The View from Mattie’s Pillow

Yukon Quest

The leaders of the Yukon Quest are a day away from their finish in Fairbanks, after a long week and a half on the trail from White Horse, Yukon Territory.  When they left White Horse, the weather was balmy for the Interior in February–temperatures above zero, clear skies.  But in the last day or two temperatures in Fairbanks have dropped to thirty below, and for the mushers along the trail now between Dawson and Circle, strung out along the frozen Yukon or attempting Eagle Summit, it is even colder–in some spots nearly fifty below.

What started as a glorious race, the front-runners in high spirits about their dogs and their abilities, takes a perilous turn at about this point.  One musher, a multiple Quest winner, Hans Ghatt, broke through overflow–where water breaks over thick ice above  a stream–and became wet to his shoulders.  When  the next musher came upon him, he was going into hypothermia, and heard the musher approach as in a dream.  The second musher helped him back to the checkpoint, where he learned that he had frozen a couple of fingers, and, knowing when to accept the luck he had, he scratched from the race.

The leader, Hugh Neff, seemed to be burning up the trail, hours ahead of the others, but the cold and a storm on Eagle Summit stalled him and a second musher, who caught up with him and stalled as well.  A third musher came and helped Neff’s team up the hill, but near the summit, they turned and retreated back down the hill.  Now, the leaders have switched positions, and Neff may or may not get back on the trail again.

Whenever I have a good reason to, I have my students read London’s story, “To Build A Fire,” which has special significance to them if they’ve been here a few winters or have grown up anywhere in Alaska.  In the story, the man is condemned by his insistence that reason is more reliable than the instincts of a dog.  Anyone who has followed the Quest knows differently.  The Quest dogs are hearts with legs and tails; they will do anything for their mushers, who, in turn, will do anything for their dogs.  One rookie musher sleeps in the hay along with her dogs when she camps at night.  Any Quest musher–even the toughest–gets teary eyed when talking about the dogs in the team.

So it’s tough on everyone when dogs die in the race, and they do.  Usually, after necropsy,it’s clear there’s a reason–an undetected weakness in a blood vessel, for example–but often the cause is unclear.  Like endurance horses or race horses, these dogs get constant veterinary care when they are at rest.  If there is any chance that a dog is ill or unfit, they are pulled from the race.  No mistreatment of dogs is tolerated by mushers or by race officials.  Still, the race itself is a risk,with long stretches of solitude, away from human contact.  Things happen.

The race is an elemental test of human and animal spirit–not for everyone.  And it’s starkly beautiful.  Photos of the teams running along the flat white highway of the Yukon against the backdrop of the river bluffs are dramatic and compelling.  There are few challenges that match it, even for an armchair follower like me.

Outside it’s dropping down below twenty below here on the ridge.  Mattie and Sam have long late-winter coats that keep them well-insulated, and I’ll head out before bedtime to take them another flake of hay.  I’ll look up at the waxing gibbous moon, if it’s still above the ridgeline behind the house, and think of those mushers on the trail, running and resting in the soft gray light, thinking of the hamburgers waiting for them at Angel Creek and of the flags on the Cushman Street bridge in Fairbanks, rising over the Chena River, the finish, and a well-deserved rest.  Any time they get there, someone will be there, cheering the dogs for a few more yards, welcoming them all home.

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2 Responses to “The View from Mattie’s Pillow”

  1. rachael Says:

    These two weeks are always the hardest to be away from Fairbanks. I’m always made shockingly aware of how much I miss home–how much I miss people who know the same things in their bones that I know in mine.

  2. mattiespillow Says:

    Well, this post had you in mind, Rachael. They’re at Two Rivers now on mandatory rest, and will pull out after noon, the three new leaders running about a half hour apart. I’m thinking of heading to the finish if I get out of class in time.

    I’ll post more tonight.

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