I thought I’d share this with you. A story of what it’s really is like. This is a world few know about and even less understand. This is world-class mushing.
Mitch Seavey is an American dog musher, who won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race across the U.S. state of Alaska in 2004, 2013 and 2017. At age 57, Seavey is the oldest person to win the Iditarod in 2017.
By: Mitch Seavey
My Second Toughest Day of Mushing, So Far (second of three true stories)
As we left the Rainy Pass checkpoint and headed for Rohn on the second day of the 2014 Iditarod Race, officials warned that the trail ahead was “technical.” That was technically true. But the upcoming 37-mile run through Rainy Pass itself and down the Dalzell Gorge is always technical, even scary in an exhilarating sort of way, and I usually enjoy the ride. Besides, it didn’t really matter because I was continuing on, and no trail report would change that. I didn’t think too much about it.
I should have. I knew it had been a close call by officials whether to run the southern portion of the race on the traditional route due to low snow. I also knew that a couple of “rabbits” — mushers who had darted out to an early lead in the race — had already made it through to Rohn. I suspected these mushers had given a trail report. But I didn’t know the extent of their warning and didn’t really want to know. It turns out “technical” is the mildest possible descriptor that could have been applied by the race official without committing perjury.
The Dalzell Gorge is part of a valley which starts at about 3000 feet of elevation just below Rainy Pass and turns into a canyon as it drops 2000 feet in about 10 miles to the Tatina River. At race time the valley is usually buried beneath feet and feet of snow. Most hazards are covered, making it quite passable – with considerable work by trail volunteers. Usually, but not in 2014.
There is an interesting term tossed about in the long-distance mushing world: “Do-able.” Since skill levels vary greatly, nobody really knows what that means, so do-able might be a “piece of cake” to a really good musher or a convincing liar; or it might be a “nightmare” to a rookie, a chronic worrier, or a media hound.
Advance trail crews had applied their muscle and magic, and in the prerace musher’s meeting the term “do-able” was used in the same sentence as “Dalzel Gorge.” Then, after the irreversible decision as to the route had been made and publicized, it rained for three days. This area is totally remote and not frequented by anyone two-legged, so after the trail crew had moved on, perhaps nobody knew what the rain had done to the trail.
There was almost no snow left.
The brakes on a dog sled are carbide steel points which rely on gouging into a decent layer of snow to create drag to slow or stop a team. Even glare ice can be scraped adequately by the sharp brake tips to slow down. However, rain soaked frozen bare ground is similar to asphalt, giving the dogs perfect pulling traction but sled brakes have almost no effect.
Driving a well-bred, well-conditioned and spirited all-male team of 16 sled dogs, at about 60 pounds apiece, I had power to spare. In training I have them fooled into thinking I can stop them because I often use a motor vehicle with disk brakes as a training device. On a sled in normal conditions, the dogs cooperate with the “whoa” command as long as they think I can enforce it. The Dalzell is encountered on the second day of the race and for many teams, including mine, the “edge” isn’t remotely off the dogs’ enthusiasm by then. How fast do they want to go? As fast as they can get away with.
The first half of the run was uneventful, and I became a little complacent. Technical? Not so much. Those guys up ahead were probably just sending back horror stories to intimidate the rest of us. In a half-hearted concession to the “technical” warning, I left the summit of Rainy Pass with half the team connected only by neck lines, and not their harnesses, in order to reduce power. This should be easy now, I thought. As it turned out, this would not be the usual exhilarating ride down the Gorge — with perhaps a scary glance over a drop-off or a slip a bit too close to open water. I was in for the ride of my life.
I had barely started my descent down the north side of the mountain range when the snow cover began to thin. Two or three good elevation drops later, and we were already hitting dirt and rocks. Another couple of hundred feet of drop and it got ugly.
Imagine a goat path descending a mountain side, strewn with boulders, brush and down trees, then winding into a narrow switch back canyon, with a partially frozen river winding between thick trees and rock cliffs. The trail surface is a ribbon of rain-saturated frozen dirt, threaded between rock cliffs, trees, ice and open water.
The sound of my ineffective brake scratching on the cement-like surface was proof to the dogs that I no longer had any control whatsoever. They glanced at each other knowingly.
“That scraping sound back there is not causing any added resistance. Ah-hah! We’ve got him now!” Stepping on the brake actually made the team speed up. I’m not kidding.
At times the trail runs down the middle of the frozen creek, veering radically to the left or right to narrowly miss a gaping hole, were I could hear rushing water as I passed. Just as abruptly, it careens back over the ice to join what passes for a trail on the opposite side of the gorge, a ninety degree turn from bare dirt onto glare ice and back onto dirt on the far side — between trees, much too close together, or over a log or root structure that was probably under snow every previous time I had passed this way.
These dogs galloped like spring-breakers headed for the surf. I drove as best I could and actually spent a significant amount of time upright on the sled. But not all the time. While I never crashed spectacularly, my sled spent considerable time on its side. Unable to stop my unruly team, I was dragged on my knees for hundreds of yards at a time as I tried to either stop or right the sled again and again. At first I didn’t say much to the dogs. Any word I said was taken as a speed command — and I don’t even use speed commands. As a tough guy I probably shouldn’t disclose exactly how I felt. I kept telling myself “I’ve got this, I’ve got this,” But honestly, I was terrified.
I already knew I was injured. Both knees were beat up, both shoulders and pectorals were torn; elbows, side of the head, twisted ankle, jammed toes. But what really scared me was the thought of what would happen to the team if I lost them in these conditions.
“That cannot happen.” It didn’t happen.
One long downhill had us going faster than I even imagined possible. 20 miles an hour? And accelerating. In the middle of the trail was a boulder the size of an ottoman. Hit it on either side and I would certainly glance off into a colossal crash in the conifers. I went airborne and skipped off the top center of that rock and somehow maintained a straight trajectory. The next problem was to get down on the ground and find a way to negotiate the sharp turn at the bottom of the hill. You see, even steering a dog sled usually requires snow for the runner edges to bite in and make a turn. Without snow I steered by dragging a foot or some other body part on one side or the other of the sled and hoping it cooperated before I hit anything solid.
It was pitch dark now and my head light was often jostled off center and shining ineffectively at some weird angle or completely dislodged and dragging behind by the cord.
My sled was on its side and I dragging on my knees, trying in vain to somehow get the team stopped. I desperately tried a “Whoa!” command, about a hundred times, though I knew it was futile. My snow hook (anchor) line was tangled around my driving bow so I couldn’t even get the hook down to stop the team. On one glare-ice stretch I was able to get up and skate on both feet and haul the sled upright onto its runners, but before I got both feet on the runners I hit a stump at the edge of the creek and flipped over on the opposite side. Back on my knees, more rough ground.
Abruptly I ran into (and over) the sled of Scott Jansen, the Mushin’ Mortician and finally stopped. “You okay?” he asked.
“Rest here with me awhile,” he said. “Grief shared is grief diminished.”
Yeah, something like that, I thought. I guess in his line of work he ought to know.
“But you might want to grab your leaders there,” he added “I have females in heat.”
What? Like these crazy males needed any more motivation to run like darn fools. We’ve been chasing a flock of heaties!
We were so tangled I couldn’t see how to get them straightened out quickly and I didn’t really want to give away any free breedings, so I decided to move a bit. I thanked Scott and told him if I needed his funeral services before this was all over, I’d let him know. Err, somebody would let him know. I moved a short way down the trail.
The team was in such a tangled mess they could hardly run. Hey, wait a minute. Why didn’t I think of that earlier? I stopped and tied off solidly to a tree to organize things. I attached the dogs in pairs with their collars hooked so close together that many were running half-sideways and couldn’t really put their shoulder into it, so to speak. Basically, hook both dogs in the pair to the same neckline. It’s the best trick I’ve ever come up with to take the power off the team. (Free one for my competitors.)
I finally hit the Tatina River, leaving five easy miles to the checkpoint, so I reconnected some of the dogs’ harnesses, and ran on into Rohn. Being familiar with the trail past Rohn, I was certain the race would be called off and we would be flown out of there.
At the cabin, carnage was everywhere — broken sleds, injured and dazed mushers, worried looking race officials. My dogs were fine as usual. Running on solid ground with good traction was easy going for them. And teams were already leaving the checkpoint. I could hardly believe it. The race was going on.
Past Rohn I knew there would be no snow at all, but that’s not too unusual. So, I managed to convince myself that since I’ve done that part on dirt many times before I could do it again. If this thing is still going, then I guess I’m in it. Let’s get it on.
I loaded food and straw in the sled for the dogs. Now, to hook these darn fools up in a way so they can’t really pull and maybe they won’t kill me before we get to Nikolai, the next checkpoint.
The next 25 miles were about the same as the Gorge, just not as steep. As I had expected, there was no snow, and since the trail runs through many miles of forest fire burn area it was a tangle of down trees and charred stumps. New erosion had opened up deep ruts and boulder strewn gullies. Creek crossings were frozen ice, punctuated on either bank by unyielding frozen ground and exposed rock.
Finally, as we approached a place called the Bison Camp about 30 miles out of Rohn, there was a little snow, increasing as we traveled toward Nikolai. The worst was over.
Miraculously my sled sustained almost no damage. My dogs seemed to have no ill effects, even from the dust clouds that had periodically enveloped us since leaving Rohn. I, on the other hand, was beat up.
A few mushers later claimed it was “not that bad.” Well, either they are much better drivers than I, their dogs were much better behaved than mine, or their teams were tired enough to have calmed down a bit. I suspect mostly the latter. Or selective memory. Many other good mushers were still nearly in shock a day later as we rested in Takotna. Other champions, seasoned veterans, the most fit 20-and 30-somethings in the race — we all could not believe what we had just gone through. A third of the field scratched, because of destroyed sleds or injured mushers. Or maybe frightened mushers. I was surprised there weren’t more.
For the rest of the race I slid into my best sled dog mental state and stayed focused only on the “now.” I put that tough run out of my mind, kept moving toward the finish line, and got to Nome. Damage to my chest and shoulders made sled handling painful. I couldn’t bend one knee and was unable to kneel down on the other making it challenging to bootie my dogs. I’d sit right down on the straw next to each dog to accomplish the task, then twist and roll to the next one without attempting to stand up.
After the finish, my wife, Janine, was alarmed at my condition and practically covered me in essential oils and liniments several times a day for a couple of weeks.
Two months after the race, chasing wild hogs around in the brush on a Texas ranch, I still had pain in my knees, so I finally went to a doctor. One crunched left patella with a lot of fluid on it (that one was sort of obvious) and one fractured right tibia.
“You should have been on crutches with only toe-touch weight bearing. But it’s obviously stabilized now, so let pain be your guide,” was the doctor’s analysis.
“So, do as much as I want if I can stand the pain?”
“No! Son, if it starts to hurt, you’ve got to.…”
I fled his office, outrunning the threat of a cast, despite a noticeable limp.
Author’s note: This series is called “Toughest Days of Mushing” for a reason. In over 50 years of mushing, these are the three most extreme runs I’ve ever had. They by no means represent “normal” mushing conditions. These are true accounts of my experiences as I recall them and written to inform and entertain mushing enthusiasts. Thank you, social media friends, for keeping it classy
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