Updated: Sep 14
He was the anchor of my dog team. To lose my big wheel dog, Alaska, would be a massive blow to all my dogs and myself.
We arrived at Kaltag in the middle of the night. No one was in sight, so I went searching for a checker. I was standing just inside a nearby house when I heard screeching and yelps of a dogfight. I ran to my team, but by then, the damage was done. Some loose village dogs didn't like my team encroaching on their territory, so they attacked. I'm not sure if they went after Alaska or if he defended the team, but Alaska bore the brunt, and he paid dearly.
As I shined my headlamp on Alaska, his pure white coat was covered with his blood. He looked at me with his piercing blue eyes to say, "I defended the team." He did. I picked him up and carried him to warm shelter and began to tend to his wounds. His hind legs were in the worst shape. Punctured by village dogs' teeth, his legs oozed fluids, and his muscles twitched when I dabbed at the wounds. I decided to wait for several hours to see if he could heal up enough to get back in harness and go on down the trail with the team. But with time, he only got more stiff. Alaska was done with his Iditarod.
I loaded the final things into the sled and prepared the rest of the team to head for the next checkpoint of Unalakleet. We staked Alaska in an area with the other dogs that had been dropped in Kaltag. As I pulled the snow hook, my team jumped to their feet, and we bolted from Kaltag at a brisk pace after a long break. Within a hundred yards, we passed the dog area where Alaska was staked out. He looked at us with one question in his eyes…" why are you leaving me, friends?" He couldn't even get to a full standing position because of his injuries. I wish I could have made him understand why I couldn't take him along.
My sadness was too much, so I covered my face with my parka hood and aimed my team for Unalakleet, 100 miles away, with the command "hike." We were leaving behind the anchor of the team and a good friend. All the dogs and I felt the loss. Oddly, our reunion would be much sooner than I could have imagined.
Traveling the next 100 miles without Alaska was only complicated and made more difficult by fresh snow and a windblown trail. I spent several miles walking in front of my team in snowshoes to break open drifted areas that made the trail disappear. We missed the strength of our friend Alaska, and we all felt his absence. It took me about 24 hours to cover that hundred miles. I never saw another team for the rest of the run to Nome, so this stretch helped make us all a little tougher. We would need that to finish the race along a stormy coast.
When we arrived in Unalakleet, I went to a home for some warmth and food. After feeding my team, I went inside to one of the best bowls of chili I'd ever eaten. I was savoring the flavor when we heard a knock at the door. The girl at the door was kind enough to tell me that one of my dogs had broken free. I went outside and counted my dogs – all were accounted for. I followed the girl around the corner to the official checker station to try and figure out what she could mean about "a dog with my team number on its collar."
As I came to the checker station, I couldn't believe my eyes. There was Alaska! As I hugged him, I told the checker, "they must have flown him into town in a smaller plane yesterday, while I was on the trail." The checker radioed to Kaltag only to find out that no planes had left town but that "a big white dog had broken free" a day ago.
Alaska had done the unthinkable. His passion for being with me and his team caused him to muster the strength to break free in Kaltag and walk off the injuries as he followed us 100 miles to Unalakleet. He looked great, and his excitement to have found us was overwhelming. Race rules didn't allow me to put Alaska back in the team, but the memory of his persistence remains with me to this day as a treasured memory.
You don't need more friends or fans. But you desperately need an ally like Alaska. The race of faith must be run with at least one other who is "closer than a brother."
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