Impossible Owls: Essays by Brian Phillips Read Online (FREE)
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Out in the Great Alone
- SNOW CRASH
In the summer of 1977, a fire swept across the wilderness of interior Alaska, west of Denali, which was then still officially known as Mount McKinley. Tundra burned to rock; 345,000 acres of forest—more than 530 square miles—disappeared in flames. When the smoke cleared, it left behind a weird scar on the map, a vast, charred crater littered with deadfall. In the winter, when temperatures in the interior dive to forty below, the skeletons of burned trees snapped in the cold or were ripped out by powerful winds. Tussocks of tundra grass froze as hard as bowling balls.
Every year in early March, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race sets out from Anchorage, in the south-central part of the state, and runs northwest toward the finish line in Nome, on the coast of the Bering Sea. In its early stages, the trail runs uphill, into the mountains of the Alaska Range, then plunges down, into the interior, where it enters the fire’s scorched country.
For the mushers of the Iditarod, the Farewell Burn, as that country became known, was a nightmare. The race had been founded only four years earlier, as a way to commemorate the importance of sled dogs to Alaska. Large expanses of the state had, for much of its history, been unreachable by other forms of transportation. Now dog teams were forced to navigate through blackened stumps and fallen limbs, along a trail that was often impossible to follow. Many years, the Burn accumulated little precipitation. Sleds intended for snow and ice had to be dragged across hardened mud and gravel. Runners broke; tree shards snagged tug lines; speeds dropped to three or four miles per hour.
In 1984, the Alaska Bureau of Land Management cut a swath for a better trail. But even then, a seasoned musher could need twelve hours or more to cross from Rohn to Nikolai, the checkpoints on either side of the Burn—a passage that would frequently be made in darkness, through heavy wind and extreme, subzero cold. The novelist Gary Paulsen, who ran the Iditarod twice in the 1980s, describes the Burn as a place where mushers literally go mad. “It was beyond all reason,” Paulsen writes in his Iditarod memoir, Winterdance. “I entered a world of mixed reality and dreams, peopled with the most bizarre souls and creatures.” At one point, he thinks he’s on a beach in California; at another, he pulls out a real ax to fend off an attack from an imaginary moose. When he comes to, his dogs have vanished; he’s alone in the landscape. He stumbles across them a hundred yards away. He has built a fire and bedded them down without knowing it.
The Iditarod Trail runs across the Farewell Burn for around thirty-five miles of its total length. The total length of the Iditarod Trail is more than one thousand miles. The Burn is not the most difficult section.