Am I losing my mind to say such a thing?
In a few days, I will break free from the crew of officials and mush a dog team myself along some of the loneliest miles of the Quest trail. We'll see how inviting it is. Perhaps the fascination I feel for the sunlicked hills in the distance is the same the rabbit has for headlights. Whatever it is, I cannot explain it.
In town, sawhorses and survey tape block off several streets of central Whitehorse. A population of twenty-two thousand lives in this orderly, functional clapboard community on the left bank of the Yukon - 70 percent of the residents of the entire territory. The next biggest "town" up here is rollicking Dawson City, with less than one-tenth as many people. The Quest is just about the biggest winter event to hit either, and today hundreds of Yukoners in heavy boots and billowy parkas come to watch mushers stage their dogs and finish packing their sled bags. There is knowing fascination in the eyes of these onlookers. The townsfolk understand what lies in the wild out there, what a person requires by way of skill and luck to survive in the vastness beyond the city limits.
Not only are there ten more teams than last year, but the field of thirty-eight is the strongest in recent memory, with fifteen mushers likely to vie for the top ten. Any of a half dozen are thought worthy of a victory. The purse is $30,000 for the first to reach Fairbanks. Prize money ranges downward to $1,500 for the fifteenth finisher. I'm only partly interested in the Quest as competition, however. That's a sentiment shared by most of the people I've met-including many mushers themselves. If it costs $20,000 to prepare for the journey, and that counts only the direct expense of dog food, equipment, and the like and does not include losses that a musher sustains for forgoing a real year-round, income- producing career, and furthermore, if only the first- and second-place finishers win more than $20,000 in prize money - well then, surely there is more to long-distance dog driving than paying the bills. I suspect the right word is adventure. Although, as any musher will tell you, a winter wilderness endeavor like this, intense and complicated, is not easily summed up in a single word, even an elegant one like adventure.
"My goal? Really, I just want to see if I can do it. I think it's going to be damn, flipping hard. I want to see," says Aliy. "Sometimes I think it will be fun, but the truth is, I don't have any idea."
As a youngster, she made up stories about herself. Wild stories. It became habit. Then one day she was grown and she was on an airplane and someone asked where she had come from, where she lived, and what she did. She told the truth. It made her smile: Aliy's real life was a stranger story by far than those she once invented for herself.
Her German-American father had run a shoe factory. When Aliy was young the family moved from New Hampshire to Puerto Rico, following the migration of the footwear industry from New England to the Caribbean. Next came high school in St. Louis. "A mess, suburbia after hippieville and surfdom," she recalls. Later, she pursued a biology degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Halfway through, she interrupted her studies. She saw a magazine ad seeking help for a bird survey in King Salmon, Alaska, a coastal fishing town. Pay was three dollars a day. She stayed six months. Then she signed on for another bird survey, in Australia. Back to Penn: biology, track and field, summers working construction, weekends as a waitress. After graduation, she hiked the Appalachian Trail.
Alaska, as sometimes happens, gripped her hardest and wouldn't let go. In 1992 she moved to Bettles, population 45, an Interior Alaskan village north of the Arctic Circle. No road reaches Bettles. She was a summer seasonal biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the huge but little known Kanuti Wildlife Refuge, a vast breeding ground for North American waterfowl. She stayed on for winter. Her first sled dog was a present from a villager. He was an old trapline leader called Skunk. She took him for a walk and decided to let him run free. That proved a mistake. For ten days, the loose dog tormented Bettles and ruined Christmas for the villagers, raiding the local stockpile of holiday ham and turkey.
Copyright © 2000 John Balzar
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