Along with the mushers, a traveling road show of volunteer race officials will be hopscotching from checkpoint to checkpoint, spreading out down the length of the trail: a race marshal, three judges, eleven veterinarians, an assortment of vet techs, a timer, a handful of logistics facilitators, and me - all of us sharing the ordeal of perpetual motion, cold, the sleepless thousand-yard stare, the rank smell of the trail, the stomach adrift from too much coffee and boiled moose meat. I know people who, thirty years later, can recall with clarity the agony of pulling all-nighters in college. The Quest will provide serious post- graduate work on the subject.
My happy-go-lucky plan to enlist once again as a vet assistant and shovel the dog yards, stick thermometers up dog butts, and otherwise try to make myself marginally useful has been dashed. I've been demoted. Down to the bottom of the volunteer ladder. I am now the Yukon Quest press liaison. The flack. Mouthpiece. Enforcer. My primary responsibility will be to manage the large contingent of reporters and photographers arriving from Germany, all expenses paid by a new race sponsor, the Frankfurt tire company Fulda. The press corps will now number more than fifty, when it used to be just a half dozen or so locals. All the old-timers up here are worried silly about the impact of this kind of press on the traditions of the race. They look to me for answers. I tell them I'm worried silly too.
Remember don't ask what they can do for you but what you can do for them....
I am issued a huge overparka, bright yellow - the color of a daffodil, the size of a grain elevator. This, so people can spot me easily. They can. They chortle and call me Big Bird to my face. God knows what they call me behind my back.
"I'm getting ready to get nervous now," says Aliy Zirkle, a brawny, handsome twenty-eight-year-old former college track-and-field hammer thrower and a sometime wilderness biologist. She is one of four women running the Quest this year, all rookies. Aliy lives and trains in the outskirts of Fairbanks, in the mushing community of Two Rivers - the densest concentration of mushers, sled dogs, winter trails, and expertise in the world. She is known for her oversize smile and for her swagger, the kind that strong, sexy women develop after a few years in the bush, where they are outnumbered ten to one by men who forgot what their mothers taught them about manners or combing their hair before dinner.
Parked in downtown Whitehorse amid a lineup of other pickups, Aliy is pulling restless, squirming dogs out of her dog box, hugging and encouraging them one by one, chaining them to the one-ton flatbed truck she shares with another Two Rivers musher, Jerry Louden, a shy but accomplished woodsman who, when not driving dogs, wheels a road grader and snowplow for the Alaska Department of Transportation. Aliy is striking and chatty, Jerry lumbering and mutely reserved. Between them is an age difference of eighteen years, a shared devotion to the remote outdoors, and a jointly managed kennel. When they travel together, salacious gossip is whispered behind them. I don't ask; I am fond of them both. And right now, they are facing serious matters, not gossip: which dogs to take and which to leave behind? Aliy and Jerry have spent months training and conditioning dogs. They have traveled more than one thousand miles behind their teams since summer. But only at this last moment are they making the final decisions about the last two dogs in the kennel: which of them goes in whose team? It is morning on race day.
Race day. The sun peekaboos through rolling hilltop clouds; temperature: zero. Everyone bundles up as if it's colder because of a cheek- reddening wind out of the north. Yukoners still calibrate and discuss that combination of temperature and breeze called windchill, as do Americans in the Lower 48. By that measure, it's something like 25 below. The local radio describes conditions as 'potentially dangerous.' As a rule, Alaskans do not calculate windchill, feeling no need to over-dramatize matters. If there is a breeze, zip up your parka. Meanwhile, clouds trundle low and leaden across half the sky, but distant hills up the trail are lit bright with the canted rays of a sun that never reaches high above the horizon. It seems almost inviting out there.
Copyright © 2000 John Balzar
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