There was still an hour before the start of the 1966 World Championship Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska but already crowds were beginning to jam the sidewalks along downtown Fourth Avenue. At any time of year Fourth is a lusty, neon-lighted midway—part Times Square, part Bonanza City—but now, during the three days of the championship, it had become a winter carnival.
On one corner a Ferris wheel lifted red-cheeked children high into the frosty sky as bright wooden horses pranced in endless circles to the notes of a nickelodeon. Almond-eyed Eskimos peeked from within billowy ruffs of fur, their handsome, knee-length parkas lush with sable. Everywhere young and old nibbled delightedly on cones of cotton candy, trailing long pink wisps of sugar through the thin, cold air. Against one building an emperor's ransom in animal pelts hung ready for auction. There were mink and sable, parkee squirrel and arctic fox, wolf, otter and wolverine, the last the most prized fur of all because it does not freeze even in the lowest temperatures.
On the avenue itself traffic had been stopped since early morning, an exception having been made for the crane-necked television vans. Yellow police barricades lined the road and carpenters hammered the final nails into wooden grandstands. At F Street a thick rope lay across the breadth of Fourth Avenue, half buried in the snow that had been freshly spread for the race. The rope marked the start and finish of the 25-mile championship trail, a trail that begins and ends each day in the center of Anchorage but, in between, winds far out into the white wilderness that surrounds the city. The trail circles across streams and frozen lakes, through forests of stunted trees and over windy plateaus rutted with the tracks of moose and other game. It climbs into the foothills of the Chugach Mountains before eventually returning through choked stands of birch and evergreens and across snowbanked permafrost to the city and Fourth Avenue. It is regarded as the toughest sled-dog trail anywhere, and each contestant must run it three times—a total of 75 miles—during the championship. There were 22 entries in the race in 1966 and I was one of them.
"Not long to wait now," one of the officials said as he stopped next to me at the line. I looked past him down the seemingly endless string of dog vans parked on either side of the avenue behind the reviewing stand. Handlers and drivers scurried about in a confusion of sleds, dogs, harnesses and racing banners. Over all, the din of almost 300 barking dogs muted other sounds. At the starting line the lead-off team already was being hitched. Its driver, Elia Anelon, a young Aleut from the village of Iliamna, bent over the first dog in harness, quieting its violent efforts to be off and running.
January 23, 1967
The official looked at his watch. It was 10 minutes to one. The first team would leave at the stroke of one. At two-minute intervals the other 21 teams would depart.
"Too bad the weather isn't better," the official said, looking up at the overcast sky and the scattered snowflakes drifting to earth. "Good luck anyway."
I'll need it, I thought. Until 10 days before I had never even seen a racing sled. I walked back to where my dogs, five of them, were waiting. I patted each, not sure who was comforting whom. They looked at me, solemnly it seemed, making curious whining noises deep in their throats. A roar went up from the crowd as Elia Anelon started. Two minutes later the second sled was away, then the third. I was to be eighth. My dogs flung themselves violently against their traces, howling to be off. Friendly hands held onto them, to my sled and to me as we moved toward the line. Then the team ahead was gone, disappearing down the long, wide avenue. A blur of almost 10,000 faces turned expectantly to await the next starter—me. The announcer said, "One minute." A young man pushed a microphone at my face and asked, "How do you feel?"
"Fine," I heard myself mumble. Fine! I had never been so terrified.
Most mushers, I learned later, are nervous to some degree before the start of a big race, but I am sure that there was not one musher on that first day as nervous as I. To begin with, my fellow contestants were all experienced. Sixteen of the other 21 entries had competed in previous world championships; two were three-time winners and two others had won the championship twice. The remaining five mushers had all raced in lesser but nonetheless demanding contests. Many had won qualification races at home and in neighboring villages for the privilege of representing their communities in Anchorage. All had worked intensively with their teams for months and, in some cases, years prior to the race. They knew the mood, mannerism and idiosyncrasy of every one of their dogs. Finally, I was the only woman.
Considering the long list of discrepancies between myself and the other mushers, the sex factor was not a relatively serious handicap. Far worse was my total inexperience. The dogs in my team had been leased from a kennel, and the only thing I knew about them for sure was that for most of our brief acquaintance I had been on the losing end of a deliberate, diabolical and frequently disastrous contest of wills, which I had no reason to think would not continue into the race.
All of this had begun a month before. The sports editor of the Anchorage Daily News, Barney DuBois, urged SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to cover the 1966 world championship. "Sled-dog racing," he wired, "is one of the most tenacious, grueling sports in the world. Mushers must drive sleds for long distances through well below-freezing temperatures."
I was interested and wired him back, asking if it would be possible to enter since that would certainly give me the clearest insight into the sport. I had found no reference to women competing in the championship and was not certain they were eligible.
DuBois' answer arrived the next day: "Women don't sled-dog-race with men for much the same reason they don't play football with them—too rough." But he was enthusiastic, anyway, about the idea of my entering and he soon managed to arrange for a team of dogs from Earl Norris, a top trainer. Norris agreed to train me, feed the dogs and provide handlers—in short, to do everything except pay the $50 entry fee.
Norris wanted me to leave for Anchorage immediately but I could not. Busy in New York on other assignments, I undertook to prepare myself physically by lifting weights, doing sit-ups and knee bends, running along crowded sidewalks past startled doormen, riding stationary bicycles and not-so-stationary horses and by jogging several times a day up and down the 16 flights of stairs to my apartment. On the day I was to leave for Alaska, I was a regular female Jack Armstrong.
The time difference between Anchorage and New York is five hours. It was 4 in the morning, by my time, when I arrived at International Airport. I was barely down the ramp when a tall man in a black beret galloped toward me.
"Musher Kraft?" he said, pushing his face inches from mine. I nodded dumbly, still groggy from the 16-hour trip, whereupon he threw his arms around me and pressed a great, wet kiss on both my cheeks.
"Welcome to Alaska, Musher Kraft," he said, with a grandiose gesture. A variety of official-looking documents appeared in his hands, as if by magic. "On behalf of the governor of this great 49th state, I, Colonel Muktuk Marston, hereby make you a member of the ancient Order of the Alaska Walrus."
From out of a little circle of smiling spectators emerged a remarkable-looking character in baseball hat, grizzled Horace Greeley beard and a long, tattered coat that was decorated here and there with electrical tape.
"Meet your trainer," Muktuk said. "Earl Norris, meet Musher Kraft."
I shall never know exactly what Earl Norris' first impressions of me were but I did not miss the skeptical glance he gave my high heels. For me, perhaps because of the long trip and the late hour, the entire airport encounter had a mad, Alice in Wonderland unreality that carried over to the next day and my first sight of Howling Dog Farm.
The place is aptly named. There were almost 200 sled dogs at Norris', all of them in excellent voice. Each was chained to its own flat-roofed house. The chains were not quite long enough for the dogs to reach the narrow footpaths that ran between the houses, but I was never convinced of this as I walked within inches of all those big teeth.
Besides the sled dogs, the Norrises had several horses and ponies, a tame reindeer, assorted cats, three children aged 10, 15 and 17 and a dyspeptic dowager dachshund. The hub of the establishment was a two-story log cabin in varying stages of completion, from which the ménage overflowed in happy confusion onto several large lots, over which were strewn the carcasses of old cars, abandoned couches and overturned garbage cans. This and the 600 acres of wild woodland behind it were all, astonishingly, only the turn of a steering wheel off one of the main thoroughfares in Anchorage. As an area for training novice mushers, it was unmatched anywhere. I did not realize this, of course, until much later. On that first day, in fact, I had no idea what a trail looked like or should look like.
"I'll ride you over the trail in my sled first," Earl said that first morning. "That way you'll get the feel of the sled and an idea of what's out there. Then we'll come back and I'll hitch you up to three dogs and you can follow me on your own." He spread a blanket in the bottom of the sled for me to sit on and I could tell he was looking at my obviously new clothes. I felt like a dude.
Norris went to one of the doghouses and returned with a big, blackish-greyish Siberian. He held it close by the leather collar so that it stood as tall as his chest as it bounced along on its hind legs to keep pace with him. This was the first dog in the team, the leader. He put a chest harness over its head and forelegs and hooked the back of the harness to a single, long polyethylene rope that extended to the underside of the sled. The four other dogs in the team wore similar harnesses but these were hooked by shorter ropes to the long one so that the dogs were in pairs on either side of it. An additional collar line was hooked to the tug, as the center rope is called, which kept the dogs aimed straight ahead when both collar and harness lines were taut and also helped distribute the weight they pulled.
The sled itself was about four feet long, made of light, native-birch slats bound with rawhide to a frame that formed a flexible bumper in front (for hitting what, I wondered). The back was one continuous piece that served as both a support for the sides of the sled and as a handle for the musher. The runners were eight feet long and about one and a half inches wide, with a thin sheet of steel glued to the underside. A foot brake, actually nothing more than a three-pronged board held up by two half-inch springs, projected from beneath the sled between the runners. Theoretically, the sled could be stopped or slowed by stepping on the brake and thus digging the prongs in the snow. There was also a heavy 12-inch iron hook that could be driven into the snow to hold the sled for any given time. The entire sled did not weigh much more than 60 pounds and was designed for speed and maneuverability rather than for carrying passengers or freight.
I climbed aboard and we were off. The practice trail ran down a hill and turned into a stand of evergreens. We moved soundlessly in and out among the trees, up one hill and down another, around a curve and out into a broad clearing that in summer is a swamp. The trail itself, packed hard by earlier travel, was barely wider than the sled. On either side the snow was piled in high, immaculate drifts, undisturbed except by an occasional animal footprint. The air was clear, cold and still. Against the brilliant blue of the sky, the peaks of the Chugach Mountains seemed carved from ivory.
In 10 minutes we were back among the howling dogs. Earl harnessed three of them to another sled and it was my turn to drive. "I'll hold the dogs to the top of the driveway so we don't spill you off before you get started," he said. "Then I'll go on ahead and you just follow me. That way if you lose the dogs I'll be able to catch them."
"How do you lose the dogs?" I asked.
"Well, if you don't hold on to that sled real good," he said, "sometimes they get away from you. If you're alone that can be real bad, because those dogs just keep right on going and you might never catch up with them."
I gripped the handle of my sled a little tighter.
"Step on the brake as hard as you can," Earl continued, "and at the same time bend down and pull up the snow hook. The dogs will be trying to go forward, so make sure your foot is on the brake good before you do anything. Then keep it there till you hang the hook solid on the sled. You can get in trouble if that thing is flying around loose."
I did as he said. The sled lurched forward as the hook came free. I pressed my foot harder on the brake and anchored the hook. Then I released the brake. The dogs gave a little yelp and we were moving forward, gliding swiftly and smoothly over the snow. It was a glorious sensation, like flying over soft, white clouds. The wind was fresh in my face and smelled faintly of hemlock. I relaxed a little on the sled, savoring the air and the atmosphere. I felt completely, joyously free.
Then, suddenly, I was buried in a sea of powdery snow. It was over my head and under my jacket, in my eyes, my nose and my mouth. I was moving face down through a snowdrift that rolled over me like surf. I had no idea how it had happened. One moment I was thinking how simple it was; in the next I was helpless. I realized that my arms were rigid and that I was still gripping the handle of the sled.
Finally, the sled stopped. Still holding the handle, I got to my knees and poked my head up through the soft snow. The sled was caught on one side of a tree, the dogs were pulling hysterically against their traces on the other. It was a stalemate. Earl walked back along the trail. He backed up the dogs and held them while I unhooked the sled from the tree, righted it and anchored my foot on the brake.
"You had your weight on the wrong runner," Earl said matter-of-factly. "You have to let up a little on one foot when you hit those curves, shift your weight so you balance the sled, keep it level. Like in skiing. It's real simple once you get the hang of it."
There were times in the days that followed that I did not think I would ever get the hang of it. One thing it was not was simple. In those first agonizing days I was thrown on my head, on my elbows, on my shoulders, on my hips. There was not a part of my body that was not welted black, blue and purple. I was dragged on my stomach, on my sides and on my knees, for what must eventually have totaled several miles over snow, ice, the roller-coaster ruts of snowmobile tracks, through thickets and brush piles. I was flung against fences, full force into trees, flamboyantly into snowdrifts. But I never once let go of the sled.
"She really holds on," Earl said, and I could tell he was pleased. In three days it was the most encouragement he had given me. From the beginning Earl had been willing to hold up his end of our bargain, but clearly he was skeptical about my ability to hold up mine. He had little patience with ineptitude.
Besides learning to ride the sled, I still had to learn to handle the dogs. All the commands are given by voice. "Gee" means turn right; "Haw" means left. Both are said sharp, loud and deep in the throat. "Whoa" means stop, but I had already learned the hard way that my dogs, at least, did not have a clue to its meaning. Until now I had been following Earl, turning when he did, stopping and starting on his lead rather than mine, so I had not actually been directing my dogs. This time he sent me out ahead.
The first intersection of trails went fine. I said, "Gee," and Tricky, my lead dog, turned smartly into the right trail. But at the next intersection everything went wrong. I said, "Haw," and the dogs geed. I said, "Haw," again, louder, and they kept right on geeing. The pair of dogs directly behind the leader are called the swing dogs. The one on the left, Sharky, glanced around at me as I said, "Haw," again, and if dogs can laugh, that is what he was doing.
"Put on the brake! Put on the brake!" Earl yelled. I was still shouting, "Haw, haw, haw," like some strange bird, when I got the sled stopped. The message finally got across. Tricky turned around and ran back alongside the sled, pulling the other two dogs after her. Suddenly the whole front end of the sled went up into the air. I screamed, "Stop, whoa, don't, haw, go back, gee!"
At that point Tricky turned again, this time crossing over my runners and heading along the other side of the upended sled. The tug rope wrapped around the back of my knees and I went down in a heap on top of the other two dogs. Sharky broke out, adding his lines to Tricky's around my legs. Tricky was pulling him in one direction, and the other dog, which was somewhere underneath me, was pulling him the other way. Each pull tightened the ropes around my legs. I was on my back in a jumble of snow and fur, my knees bound securely to the back of the sled, which was now standing straight up on its runners.
Alone, I would never have gotten out of the tangle. As it was, that miserable beast Sharky slipped both his harness and collar during the unraveling and pranced off for home, with another one of those exasperating expressions on his face. In a race this would automatically have disqualified me, since a driver must complete each heat with all the dogs he started with, even if it means carrying back an injured or lame dog in the sled.
Things went better on the next run, and Earl decided to try me out on the trails alone. We ran the first seven-mile loop of trail without mishap. The dogs were geeing and hawing so well, in fact, that I was foolish enough to think they knew who was boss. They did, of course. My mistake was thinking it was I. As it turned out, they knew the route far better than I and would have made the proper turns with or without direction. But it was only when I decided to try a trail off to the right rather than repeat the same route that I realized this.
I said, "Gee." Tricky made no effort to turn. I said, "Gee," again. Tricky continued straight ahead. This time I was not about to be intimidated. I threw on the brake, stamped the snow hook into the trail and physically pushed Tricky around to the right. "When I say gee, I mean it," I told her. She looked at me wearily, as if this were one more burden she had to bear. And I could have sworn that Sharky shrugged his shoulders at me as I walked back to the sled.
That afternoon was the low point of my sled-dog career. I lost the dogs. I recall that whole disastrous run as something of a nightmare. For some reason, Earl had decided to upgrade me from a three- to a five-dog team. He also hitched the dogs to a different and somewhat heavier sled than I had been using. Its handle was flat instead of round and about twice as wide as the other. Earl rode partway out on the sled with me to slow the dogs with the double weight until I became accustomed to their greater power.
From the beginning, nothing felt right. It was worse after Earl got out. The dogs immediately picked up speed and I was unable to control them or the sled. It kept sloughing to one side, then the other. We were on a stretch of trail that had been heavily rutted by snowmobiles. The sled slapped up and down unsteadily as it hit each mogul, then dipped into each trough. I tried to absorb the shock in my knees as I had learned to do on the other sled but my legs seemed like wood. Then a runner dug into the soft bank and the sled flipped.
I was dragged for several yards, waiting for the dogs to slow enough for me to try to get up. This was always difficult because the dogs never stopped and rarely slowed. I waited for my chance, then scrambled up, keeping my weight on the overturned sled, as I had been taught, until I was on my feet. Then I flipped it upright as I jumped for the runners, but at the same instant the dogs leaped forward in a renewed burst of speed and I went down between the runners.
I held on to the sled, dragging almost straight out. Because it was upright, we were moving at full speed. Each mogul beat against my knees and shins like an iron club. I kept shouting: "Whoa, stop, please, stop, whoa, please," but I might as well have been speaking Latin. Desperately I tried to pull myself up to where I might get a knee onto a runner. The strain on my arms was agonizing. The sled slipped out of my hands and the dogs galloped on.
I lay on my stomach in the middle of the trail and pounded the ice with my fists. I wanted to cry. I cursed the dogs, and Earl, and the impossibility of the sport.
The next morning when I arrived at the kennels Earl was busy loading dogs into the vans. The first of two children's and women's races were to be held that day and his sons and wife were entered. He said he had no time to work with me that weekend, but it was clear that what he really meant was that he saw no future in it. He had written me off.
"But I have to train today," I pleaded. "There are only six days left before the race. I can't afford to miss even one of them."
"Well, maybe you can get Bill Sturdevant to take you out," he answered, referring to one of his young handlers. "If he wants to work with you, that's O.K. with me, but I can't give you a leader. Tricky's racing today. You can take three team dogs and follow behind Bill if you really want to go out. That way you won't need a leader." I had been demoted.
That evening I sat alone in my room. Every joint in my body ached, every bruise was agony. There was a lump on my forehead the size of an egg. I mixed a drink and found that I could barely lift the glass. The outlook was hopeless. I would never in five days, or five months, or five years, master this frightful project. I had no chance in the world of surviving even one day of the big race.
It was my birthday. I have never spent a lonelier one. There was a stack of cards from home on my dressing table, and with them I noticed a small, gift-wrapped box. It had not come by mail. I tried to think who in Anchorage had known it was my birthday. I was sure I had not mentioned the fact to anyone. Inside the box was a tiny, exquisitely carved ivory whistle set with a gold nugget and meticulously inscribed with my name. It was the nicest thing that had happened all day. In spite of my misery I smiled, in pleasure at the gift and amusement at the situation that had prompted it.
When I first began training I learned that while some mushers call and shout and bang on their sleds to make their dogs go faster, all of Earl's dogs had been taught to respond to a short whistle, occasionally reinforced by a clap of the hands. This was fine except that I cannot whistle and I dared not take my hands off the sled to clap. I tried blowing through my teeth, through my lips, through the sides of my mouth, but I could do no better than sputter. I happened to mention this additional, unanticipated handicap in a radio interview. The unexpected gift was the solution of an elderly Eskimo carver named Paul C. Buck, who had heard the broadcast. That wonderful, welcome whistle proved to be much more than a racing aid. It changed my luck.
But not immediately. Things got worse the next morning. A newspaper friend called early. "You got problems," he said. "The big contender got in last night and the first thing he wanted to know was what right you had to be in the race."
"But I thought we had cleared all that," I said. "As long as my dogs had raced in the preliminaries, I thought my entry had been approved."
"That's right, that's right," he said. "You're legal all the way, but this guy's got a real thing. He'd be happiest if there was no one else in the race. Right now all he can see is that he'll wind up drawing a starting position behind you and that you'll foul him up when he tries to pass. Anyone else in the race could do it just as well, but he's decided you're it."
"A real sporting attitude," I mused.
"Sporting, shmorting. There's big money in this race. We had all we could do last night to keep him from going straight from the airport to the race committee."
I could tell something was astir the rest of the afternoon. Groups suddenly grew silent when I approached. Little knots of race officials kept forming and re-forming and glancing periodically in my direction. The contender himself appeared and, to his vast embarrassment, he was grabbed by the arm and brought to meet me. He nodded curtly and vanished again into the crowd.
Minutes later I found out what had happened. My newspaper friend appeared from the crowd and whispered in my ear: "Big trouble, baby. This is for real. Our friend has resurrected an old provision that was written into the racing rules years ago to keep some drunk from turning up on the starting line. It gives the race marshal full privilege to declare any musher ineligible at his own discretion. The contender just put it on the line to him. He wants to know whether or not you are capable of running the course, and the marshal has decided to find out. They're going to have you run the women's course right now while they put spotters on the trail to see if you can handle it."
I was speechless.
Earl's wife, Natalie, and his son, John, came up to me. "Look," Natalie said, and I could tell she was not happy about what was happening. "We're going to let you go out on this trail right now. You can handle it. We'll hitch up four dogs, and John will run a team behind you so you won't be alone."
"Then it is true!" I said. "It's certainly a low trick. I am being sent out midway in my training on a strange 10-mile trail, with four strange dogs, an hour before dark, after I have been standing around for five hours getting stiff from cold, 20-below weather, and on that basis someone is arbitrarily going to decide whether I'll be able to race five days from now. Why don't they stipulate that I have to stand on my head on the runners, too?"
I seethed while the sled was being hitched. Earl came up and whispered in my other ear: "Ignore them all. You'll do fine. Just take it real easy. There's nothing out there that you haven't handled already at our place."
To my amazement, he was right. There was no point in the 10 miles as difficult as some of the really tough spots on Earl's training grounds. His torture program was beginning to make sense.
In one place the trail paralleled a main highway. I was conscious of a dozen or more cars parked along the side. I didn't dare look but I knew they were race officials. I could feel my blood pressure rising again. Suddenly I heard John Norris call, "Trail," from behind me. This call corresponds to "buoy room" in sailing. When an overtaking team gets to within 50 feet of the sled ahead, the forward sled must stop and clear the trail to let the other pass by. They were really giving me the full treatment.
I put my foot on the brake and stopped the dogs, pulling my sled partway off the trail. John went by smoothly. When he was well past, I started up again, only to note in dismay that my left swing dog had managed, while we were stopped, to get over on the right side of the tug line. I should have expected something like this. It was my old friend Sharky. With both swing dogs on one side of the line, the sled was moving unevenly and sloughing to one side. I was not about to spill, in full view of a hostile gallery, because of Sharky or any other beast. There was nothing to do but stop, set the snow hook and manually put the monster back on his own side.
The rest of the trip was remarkably uneventful. When finally I crossed back over the starting line, I could not believe the time. Even with the stops and the tangles, I had done the 10 miles in 39 minutes. My time was equal to the fourth-place time in the women's championship that had been held on the same course that day.
"You showed them," Earl said. He actually looked happy. "They saw you give John a good pass, and set your snow hook, and handle your dogs like you knew what was what. The word is already around about your time. You won't have to worry about any more questions from anyone."
The next morning I was at the Norrises' before Earl had finished his coffee. "I have been giving the situation a lot of thought," I told him. "There is only one way that I am going to make that race. In the four days left I want to run the big trail until I know it backwards. I don't care if that means running it twice a day. I want five dogs and I want to use the same ones and the same leader I'll be racing so we get to know each other. It's the only hope I have." He did not approve, but he could see I meant business.
I had definitely decided to keep Tricky as my lead dog. In spite of our clashes, I sensed a certain sympathy for my stupidity. I had also definitely decided that I wanted no part of Sharky, but my left swing dog again looked suspiciously like him. Besides these two, there was Tiny, a dependable little Trojan who lent at least some respectability to the swing pair. Behind them, the rear, or wheel, dogs were Charney, a cavalier, bushy-maned Siberian, and his good-natured, old-shoe-type running mate, Ginnie, who had been renamed in my honor.
The first run on the big trail was a disaster. In the first two miles I went down four times, crashed head on into a tree, broke the left front bumper on my sled, skinned both my arms to the elbows and, finally, roared out onto Northern Lights Boulevard at the peak of midmorning traffic, almost falling under the wheels of a 10-ton truck. It took me an hour to pick all the pebbles out of my hair and clothes after that first run. My jacket was ruined. The lining stuck out in several places and the entire outer shell was scraped away in front. Even so, I could not wait to get back on the trail that afternoon. This time I knew where the pitfalls were, and I would not make the same mistakes twice.
The second run went well. I fell only once and recovered easily. I found that I had finally mastered the knack of jumping off the runners as the sled began to tip and of running alongside while I righted it again. I even managed to control the dogs when they were spooked by a moose on one lonely stretch of trail.
It was dark when we finished the run, but I was elated. For the first time since I had thought of entering the race I knew that I was capable of running the trail and finishing it. Suddenly it was very important to me to do just that all three times in the world championship.
I hardly slept the night before the race, and the next morning I could not seem to get organized. I did everything in slow motion. My leg, which I had injured in a final training run the day before, was painfully stiff. I called down for ice to pack it. A waiter brought up two buckets and four glasses. It was anything but a party day. For the first time since my arrival in Alaska, the sky was heavily overcast. It had snowed all night. The forecast was for more snow, heavy drifts and winds to 25 mph. Worse, temperatures in the high 20s were predicted. Such warmth could collapse the hard crust on the top of the trail, leaving wallows of loose powder that exhaust both dogs and drivers. I ate breakfast and immediately felt sick. My stomach seemed on an elevator that kept going up and down.
The race was to begin at one but my dogs would be at the unloading area by noon. I waited until the last possible moment to leave. In the lobby of the Captain Cook Hotel the bellhops and the young assistant manager were waiting to see me off. They all inquired about my leg.
"We'll be rooting for you," one of them said. "We've pooled our money and we're betting on you to finish."
And then suddenly it was quarter after one and I was on the starting line, looking down that awesome avenue. An official said: "You understand the rules. If you have difficulty controlling your dogs, I can help you for the first 100 feet. After that, no matter what happens, you must handle the dogs and sled yourself. I can give you no assistance. Now get ready. And good luck."
As if in a dream, I heard the countdown begin. The dogs were lunging against the handlers to be off. Then they were rushing forward and we were running straight down the avenue. I was aware of unbroken lines of people on either side but they were long, continuous blurs. Dimly I realized that they were shouting: "Go, Ginnie, go!"
"Come on, dogs," I said. "Let's go!" I was not frightened anymore. This was it and we had to make it.
At the end of Fourth we turned onto Cordova Street. There were people on both sides of this street, too. Occasionally one of the dogs glanced at the crowd, but the team kept going straight ahead. There was a mob at the end of Cordova where the street stops at a hill that is virtually straight down. This was a disaster spot we had been unable to rehearse in advance. On a steep hill it is necessary to brake the sled to keep it from moving faster than the dogs. Cordova Hill, the longest, steepest hill on the trail, is paved, so that even with a thin packing of snow the brake is virtually useless. Dragging my foot to slow the sled, I bent low and prayed. We made it.
From that point on, we had run every inch of the trail before. Now it was strictly a matter of playing it safe. With my bad leg, I knew I would have trouble getting up if I fell. All along the way I kept telling myself: "Take it easy. Don't push your luck. A couple of minutes saved won't count if you drop out. It's finishing that matters."
One by one the other racers passed me as I plodded along at my uninspiring pace. Each called encouragement: "Good pass!" "You're doing great!" "Keep at it, girl!" After the brief disturbance of the previous weekend, If It especially sensitive about trespassing on their sport. I realized now that I needn't have worried. They had accepted me in their ranks as a fellow musher. Before the race big, handsome Gareth Wright of Fairbanks had taken time to explain some of the techniques that had helped him win three world championships. Others—Bergman Sam, Bob Arwezon, Billy Sullivan, Clarence Charlie, Mike Prince, to name a few—welcomed me with warmth and enthusiasm.
The crowds were wonderful. All along the way people bobbed up from behind trees and mounds of snow, at crossings and trail intersections, to cheer me on, to let me know that they really wanted me to finish. And then I was at Cordova Hill again, this time huffing and puffing as I ran up it, pushing the sled ahead of me. We were back on the street, turning the corner onto Fourth, in the homestretch. The crowds were cheering and applauding.
My time for the first day was 2 hours, 23 minutes, 23 seconds. The winning time, made by 22-year-old Joee Redington Jr. of Flathorn Lake, Alaska, who was racing for the U.S. Army, was 1:37:33, with three other teams less than one minute behind him. Earl had run the first leg in 1:41:44, putting him near the front of the field. My time was slowest for the day, but I was not, it turned out, in last place. One man had been disqualified when his dogs bolted into the crowd only two blocks beyond the starting line, and two more teams had dropped out later on.
There were even more spectators the second day. Throughout the race they kept me posted on where the other teams were. All were ahead of me, and for the entire time I was on the trail I never saw one of them. But as I turned onto Fourth Avenue, the crowd roared and there in the distance I saw another team. I blinked in disbelief. Then I shouted, "Come on, Tricky. Let's catch them!"
Suddenly I was no longer tired. I pumped and pedaled furiously behind the sled. I blew my whistle and the dogs quickened their pace. Now we were gaining on the team ahead, and all along the avenue the people were shouting and screaming as we raced toward the finish line. The other team went over the line a fraction before we did, but we had beaten them in time by six full minutes. To me it seemed an overwhelming victory.
I had now made two runs—50 miles of the course—and so far I had had fantastic good fortune. Several mushers, including Earl, had not been so lucky. One team had bolted into the crowd only 50 feet from the finish line, the ultimate frustration after running the whole trail. Earl's tug line had broken midway, and in trying to fix it he had been dragged under the sled, had hurt his shoulder and briefly lost the dogs. By the time he recovered them the accident had dropped him to 10th place. Several mushers had dogs go lame or become unmanageable, and finished by carrying them in on their sleds. Of 22 starters in the first heat, only 16 were left as we went into the final day. It was almost too much to hope that my luck would hold.
Miraculously it did. Everything went right. The dogs were superb. They did not make a single mistake, running with heart, stamina and spirit. Throughout the final race the crowds were enormous. They jammed every crossing and corner on the return stretch. As I approached the finish I realized with surprise that they must all be waiting for me, since there were no other teams left on the course. As we went by, cheers went up. Hundreds of people were calling my name. They were shouting, "You did it! You made it! Bravo!" At the top of Cordova Hill the applause was thunderous. I remember saying, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
In the city, people were hanging out of windows, standing on roofs and cars, congregated on every corner. The applause was one continuous rumble all the way down Cordova and onto Fourth. As I went over the finish line I was soaking wet and grinning from ear to ear.
People seemed to overflow into the street from all sides. They completely engulfed me, patting me on the back, shaking my hands, shouting congratulations. Someone thrust a dozen roses in my arms. Someone else handed me a glass of champagne. I was officially presented with a lantern to symbolize having finished last and with a bronze plaque for having finished at all. "Who's the new world champion?" I shouted over the mob. "Joee Redington," someone called back, "but you're the No. 1 lady musher."
Earl came up and kissed me on the cheek. He tried to guide me through the crowd, but it seemed to move along with us. It was almost half an hour before the solid wall of people began to thin. Then a small, very old Eskimo touched my arm. He pointed to the ivory whistle around my neck that he had carved for me.
"Me Buck," he said. "You good girl. You run good race. Buck proud." It was the finest moment of all.