keep going, the dogs and I. We could eat food and take a nap and put on our booties and leave this parking lot, this school, this bar—wherever the race ended—and go back into the wilderness where we belong. What would happen, I wondered, if we just kept mushing?

And so my husband and I left our home in Wisconsin and traveled to Alaska and kept training our dogs and chopped thousands of pounds of meat and and (usually) slept too little and (sometimes) cried too much, and the next thing I knew it was March 2, and I was standing on my sled at the ceremonial start in Anchorage, the dogs leaping to run, with thousands of people cheering. And then it was the next day, the real start of the race, when teams head into the wilderness, and there were miles of crowds and signs and fans with their bonfires, and then the bonfires were farther apart, the stretches between them minutes or hours long, and pretty soon it was just me and the dogs crossing the huge wild state of Alaska.

If you’d asked me at any point during the winter what scared me most about the Iditarod, I’d have told you the Happy River Steps, a series of three hazardous drops onto the frozen Happy River, which come fairly early in the race. I spent my first two days on the trail dreading the Steps and the last miles before them in a state of suppressed panic. The dogs trotted in switchbacks through an airy forest, rising through the foothills of the Alaska Range. Everything was bright and peaceful. Birds were singing. I had the distinct sense of cranking to the top of a roller coaster’s first drop.

dogs
(Blair Braverman)

Then we came around a corner, and the trail just disappeared. It dropped over something I might call, in other contexts, a cliff: not quite vertical, but you couldn’t walk down it, either. The dogs didn’t hesitate. They flowed over the edge, vanishing, and then the sled tipped after them and fell beneath me. We half slid, half fell down the slope, and then the bottom caught us, and within seconds it was over. A minute later, another Step: everything fell away, we dropped, we landed. And once more—I held my breath, almost giddy at this point, the sensation now familiar—until we came to rest, at a gentle lope, along the sun-kissed snow of the bare and glowing Happy River.

It was over. We’d done it. I’d heard that there might be photographers waiting there, because they liked to document the wipeouts, but I didn’t see any. The Beringtons, identical-twin mushers Kristy and Anna, were resting their dog teams on the river, and so was musher Wade Marrs, and we waved to each other (this too was surreal—friendly faces, athletes I’d admired for years) and I pulled past their teams and off the trail, and my dogs rolled in the snow and gnawed on slices of frozen salmon, and I lay back on my sled in the warmth of the winter sunset and basked in the pride and satisfaction of having put the hardest part of the trail behind us.

You see? I knew nothing.

Later someone asked me about my best moment on the trail, and I thought back to those hours we rested on the Happy River. I was gloriously naive. It was the first and last time in the entire race that I thought: we’ve got this. Back when I still felt that each effort, each challenge, brought us markedly closer to crossing the finish line. Before I started seeing challenges not as individual triumphs to be celebrated but as signs of how much harder things could—and would—get.

After the Steps came a windswept mountain pass, the highest point on the trail, and then the Gorge, a careening descent that follows Dalzell Creek down a canyon to the valley floor. We crossed slanted ice bridges, skidding toward open water time and again before the dogs’ momentum pulled the sled back onto solid ground. I’d look down at dark water rushing under the ice, trying not to think about how close we’d come to falling in. It was definitely gonna get easier after the Gorge, right?

Then came the Farewell Burn, a mostly snowless 30-mile stretch of dirt and gravel that wound through burned forests. The runners made horrible sounds as they scraped over boulders, and the stress broke the bottom of my sled basket. The basket’s broken plastic, in turn, sawed through the rope that connected the dogs to the sled. We ran for two days and a night with the broken sled tied together with spare pieces of rope, unsteerable.

Next came miles of bare tussocks that my lead girl, Pepe, loved and my knees hated. At the Iditarod checkpoint, an isolated ghost town that marks the race’s official halfway mark, warm weather had thawed the meat in my drop bags so we made do with kibble. This was the beginning of a hot-weather stretch of above-freezing temperatures that made the trail slushy and everything else wet. We spent 38 hours traveling up the frozen Yukon River in the rain, dodging pools of open water. We forded creeks that felt like rivers. We reached the bottom of endless hills, and I would lift my headlamp to see the trail markers, bright reflective specks, rising back up into the stars. I told myself constantly that the next checkpoint would be the finish line. All we needed to do was get there. After eating and resting, we didn’t keep going; we got up and started over. Our race ended and began a thousand times.

In Shaktoolik, a village of 257 on the shore of the Bering Sea, I found an envelope that a friend—Chrissy, the cook at Alpine Creek Lodge, where my husband and I trained our dogs last winter—had tucked into my drop bag. “It doesn’t get easier,” she wrote. “You get stronger.” This struck me as the most profound thing I’d ever seen. Because I’d seen the dogs get stronger, day after day. Ever since we crossed the Alaska Range, they’d started getting a little less tired after each long run, a little more confident, a little bouncier. They were efficient. They developed incredible appetites, with each dog devouring up to three pounds of meat per meal. They rested when they could, napping at river crossings while I waded into the frigid water in search of the best place to ford, then got up quickly when it was time to go. They bonded as a team, trusting each other’s senses, sleeping in cozy piles with their heads on each other’s necks. I could see them growing, adapting, with each mile.

dogs
(Blair Braverman)

But it hadn’t occurred to me that something similar might be happening to me—something I hadn’t noticed, because I’d been busy watching the dogs. I was learning to break the impossible into tiny pieces. I was learning the difference between limits that can and can’t be pushed. I kept waiting for the trail to get easier, but maybe it wasn’t going to. Maybe all you could do was keep moving.

Even in White Mountain, which was my last planned stop before the finish line in Nome, I couldn’t tell you if we’d make it there. There were 77 miles to go, several of which passed through so-called blowholes, natural wind tunnels where weather sweeps down from the mountains and out to sea, sometimes reaching hurricane-force speeds. (“If you get lost on sea ice,” my notes for this part of the trail read, “mush straight into the wind until you reach the shore.”)

My team was strong, if small. Teams this year started with 14 dogs, and no new dogs could be added, but mushers could leave dogs at checkpoints along the way to be cared for by volunteers until the end of the race. I chose to leave two dogs behind for the final run—one girl, Hunter, because she needed a bit more rest than her teammates, and the other, an exuberant boy named Colbert, because he’d snuck into my sled bag and devoured two bags’ worth of chicken skins, which were currently squirting out of his very enthusiastic back end. I watched Hunter and Colbert climb into a bush plane smaller than my truck, wagging their tails and sniffing noses with a dog from another team. I liked the idea that they were headed to the finish line, where my husband would care for them until we reunited. They’d reach Nome before me—if I reached Nome.

I left White Mountain in the early-morning hours, when the wind is said to be gentlest, but it was already blowing hard. Drifts had formed since the last team passed through. Pepe zigzagged between the trail markers, searching for a hard-packed path. Sometimes she found one and we flew for a few yards; sometimes she stepped off an unseen ledge and sank chest-deep in powder. By the time the sun rose, the white landscape lit with a colorless glow, wind from the northeast hit us like a wall. We ran diagonally, all of us leaning; the dogs lowered their heads. At the same time, an opaque fog formed at my eye level, resting on clear air like oil on water. When I ducked beneath it, I saw deserted fish camps half-buried in drifts, wooden buildings and drying racks abandoned for the season in hard-packed mounds of snow.

I’ve heard stories of mushers hallucinating during the race, but I never thought I was hallucinating myself until we saw the lights of Nome, 13 days after leaving Anchorage. Even after we crossed the finish line and the dogs were chomping on pork chops and my husband and parents were hugging me and the race director, Mark Nordman, shook my hand. It wasn’t real. I was sure of it. For days I waited to wake up. Because something had changed out there, changed for me and my dogs, and we were the only ones who knew it. The trail was our life, and everything else was a dream.

Outside Magazine: All

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