Alaska's Mother Nature, a dog team and their musher- A spiritual non-fiction short story
WIND and SAND
The ominous lenticular cloud, black as night, darkened the mid-day sky and my upbeat mood. It appeared out of nowhere as we started the mile long descent from the crest of Topkok hill, to the sandy shore of Cape Nome on the Bering Sea.
Ten days, a thousand miles, had taken us from the city streets of Anchorage, over the Alaska Range, through the Interior, down the Yukon River, to the coast. Now the sparkling blue waters of the sea marked the near finale of the arduous Iditarod race. With only 50 miles to go, we were at the mercy of this last section of exposed trail, notorious for sudden, extreme storms and perilous winds.
So close, the end.
Yet, so far.
Lenticular clouds, wispy and cylindrical in nature, white or grey, usually cling to the tops of mountains and tend to be localized. They signify high velocity winds.
This cloud grew by the minute and its enormity was unsettling. Like an enemy army, it advanced from behind, swallowing the entire sky. It moved so deliberately, as if with a personal vendetta.
We could run but we could not hide.
It was frightening to imagine what kind of precipitation such blackness could unleash.
The heavens were angry.
Once we hit level ground, I stopped to snack the dogs and give the usual pep talk and rub down. No strangers to this territory, the dogs knew we were in the home stretch. The coastal winds and salty air welcomed us back every year into this temperamental, obscure region of the world. Feeling the toll of a thousand miles, we always feel rejuvenated once we hit the coast, confident we will claim another successful trans- Alaska journey.
The winds had been constant, but not severe the last 200 miles since leaving the first coastal village of Unalakleet. We had been fortunate this year that the weather had been forgiving as we passed through the rolling 'Blueberry Hills', over expanses of groaning sea ice and the summit of 1000 ft. Little Mckinley.
I've persevered through many storms in my life, but the forewarning of this otherworldly formation was unequivocal. In less than 15 minutes, the turmoil of sky stretched to half the length of the entire cape. Its' tendrils curled, the center brewed and churned into an obsidian abyss.
"Oh my God," I muttered out loud.
The dread and fear in my gut turned to nausea. I wished I had a camera to document the formidable weather event that was about to unfurl.
There were no other mushers directly ahead or behind me, but I knew many were close. Seconds run like dominoes at the end of a thousand mile race; anything we had gained could still be lost. If a storm warning had been issued at the last checkpoint, in the village of White Mountain, I had not heard it. Maybe I had deliberately not been told?
During my racing career, I had never let weather reports or dramatic gossip alter my schedule. Winds blow, snow dumps and extreme cold is always uncomfortable. Waiting around for extreme to change had never been my style. My dogs always knew exactly what I was thinking and they sensed my every emotion. If I lost confidence, so would they.
My racing philosophy was simple; be prepared for anything, all the time, and embrace weather as it comes. Trust my instincts and gauge my pace only by the ability of my team. Never let the dogs sense any negativity, be happy and positive regardless of how I'm feeling. Stay in tune with my surroundings, and work with Mother Nature, rather than against her. Never pay attention to what anyone else is doing in the race. The dogs are all that matter, each one being an extension of myself. Their health and well-being is my only priority. My job is to take impeccable care of my athletes and best friends, under any given circumstance, and lead them to the finish line with wagging tails and happy spirits. If I do this efficiently and consistently, success is ours.
Storms and difficult conditions merely test our strength and endurance as a team.
Snack time was over.
"Okay guys, let's get this over with!"
We took off towards Nome, following the ancient trail just yards away from the Bering Sea. There was little snow covering the sand and pebbly beach. Grassy tussocks and small patches of frozen water defined the trail.
I pulled on my hooded over- parka and wind pants. Super light -weight and fast drying, this seamless system fit over the bulkiness of all my layers as a final defense against the wind, which was seconds away from whipping us. I dug into my sled and grabbed my thermos for a hydrating, nerve settling gulp of peppermint tea. The dogs pointed their noses upwards, sensing the radical change in atmosphere.
In a breath, the serenity ended, and the skies wrath touched down upon us.
It started 'gently', from the ground, forming miniature cyclones, lifting the sand as high as the heads of the dogs. Not yet a steady gale gusting in unison, the wind was playful, like staccato notes, coming from all sides and directions. The cloud consumed the mountains to our right and the entirety of our spatial reality.
Not a single dog flinched or hesitated.
" You guys are awesome," I praised, "it might get a little crazy but nothing we can't handle."
Flat light plays tricks on the eyes, especially here, where the partially frozen, undulating sea often looks like land. Mistakes can be fatal, but savvy dogs and attentive drivers should be able to maintain course once they've established their relative position prior to the blinding conditions.
Due to the volatile and predictable unpredictability of weather on Cape Nome, it is perhaps one of the most well marked sections of trail in the world. Long ago, Natives built 8- foot high driftwood tripod markers every mile, to ensure the lone traveler would make it home to Nome, or at least to the Safety Roadhouse shelter cabin, now 25 miles ahead of us.
The winds accelerated into a full force ground blizzard, lifting all ground particles into a swirling mass five feet high. At first my leaders disappeared. Minutes later, the next two, four, and six dogs.
The gale struck abruptly from the East side, thrusting the sled off the trail to the seaside. I stood with both feet on the right runners, cranking my handlebars to the right with all my strength to keep the sled in line behind the team.
All my strength was not enough; it only kept the sled upright, at a 45 degree angle to the left of my wheel dogs and from being blown away into oblivion.
The relentless gales gathered force by the minute, as the entire team and front of the sled disappeared into the whiteout.
As the world spun around in violent chaos, we were thrown into an indeterminate realm of infinite, unbridled energy. The sand, snow and ice pelted and stung my face, permeating every pore.
The wails of heaven were deafening.
All I could do was keep talking,(shouting over the winds roar) to the dogs reassuringly, though I could no longer see them. They all had their custom made jackets on, made of the same material as my over-parka, now billowing like a parachute. I was angry they had to endure this in the final miles, after all they had done. The anger fueled my energy. Calling their names, one by one, my voice was confident and encouraging. My leaders Giovanni and Lil' Bit were performing the impossible.
I felt I was loosing the battle when I could no longer control the sled. Forward movement became nearly impossible. To keep us going, I walked and jogged while pulling the sled to center to keep it from flipping over and dragging my team with it. One second of weakness, a loosened grip, and the wind could claim it all.
Now I could see nothing beyond my mitted grip, manhandling the handlebars.
Stopped in our tracks.
The sled collided with one of the tripod markers.
I was elated.
We were still on the trail, and making progress.
"Good dogs, good dogs!" I yanked and dragged the sled to the right as much as possible and jogged forward. It felt like I was being simultaneously body slammed and vacuumed. The dogs too, inched forward.
We wrestled the raging grey-white formless dragon in every breath, every step. There was nothing except surviving another second without total catastrophe.
Muscles screamed. My neck and upper shoulders burned as if hot daggers pierced through to bone. Fighting the wind and dragging the sled against its force was ripping my upper body apart.
Seconds. Minutes. Hours.
How long could I endure?
I considered letting the dogs loose, leaving the sled and walking the remaining miles to Nome.
Or should we stop and hunker down?
No, nothing would be gained by that. Being exposed in these conditions while not moving, could be fatal to human or beast. So long as I knew we were on the trail, it was better to keep our core body temperature up and circulation going.
The power of this single cloud had suddenly made me the weak link in the team.
The pain was making me delusional, as were the affects of 1000 miles.
I wished I was the size of the dogs, as my height was an encumbrance. In the past I had traveled miles, ducking low behind my handlebars, even on my knees, to less impede the team in the wind. But a moment on the runners was impossible now, as the sand beneath us was like glue.
The ground upon which we ran was invisible. Felt, but unseen, the earth floated as the sky had dropped and infiltrated us. It found its way into the tiniest of seams and hammered us until we felt the vibrations of the underworld.
We remained steadfast in the sea of upheaval.
Though it felt to be killing me, I vowed to not relent. I willed my body to steel.
My mind separated. It looked down on the shell of straining tendons and microfilaments I had become. An x-ray of sight, elevated above the sensations of pain and broken exhaustion, I commanded my brain to let go of physical reality. For seconds at a time I could feel nothing this way, only heat, and the wind.
And in these seconds the wind felt to pass through me, rather than hinder me.
The brush bow was bent from the collisions, but not yet broken. We didn't need it anyway.
So parched I could barely swallow. Not being able to see the dogs was driving me crazy.
The longest miles of my life.
Don't lose it.
Steel too can break, like a body, like the spirit. Snap, like a twig, in -60 below.
Steel is not so malleable. Whatever cannot bend will inevitably break under certain pressure.
Bones crumble without the flexibility of fibers.
How were the dogs able to stay on the trail?
The wind was compressing my brain, no room to think, to breathe.
Just move forward.
Let myself be carved out like a canyon.
The cells of our body mimic universal energy; a mirror, of that which we are made of, no greater or less, merely part of the whole.
A fraction, a grain of sand, once something so much greater.
So much energy to be weathered down to this.
Some things never change.
The knife in my left shoulder I could not remove. The sled, and all its' weight against the wind, anchored the blade deeper with every yank, pull, tug and shove.
The effort exerted could have moved mountainsides.
I was seeing stars when they appeared.
Solid, visible forms amidst the grey mass of destruction.
Was I hallucinating?
No, because suddenly the team jerked forward. I still could not see them, but I felt their momentum and strength.
I rested a moment on the runners.
Antlers surrounded us. Glimpses of legless dark bodies, as if being carried by on a cloud.
I blinked several times. Were it not for the excitement of the dogs, I never would have believed my eyes.
A herd of caribou enveloped us on all sides. They were running, galloping. Of course I could not hear the thunder of their hooves over the wind.
Their sudden appearance felt to be an omen from the Gods.
The dogs pulled with uncanny force, invigorated by the arrival of the wild herd. We felt to be flying, all at once weightless and at one with the wind.
Still pulling with all of my strength and weight to the right, I could again ride the right runner and keep the sled at a 45 degree angle.
We moved in perfect synchronicity, melded into the herd and charged through the storm, fearless and unabated.
The herd guided us through.
The heaviness in my bones temporarily subsided, for we were not alone.
Unity carried us.
As swiftly as the ethereal, noble beasts had appeared, they vanished.
Whether they continued ahead, or branched off to the side I could not tell.
Our fleeting encounter was over, to be remembered as a dream.
Minutes later, as if we suddenly crossed a sacred line, we were released from the belly of the cosmic storm. Vision of the world around us was restored and the winds began to taper. All ten dogs still ran in perfect form, seemingly unfazed, while I felt mild shock as we gained distance from the dark seething wall, still turning the world upside down behind us.
We had passed through and seen the other side.
The other side, where live those spirits who did not survive, whose bones and memories, layered in the sand we pass over, now lay exposed by the wind.
The other side, where human qualities are humbled to the capabilities of beasts, whose wild instincts have enabled them to survive where we, alone and naked, cannot.
Dazed, I mushed on for 10 minutes or more before realizing that I was trembling. My under layers were soaked with sweat and plastered to my skin. The dogs needed a snack and I desperately wanted to stop to check-in with them, but I had to put a little more distance between us and the storm. I would take care of my needs while still on the sled, to save time. I peeled off all six layers and mushed topless until my sticky, wet skin was dried. There was no quicker way to remedy the problem. Not even the caribou were around to see.
My bottom half, legs like knotted pines, I could not even feel- leave as is.
Relative tranquility surrounded us. The tempered breeze whispered against my thirsty skin.
I could have cried I was so relieved.
The nip of the wind chill re-energized my core. Even the last 40 miles were too far to go with sweat drenched skin. I didn't want to arrive at the finish line smelly and near hypothermic. I would be working hard the rest of the way, running, kicking and poling, so I left off my stinky, wet base layer and just put the fleece shirt, hoodie, and one insulated pullover back on. Before stuffing the parka and over parka in the sled, I grabbed my thermos and guzzled cool peppermint tea. Then the water bottle, filled with half- frozen tang.
How brittle the wind had left me.
I gazed behind us, at the dark grey that erased the landscape. It billowed, foamed, and frothed, but came no closer.
I couldn't help but smile, we beat it.
I stopped the team and embraced my leaders. Down on my knees, their heads in my lap, I thanked them, gushing praises with tears in my eyes. I rubbed their bellies, cleaned sand away from their eyes, kissed their noses and played with them. Then Taj and Sky, my swing dogs, Jane and Merlin, Willow, Cally, Ranger, Popeye and Spaz and Yuppy..... each one, already a hero in my mind, again proved they were capable of absolutely anything.
Love was abundant in their eyes and my heart felt ready to burst.
Everyone got snacks of salmon and beaver meat; hydration and B6 vitamins.
And when I was done, they all smiled, tails wagging and started yipping to go. They erupted into a chorus of howls.
The power of that moment I will carry forever; the absolute dichotomy of humility and invincibility.
Here waits the calm, suspended in time, for the next storm to claim parts of the present and leave stories of the past.
The ground and sky stood still and silent as my wolf dogs called to their wild companions. Like the moon to the tide, our connection to each other and the omnipotent land, was cinched like a knot, never to be untied.
How abruptly the past can be buried, significance forgotten.
How vulnerable our existence, which can be swept out to sea, obliterated, by a single cloud.
How privileged those of us who have survived, and how awakened those of us who find meaning in remembrance.
Like grains of sand, we too will be diminished to fragmented pieces of bone, left as just another testament to planetary history.
We are not so perfect or fleeting as the butterfly, not so durable as rock.
All life, conscientious or not, possesses the innate will to survive.
It is our human brain that makes us, and breaks us.
It is spirituality that allows us to overcome.
Ironic that human emotion is powerful enough to save and destroy us, individually and concentrically.
Us, the humans, who wage war against Nature in the name of progress.
The human spirit is indeed a separate entity, one woven from the natural forces that supersede the physical reality of what it is to be human.
There is a silent language spoken here, it is written everywhere.