A memoir of heartbreak, thousand-mile races, the endless Alaskan wilderness and many, many dogs from one of only a handful of women to have completed both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod.
That winter, she learned that she was tougher than she ever knew. She learned how to survive in one of the most remote places on earth and she learned she was strong enough to be alone. She fell in love twice: first with running sled dogs, and then with Andy, a gentle man who had himself moved to Alaska to heal a broken heart.
Yukon Quest Trail
Where Woodchopper Creek met the Yukon River, blown snow whipped across the ice like big white sheets curling and unfurling on a mile-long clothesline. Trail markers lay like fallen soldiers, splintered by the dogsleds that had come through before me. We were traveling on the frozen Yukon River, and I was in the first stages of a gripping panic. Miles ago, Lance and his team had been just ahead of me. But now they were a long, dark ghost in the far distance, already across the entire river valley from us. The next team was a day behind us, and the trail was disappearing. At the head of my twelve-dog team, my lead dog Solo hopscotched from one patch of snow to the next, linking them together over slippery, wind-polished glare ice peppered with sharp shale. His nose was to the ground as he sniffed for the scent of teams who had come before us, giving him hints about where to go. But the wind was blowing away their trail one gust at a time. It was a chinook—incessant and warm, heralding a new weather system that was sweeping in and erasing the extreme cold of the past week. My giant white windbreaker flapped loudly, whipping against my body, catching air like a sail. But as we hugged turns in the river and thus became sheltered from the wind, last week’s remnant −40°F cold seeped up from the Yukon—a bitter reminder of the fickle flux of this place. Alongside the frozen ramparts of jagged, jammed-up ice, the dogs’ ears perked up and they stared down at the trail. Out of the wind, it was quiet enough that they could hear water pulsing a few feet below us, under the ice. It was frightening, and I imagined my sled crashing through the ice and falling into the river. And now that Lance was leaving me behind, there would be no one to help us. Ahead, the Yukon was a cracked and expansive sea, claiming the entire landscape.
As Lance’s team surged and disappeared into the distance, my team kept stopping for one reason or another. The dogs found prior teams’ snacks on the ground and stopped to chew them out of the ice. They mouthed their booties, ripping off the Velcro fasteners, and the booties had to be replaced. They played with their partners and then got tangled. I became unreasonably short with them, telling them we needed to keep up. I began panicking about falling too far behind and being alone. The more I worried, the less motivated the dogs became. I stopped and pulled on my parka, realizing a reset was needed as the insidious cold infiltrated my layers. Attitude was every-thing, and I knew that I needed to believe in my dogs. And seven hundred miles into a one-thousand-mile race, I had no reason not to. We had all gotten ourselves this far, hadn’t we?
As the sun descended behind a gunmetal wall of lenticular clouds, shards of light glowed on the distant mountains behind us. But for us, it would be into the dark. Into the clouds and into the wind. For us, it would never be the easier of two ways. Hadn’t I learned by now that nothing worth doing was easy? The dogs faced forward as another gust ruffled their fur. They were silent, patient, composed, self-possessed. They were on an adventure. They were on a new trail. They were not scared. I looked at my sled and saw that it had everything we needed to survive out here. Everything I had learned in an entire lifetime was within my power. I was capable. We needed no one.
I stood on the runners of my sled and looked forward. I snugged my fleece neck gaiter up around my nose and it smelled like my unbrushed teeth, raw meat, dog shit. Before us stretched some of the most lonesome country on earth. It was huge and thrilling, and we were a part of it. An understanding rippled like a current from the dogs to me, and from me back to them. Without a word, they jolted forward, leaning into their harnesses as we glided into the coming night. The only witnesses to our silent transformation were the wolves who traveled wraithlike on the periphery, welcoming us in their way to a lone wildness.