The View from Mattie’s Pillow

More on dogs.

I’m listening to a report on the Yukon Quest. The teams went over Eagle Summit last night and the leader, Bill Kleedehn, who seemed to have an unbeatable lead coming out of Dawson City, stalled when his team refused go continue on up the steep trail. Now Hugh Neff is in the lead and heading for the Twin Bears checkpoint 80 miles away from the finish in Fairbanks. By tomorrow morning the teams will be heading through North Pole and down the frozen Chena River to the finish line beneath the Cushman Street Bridge in downtown Fairbanks.

This is our Groundhog Day. This is spring in the Interior. The dogs, tired but eager, strung out along the gang line, trotting down the smooth white expanse of river. The mushers, their world focused on the narrow world of the teams strung out ahead, the texture of the ice and snow, the effects of the sun on ice, the heat or lack of heat–too much, and the dogs will stop pulling and want to roll in snow to cool down.

When the first teams come in, they will be met with cheers, flashing cameras and cell phones, newspaper, TV, and radio reporters. A flurry of activity, no matter what time they come in, then a long rest for musher and dogs till everyone’s across the line-this can take up to two weeks for the last team, the red lantern–then a feast and celebration.

We may go down to the river to see the teams come in. Even those of us who wouldn’t think of following our dogs for two weeks on a dog sled know that these mushers carry the spirit of the old Alaska with them. They are our heroes in the old sense–the ones who defeat the enemy, winter, for us. For Interior Alaskans, a musher who had attempted, much less completed the Yukon Quest, enters a different realm of Alaskan credibility, a ritual transformation that few of us have attempted.

The dogs will retire after a few seasons to become recreational mushing dogs or ski-joring dogs or the core of a racing dog breeding program. Once they have pulled a thousand mile race, they want nothing more than to be in harness again with their pack, tongues out to the wind, feeling the snow beneath their feet, breathing the smells of the other dogs around them.

Once all the teams are safely in, we all breathe a sigh of relief. It’s nearly March. The Ice Carving championships begin, the last sprint team championships will speed through 2nd Avenue soon, then the roads will start to melt and freeze, the temperatures will tease above freezing on some days, then dip back down at night.

But now, we hold our breath and wait. Will Kleedehn’s dogs, tired of being passed by other teams on the mountainside, suddenly give a great heave and reach the summit? Will Neff or Little or someone else get lost in the maze of mushing trails near town and miss the chance to win? It’s happened more than once. Will a moose, munching on a stand of willows with its new calves, step out in the trail, stopping everyone in the tangle of a standoff?

And this is how we pass the last week of February, ready for the promise of March.

(For Yukon Quest updates go to www.kuac.org)

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