I was one of the half-dozen guys holding Isaac Okleasik’s sled down while his dozen-plus sled dogs were screaming and lunging. It was the first Saturday in March back in 1973, and Isaac was one of the first mushers to leave on the first Iditarod Sled Dog Race. I was wearing bib No. 37, and since we let a team go every two minutes, I had plenty of time to help others before it was my turn.
The announcer was counting down the seconds for Isaac, hundreds of cold people were standing around in Anchorage’s semi-pro baseball stadium, cheering and clapping. And then Isaac, a legendary dog driver as well as a legendary member of the elite Eskimo Scouts during World War II, looked at me and said, “Where we go?”
Then while the world was going insane, Isaac walked up the long string of dogs and knelt down and talked to his lead dog. Then he started back toward the sled.
“30 seconds,” said the p.a. system.
Isaac got back to the sled and stood on the runners. He was ready. I had to ask.
“Why did you go up to the lead dog, Isaac?”
“He don’t know where we go, so I tell him.”
“Zero!” said the announcer.
Dog and sled holders pulled away from the team just like a gantry releases a rocket, and Isaac Okleasik shot out of sight down the trail. He must have given his leader good directions, because 1,100 miles later, Isaac was in Nome.
And on the first Saturday of every March since then, I say a little prayer for the dogs and the men and women on trail on that long, cold camping trip. It’s lonely and quiet out there … and it’s a very long way to Nome.
Brought to you by Dogsled, A True Tale of the North. Now a Kindle ebook.