A very bad night on the Iditarod trail

The temperature dropped. The wind blew hard. The dogs died. Things looked bad.
The temperature dropped. The wind blew hard. The dogs died. Things looked bad.

Want to get your mind off the economy? You could read Moby Dick. Or get drunk. Or you could take the ultimate in escapism. Simply turn to the Anchorage Daily News and read the mesmerizing account of 56 teams of mushers and their dogs who at this moment are racing 1,150 miles from Anchorage to Nome in sub-zero blizzard conditions. (Update: The winner reached the finish line just before noon Wednesday.)

It'ꀙs Iditarod time again and this year'ꀙs event is a doozy. It'ꀙs 45 degrees below zero, white-out conditions out there on the trail. So bad that that a former champion is holed up, unable to move. So bad that a couple of sled dogs died.

'ꀜI had already broken trail behind me but that trail was all gone,'ꀝ says musher Lou Packer from an interim checkpoint at the village of Unalakleet, describing his situation two days ago. Unable to see ahead, Packer got off his sled and took a spot in front of his dog team, trying to find the trail.

'ꀜIf you went off the trail, you'ꀙd fall in up to your chest. It was a very, very bad situation.'ꀝ

Packer, 55 years old, said it was blowing so hard he had trouble standing up. The wind 'ꀜwas picking up pieces of ice and throwing them. The sled just kept falling over and (Grasshopper, one of the sled dogs) looked really bad and then he died. I sat there and held him. Horrible.'ꀝ

Packer lost one more dog during the ordeal. He packed the two dead dogs on the sled, fed his remaining dogs, and crawled into his sleeping bag with heat packs activated since it was 50 below.

'ꀜI was in big trouble at that point. I was worried I was going to freeze to death.'ꀝ

So he sent an alert by the only means possible -- by blocking the signal of the GPS device that automatically reports the position of all the racers on the trail.

When the weather cleared, volunteers came searching in planes with ski landing gear. A plane landed nearby. Packer loaded most of his dogs into the plane and stayed behind. The plane returned just before dark. The musher loaded the rest of the dogs, then climbed aboard himself.

'ꀜI kind of feel like I failed my dogs,'ꀝ says Packer from the village waypoint, his fingers bandaged but otherwise unharmed.

Still thinking about your 401K?

More: The complete and riveting account of Lou Packer'ꀙs ordeal by Anchorage Daily News reporters Kevin Klott and Craig Medred is here.

This is the 37th running of the Iditarod. The endurance race commemorates the delivery by dog team of anti-diphtheria serum to Nome during an epidemic in January, 1925, when all other transportation was cut off.

The course record is 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes set in 2002. Sixty-seven mushers, 13 of them women, with teams of 12 to 16 dogs crossed the starting line. Ten have dropped out.

Lance Mackey, 38, of Fairbanks crossed the finish line on Nome's Front Street at 11:30 Wednesday morning. It's the third straight victory for Mackey, tying an Iditarod record.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eugene Carlson

Eugene Carlson

Eugene Carlson was a print journalist for 25 years, primarily with Dow Jones & Co.