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Racing (Briefly) Along the Iditarod Trail

Tyrone Potgieter – from New York Times (March 2, 2012)

Tyrone Potgieter – from New York Times (March 2, 2012)

By Andrew McCarthy

THE dogs howled and barked and moaned with excitement. The noise grew to a crescendo; they were ready to run. I listened, transfixed, beside the sled.

“You might want to go stand on the brake and start visualizing,” said Carl Dixon, my sled dog instructor, snapping me from my trance. “This is the big one. It happens fast on this run, so … ” He left the thought unfinished and walked to the front of the eight-dog team.

“Ready?” he called to me over the dogs. I gave him a thumbs up. He stepped back.

“Hike!” I shouted, and yanked the hand brake. The dogs lunged forward; paws ripped into the snow. The sled jerked into motion and we raced into a stand of spruce, chasing history down the Iditarod Trail.

Begun in 1973 by a homesteader named Joe Redington who lamented the passing of sled dog culture, the race traces an old gold mining route from Anchorage, more than a thousand miles through the Alaska Range, until it reaches Nome, to the northwest — often through sub-zero temperatures. The Iditarod, which starts this weekend, calls itself “The Last Great Race.”

Traveling for more than a week across Alaska in the dead of winter, being pulled by a team of dogs? I was in no way ready for that, but I wanted a taste of the experience. So I signed up for a four-day intensive training in the art of sled dog racing, run by Mr. Dixon, a self-proclaimed “passionate recreational musher.” In early February, I boarded a four-seat Cessna out of Anchorage, and headed to Winterlake Lodge, at Mile 198 on the Iditarod Trail. The program, offered by the Within the Wild Adventure Company (withinthewild.com), can accommodate up to a dozen wilderness enthusiasts and would-be mushers — but, as I found out when I arrived, I was the only one who’d signed up. There was nowhere to hide.

My plane landed an hour later on the frozen lake just in front of the lodge at the base of Wolverine Mountain. I met my instructor, a scrappy outdoorsman who has been teaching sled dog running since 1995. My lessons began before we got off the frozen lake landing strip. “Rule No. 1,” he said, “when you crash, never let go.”

When I crash?” I asked.

“And we say ‘hike,’ not ‘mush’, ” he added later.

“Really?” I said, disappointed.

“Really,” he said with a shrug.

After showing me the log cabin, complete with wood-burning stove, that would be my home for four days, Mr. Dixon led me out to meet his dogs. We headed through a section of snow-covered pines, and by the time we got to the animals, they had picked up the scent of a stranger. Nineteen huskies raced in circles, tugging at the end of their chains, barking, howling and whimpering.

“Hi, Boxer. Hey, Fiona. Hiya, Axle.” He greeted each dog, petting, hugging and massaging them as he went. I let each one sniff my hand, and offered a tentative pat.

When we pulled out the six-foot sled, the dogs grew even more excited. “They want to run,” he said. He showed me how to harness and then attach each dog to the sled lead. It was nearly impossible to hear his instructions over the frenzied animals.

“Hop in!” he shouted, when the last dog was in line. A mere passenger at this point, I crawled into the basket in the body of the sled, while he hurried to the back and stood on the sled’s runners to steer. He yanked the snow hook, a clawlike emergency brake, from the frozen ground. “Hike!”

Suddenly, as we pulled away, darting through a grove of birch trees, there was no sound except the wind. Mr. Dixon began to shout encouragement like a high school basketball coach: “Come on, Squeaky. Stay focused, Boxer.”

For an hour we sliced through trees and then headed out onto the frozen lake. The rhythm of the running dogs became hypnotic. When we returned to the compound, the dogs were sated and calm.

After a lunch of wild Alaskan salmon prepared by Kirsten, Mr. Dixon’s Cordon Bleu-trained wife, it was my turn behind the sled.

“Remember,” my instructor said, “You’re solo now. ‘Gee’ is right, ‘haw’ is left. Call it out so they know where to go. Lean into the turns, and don’t be afraid of the brake.”

The dogs led me over a five-kilometer training loop around the lake. With only a few gentle turns over the flat surface, it was an uneventful and pleasant ride. Then as we returned to the compound, we picked up speed. We bounced up a hill and weaved through an “S” curve. Somehow I stayed aboard. But up ahead was a hard right turn. I couldn’t remember the correct command, gee or haw. Before I could utter either word, the dogs were turning. I was leaning the wrong way, and then I was over, eating snow. I also had forgotten rule No. 1; the sled raced on without me.

“Happens to everyone,” Mr. Dixon assured me.

Over the next few days, twice a day, I took the dogs out. As I grew more relaxed on the sled, and with the animals, I graduated to more challenging routes, leaning hard into turns through the trees. I shouted encouragement to the dogs, and they seemed to run faster. There were fleeting, and thrilling, glimpses of what it was like to be in sync with the animals in the wilderness.

Late on the third afternoon, my instructor and I strapped on snowshoes and walked part of the Iditarod Trail that I would attempt on my final day, my graduation from the program. The trail was narrower than those I’d been running, the trees were closer, the turns tighter, the ground more undulating. Then we came to a sharp bend and a steep 50-foot drop.

“We call this Wipe Out Hill,” Mr. Dixon said. “During the race we come out and watch from below. Half the pro riders wipe out on this hill.”

The next morning the Alaskan air was dry and cold. The sled was positioned directly on the Iditarod Trail as we harnessed the dogs. They were more agitated than usual, knowing the run that was to come. We burst out of the yard into the trees and headed up a short incline and then down. We raced across a frozen frog pond and were back in the trees.

Ahead I saw the sharp turn and the drop-off of Wipe Out Hill. I stood on the brake. It did nothing to slow the dogs, and they were over the ridge. I leaned hard to my left but was going too fast. The sled shot up over the bank and we were in the air, and then I was falling, tumbling and twisting, until I settled, covered in snow, at the base of Wipe Out Hill.

“Just like the pros,” Mr. Dixon called out.

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