When Iditarod musher Bryan Bearss appeared in the doorway of a small plane that had transported him and his dog team to Nome, the race was truly over. Bearss was driving a colleague’s sled dog team in this competition that puts Alaska on the map each March, and had scratched in Koyuk, a small, remote Native Alaskan village located on the fringe of the Bering Sea in Norton Sound. Beginning in Anchorage and ending 1,000 miles northwest in Nome, the Iditarod is a testament to synchronicity of human and animal, of instinct and mechanics, and is often billed as the “toughest race on earth.” For many hopeful mushers, it is the culmination of years of hard work, money, and sacrifice augmented by moments of courage that manifest themselves in a hundred different ways. To declare a race over is not a decision to be made lightly.
For Bryan, the 2015 Iditarod began as many outdoor-themed events do, with pomp and circumstance, endless preparation, and high hopes. And, as is the case when one plays within Mother Nature’s domain, things didn’t go as planned. The weather went from unseasonably warm and wet to frighteningly cold and dry, with temperatures plunging to depths of 60-below zero or lower. But Bryan’s team of young Alaskan huskies powered ahead, trusting their driver and trotting consistently toward Nome. Mushers are the dogs’ caretakers, massage therapists, and cheerleaders during a race like the Iditarod, tending to physical and emotional needs of the team, first, before heating up their own food or collapsing on the sled for a few hours of restless sleep. Bryan, racing in his second Iditarod, knew these challenges and potential outcomes, but remained confident in the team’s ability to finish.
When a ground blizzard kept Bryan and at least a dozen other mushers stuck in Shaktoolik, a place notorious for wild north winds and harsh temperatures, those of us keeping tabs at home grew slightly concerned. Working on the team’s communications, I followed Bryan’s GPS tracker like a hunting dog, watching for any movement that might signal forward momentum. After 25 hours in what should have been a six or seven-hour rest stop, I cheered as the GPS showed Bryan had departed Shaktoolik for the cold, windy run toward Koyuk, a 50-mile distance that will remain forever burned in my brain.
Standard weather reports showed slower windspeed, but what I couldn’t see was a near-gale blowing along the ground, creating a swirling whiteout of dry, sand-like snow that coats everything and lands with a consistency of concrete. Only when I went to the FAA website was I able to gauge the conditions mushers were facing, and about then Bryan’s GPS showed something odd.
Instead of following trail created by Iditarod officials and sleds going before him, Bryan and the team had veered east, far to the east, where they stopped, and stayed.
Unwilling to travel directly into the wind, Bryan’s team of youngsters were tired and wanted to stop. He tried traveling in front, switching leaders, anything to encourage the dogs to move out of the storm and into a safer place. One dog would sit, the rest would sit. One dog would lie down, one would go, the rest would quit. Temperatures became colder, the dogs less motivated, and Bryan, more exhausted. Finally, sensing a complete breakdown of the entire team was imminent, Bryan pushed the emeregency rescue beacon provided for all mushers, turned the sled sideways to block a bitter wind, ushered the dogs into some semblance of a pile for warmth in the windbreak, and curled himself into the sled bag.
Do thoughts of courage enter into one’s mind at a time like this? While talking with Bryan in Nome, his eyes filled with tears and he shook his head.
“I was ready to go to sleep,” he said. “I had stopped shivering. I kissed a photo of my family, had a Sharpie ready to write messages to people on my arm, and thought that this was it.”
Help never came.
Bryan woke up to a voice telling him it was time to get up and get moving. Now.
The dogs were buried under mounds of thick, hard drifts that took all Bryan’s strength to break, but he yanked the gangline free and, one by one, heads popped up and furry bodies shook off dry snow. Knowing the race was over and focusing on survival rather than finishing, Bryan drove the sled toward a stand of spruce trees in the distance, hoping there would be enough shelter among branches and tree wells for a dugout to keep them safe until help arrived.
He pushed his emergency locater again, cut spruce boughs, dug snow, and prepared to spend a more comfortable night in this new location.
Finally, the sound of a snow machine patterned the air. Stumbling to his feet and wading through hip-deep drifts, Bryan tried waving his arms and yelling for help. The machine drove by, its noise evaporating along with Bryan’s hope. But just as he turned to trudge back to his shelter, a second snow machine came roaring up behind the first. This time, the driver circled back.
Running up to the machine, Bryan babbled, “I’m an Iditarod musher and I need help, I’m off course!”
Pulling down his balaclava, the young driver said, “I know, we’ve been looking for you. Are you thirsty?”
Bryan and the team were picked up a mere five miles from Koyuk, given food, water, and medical attention, and flown to Nome the following morning, where another friend and I met the airplane.
Thanks to the remote nature of Iditarod communications, we didn’t know much when a white charter plane touched down in Nome, packed to the bulkhead with sled dogs and a tired musher. What we did know was a huge sense of relief when the door opened and Bryan’s familiar form crawled out onto the wing, frostbitten, tired, but in one piece.
It’s been said that courage is devotion in action, and maybe even an element of grace. Courage is also an ingredient of love, and as a parent, I can’t help but think of the parallels between a harrowing 48 hours in northern Alaska and choices we make for the sake of loving our children.
Crazy? Perhaps. But standing on the icy tarmac of Nome’s airport after days of uncertainty, holding on to someone dear, courage makes a bit more sense.