The day after I was taken in by Judy and Richard was more or less a rest day. Breakfast, a groaning banquet of bread and eggs and meat and fruit and yoghurt and cake and cereal and coffee and juice, stretched on till almost midday, as we all sat back in our chairs, napkins crumpled up in front of us, exchanging anecdotes over our third and fourth cups of coffee. Judy held court, prompting me to recount the stories she’d already heard and encouraging Ed and Karen, a pastor and music teacher from Southern California, to reciprocate with their own. By the time I left two days later I had, at her command, retold the tale of my grandmother’s second marriage (unexpected; in her late 70s) to four or five different people. I was touched, and also slightly surprised by people’s interest in me and my life and my adventures, since their own had been by no means dull. Judy had been born in Arizona, brought up in California, and then spent a lot of her adult life in Central Africa with her children and first husband, before eventually meeting Richard on a hiking trip to Alaska, when he was working in bush schools on the remote west coast, corresponding for seven years, and then finally marrying and buying the Red Eagle Lodge where, their own travelling days mostly over, they now waited for the world to come to them. It wasn’t so isolated out here after all, I realized. In the summer months hundreds (or even thousands) of travellers would pass through, in their RVs and on their bikes, stopping to fill their bottles, put up their tents, refuel their vehicles and tell their stories. I was particularly interested to hear about a massive sponsored bike ride that came through every year, students from the University of Texas riding from Austin to Anchorage in a massive peleton, 4,000 miles in two months, raising money for cancer research. (By the time they pass through this summer, I thought, I’ll be somewhere between Belgium and Istanbul, in the throes of the Transcontinental.)
I didn’t see so much of Richard that day. As one of the people responsible for organizing the dog race, which would start early the following morning, he was constantly out and about, setting up the checkpoint, staking out the trail, and shuttling back and forth between Chistochina and Glennallen (a day’s ride for me; an hour’s drive for him) to liaise with officials at the start-line, keep an eye on his own property and deliver supplies back and forth. The mushers, on their arrival at Chistochina, were to be treated to hotdogs, cinnamon rolls and a hearty chilli, served up in one of the cabins dotted about the property. The dogs were allocated a field in which to rest and eat. Bales of straw were placed at regular intervals: before they retreated to the warmth of the log cabin the mushers would spread out the straw for their dogs to sleep on, light a stove to heat up their food and water, and watch while a vet checked them over for any sign of strain or injury. You can tell the more experienced dog teams, I was told, because when they see the straw they’ll immediately lie down to rest, whereas the younger dogs will be keen to get moving again, not knowing that they have another day or two of running ahead of them.
Shortly before lunch on the day of the race, Richard pulled up outside the lodge with a trailer the size of a small house hitched to the back of his truck, and he and I and his son John, who had driven up the Alcan from Idaho, arriving the previous evening, spent an hour unloading the enormous sacks of feed and packs of fuel that each musher had sent ahead to this and the two other checkpoints along the way. We arranged them in long lines at the entrance to the checkpoint, with aisles in between so that the mushers could walk along and pick out their own particular bags, each clearly marked with their name and the name of the checkpoint, some of them in bright pink or orange ink, so that their owner could pick them out quickly from amongst all the others.
One final section of the trail had yet to be staked out, and Richard, despite my protestations that I had never driven anything in my life, lent me one of his snowmachines and instructed me to follow him up the wide verge that led further into and then out of the village, under the road on a frozen river and then off out into the bush, stopping every couple of minutes to thrust a thin wooden stake into the snow, one end of it highlighted with orange paint and a small reflective patch that would show up in the mushers’ headlamps later that night, showing them which way to go and occasionally, when Richard blocked off an alternative route through the forest with two emphatically crossed stakes, which way not to go. The day was white and still, clouds hanging low over the trees and a few flurries of snow whirling about in the occasional gusts of wind. I soared and bumped along the wide snowy verge, following Richard’s ebbing tail light and timing my braking and acceleration so that I coasted neatly to a halt behind him every time he stopped, thinking how much longer this section of road would feel when I cycled it, at a quarter of the speed, the following day.
The first dogs were expected to arrive at around 3pm, and the lodge began to bustle as more and more cars drew up, disgorging people from neighbouring villages and homesteads, and as far away as Anchorage, Fairbanks and even Canada. A couple of very excited young girls told me how many dog teams they had counted on their way up the Tok Cutoff from Glennallen. They were making good time, apparently. They were almost here.
I joined the crowds milling around at the entrance to the checkpoint, passing the time of day, catching up on local gossip, and occasionally peering anxiously off down the road, where a temporary floodlight had been erected near the point at which the teams would emerge from the woods, and several vehicles waited, ready to form a temporary roadblock if necessary, in order to give the dogs safe passage. It wasn’t too cold, perhaps ten below zero, and a few people told me that mushers – and dogs – generally prefer it colder, about -25C being the optimum temperature (I later came to the same conclusion for cycling), and speculated about the state of some of the course’s several river crossings, which might prove more of an obstacle if the ice wasn’t entirely solid. People had come prepared though, and I admired the vast array of down jackets, fur hats and outsized winter boots all around me. A couple of men were even wearing huge all-in-one down-filled suits, bright red with a big fur collar, of the sort you might wear to cross Greenland or Antarctica.
“Here they come” remarked someone, and we all gazed expectantly down the road, watching through the swirling snow as a line of canine silhouettes streamed out of the forest, across the road, and swept across the white forecourt towards the entrance to the checkpoint.
People gathered close as the musher brought her dogs to a halt, squeezing a claw-like anchor into the ground with her foot as they leapt and strained against their harnesses, desperate to carry on running even though they already had fifty miles in their legs. A few people held the front dogs in check while a brisk, plump woman in salopettes instructed the musher to open the large, shapeless bag on her sled so that she could check she was carrying the required sleeping bag, stove, snowshoes and booties for her dogs. Another woman noted down her arrival time on a clipboard: the teams were obliged to rest for a specified number of hours during the race. Some would stay here at Red Eagle Lodge for the minimum requirement of four hours; others would follow a different strategy and sleep and eat for up to twelve, leaving in the early hours of the morning to strike out into the mountains that separated Chistochina from the second checkpoint, where they’d take a briefer rest before carrying on.
Once she had satisfied the officials, the musher collected her bags of food and fuel, dumped them onto the sled, pulled up the brake, called to her dogs to start again, and was led past the log cabin into the field. A few people followed her, but most stayed where they were, squinting off into the thickening snow, waiting for more. We didn’t have to wait long. Another team threaded its way out of the woods a few minutes later, and then another, and another. Over the next couple of hours they arrived almost constantly, sometimes two or three at once, so that the officials had to call to their helpers to hold one team back while they checked and registered the first.
One or two mushers had already dressed their dogs’ feet in brightly coloured booties, yellow and orange and blue, to protect them from the cold and the ice. One or two had the soft, furry, placid head of an injured dog protruding from the bag on their sled. I never found out whether these dogs would be left behind at Chistochina (and what would happen to them from there), or whether the musher would carry them for the remainder of the race. Some of the dogs’ snouts were coated in frost and ice, from their breath and sweat rising into the cold air around them. They didn’t seem to mind, or even to notice. I marvelled at their energy. They had run for over fifty miles, and most seemed uninterested in stopping.
I wandering into the log cabin where the food was being served and found that a third of it was strung with clothes lines on which so many jackets and jerseys and trousers and socks and mittens were hung that there was barely space for any more. A crowd of wiry-looking people in baselayers and longjohns were milling around or sitting at the edges, cradling steaming bowls of chilli, or queuing at the two large urns from which the coffee and hot chocolate were being served, and it took me a moment or two to realize that these were the mushers, since they looked so much smaller and more frail than when they had arrived, swollen to colossal proportions by their many layers of wool and fleece and down and fur, peering out from the tightly cinched hoods of their parkas, outsized mittens gripping the backs of their sleds. I was guiltily surprised by how many of them were female, having wrongly assumed that this, much like my own, would be considered a tough guy sport, and that any woman even attempting it would be lauded as brave but anomalous.
As the evening wore on and darkness fell outside, the cabin began to take on a rich, sweet, animal odour, as the sweat of the mushers mingled with the oils of their furs, was warmed by the portable heaters and warm bodies filling the building, and began to diffuse through the air. The list of arrivals, on a large sheet of paper pinned up in one corner of the room, began to grow, and people lingered in front of it, sipping their coffee, scanning the names, checking their time against those of their rivals, and commenting on who was doing better than expected; who must be disappointed by their late arrival; who wasn’t in yet.
Outside, the area where the dogs were resting had begun to take on the atmosphere of a busy field hospital. Each team of dogs lay curled up in two neat lines, still in their harnesses, stretched out two by two by two on the straw. People’s headlamps bobbed about the field like fireflies, and here and there a vet was checking over a team of dogs, one after the other, taking their pulses and manipulating their legs, making sure they were fit to continue.
The slower teams were still arriving as the leaders set off again. Every time a sled pulled out, along the trail Richard and I had staked out that afternoon, which would lead them up the road a couple of miles, then under the bridge and off through the forest towards the mountains, the whole field would begin barking and yapping, then settle down again, then resume their racket as yet another team slid past them out of the field and into the night. I listened to them as I crunched through the snow towards my own cabin and crawled into my sleeping bags, and fell asleep to the rising and falling sounds; frantic shrieking and yapping, and then silence again. When I woke up to restart my own journey, the last of the mushers were pulling out, Richard and the vets were enjoying a hearty breakfast after an almost sleepless night, and the snow had covered the road, so that I rode off into a world of whiteness, broken only by the dark shadows of the spruce trees.