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Chasing Caribou in the Dark: The Yukon Quest

Miles to go before I sleep: an epic 1,000-mile sled-dog race.

The reflective trail markers blink in the arc of my headlamp. By now, mid-February, the dogs drive toward them instinctively. We have been on the trail in the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race for a week and a half, and for the past 800 miles, the trail markers have been the torch we follow — the lone constant in a maze of wildly changing extremes. They twinkle along the edge of a steep trail lined with trees, and then the trees fall away. The dogs surge forward and I set my toes on the drag brake, laughing a little. My 12 dogs are sprinting up Rosebud Summit, chasing caribou in the dark. Their noses are lifted, nostrils drawing in some tantalizing current and turning it into energy, and I can feel it. I lift my head, too, and see those glittering trail markers ascend perilously upward, outlining various lanes on a narrow gravel summit virtually free of any kind of shoulder. I find out later that the trails were lathed in case of a windstorm, which would create a hanging cornice of wind-blasted snow. I stomp my sharpest snow hook into the frozen gravel and walk ahead of my dogs, making the mistake of shining my light down either side of the ridge and seeing the steep drop.

I walk back and kneel down next to Solo and Littlehead, and tell Solo that I need him to be on his A-game up here. I step back onto the runners and pull up the hook, and the dogs continue to surge along, ears forward, intent on hunting. I stop them again, and again remind them that here is where we will take it easy. Here is where we will walk.

It feels like we have gained well over 1,000 feet in elevation when I see the trail markers pitch unbelievably upward. I turn my headlamp to its highest setting to be sure, but the reflective markers stay the same brightness. I shine the light back onto my dogs and realize we are marching steadily into the sky itself, up Rosebud Summit, the glittering stars perched just above the horizon line mimicking the lathes. A faint aurora swirls its green scarf around us. It feels like we are floating. My gut turns sour, recognizing before the rest of me that something bad is happening. It feels like we are falling.

♦♦♦

yukonInline1Katie Orlinsky

I had been forced to face fear before. Back on the Yukon 160 miles earlier, the wind howled ferociously. Curtains of blown snow whipped across the ice; we could see them in the distance, like big white sheets curling and unfurling on a mile-long clothesline. Trail markers lay like fallen soldiers, splintered from being run over by sleds. I was in the first stages of a gripping panic. My friend Lance was just ahead of me, I had thought — but then his team was a long, dark ghost in the far distance, already across the river from us. The next team was a day behind us, and the trail was disappearing.

Solo hopscotched from one patch of snow to the next, linking them together over wind-polished glare ice peppered with sharp shale. The chinook was incessant and warm, and as we hugged turns in the river, the remnant minus-30 degree Fahrenheit cold seeped up from the newly cemented watercourse — a bitter reminder of the fickle flux of this place. Alongside the frozen ramparts of jumble ice, the dogs’ ears perked up and they stared at the ground. They could hear the water pulsing below. Beyond, the Yukon was a cracked and expansive sea, claiming the landscape entire.

We kept stopping for one reason or another. The dogs found prior teams’ snacks on the ground and stopped to chew them out of the ice. The dogs chewed off their booties and the booties had to be replaced. The dogs got tangled. I became unreasonably short with them, telling them we needed to keep up. I have been racing for four years, but this was my first Yukon Quest. I began panicking about falling too far behind and ending up alone. The more I worried, the less motivated the dogs became. I stopped and pulled on my parka, realizing a reset was needed as the insidious cold infiltrated my layers. I thought about my friend Brent saying, “Attitude is everything.” I remembered to believe in my dogs.

As the sun descended behind a gunmetal wall of lenticular clouds, shards of light glowed on the distant mountains back from whence we came. For us, it would be into the wind. Into the clouds and into the dark. The dogs faced forward as another gust ruffled their fur. They were silent, patient, composed, self-possessed. They were on an adventure, on a new trail. They were not scared. I looked at my sled and saw that it had everything we needed to survive out here. Everything I had learned in my lifetime of learning was within my power. I was capable. We needed no one.

Wordlessly, we glided into the coming night. The only witnesses to our transformation were the wolves who traveled wraithlike on the periphery, welcoming us in their way to a lone wildness that transcended geography and became, in turn, who we were while we were out there.

♦♦♦

KristinPaceYQ2015-38Julien Schroder

But now, as we clear the crest of the hill and begin to descend, fear seizes me again. It is eerily silent on top of Rosebud Summit. As we drop, we first pass the glowing markers in what feels like slow motion, the way a roller-coaster car seems to hover over the edge just before it drops. Then the sled begins to vibrate as it picks up speed over the gravel. I am balanced on the thin metal brake bar, digging its sharp teeth into the bare ground as heavily as I can. The deafening crrrr of the metal biting into the earth is the only sound in the world. My knees are bent, and I am tucked into the back of my sled, trying to become one with it. The dogs suddenly swerve to the side of the trail — a caribou carcass wasted by hunters — and my sled fishtails, catching an edge hard and flipping. My body lands on the ground, but my hands grasp the handlebar yet. I drag for 100 feet or so, and the dogs come to a stop. I stomp a snow hook into the ground and turn the sled back onto its runners. The pitch is so steep that the sled glides forward past its bridle and hangs there against the snow hook line. I take a few deep breaths and pull the hook.

Within seconds, we reach warp speed again. The incandescent trail markers create a blurred and brilliant boundary for this uncontrollable hell. The sled is vibrating so hard that the action I see in front of me takes on a flip-book-like quality. My wheel dogs, Hoss and Bullock, are nearly crouched with their front legs outstretched, pushing hard into the earth, trying to stop. Hoss and Bullock look back nervously. Hoss and Bullock start to fall. In front of them, Ox and Iron start to fall. The sled begins to overtake the dogs.

I flip the sled on purpose this time, hoping the friction of the sled on its side will slow it down enough to keep from running over my team. I land hard on my right elbow for the fifth time over the course of the race, and the pain is nearly unbearable. The trail takes a sharp right turn and we come to a stop beneath a sizable tree. I lie under the sled for a few moments, stifling sobs. What’s the point of crying? Nobody cares. Nobody can hear you.

I crawl out from under the sled and walk up to Solo, apologizing to all the dogs that I couldn’t keep them safe. Solo jumps on me, wagging his tail, licking the tears off my face. I turn the sled upright. The trail stretches before us. We have 150 miles left. What is there to do but keep going?

Kristin Pace is the co-owner of Hey Moose! Kennel in Healy, Alaska, and a backcountry ranger for Denali National Park and Preserve. She finished in 15th place in the Yukon Quest.