The lady musher from Germany---in Alaska to run the Iditarod---was asking for directions and saying she didn‘t have a headlamp. I had some half-ass directions for her---if I could have understood what she was saying. And I would have given her my headlamp. But the lady and her dogs were beyond directions and beyond wandering back to Willow in the impending darkness---they were exhausted and badly in need of a rescue.
Bear in mind that the lady didn’t speak English all too well; that we couldn’t approach each other closely because she couldn’t leave her sled and team; was rather impatient; and didn’t seem to realize what she had gotten herself into. I didn’t know where she was coming from and didn’t know where she was intending to go. It turned out she was heading back to her home base in Willow, along the Parks Highway---a wildly improbable destination by this time!
These events took place after a day of ski-dogging behind my dog, Belinda, on Sunday, February 19. I had run into a party of local snowmachiners. As we locals do, we discussed which trails had been broken that day and informed each other of overflow and other trail situations. Oh, and by the way, there was this maybe “Norwegian” or some kind of foreign lady musher asking directions to the “cabin” of her Alaskan mushing host. Due to the language difference, my friends were unsure of the situation but had pointed the lady in the direction they thought she wanted to go. They also noted some confusion on her part.
I am always reluctant to judge anyone’s outdoor situation because there is always some kind of story behind these events. I was already aware of this lady from the Anchorage Daily News story and television coverage of a successful search, in Anchorage, for her missing lead dog, Whistler. Nevertheless, judging by reports along the trail---and from seeing her sled tracks in the snow---I had already concluded that this person was definitely out of her element. And that was before I actually ran into her on the trail! What I didn’t know, but suspected, was that phone calls were already going around inquiring as to the whereabouts of the lady musher and her team. And there was someone out searching for her on a snowmachine.
There is always a sequence to these things---stuff doesn’t just “happen.” Apparently, the lady had been instructed, by her Alaskan host, to leave the musher’s house on the highway in Willow, run her team for two hours or so, and then follow her own tracks back home.
What happened after that is unclear. I can guess---because I have the same tendency to just go… to travel…to see more of the land. But the lady and her team were encountered far off course, up on the Houston Trail, close to Baldy Mountain, just off the Hatcher Pass Road. As the raven flies that would be upwards of only twenty or so miles from Willow. But this is the Deception Creek drainage---a magnificent wilderness area that has, for many decades, seen seasoned outdoorsmen, hunters, machine-riders and homesteaders very, very lost and disoriented. To make things worse, new snowmachine trails---laid in that day---can hopelessly confuse anyone trying to find their way back home on their own trail. Also, the day was overcast and the lighting was “flat”---where everything looks the same and all trails and features on the snow become blurred. That’s where knowledgeable and experienced lead dogs come in real handy.
From an exhaustion viewpoint, the snow on this day was very, very soft. I came upon several snowmachines stuck in deep, granular snow. In a few days or so all these newly-broken trails will harden up and conditions will be spectacular. But on this day---judging from how soft and “punchy” trail conditions were for me and Belinda---I can only imagine how difficult it was becoming for even the very fine-looking dogs of the lady musher. And that is if she and the dogs could actually find the older, harder trails rather than wandering just to the side on some newly-minted and totally soft area beaten into a mass of bottomless granules. Energy-sapping stuff! The lady does have a fine team…but she never seemed inclined to give the slightest “kick” or push, but rather, just let the dogs pull all by themselves. I was not impressed by that.
But the lay of the land is the major bewilderment here. The Deception Creek drainage is a system of high wetlands on the Western slopes of the Talkeetna mountains. Lakes, beaver dams and swamps lie between wood and brush-covered ridges formed into serpentine shapes by glacial actions. The land is too flat to see the mountains at all times (visibility permitting) and too convoluted to orient one’s self by the land features alone. I’ve been wandering this area for 25 years in all seasons and am always very careful to navigate with full awareness.
After hearing about a disoriented musher on the trail I somehow figured me and Belinda would run into her. Which we did about two miles from my destination. I guided her to a musher’s cabin where I thought she was staying. Wrongly, as it turned out.
I watched as she turned around and went back the way we had come. No way I was going to chase after her with just one dog but, sensing she was going to need help, I decided to stay nearby. Finally, she came back. Although I had assumed the wrong destination, things nevertheless worked out quite well because, just nearby, was the home of my friend, neighbor and editor of Mushing magazine. There was no going back to Willow---this team was done, spent, totally worn-out! Further complicating the situation was the proverbial female dog “in heat.”
Fortunately, the cell phone I carry for “emergencies“ became useful in speeding up the needed rescue. The lady musher was inclined at this point to head there anyway---toward the sound of barking dogs and the lights from the musher’s house---but the cell phone came in handy to arrange a snowmachine escort for some extremely exhausted dogs and a short-tempered musher.
The one disquieting thing, which I didn’t like at all, was seeing her kick some of her dogs in order to get them going while they lay exhausted in the snow. She is going to have to watch that behavior if she wants to stay in the Iditarod race without getting booted out. She is also going to have to learn some self-control and patience. And, to follow instructions from those who know this land and the conditions. Though the lady must have been extremely tired, she didn’t even want to wait for my cell phone to fire up so I could call the musher who would come to her rescue. She didn’t even want to take a brief rest. Fortunately, she was not able to untangle her dogs until help arrived in the form of two local mushers on snowmachines.
From there, her Alaskan host---apparently already out searching on a snowmachine---was contacted and arranged for his handlers to bring up a dog truck and haul everyone back home. He was not pleased.
“I give her to McGrath,” said a local musher of her chances in the Iditarod.
I wish the lady and her wonderful dogs well, but frankly, I think she should reconsider running. She probably will not---that is the way with “these Iditarod mushers” as one sprint musher referred to them. The lady had a fine-looking dog team but she, herself, does not seem suited to being out on the long distance trail unless she learns some humility and some basic lessons real quick.
- Rudy Wittshirk
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is the epitome of the professional sport of long-distance sled dog racing. The racers and their teams are in the public eye long before the race itself even begins and there are expectations for their professionalism and personal behavior. Part of that professionalism is heeding the advice and instructions of the more experienced professionals. This rookie musher got herself and her dogs in trouble because she initially failed to observe the basic, fundamental guidance, counsel and recommendations of an experienced musher as to where, how and how long to run her team in what was, presumably, a training run. Only then did she get lost because she didn't know the area and exhaust her team and herself.
SNOWMACHINE RESCUE -
All I did in this instance was to facilitate the inevitable---a rescue. While I bumbled around it did turn out well because my fumbling attempts to communicate around a language barrier did bring the lady and her dogs into contact with professional mushers who got her and her dogs safely home.
I’ve been “misplaced” in the wilderness a number of times but have always been fortunate to find my own way out. Frankly, thoughts of being humiliated by a "rescue" kept me going at times. Furthermore, if I ever needed to have my ass hauled out it would most likely be by a snowmachine. Or a helicopter.
In this season of heavy snowfall I have done more traveling on snowmachine trails than usual. The people who live in this area know what I do because they occasionally run into me and my dog(s) on their machines in the back country. “You must know this country…like the back of your hand…better than anyone else…etc.” I try to ignore such comments---Alaskan bullwarp. I don’t study the back of my hand. And I always enter wilderness---even for the shortest trek---with the idea that I don’t know a damned thing. It’s not about humility as such---it’s about not screwing up and about finding my way back home. I only know what I know---if it of use to someone, fine. If not...
By the way, when mushers lose control it is the dogs who usually suffer. As they did in this situation.