by D Jordan Redhawk
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Lainey spent the night on the trail, stopping at the Nulato checkpoint only long enough to snack her dogs. She pulled into Kaltag a little after three in the morning and took a much needed break. The dogs enjoyed their bones, gnawing and cracking them before they fell asleep.
Her notes indicated that the next stretch of trail to Unalakleet had the potential for problems. A straight shot through was not unheard of, though, despite the fact that it was ninety miles away. As she woke her dogs from their mandatory eight hour break, she gauged their strengths and weaknesses for a possible twelve hour run. All of them were eating well; they had been fortunate enough not to pick up some of the illnesses floating through the race. It was inevitable for dogs to get ill, what with hundreds of them on the trail. It only took one with a cold or canine version of the flu to infect a dozen others who parked in the same areas on the route. Her team still ate heartily, especially now that she had the extra fat to include in their diet, and they appeared no worse for wear.
Physically, they still pulled with abandon, though even her monster wheel dog, Jonah, had curbed his overbearing enthusiasm. He remained eager to get on the trail after every stop, but his boundless energy had mellowed with the many miles under his paws. None of them appeared to be straining anything. The veterinarians gave them good marks at every checkpoint. In fact, Lainey was one of the few mushers with fourteen dogs. Most had dropped to thirteen, some as few as nine by this point. Even Scotch was down to thirteen dogs according to the ratings, and she was renowned for taking excellent care of her team.
If any one on the team was fading, it was Lainey. She was the weak link. Her emotions were all over the place, and the easy trails left her plenty of room to moan and grumble over everything from the idea of scratching to avoiding the complications of her feelings for Scotch by taking the first plane out of Nome. The desire for a drink had gotten stronger, her perpetual thermos of coffee and many juice packs not filling the need. She had not quite started hallucinating, but she knew from other mushers that sleep deprivation and not taking care of her health could cause her to see things that were not there. Snorting, she packed her sled bag. Maybe she would see pink elephants; she never had when she was a drunk so at least the possibilities were entertaining.
The only thing keeping her on the trail was an acronym she had learned in her AA sessions - H.A.L.T. It stood for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and whenever she felt one or more of these things she knew to not make a hasty decision. Her entire being throbbed with those emotions but her experience taught her not to jump to wrong conclusion. That was the only thing keeping her in the race now.
She chuckled grimly as she prepared the team to leave Kaltag. The choice to quit the race was out of her hands so long as she refused to make a decision. If she made it to Nome it would be because of that. What a way to finish the race., too morose and exhausted to quit. She doubted anyone else could claim the same.
Returning to the assessment of her dogs, she questioned one of the vets. He graciously went over her team again and returned with a verdict that they could make it to Unalakleet in one hump providing she watched them closely for any signs of injury. None appeared on the verge of strain, but things could happen on the trail as she well knew.
Lainey thanked him and continued readying the team. One of her reasons for pushing through was her distaste for camping in the middle of nowhere. According to the standings, unless someone behind her blew through Kaltag and tailed her, she would be in the wilderness, hours away from anyone the entire time. If she forced the team to keep going, at least they could take another eight hour break in Unalakleet, a town of several hundred people. Civilization was preferable to the bush and after a ten or twelve hour run, the extra rest would be beneficial before they started their run on the Alaskan coast.
The sky was cloudy, the rising sun obscured by murky gray. Weather reports said a bit of storm was expected, but nothing too outrageous. Still, this stretch of trail was notorious for sudden and extreme storms.
H.A.L.T. She laughed to herself again. No hasty decisions. If the situation came up, she would stop and camp out. If not, look out Unalakleet, here she came.
Lainey finished her chores and brought the dogs to the checkpoint. She signed out, mentioning that she was going to attempt a straight shot. Better to warn the officials; if she took too long to get to the next layover, at least someone would have an idea when to start the search for her.
She did not need to yell to be heard anymore. The dogs had calmed down considerably with their time on the trail and easily picked out her voice. "Ready," she said. Her team, ears pricked in eagerness, awaited her order. Trace and Sholo pulled them straight, their eyes only for the trail leading out of the checkpoint. "Let's go."
Over the next hour and a half, the team climbed a gradual ascent through woods and tundra along the Kaltag River valley. There were a couple of places where the sled tilted with the grade. It remained on track though, following the well delineated path of previous mushers and trail breakers. By the time she reached the summit, about eight hundred feet above sea level, the sun had fully risen behind its veil of cloud cover. The sky was gray and heavy and the ground white with a dry, powdery snow. Trees in varying achromatic shades broke the landscape but not the dreariness. The view was not as stark as the Farewell Burn had been, but Lainey's already dismal mood seemed to descend with the trail into another valley.
The drop was as gradual as the rise, and the path was an easy one. No snow had fallen recently, and the trail was packed solid and smooth. It was bitterly cold, as well. When Lainey forced herself to eat something, she finished by putting on her face mask and tightening the ruff of her parka hood.
What the hell was she going to do about Scotch, other than the obvious, when she got to Nome? Was she really entertaining the notion of retiring from free lance work to settle down? Introducing Lainey Hughes, Alaskan housewife! Ludicrous! The reason she became a photo journalist in the first place was because she loved cameras and had itchy feet. Sooner or later, the urge would hit her, and she would be on the next plane out of Anchorage, guaranteed. It was a rare gig that kept her attention for longer than six months.
She ignored the little voice reminding her she had yet to feel that itch in the nine months she had been cooling her heels at the kennel.
Besides, that domestic daydream rested largely on Scotch's shoulders. Who said she wanted more than a brief liaison? They had never discussed a relationship, only the need to hold off from jumping into the sack until after the race was finished. Lainey had played the field for years. Women as attractive and confident as Scotch were usually players. Granted, she did not have the opportunity to sow wild oats out here in the bush, pun not intended, but the potential was there. Had Scotch grown up in New York, she would be the toast of the town, sleeping her way through a multitude of warm and willing partners.
Despite her thoughts, Lainey grinned. Taking Scotch to New York would be fun. It would be a blast to visit her old neighborhood, take Scotch to Broadway, go dancing and show her off. Her pleasant thoughts disintegrated at a vision of some hussy cutting into their dance, smiling with sharp teeth and a seductive eye.
"Ugh!" she yelled.
The dogs heard her, but did nothing more than flick their ears in response, not hearing a useful command.
Lainey took stock of her surroundings, surprised they were no longer moving downhill. Instead, they had wandered around many small lakes - she had a vague memory of passing several - and now traversed a wide flat land. She checked her watch and realized another two hours had passed while she wallowed in her pit of gloom. A quick look at her notebook told her she was firmly in the Tripod Flats area.
It was long past time to snack and check the dogs, and she called them to a halt. In less than fifteen minutes, they were moving again.
Okay, so maybe taking Scotch to New York would not be such a hot idea. Lainey could not imagine asking her to give up dog sledding. It would be fun to bring her on photo shoots during the summer, though, when she was not in training. Egypt, Africa, Australia - Scotch would love to see these places. She always grilled Lainey on where she had been, what the people were like, and what she had seen. Scotch had a deep curiosity about different cultures and foods. Maybe Lainey could take her on as an assistant for a couple of months out of the year. But eventually, Scotch would want to return home to drum up sponsors and begin the next season's training.
Running a kennel was expensive what with entering the Iditarod and any number of other races each year. With Rye turning eighteen soon, the family's cost of racing would double. Lainey had listened in on a few of their 'board meetings.' It was a pretty sure bet that Rye and Scotch would have to switch off each year. Fuller Kennels could only afford to send one of them at a time. As it was, this was only Scotch's fourth Iditarod, and she had been eligible to run it for seven years. The reason she did not have to skip this year was because of the magazine's involvement and sponsorship.
Lainey frowned in thought. If it was a foregone conclusion that Rye would be entering next year's Iditarod, that would free up Scotch for an extensive 'vacation.' Lainey could hire her as an assistant for the next few months, maybe even a year. The money Scotch would make could be funneled to the kennel and cover Rye's entry fees. Living in the bush of any number of third world countries meant saving a lot of money as Lainey well knew. And since Scotch had a home in Alaska, rent free, she would not have the money drain that Lainey had with her sublet in New York.
It was something to consider.
Hell, if Scotch was amenable to a long term relationship, Lainey could give up her apartment and officially move into the cabin. Would that make her eligible for the Fuller Kennels board? If that were the case, she would gladly invest in the kennel, especially if she was able to enjoy the occasional racing season herself.
For the first time in days, Lainey felt her mood improving. Was it so easy, receiving the best of both worlds? She and Scotch could be together for a lion's share of the time, she could continue traveling and following her career, and still spend every other winter in Alaska following the races. Scotch would get a steady income, a break from the constant need to search for donations and sponsors, an opportunity to travel and experience all the things she dreamed of . . .
This could work.
An official Bureau of Land Management sign brought her back to reality. The Tripod Flats cabin was just ahead, the sign indicating where to pull off the trail. The team was officially thirty-five miles from Kaltag. Old Woman cabin was another fifteen miles further on. Lainey looked at her watch, pleased to note that they had been on the trail for about five hours. At this rate, they would pull in to Unalakleet in eleven hours.
Rather than take the turnoff, she guided the dogs past it and pulled off for a rest break. Even if they were not going to take a full rest break, the dogs needed a little more food than the occasional snack. She did not break out the cookers or release the dogs' neck lines, not wanting them to get the idea it was time to nap. Instead, she set out their plates and used the prepared food in the cooler. When they got to Unalakleet, they would take another eight hour break and could afford to use the time to cook a fresh meal for them upon arrival.
As Lainey's mood lightened, so did her appetite. While the dogs ate, she scavenged through her snacks to find edibles that did not require heating. The pickings were slim, of course, and she was relegated to pemmican, trail mix and various breakfast breads lathered in butter. She debated firing up a cooker to boil one of her meatloaf meals anyway, but decided against the option. This was not an extended break and the dogs needed to be kept ready to go. If there was going to be a mutiny for whatever reason, it would happen somewhere between here and White Mountain.
Instead, she took a slice of pizza in tin foil, wrapped a couple of activated hand warmers around it, and shoved into her bib pocket under her parka. It formed a hot and icy lump against her chest. Maybe that would thaw it enough to eat. In the meantime, she still had a number of banana and pumpkin breads to choose from.
As she packed away the dogs' plates, she unearthed the brown paper sack from Galena. The rolls were frozen, but the jar of seal oil was not. Lainey eyed the sluggish liquid speculatively as she tilted the jar. Suzy had told her it had a fishy aftertaste but was good. It was part of the cultural diet of the natives here. Quite possibly, Lainey would find the whole thing revolting. Still, she was never one to back down from a challenge. With a shrug, she unscrewed the jar and took a sip.
Her initial response was to cringe away from it, the texture of a straight shot of oil insulting to her bland American palate, but she forced herself to swallow. It did not taste bad, per se, but she was unfamiliar with the flavor, and that caused a natural level of aversion. Her face screwed up in automatic distaste, but her body responded to its desire for more fat by demanding another sample. Once she was past the split second shock, she found herself drinking deep of the thick fluid and barely managed to stop before draining a good portion of the jar.
Lainey smacked her lips. "That wasn't half bad," she said aloud. She glanced at her immediate wheel dogs, Jonah and Aziz, who were content to wag their tails at her. Pleased with herself, she sealed the jar and put it back in her sled. There was definitely a fishy aftertaste, not surprising considering the natural diet of seals. She could almost feel a rush of heat as her body stoked itself on the extra fuel. Had Scotch ever had this stuff? She would have to ask when she saw her next. In any event, she decided she liked the stuff and wondered where if she could get more in Unalakleet.
Darkness was setting in, and she changed batteries in her head lamp and put it on. She sealed her sled bag, and climbed aboard the runners. Pulling the snow hook and putting it away, Lainey said, "All right."
Most of the dogs stood up in response to her warning. Trace and Sholo shook themselves and pulled the line tight, forcing the few recalcitrants to rise and get to their places. Bonaparte gave her a long, calculating look before taking his position.
Lainey did not push them. There was no hurry now and she did not want any of them to be stubborn about things, especially His Majesty. "Let's go."
The team moved forward and she gave a relieved sigh. Scotch had intimated that Bonaparte would eventually bollix things. Lainey was actually surprised he had gone on as long as he had. Barring any unforeseen accidents, she had long ago accepted the fact that he would be one of her dropped dogs. Bonaparte had never run the Iditarod before, though he had lots of mid range race experience. He had been nine days on the trail and was surely beginning to feel the need for more regal treatment to suit his station. Kaara would be heartbroken to continue without him, but she had run without him before and would do so again.
They approached a bridge with no side rails almost immediately after passing the Bureau of Land Management sign. Before Lainey had time to worry about its stability, they were across the deep ditch with little fanfare.
As they continued on through rolling hills, she wondered if she really would have been scared of the bridge had she been well fed and rested. After over a week on the trail, dealing with all sorts of physical challenges, she was a lot more confident in her abilities in both survival and endurance. Either that or her hormones were all out of whack and the proper flight or fight response was buried beneath exhaustion and dehydration. She supposed the proof would be in the pudding after she had a week of pampering. Maybe she would join Strauss' next bungie jumping excursion to test the theory.
Lainey smirked to herself at the thought. His interest in death defying vacations baffled her. She would never be caught jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.
It was getting too dark to see and Lainey turned on her head lamp. Despite her best intentions, she weaved in and out of consciousness, drowsing as she slumped over the sled. She knew she should be alert and ready for any trouble, but she had no energy to draw upon. The dogs kept plodding along while her mind drifted from the trail to split second day dreams of Scotch and back again, with little to show where reality ended and fantasy began.
The team became a road in Austraila, heat beating down on them as they drove through the interior hunting for a rare bird. Then she saw the dogs take a turn, and she roused far enough to see the trail marker. Heat on her chest became Scotch's head, resting after an extensive love making session in a hammock. She remembered the hand warmers and the frozen pizza with sluggish interest, but she was more tired than hungry. Scotch smiled at her in wonder as they followed their guides in the Amazon, sweat slicking her skin and a smudge of dirt on her cheek. Lainey reached in for a kiss and jolted back to reality as she nearly toppled.
Before she could gather herself, a dark shape loomed out of the night and she recoiled with a yell. For an instant she transposed a memory of the jeep in Kosovo as her fire team rode up to an abandoned house - the house where an ambush occurred and she had been shot. Lainey's ribs twinged in sympathy, and she felt a flash of hot and cold until she realized it was the BLM sign for Old Woman cabin.
"Christ, I need a drink," she gasped, heart thumping. Lainey removed her face mask in the hopes the icy wind would keep her lucid. "I guess this is what they mean by hallucinations," she told her dogs.
Their response was lukewarm at best. Only Chibee and Meshindi glanced over their shoulders. Everyone else continued to pull, flicking ears behind them to listen for further commands.
They moved at a fairly decent clip, but Lainey forced herself from the runners to trot with them. Every time they looked to get too far ahead, she jumped back aboard to catch her breath. The on again / off again weight probably did not help the dogs, but it kept her going a few more miles without falling apart.
The trail moved into open tundra broken by the occasional stretch of ragged trees. Here the wind began to blow harder, and Lainey was forced to put her face mask back on or risk frostbite. At least the exercise succeeded at waking her. Eventually, she remained on the sled long enough to dig out her warm pizza and eat. The added fuel forced drowsiness further away which was just as well. The trail meandered along crossing over flows and glaciers from the creek beds and river she paralleled.
Though the way appeared easier, her team began to slow. Lainey checked her watch. They were coming up on the nine hour mark, a good time to stop and take a breather. She called the dogs to a halt and went up the line with snacks, booties, and ointment.
Now stopped, she realized exactly how hard the wind was blowing. It was something they would all have to get used to, unfortunately. Coming out of the interior and onto the coast meant a lot more of the same. As she reached the front of her team, she noticed the trail had blown over in some places, drifts of snow impeding her leaders. No wonder they were slowing down. If thing continued this way, she would have to lead them herself to break the trail.
Her dogs were tired, evidenced by several of them promptly settling down for a nap. Even with hand warmers in her latex gloves, her fingers immediately numbed with the cold. She worked fast and efficient, rubbing ointment into their paws, checking for snow balls under their toes, and replacing wet booties with dry ones. Speaking to each animal, she teased and loved them, urging them to stay awake until they reached Unalakleet, which was only a couple of hours away.
Trace stood and shook himself off, looking back at her in weariness.
"Ready, boy," Lainey repeated. "We're almost there."
He yawned and took his place, tugging the other dogs into line. All but one followed his lead.
Grimacing, Lainey strode up the line. Taking Sholo's collar, she pulled him to his feet and forced him into position next to Trace. He sat down, ears back and an expression of sorrow on his canine face. A gust of wind pushed past them, and he winced away from it, closing his liquid brown eyes.
"Come on, Sholo. Ready'" she urged. "Only a little longer and you can take a nap."
Her leader was having none of it, ducking his head in shame. Whatever reserves of strength he had used to get this far were gone. She could tell he wanted to obey her, wanted to continue on, but the wind and cold and exhaustion had taken a toll on his confidence.
Lainey sighed in frustration and looked back down the line at the rest of the team. They sat or stood in place, watching to see what she would do. Bonaparte seemed to be smiling at her, his mocking grin indicating his thoughts of joining the mutiny. She petted Sholo, reminding herself that this was his first Iditarod. Regardless of how well he had done up to this point, he had never been on the trail for such an extended time. Being in the lead put special pressures on an animal, making it much more stressful than the other dogs on her team in a similar situation. If she didn't do this right, she could break Sholo's spirit, and that was unthinkable.
He looked so forlorn. "It's okay, Sholo. Good boy," she murmured, scratching his head. She quickly released him from the tug line, pausing only long enough to bring Montana up beside Trace. Then she walked Sholo back to the sled.
Soon he was wrapped in blankets, his neck line attached to one of the ribs of the sled, and Lainey tried again.
Montana took his place with Trace, the other dogs rising from their resting places. Bonaparte stared speculatively at Lainey before standing as well, and she breathed a sigh of reilef. She didn't know if there would be room for two dogs in the sled.
The team started forward.
They made slower time than she had hoped. Wind blew snow drifts into the trail at various intervals, forcing her dogs to slog through the mess. In a couple of places, Lainey strapped on her snow shoes and broke the trail anew for them. She had hoped for a ten hour run with the good weather, but it took more than twelve to arrive at the Covenant School gymnasium where the checkpoint was located. The last couple of miles were spent skating over glare ice and she could see her dogs' collective relief as they arrived at civilization.
Lainey was covered in frost from the weather, and she peeled her face mask off to speak to the checker. "I'm taking an eight hour break here."
He frowned, looking at her race statistics. "You've already taken your mandatory?" he asked.
"Yeah, but we didn't stop between here and Kaltag. We'll need the extra rest."
Marking her time in on his sheet, he glanced at her listless team. "Looks like it. But, don't worry. They'll bounce back pretty quick." He grinned at her. "Quicker than you most likely."
Her chuckle was more hysteria than humor. "You're probably right."
The checker was replaced by the vets. While two examined the dogs on her tug line, one cornered her at her sled to check Sholo for injuries. The team was tired and Aegis, one of Lainey's wheel dogs, appeared to have a slight strain in her left shoulder. She was told to double check Aegis before leaving.
"Nothing a nap won't fix," the vet said of Sholo. "And a good meal."
"Are you sure? I've never had a dog balk on me like that." At least not from exhaustion. Bonaparte's foibles were a known hurdle.
"Yeah. He's not hurt, just tired. Maybe the wind messed with him, too." The vet glanced over Sholo's paperwork. "Some dogs can't make the transition from mountains and trees to the coast. Has he ever been over here before?"
"Not that I'm aware of, and he's only run mid level races."
The vet nodded and handed the paperwork back to Lainey. "It'll be your call then. If he's the type to freak at his surroundings, you might want to drop him here."
Lainey followed her guides toward the parking area behind the school. She had been told that the checkpoint supplied hot water. Rather than break out the cookers, she gave her dogs a double dose of white fish, knowing they probably would not remain awake long enough for her to cook a proper meal. After their snack, she distributed straw and blankets, and removed booties, massaging tired paws. Once they were asleep, she grabbed her pots and her child's sled.
Time to locate hot water and her food drops.
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