Ugly Dogs, Blair Braverman, Quince Mountain, 18 dogs, a composer and a sled in Alaska
Monday, March 11
New Orleans, LA. Typing with only one hand. My right hand is enveloped in a cast from fingertips to arm pit. I left Alaska last Thursday for surgery with New Orleans-based Dr. Donald Faust on Friday.
On my second trip with six dogs on Wed. around 12:30pm the sled tipped over as I was descending the slope out of the lodge. The dogs wouldn’t stop and dragged me several hundred feet before I managed to stop them. I had grabbed onto one of the flailing snow hooks and had driven it into the snow, but the dogs had suddenly swerved, my index got jammed in the grail of the hook and without feeling a thing, my entire finger popped off at the base of the knuckle. it hung on by a flap of skin. blood gushed out onto my black bibs and the snow. I righted the sled, drove the 2nd snow hook into the ground, stood on the sled’s brake and began yelling for help. The dogs looked back in interest.
Rebecca Charles, a lodge guest and Wasilla native who had come for a day trip by snow machine, stepped out onto the terrace for a smoke. Over the din of the 12 remaining dogs I had left behind, she heard me, and came rushing down the hill in her machine.
“I have ten years of mushing experience,” she said. “I can drive the sled back.”
I turned the team around, lay in the sled and Rebecca calmly guided us back to the lodge. She remained with the dogs down below where the kennels were, while I trudged up to the lodge house. As I climbed slowly, blood dripping on my pants, I grabbed my cold disjointed finger and jammed it where I thought it ought to be.
Jennifer Bondy, the owner of the lodge, her 16-year old son, Bob, and Newton immediately starting taking care of me. A helicopter was called for. Newton immediately rushed down to my cabin to pack up my things. Eight hours later a helicopter had yet to arrive, and we began to think about plan B.
Rebecca, Jennifer and I clambered into the Bondymobile, a Jeep-snowcat conversion, Something like the photo I found online above. Jennifer was worried that the trip would be too rough and bumpy, but at that point, we had no other option. The 911 dispatch had finally told us that due to weather in Anchorage, no choppers would be coming. Going by snow machine, a faster vehicle, was deemed impossible: too cold, and how would I hang on? Aside from my useless hand, I was beyond exhausted. #teamseveredhand had spent the last eight hours trying to keep me awake with Alaska stories or by asking me to tell them….whatever the hell I wanted to say, anything to keep me from slipping into unconsciousness.
Those eight miserable hours waiting for a helicopter were me at my most expressive. I laughed uproariously, I hyperventilated, I wept out of disappointment, and screamed from waves of deep pain that would envelop me for a few minutes and then dissipate.
Near the six hour mark, I began to lose hope that my finger would survive. I kept asking to remove the towels so I could check the finger, but they wouldn’t allow it, fearing that disturbing it would cause any clotting that may have happened would regress or open. But my gut kept urging me to check and see that my finger was still jammed onto my hand—it felt crucial. Anna, my wife, talked to me on the phone and told me that her grandfather had also had nine fingers due to an injury, so it could become a tradition in our family. Rather than be mired in sadness or fear, I became calmer. I started thinking what our two young daughters might think if I arrived with one less finger.
Bob and Newton brought pillows, blankets, snacks (not for me), and a puke bucket. At about 20 mph, it took us four hours to drive from the lodge at mile marker 68 to the beginning of the Denali highway, about 64 miles through a freshly groomed trail. The snow was so perfectly packed and smooth that turned out to be a gentler ride than any trip I’ve taken on a New Orleans street. A giant moose cow and her young calf appeared in the headlights and trotted in front of us, leading the way out for several minutes before disappearing up an embankment.
Finally, we saw the ambulance’s red lights glimmer around a bend, waiting for us at the parking area in Cantwell. Two paramedics, a young man and an old woman, at least in her 70s, approached and helped me out of the Jeep and into the ambulance.
Jennifer and Rebecca parked the Jeep and got into a car that the Bondys keep in the lot. They were headed for a motel to spend the night before returning the next day. We hugged.
The ambulance was warm. Marge had piled blankets on me, thinking we would have come by snowmachine. Shawn removed the towels around my arm, and for the first time in 12 hours, I saw my hand. I was elated, buoyed up, seeing the finger still jammed tightly onto my hand where I had last left it, ascending up from the sled and dog team and Rebecca, heading up to the lodge, not looking back.
Shawn cleaned the hand. He splinted it. Marge, after several tries, telling me “you have tough skin” found a vein and ran an IV. She gave me morphine, which almost immediately started to make me queasy. I threw up in a small, plastic, orange bin that looked like it was especially made for this. I began to hallucinate.
Marge, having heard my story on the long drive, had advised me to tell any doctor treating my finger that I was a performer, and never mind the composition bit. My cousin, an ER doctor in Las Vegas would later tell me the same thing: doctors are trained to treat everyone equally, but….still.
At 4am, after a 3-hour drive, I was wheeled into a room in the ER at a (or the?) hospital at Fairbanks while Marge made sure to tell Dr. Tansky that I am “a pianist”.
As the doctor anesthetized my hand and began his work, he asked questions about my accident, but like other conversations I had and would have in Alaska with others, he didn’t seem that fascinated or even curious about my dog mushing, to the extent I felt he was making small talk only out of politesse or to keep my mind off his thread and needle.
He suggested that rather than finding a hand surgeon in AK, that I return home immediately. While I rested, for the first time since the accident, the nurses helped me find a ticket back home, and made an appointment for me with a hand surgeon for Friday morning, my arrival. Tansky finished sewing me up by 6am, I rested until 8am, and then by 9 I was in a taxi on my way to the airport.
A week after the surgery, with physical therapy, I can already wiggle the finger a millimeter or two. My young daughters, ages 1 and 3, ask me what happened. I tell them I broke my finger falling off a dogsled, and show them pictures from Libby Riddles’ illustrated book on mushing for children. The girls pretend to fall off sleds over and over in our living room.
I ask Stav, the oldest, if her finger broke in the fall.
Does it hurt?
Did the dog team run off or are they waiting for you?
“they’re still here.”
Wednesday, March 6
I woke up early enough to see a beautiful sunrise and walked out of my little cabin that directly overlooks the dog yard. I greeted all the dogs, passed out treats, and cleaned before heading up to breakfast at the lodge. Met a group of “Motorheads” who have been traveling here for the last 25 years on snow machines. Three women traveling by bicycles also arrived last evening with their friend on a support snow machine.
For the first time, I took six dogs out.
Boudica and Kenai out front, Jeff and Anya as team, and Grinch and Dora (I think. It may be Lucy) as wheel dogs. Very proud to have not crashed going down the steepish slope out of the lodge riding the brake with both feet. As soon as I made the descent I looked out at the team and Dora had completely gotten out of her harness. I have no idea how she did that. I stopped the team and put her back in her harness. We were off. A perfect, brisk trot to the turnaround. I crashed immediately as we started the turn and crashed a second time getting out back onto the trail. The dogs dragged me and the sled on its side for 25 feet before stopping. It was thrilling and slightly sickening to realize the power of these dogs. That they dragged me as I was telling them to stop: clearly I was not yet in charge and they knew it.
Newton advised me not to ride the brakes as I make the loop back but rather balance on both runners. I’ll try that next time.
Tuesday, March 5
During the night, the dogs would intermittently yowl together, one dog entering at a time in an 18-part canon. Their kennel is so close to my bed that when I would roll from my left side to my right, a fresh chorus would arise outside, “he’s coming, he’s coming!”. I walked out of the cabin at 6:30am and spent an hour with the dogs before heading to the lodge for breakfast.
After landing twice in the snow headfirst (never letting go of the sled) I managed to head out on the trail after breakfast with Kenai and Boudica in the lead and Grinch and Anya in back (I’m sure there’s a technical term for the back that I don’t know yet – maybe wheel dogs). We went out 2.5 miles, did a loop and headed back. It was absolutely marvelous. I didn’t say a single word to the dogs on the ride, aside from the direction to make the loop. Everything else they did on their own. Lots of hugs and praise when we returned to the lodge.
Blair left me a beautiful note in my cabin with tips, including to use Lucy as a wheel dog, but I couldn’t find Lucy. Many of the pups don’t have their names on their collars. So I reached out to the #UglyDogs for information and was immediately sent about a thousand photos of Lucy.
I let the dogs rest and after an hour or so I hitched a new combination of four dogs on the sled: Boudica and Kenai in front; and JeffSharlett and who I believe to be Lucy in the back. This time I tried a different technique to prevent the kind of mad tangles I had in my first run this morning. I stretch the gangline straight out and anchored it in place. Once I put the lead dogs in place, mayhem didn’t ensue as it had before. This may be also due to Grinch’s absence. Grinch is simply potential energy in the form of a dog and was very hard to get hitched to the sled.
The second run was perfect. I descended the slope out of the lodge without a crash, riding the brake hard all the way down. The trail was snowy, gray, and not cold.
After feeding the dogs I went up to the lodge to feed myself. I’m going to attempt one more run today.
I made one more run around 3pm with Boudica, Kenai, Grinch, and Anya. I tried to coax some new puppies to get into a harness and I simply couldn’t – they were so wild and excited for me to handle. I’ll try again tomorrow.
Monday, March 4
This morning, -15F according to the woman working the cash register at one of the two gas stations in Cantwell (the one that “doesn’t suck” according to my traveling companion). Newton Marshall, onetime member of the Jamaica Dogsled team, 4-time veteran of the Iditarod, and I leave Cantwell, where we had shared a very quaint room at the Backwoods Lodge so as not to make the trip to the Alpine Creek Lodge in the dark. We left my little, red rental car in a parking lot at the entryway to the Denali Highway, inaccessible to cars in the winter. In two snow machines, we began the two-hour drive up to the Lodge, 65 miles. A chilly day for my inaugural snowmachine ride. Q lent me a pair of serious boots and fur ruff. I don’t have the greatest coat, but I’m dressing in a dozen or so layers, so I think I’ll be somewhere between alive and comfortable. Q had stressed that a several hour snow machine ride is serious business and one must dress for the occasion.
As soon as we arrived at the entrance, I realized that my hat was gone, and I was sure I had left it at the gas station in the excitement of buying provisions for the trip (jerky and Combos), so while Newton prepared the snow machines, I drove back to the gas station. The hat had disappeared. I was forced to buy a gas station hat; a laughably-thin, meager, orange piece of cloth.
I had never before operated a snow machine and Newton urged me to take a few swipes around the parking area. He asked me if I would feel comfortable traveling around 25 miles per hour and I hesitantly agreed. We began the trip with Newton behind, making sure I wouldn’t do anything stupid. I kept looking at a gauge that I assumed was the speedometer. It wasn’t rising above 10, and I couldn’t make sense of that: I had owned a scooter while living in Rome, and it didn’t feel like I was only going 10 mph. I kept pushing harder on the thumb throttle, but the needle wouldn’t budge. I finally looked down and saw a tiny digital speedometer that read 55 miles per hour. I still am not sure what was the dial I first looked at.
We made the 63 mile journey on the Denali highway in about two hours to the Alpine Creek Lodge. My machine just stopped working 30 miles in around mile marker 92. We rode the rest of the way, the two of us, in Newton’s machine.
We saw so many moose to the point that I found myself gazing at a particular giant close by and thinking, “oh. Here’s another one.” I worried that I was becoming too nonchalant.
A herd of gray caribou crossed the road fifty feet ahead of me and disappeared beyond a ridge. A lynx was seemingly waiting for us on the side of the road. Once we got alongside, she jumped down into the brush and watched us.
I arrived and threw my suitcase into Blair and Q’s incredibly tiny and incredibly cozy cabin (I don’t how they could fit so many chocolate bars in there, but one could survive here for a month just on dog kibble and Toblerone). Inside, space for one bed, my suitcase, and an invaluable tool: a boot dryer.
I spent two hours cleaning the dog yard, feeding the puppies and adults, and introducing myself to all the extremely curious dogs. Kenai was very wary of me. Blair encouraged me to have her in my team so I am looking forward to winning her trust.
Newton then informed me that we need to go back to the broken snow machine and retrieve it with two new machines with sleds attached to both. By then it was around 4pm and getting colder. I got back into my four pairs of pants but only one pair of socks – a mistake I would later learn.
14 miles out, Newton’s machine overheated. Once again, we got into one machine and continued the drive to the original machine I had abandoned.
Newton miraculously managed to start it and so we once again had two machines. We drove back to the broken machine through the fading sunlight. My feet were now very cold. I had borrowed a pair of slip-on boots from Blair and Q that I found in their cabin. Rather than wearing the “bunny” Army-issued boots I had originally come with, I thought I was saving time by slipping those on instead. They were too tight and too cold.
We arrived back at the lodge. Dinner was served by Chrissy, the cook. Chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, salad, cookies. Perfect.
I spoke with with some of the guests, Alaskans up for a few days of winter fun. And then off to bed, where I read a bit from Graveyard of Dreams: dashed hopes and shattered aspirations along Alaska’s Iditarod Trail. Terrifying stories. I had heard that the #UglyDogs had forbidden Blair to read it.
Sunday, March 3
Today the restart of the Iditarod begins and I’ll be driving up to Willow Lake, about an hour and a half north of Anchorage to see Blair off before continuing to the lodge.
I arrived at the Willow around 11am with Sarah Marshall, a writer, experienced dog handler, and dear friend of Blair and Q, who had flown in from Minnesota to help. We crossed the beautiful, frozen and snow covered Nancy Lake where the race would begin. On our return we entered the Willow Community Center where locals were sending Iditarod memorabilia, jams, postcards, pins, and warm food.
In the parking lot, Blair and the handlers were beginning to set up, very slowly, very gently, very quietly as to not overexcite the dogs. Finally, at 2pm the race began and one by one, racers were asked to come to the start line in their prearranged order. We saw number 6, number 7, 8, and 9 line up, yet we were still putting booties and harnesses on.
An official with a clipboard stopped by and informed me that we had 6 minutes and if we failed to come to the start line we would be relegated to the end of the list, number 52.
At that moment, without any seeming anxiety or extra hurry, Blair began leading dogs to the sled and we followed suit. With a minute to spare Blair was ready and we all ran alongside as Blair drove up to the start line.
After her perfect start, we stayed for a few hours seeing the remaining mushers begin, helped put things back in the truck and made our way to my rental car.
Newton Marshall, the Jamaican musher who competed in four Iditarod races and the Yukon Trail, was my passenger as we left Willow and drove north to Cantwell on the eastern edge of the Denali National Park.
In Cantwell, surrounded by immense snow-covered peaks, we spent Sunday night at the Backwoods Lodge Motel after eating a steak sandwich at a nearby restaurant. We sat at the bar and watched a heated poker game where the bartender, waiter, and I gathered, the owner were playing with some guests. When we needed anything, the cook would emerge from the Kitchen to take care of us, as she was the only remaining staff.
Saturday, March 2
Ceremonial start of the Iditarod. We arrived to help Blair at 7am in downtown Anchorage near the waterfront. Snow laid down on city streets for blocks. All the participating teams getting their dogs ready for a 10 AM start. I am tasked with cleaning up dog poop and handing out used booties to fans. I love every minute of it.
We run with the dogs, alongside, four blocks to the starting line. Blair is number 11. There’s a countdown for Blair to begin…10…9….8….
Suddenly Q yells practically snarls at me to get to the sled immediately. My first thought is that I must have mis-harnessed a dog. I run over.
With literally two seconds to spare, Q and Blair inform me that I will be coming along for the ride, the 12 miles of the first ceremonial leg of the Iditarod. It all happens so fast that I can’t even process it, and we are off!
The fans along the route were filled with joy to see Blair. We passed numerous signs prepared to welcome and encourage her. People ran behind the sled trying to feed us: hot dogs, beer, even a Bloody Mary!
It was one of the greatest and happiest surprises of my life to be invited to ride with Blair. I’m still, and will forever be completely honored by Q and Blair’s gesture. I’ll never forget the experience.
Tomorrow I travel up to see the real start of the race and then I head up to the Cantwell to the Lodge to take care of the 16 dogs that Blair and Q left. Goodbye, Anchorage, and thank you for a wonderful stay at the Lakefront Millennium.
Friday, March 1
Yesterday Q and I ran the varsity team in Wasilla, from the Knik Bar on the historic Iditarod Trail with Caroline in the sled as well, a producer from the NBC Today Show. We were out for a couple of hours, about 15 miles on beautiful powdery trail. Quince let me drive the team (photos below) for a mile or two. It seemed so easy and perfectly manageable, especially with three people on a perfect trail. I thought he was letting me drive to give me some experience before I headed to the lodge to take care of the pups, and only the next day would I learn that it was to prepare me for riding along with Blair in the ceremonial start of the Iditarod.
I went to the Iditarod banquet where each of the 52 or so mushers came up on stage and reached into an actual boot to choose a disc with their starting number.
This morning we all went to 6th Avenue Outfitters in Anchorage to hear Blair interview the legendary Lance Mackey, who has won the Iditarod four times and the Yukon Quest four times. The Yukon Quest, I am learning may be considered an even more challenging race than the Iditarod; just as long, but taking place farther north in Alaska. No one had believed that it was possible to compete much less win the Iditarod and the Yukon in the same year until Lance proved everyone wrong in 2007.
Thursday, February 28, 2019 Anchorage
I arrived yesterday in Anchorage from New Orleans to meet writers/mushers Blair Braverman and Quince Mountain. Blair is racing in her first Iditarod and I will be helping out by staying at Alpine Creek Lodge in Cantwell with the sixteen dogs from their team that won’t be racing. Blair, and her husband, Q, arrived in Alaska to train months ago from their home in Wisconsin with thirty dogs.
Once the race begins, this weekend, I’ll leave Anchorage and head to the Lodge to take care of the dogs, running them each day on the sled Blair and Q left me.
Thursday, February 28
I woke up at 5am, still on New Orleans time. Last night I checked in to the Alex Hotel in Anchorage, not far from the airport and walked across the street to meet Q at the Fancy Moose Lounge. The lobby had a stuffed polar bear surrounded by Alaskan beer cases behind glass. I met Q with French musher Nic Petit, who arrived in second place at last year’s Iditarod. Both Q and Nic had left their teams in the parking lot of the hotel. I was struck by the seeming normalness of that – like leaving your dog in the backseat for a half-hour while you grab a bite – times fourteen.
Nic had a reservation snafu and I offered to let him stay in my room for the night. At 1:30 am, just as I was about to really go to sleep, I got a text from Q: “Nic is trying to get in, but he went to the wrong room. What’s the room number?”
Ten minutes later, Nic entered my room. My head was under the covers and Nic said “is that really you?” – he seemed slightly shell shocked and explained that using the key card I had given him, he had somehow mistakenly entered the wrong room and woken up a rightly angry woman. Nic wouldn’t let me just wave my arm from under the covers and say, yes, it’s me. I think he really needed to make sure he was in the right room.
I’m sure that was the last thing he needed two days before the race.
This afternoon I will go to Wasilla, where Iditarod headquarters are based, and meet Q to condition the “varsity” team – the dogs that will most likely be racing.
I got dressed and took the hotel shuttle to downtown Anchorage where I visited the museum of art followed by a tired, average, overpriced fish sandwich at Humpy’s Great Alaska Alehouse, that had been recommended to me by a handler I had met in my hotel lobby.
Caroline Gottlieb, a producer for NBC’s Today Show picked me up in her rental car and we made our way to Knik where we met Q and fifteen of the fourteen dogs that would go on to race the Iditarod waiting for us next to the Iditarod-friendly Knik bar. We suited up and harassed the team together before setting out on a glorious 15 mile run on the old Iditarod trail.