The View from Mattie’s Pillow

Quest Finish

Still cold in the Interior.  The temperatures here on the ridge hovered around twenty below all day, slightly warmer than yesterday, but still cold to be out on the Chena River moving at a blazing five miles an hour behind a team of tired dogs.  As I went about my day of meetings and classes, phone calls and e-mails, part of my mind was always on the progress of mushers on the Quest trail.

At the end of the day, I logged back into the Quest site to discover that there was a new leader, Dallas Seavey, a twenty-three-year-old rookie who planned on using the Quest as a training race for the Iditarod.   Rookies usually run this tough race a few years before they end up in the top four, but  Seavey isn’t a real rookie.  His father, Mitch, has been running long-distance dogs for years, and he is following the family tradition.   His bio says he’s been training dogs his whole life and this flawless run shows it.

But this race has been like a novel with its interwoven threads of drama.  I keep thinking of Jack London, a writer too often overlooked in the American literary canon, perhaps because his work–at least the Northern stories–seems so romanticized.  The relationships between men and dogs in White Fang and Call of the Wild seemed romantic to me before I lived in Alaska in their suggestion of  deep attachment between human and dog, yet that attachment is what a long race like the Quest is all about.  There’s also the race between mushers and their ultimate enemy, the cold.   Even the strongest musher can become slow-moving and slow-witted if some accident of the trail leaves him or her chilled.  Ghatt’s plunge into overflow, Neff’s delay by a blizzard at the most daunting summit of the trail, these are the accidents of the North, the luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We follow the Quest because it reminds us of our own fragile peace with the cold and dark of winter.  The race comes at the first return of light in February, when we start to consider the return of spring.  But winter hasn’t let go yet, as the temperatures of the last few days show.  I drove home today in dimming afternoon.  Behind me to the east, towards Canada and the path the mushers were on, the sky was slaty blue, darkening quickly.  Ahead of me, to the west there was a watery pale light lingering over the ridge.  I had plans of building a fire in the stove, feeding Mattie and Sam, eating a bit, then heading down to the river to see the first place winner come gliding in toward the finish.

But luck has its own ways.  The house was cold and it took me a while to realize that we were out of fuel oil and needed to make a run back to town for a gas can full to tide us over till the truck can come out tomorrow.  On the way down the hill, we saw what looked like a house fire on the flats–floodlights and smoke and flashing red and blue lights.  Like the mushers, we need to pay attention to what’s around us, to the details of survival that keep us going.

We came home and got the boiler going again.  The window in the woodstove is flickering with birch flames; the house is heating slowly.  Phoebe, the cat, is curled under my arm as I type, one paw resting on the laptop, purring slowly.  The remaining mushers on the trail will continue to come in over the next few days, including the handful of women on the trail, who I’ll write more about tomorrow.

Till then, congratulations to Dallas and to Sebastien, who followed him in short order.  Congratulations and a scratch on the ears for all good dogs who pay attention to the trail and lead us on.

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