Adventure Dispatch: Iditarod Sleddog Race, Alaska

Our setting is a cold, dark night on the Bering Sea Coast, twenty miles southwest of Nome somewhere near Safety, the last checkpoint before the finish line of the Iditarod.

I’m riding alone on a borrowed snow machine down the unfamiliar backside of Cape Nome. For almost an hour now, I’ve been hoping to run into Norwegian Robert Sorlie and the team of dogs that will soon earn him his first Iditarod title.

Coming out of the sheltered cape, the trail takes a turn towards the coast, where 50 mile-per-hour gusts of wind and snow lash my face, further obstructing my view of a trail already hidden by a large colony of snowdrifts. Lost in a sudden whiteout, I take a shot in the frigid dark and point myself in a direction that would seem to take me towards the checkpoint. Soon my path is free of drifts and the trail seems smooth, almost too smooth. Glancing quickly down, I realize that I’ve accidentally aimed myself for Japan and ventured out onto the frozen sea ice of Norton Sound.

Suppressing panic and ice tears, I hastily turn around and orient myself to a few small lights in the distance. Once back on solid ground, or at least on semi-solid drifts, I’m able to distinguish two headlights and another smaller light. I quickly find the trail again and proceed on to what must certainly be the checkpoint. Two snow machines pass me going the other direction, but the smaller light continues to approach slowly. Focusing on the tiny filament, I barely notice a dozen barking dogs right in front of me. I swerve to miss running over Robert Sorlie’s championship dog team just as the tiny flashlight attached to his headband passes by.

Ducking behind the running snow machine to escape ferocious winds, I grab a satellite phone from my backpack. I strip my face and hands to call home and my bare skin freezes almost instantly. An hour ago, the temperature in Nome was just below zero without the wind chill. I delay the call to chase my gloves, which are currently riding a gust down the unseen Arctic beach. When I finally call in the report, frozen lips slur my speech and the voice on the other end questions my sobriety.

That was public radio in Alaska, and it sure as hell wasn’t Northern Exposure. Think I’ll stick with blogging for now, it’s warmer down here.