After a harrowing crossing of Norton Sound in this year’s Iditarod Race, I had been apprehensive of the next run from Koyuk to Elim, but it proved uneventful. My team and I arrived at the village of Elim in fine fashion. Elim is a place where competitive teams stop only briefly, if at all, then push on to White Mountain and a mandatory eight-hour rest. Since I was now in “taking-it-easy mode” visa vi the whole racing the race thing, I would settle in for a good rest.
Two elderly gentlemen, later identified as Iditarod veterinarians, stepped out of the firehall which serves as the checkpoint building. The one in the lead could have played for the Chicago Bulls if they, or indeed the game of basketball, had existed while he was a young man. He shaded his eyes and fixed his gaze on my team, inhaled visibly, and the duo bravely took the first step of the 50-yard journey across the parking lot to my team. I busied myself arranging the dogs on the line for camping and putting straw beds down for them. I removed the booties from their feet and checked each dog for any problem needing immediate attention. Finding none, I rummaged in my sled for my feeding bucket. Before I turned around, I was aware of a presence behind me. The vets had arrived.
“Vet book?” Lead Vet growled.
“You’re the vets?” I asked innocently, producing the yellow dog team diary.
He gripped it with surprising strength and turned away. Day job: large animal practice, I surmised.
“Of course,” I said cheerfully, “Of course you’re the vets. Now’s a perfect time to look at my dogs.”
I trotted inside with my bucket to get water from a barrel I knew was just inside the door and returned as fast as I could. The vets were standing impatiently by my sled with my vet book.
“Sign here,” Second Vet said almost pleasantly, indicating the place where the musher, for reasons as yet unknown to me, must sign his/her own vet book at every checkpoint.
“Already done?” I asked, “Any problems?”
“Nothing you don’t already know about,” Numero Uno grunted. He squared his stance toward the warm building, blew out sharply once, and almost instantly, both disappeared inside.
The water from inside was warm enough to mix my dog food without heating it further with my dogfood cooker, so I made up a meal for the dogs. Before I could feed them, however, I was surrounded by a mob of kids. The biggest held an object threateningly. Sharpie pen.
“Is that your dogs?” a young voice asked. Proper grammar is not a prerequisite to ditch Elim Elementary when Iditarod is in town.
This is actually a difficult question to answer, especially in the fog of Iditarod. I have tried several different responses to this common village youngster question over the span of my career, many of which I have thought rather clever, but none of which has ever elicited even the slightest response from the questioner or his cohorts. My alleged brain ran through my catalogue of potential responses to “Is that your dogs?”
Yes, they are my dogs, I stole them fair and square.
Yes, they’re dogs because cats are too hard to train.
Yes, I think so. Let me see. Oh dang, these aren’t my dogs.
This is most of them. Do you have the rest?
Yes, officer, but I lost the title.
Why do you ask, is someone else missing theirs?
And so on.
I chose “Uh-huh,” as the best response.
The kids were cheerful and polite. Sharpie Boy asked if I would “sign for them.” Now, as an adult with some remaining reputation to protect, I am hesitant to “sign for” anyone not of legal age and obviously skipping school.
“Depends on what you want me to sign,” I thought warily, imagining a document on 8 ½ by 14-inch pages in triplicate, along with a notary stamp.
I corralled my unruly brain and tried again. “Sure, what can I sign for you guys?” Some had small notebooks, and others had classroom-project style autograph books of stapled paper with “2019 Iditarod” handwritten on the first page. The kids were obviously collecting autographs from as many mushers and Iditarod personalities as they could.
Warmed by their sincerity, I set about signing, but I soon became aware that the kids outnumbered the autograph books by at least two to one. I know how this works, from my school experience. The A-students made the autograph books, actually got the signatures, and then proudly brought them to show-and-tell the following week, beaming at the teacher for approval the whole time. The B-students made the books, then due to peer pressure and embarrassment, failed to get them signed, subsequently forging enough signatures to still fake it through show and tell. D and F-students stole the books from the B-students who weren’t using them anyway but got caught and did time in the principal’s office after school. (I’m not kidding. Back when I went to school, teachers actually gave out D and F grades and punished kids who stole stuff. Weird, I know.) C-students never made the stupid friggin’ autograph books and got signatures on whatever they felt like, or not. And they always had awesome stories at show and tell.
So, I wondered to myself, “If they don’t all have autograph books, what are they going to make me sign?” I know, I know, this is nothing like the Iditarod start banquet in Anchorage. Treading lightly here, a lot of Iditarod fans are – how shall I say this — female, middle aged, and divorced. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, but I have been asked to sign, well, things. And I have also posed for photographs with strange women’s arms around my personal person, pressed between and mingling, shall we say, with female fans who may have just this very evening learned how to pronounce Malbec. These situations, I am confident, represent a heretofore underreported aspect of the #metoo movement. The camera is always in the front, and some of these gals know it.
Sharpie Boy had loaned his pen out to all the other members of his posse in turn, and I wondered if a Sharpie donation drive wouldn’t be a good idea for next year. He reclaimed his pen and asked me for an autograph.
“What do you want me to sign, Buddy?”
“My coat,” He responded.
“YOUR coat, my hind foot,” I thought. “The sleeves are hanging down to your knees. That can’t be your coat.”
You see, as soon as I call someone “Buddy” he turns out to be the proverbial “wrong crowd” we’ve all been warned about. I recalled my school buddies. Kids who outran cop cars on snowmachines, right down the middle of the highway. Kids who could clean all the quarters out of the pop machine with a coat hanger before the bell rang. Kids who could trade Copenhagen snuff for a B-minus in physics. But this kid was special. I have total respect for a cat who can boost an Eddie Bauer coat off a guy with an arm reach at least seven inches longer than his own, then wear it around town just like nothing happened.
I signed his limp coat sleeve to “Slugger” which now seemed much more appropriate than Sharpie Boy and handed his pen back. One thing about a coat with sleeves seven inches too long is you never need gloves, even in Elim, Alaska. Of course, none of the other kids had gloves either, but hey, if the wind picks up, my money is on Slugger. He’s not an A-student or a B-student.
Slugger abruptly asked if my dogs were hungry and had I fed them yet. Then, before I could reply, he began herding his gang in the direction of another parked dog team. I hope he looks me up for a job when he finishes doing time in Elim Elementary. There’s always an opening for a tough guy with situational awareness and management chops.
I fed my dogs, and everyone ate well, a good sign. I went over each dog carefully, massaging muscles and rubbing ointment on feet. They weren’t the liveliest bunch I’ve ever cared for in Elim, but overall, not bad. I collected a few belongings from my sled and went into the firehall.
Inside, there was a table full of deserts brought in by locals for the mushers. One corner of the room was temporarily walled off by a blue-tarp defining the sleeping area. Dueling snores beyond the tarp and one pair of stocking feet sticking out from under it revealed the whereabouts of the veterinary corps. The kids had beat me inside by a few minutes so it’s just as well I don’t eat sugar. The deserts were disappearing like turnips in a hog trough. Approximately a wheelbarrow-full of pure refined white cane sugar was consumed within minutes by a gang of school-skipping thugs capable of beating up adults and taking their winter coats. This could get interesting.
The race judge, a former racer herself, managed the checkpoint with efficiency. We talked of old times and backaches as I ate my meal and drank copious amounts of water, washed down with Ibuprofen and acetaminophen. (I’ll save you the Google. That’s Advil and Tylenol.) The Elim Elementary fugitives began to get rowdy as blood sugar levels spiked like the national debt.
Tensions rose between the adults and those actually in charge here, so I ducked behind the tarp for a nap. I set two alarm clocks and closed my eyes. The last thing I heard was the race judge raising her voice and commanding, “Out, out, all of you outside. Now!”
“We go now.” Slugger said calmly. “Good stuff’s gone anyway.”
One hour later I started in on the coffee. It wasn’t good coffee, but it was coffee, nonetheless. Usually I would have had some interest in checking race standings and statistics before I left the checkpoint, but this time, not so much. One more cup, actually half a cup because the pot was empty, then I filled my thermos with water and headed out to put booties on my dogs’ feet.
Bug, my main leader for most of the race, wasn’t exactly enthused. He regarded me narrowly. In all of his experience, training, and indeed his timeless instincts, he could come up with precisely zero good reasons why we were putting booties on at this particular moment.
Still, Bug in lead, we left the checkpoint without fanfare and headed up the hill toward the mountains separating Elim from Golovin Bay. Nobody watched us leave. I started my GPS, put on my gloves, changed my glasses and readied myself for the difficult run to White Mountain.
My team didn’t look great.
I have said for many years that I refuse to walk a team to Nome. If they don’t have pep and spring in their step, if they aren’t happy doing this, then I’m going to make adjustments. Sled dogs are incredibly tough. They can do almost anything, and I doubt they even bother to think about whether it’s hard or easy. Dogs don’t judge. A thing simply is, and that’s that. They don’t hold grudges from the past or worry about the future. They are simple and pure and incredibly adaptable.
The trail out of town was all uphill and on one steep incline I had to get off and run to keep the team moving. Now, I don’t mind a little exercise, but I almost never get off the sled to push in training and if it’s necessary here, then the dogs aren’t rested enough.
So, I stopped. I walked up the line and petted the dogs and got a feel for the energy of each one. Willing, able, but not much joy. “Well, hell’s bells,” I sighed and sat down on the trail beside Bug.
“What’cha thinkin’ Bug-a-lug?” I stroked his face and neck. He has beautiful fur. Tough, smart, beautiful dog.
Bugs eyes narrowed. “What in Blazes are you even doing right now?” he seemed to say.
“Good point,” I said stumbling to my feet. “Well, this is nothing another meal and a few more hours of rest wouldn’t fix, I guess.”
So, I found a place to turn the team around and headed back to Elim.
As I pulled back into the yard, my presence was heralded by a boisterous group of young people who soon made it clear they wished I were someone else arriving.
The race judge asked about my return to the checkpoint.
“Just wanted another cup of coffee,” I said.