He was the anchor of my dog team. To lose my big wheel dog, Alaska, would be a huge 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 dogs 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 of hair was now covered with his blood. He looked at me with his piercing blue eyes as if to say, “I defended the team”. He did. I picked him up and took him to warm shelter and began to tend to his wounds. His hind legs were in the worst shape. Punctured by the teeth of village dogs, his muscles were sore. 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 Unalakleet. Alaska was now being held 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 questions 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 that I couldn’t take him along because he can’t even walk.
I couldn’t take the pain of seeing him 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 myself felt the loss. Oddly, our reunion would be much sooner than I could have imagined.
Traveling the next 100 miles with out Alaska was only complicated and made more difficult by fresh snow and a trail that was blown over. I spent a number of 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 help 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’ve 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 checker station I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was Alaska! As I hugged him and I told the checker “they must have flown him into town in a smaller plane yesterday, while I was on the trail”. The checker Ham 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 to be with me and in his team caused him to muster the strength to not only break free in Kaltag but to 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.