The Iditarod trail is 1,150 miles long. We made it to the 194th mile.
Lance Mackey is making the rounds. His team of 16 dogs, including the leaders ("Larry, the brains of the outfit, and Hobo, the speed behind the team"), dive into the food and bowls of water he sets before them. "They're very aggressive eaters," says Mackey. After inhaling the meal, some return to rolling in the snow to cool off from their run, while others work the hay under their paws into a comfortable spot to rest. Like human athletes, each has his own postrun routine.
For Mackey, the pack of mostly related look-alikes has more in common with a top-ranked high school soccer team than with pro players. The spirited black-and-beige dogs are "basically a bunch of adolescents ... a bunch of high school kids with minimum discipline." But he's not complaining - he breeds his dogs to have strong appetites and even stronger can-do (and rather chipper) attitudes. "Without either one, you're not going very far," he says.
It's 6:30 a.m., but the sky is still blue-black with night. Even the snow, piled high on and around the foot-thick lake ice, looks inky blue. The moon does little to help Mackey with his tasks, but there's enough of a glow from headlamps and TV cameras. Besides, Mackey, 36, has been mushing all his life and has twice won the 1,150-mile Yukon Quest. He could do all of this even without a sliver of light. As he works his way down the line of dogs, he checks each one with his eyes and his hands, finishing with a kind word or a good head scratch.
They deserve the attention. After all, they're already 194 miles into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
It's early March in Alaska. While residents of the Lower 48 are pulling out their bicycles for spring overhauls and thumbing through flower catalogs, Alaskans are still committed to winter. Snowmobiles - or snow machines, as they call them up north - remain in heavy rotation. The ice that owns Finger Lake, the fourth checkpoint along the Iditarod trail, won't break up until at least six weeks from now.
The race was first run in 1973, to commemorate the 1925 dog sled run that delivered medicine that saved Nome from a diphtheria outbreak. It is now one of the most popular sporting events in Alaska and usually draws national attention. Top teams take about nine days to cover the 1,150-mile distance and reach the finish line, a burled wooden arch in Nome. Rookies may spend more than two weeks on the trail, which has 25 or 26 checkpoints, depending on which route is being used in a particular year. "The Iditarod is my vacation," says 11-time Iditarod finisher Lynda Plettner, 56. "I work all year to go out there and half kill myself. I'm not the type that wants to get on a bus and watch a glacier calving. I could watch that on a video and get almost the same effect. Not so with the Iditarod. That takes planning and timing and hard work. Then you get to go across Alaska - with a dog team, which, in my case, are my best friends."
These best friends are no fancy show dogs; they're mutts. Though, as Plettner makes clear, they're mutts with a pedigree that goes back about 60 years. Some dogs become legends. "You can just say a dog's name, like Sailor or Pluto or Granite, and everybody knows who you're talking about," she says.