The world suddenly vanished around the team of dogs and their musher, Daniel Gunardson. Blinding snow now hid the distant glacier that had been his only directional, but the dogs would know where to run. Their sense of absolute space remained unbroken, even in a blizzard. Before snowmobiles and GPS and other lifeless gadgets, they had once been the only guides for humans in the arctic. Mutual dependence based on survival is the strongest bond in nature. Gunardson knew this well.
He did not know that all of his dogs had already begun to hemorrhage internally, blood slowly filling their lungs.
He adjusted his goggles, squinted, and tried again to make out the path toward Rohn. The harsh, Alaskan wind fluffed up his parka and drove miniscule pellets of snow through the shroud covering his face. Just a couple of hours into this leg of the 2010 Iditarod Great Sled Race, his beard was already sheathed in ice. His cheeks were crimson. It was negative ten degrees Fahrenheit and the coldest day so far.
All he could see was white, with occasional orange-tipped rail markers and six-foot-high wooden tripods appearing and disappearing like silent ghosts every few hundred yards. At times the blizzard dropped so low to the ground that Gunardson, perched on the back of his sled, could clearly spot the distant mountains and tall trail tripods but could not see his own dogs. Then, just as quickly, everything would be smothered in a white, swirling blanket.
Kit, his lead dog, surged through the snowdrifts. Just a few hours ago, as the third day of the race had dawned, the wiry Alaskan husky had rousted and ordered his fifteen canine companions, nipping, barking, and nudging to get them all properly in line to be hooked up. He now guided them along an almost invisible trail.
Gunardson and Kit had a special bond. He only had to look at the dog and Kit would respond. The dog’s first thought was to serve his master, and he could always be relied upon to sense the proper route through the frozen wilderness, even on a day like this.
Maybe, Gunardson joked to himself, Kit could smell the lamb stew waiting at the next checkpoint. These dogs might burn up to fourteen thousand calories in a single day’s run. They needed all the rich, fatty food they could eat. He didn’t stint, not for such a marvelous creature like Kit.
They took a long downhill curve soundlessly, and he watched the dogs come in and out of vision. He watched Kit’s shoulders, then leaned into the sled and felt the runners tilt.
Bred to run, Kit took to the sled easily. And he was the alpha male of this pack. Kit was serious by nature, and a low growl was often enough to stop some other husky from slacking off. He was also indefatigable. Dogs can run at about twelve miles an hour in a comfortable lope. Kit wanted to go faster, always pulling on the traces. He even objected when it was time to stop. He would obey the command to halt at a checkpoint, but would soon be pacing back and forth, insisting that rest was a waste of time.
Other mushers wanted to buy Kit and had offered a lot of money, but Gunardson never even considered any proposals. He would pet the animal and talk to him, feeling Kit’s powerful muscles, and knowing that, someday, Kit would lead him and his sled first across the finish line.
Finally, the storm showed signs of easing. A spot of sun appeared behind the clouds, and the wind swirled in smaller, faster vortexes. Gunardson called out to the dogs, using the brake to control their speed. Once or twice he slowed them to conserve energy. They could run up to twenty-four miles an hour but could never maintain a pace like that. He needed them for at least ten days. To do that, he had to control their speed and not exhaust his animals.
Most of them were eager, fresh, excited, and performing beautifully. But he was a little worried about Tristam, a black-and-white husky near the front on the right. Tristam seemed distracted, almost disinterested. Once or twice he actually looked away. He would have to be dropped. It was still early in the Iditarod dog race, but Gunardson knew he could continue with a few less dogs. Maybe he could leave Randi, the smaller bitch toward the back, behind as well. She was struggling to match the other dogs.
A couple of the other dogs had seemed strangely hyper before the start of the third day’s run. They had growled at him when he attached the lines, and Tristam had even snapped. Gunardson was surprised by the odd behavior but had projected himself into the problem and decided the dogs felt as anxious and nervous as he did.
The initial few miles on the flat, the open tundra of Ptarmigan Pass, had been easy, a straight run to Pass Creek. The snow was not deep, so the sled’s runners slid smoothly along. The dogs’ paws were protected with booties and suffered no problems. Then the trail dropped steeply before it became tight and twisting. Scrub willows appeared as black images in the blinding snow. One or two caribou appeared and then vanished, exciting Kit momentarily as he strained to chase them and then disciplined himself.
Gunardson urged his team on. They made it through Rainy Pass, which, at 3,500 feet, was the highest point of the race. The dogs struggled noticeably in the thinner, colder air. Their heated breathing turned to white vapor, instantly blown apart by the wind. At least the temperature was bearable, nothing like the –130˚ recorded one miserable year.
The land leveled, and Gunardson relaxed a little. The dogs seemed strong, although they had slowed considerably. The increased elevation must have taken a lot out of them. He, too, could feel the effects of the thinner air. He remembered his recent vaccination. There had been talk of canceling the Iditarod this year because of the Rohn flu, but the collective urge to run was too strong. Many mushers planned their year around the event, proud to compete in the hardest race on Earth. Everyone had gotten their vaccinations weeks ago, long before the rest of the population, and no one was sick as far as he knew. Maybe a musher or two had dropped out before the start due to illness, but Gunardson didn’t know anything about that. He only knew that he felt unstoppable. His dogs were racing at adequate speed, pulling the four-hundred-pound sled as though it were a toy.
Gunardson took another turn with the dogs. He needed all his strength just to keep a hold on the handle bar. This is what he trained for, he told himself. He kept his knees loose as they shot over a field of bumps. He felt the urge to clear the ice from his face with a hand, but waited. He leaned again, slightly against the dogs’ trajectory to level the sled.
He squinted. Just ahead someone had posted a “Watch Your Ass” sign just before the steep two-hundred-foot hill down into Dalzell Gorge. Gunardson prayed the storm had frozen over the lake at the bottom. One year when the air was surprisingly warm, the glare off the ice and open water had blinded him and he had crashed. Mushers had even had to build makeshift stone bridges to get across the two-foot deep stream.
Dismissing any dark thoughts, Gunardson sped into the gorge and began running alongside the sled, pushing it. Then he jumped back on, held fast, and applied the brake. Almost at once the sled tipped, and he leaned fast toward the opposite side. For a sickening couple of seconds, the sled teetered. Several dogs got tangled in the effort to keep upright. Finally, Kit got the team going forward. Even Tristam was obeying. Randi, however, was barely moving. Gunardson finally stopped the team, unhooked her, and put her on top of the supplies in the sled. The dog lay there, barely breathing. When she did breathe, it came in short bursts, and her tongue simply hung through slack jaws. Flecks of blood had darkened her muzzle. Gunardson gave her head a quick pat, got back in position, and started up the team again.
Only five miles more to the Rohn Roadhouse and the checkpoint, Gunardson told himself. The river surface was icy and slippery. Once or twice he barely skirted a rough patch and veered away from open water. Kit led the sled across the river ice, onto the left bank, and into the trees. The checkpoint was no more than a mile away.
Gunardson could feel the cold bite into his wrist, briefly exposed as he shifted his grip on the handlebar. He watched Kit pull the sled to the right, following the path. With the snow stopped, everything was clearly visible, including the checkpoint cabin sheltered among spruce trees at the far southern end of the runway. Even though the run was short, maybe thirty-two miles, Rohn was a good place to get some quality rest. Other competitors could make this a lengthy stop, but Gunardson wouldn’t wait here long.
His sled glided into Rohn, hurtling past the sign which read: “Iditarod Trail Checkpoint. Slow Down.” Gunardson obeyed.
All that was here was the cabin and a few tents, and a landing strip made of gravel for the Iditarod Air Force to fly in food and supplies. People who volunteered to help Iditarod competitors flew in on bush planes or drove over on snowmobiles to the remote spot. Rohn really didn’t deserve a name, but there was a spot on the map. That was it. The few folks who made the annual trek to greet the mushers lined the entry, standing behind orange fencing. They cheered as Gunardson and his team appeared, happily welcoming them as they would all the competitors who came this far.
The clock stopped once the sled crossed the line into the village, and Gunardson felt a sense of relief. He really wasn’t concerned about his time yet. He hadn’t even made it this far the previous year when his sled had tipped over. So far so good.
He guided the dogs toward the wooden cabin where he would need to check in. Kit stumbled, and Gunardson was startled. The dog actually appeared to be laboring. Huskies could run six or seven hours without a break, yet Kit seemed winded after only three hours.
He put the brake on a few yards from the Rohn Roadhouse, a one-story log cabin with moose antlers over the front door and a pile of fresh-chopped wood that sat waiting on the left side of the entrance.
He carefully unhooked the dogs from the gang line. They would not wander off, and volunteers were there to help him. The dogs were normally thrilled to see so many new people. Now most of them lay on the ground panting. A few glanced around and rolled their eyes lethargically, while the rest just put their heads down. Concerned, Gunardson got out their food and left them to their feast while volunteers watched. He then went over to get Randi.
The dog was dead. She lay crumpled in a pool of blood that was already half frozen. Gunardson stood stock still. He had never has a dog die before on the trail. Has Randi stepped on something? Had she eaten something poisonous? How? And what kind of poison could invoke this level of carnage?
He glanced over at the other dogs. Tristam was listless. He was nestled in a snow bank, his head resting on his paws. A couple of the dogs were gulping at the chunks of food, but most could barely move. He was stunned by their listless behavior. What had happened? Could they go on?
“Worked ‘em too hard?” a gruff voice said in his ear.
Gunardson glanced up at an old, kindly face. “Dr. Jespar,” the man said, extending a hand. “Walt Jespar.”
“Look at my time,” Gunardson pleaded. Dr. Jespar would see his team had been slower than normal. Gunardson knew that. He hadn’t driven the dogs too hard. Some mushers ran their teams hard, trying to set records, but he just wanted to finish this year, to prove to himself he could accomplish such an arduous feat. Winning could come later.
Dr. Jespar looked skeptical, but Gunardson didn’t argue. The veterinarians were there to check on the dogs again. They had all been examined in Fairbanks before the race started. The vets had looked at everything: teeth, eyes, heart, lungs, joints, and even tonsils. They had taken tests for evidence of illegal drugs and searched for wounds. Females were examined to make sure they weren’t pregnant. Then, at each checkpoint, vets did it all over again, this time checking for exhaustion, injuries, weight, hydration, appetite, and attitude.
Dogs have died on the trail—six in 2009. That was the worst total since 1985 when nine didn’t reach the finish line. Sometimes the dogs froze to death. That’s what happened to two dogs on a team caught in negative-forty-five-degree temperatures and howling winds for more than twenty-four hours. Others simply died at times for no apparent reason.
“I don’t know what happened,” Gunardson finally said. He felt utterly hopeless. He knew dogs would have to be dropped. Most mushers ended up with about ten dogs by the time the race ended. Still he had never had one die before. He had raised these dogs as puppies, taught them the commands: gee, haw, and whoa. He had cared for them as if they were his children.
“Got another one,” Dr. Jespar said, turning toward him.
Gunardson followed his gesture. Tristam was rigid in a crimson pool, his light fur slowly wicking up the cooling blood. Gunardson heard his boots crunch on the snow like a distant echo as he walked to the dog. This couldn’t be poison. And it couldn’t be an accident—two dogs? The amount of blood…God, it looked like they’d had their throats slit like hogs in a slaughterhouse, but he could see no other wound. What was going on?
“Daniel,” Dr. Jespar said. He had moved and was standing by Kit.
For a few seconds Gunardson could not move, could not breathe. This can’t be happening, he thought. He dropped to his knees next to the once strong, vibrant dog. Kit looked momentarily happy to be greeted, but there was a deep sadness in his blue-gray eyes. Gunardson patted him again and again. He studied the familiar face and was appalled to see blood begin to drip through Kit’s teeth onto the snow.
“Kit!” he cried out. He watched and then screamed out the name again. He raised his arms to the sky, and his powerful voice echoed through the small village. The sound seemed to reach the Alaska Range behind Rohn and shatter it.
Gunardson walked around in a circle, and then he felt the man’s hand tapping his shoulder.
“Dan…Daniel!” Jespar’s voice broke in the middle of the name. “They’re all dying!”