UNALAKLEET - Out in a 75-below wind chill, hammering the frozen Yukon River on Saturday morning, DeeDee Jonrowe saw her 1999 Iditarod dream come to an abrupt and unexpected end when she scratched from the race for the first time in her career.
A revolt by her 12-dog team caught the popular Willow musher as much off-guard as it did officials of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the legion of fans who have been following the perennial front-runner's progress along the 1,100-mile route to Nome.
No sign of what happened early Saturday morning appeared beforehand. Jonrowe's team looked strong in checkpoints going north, and the 11-time top-10 finisher was running solidly in fourth place, just behind five-time champion Rick Swenson of Two Rivers.
All indications were that the dogs were running fine, but something else was going on in their heads, Jonrowe said here late Saturday afternoon.
In the predawn darkness, a once steadily trotting dog team began to balk, alternating between stopping and starting.
The problem, Jonrowe said, began about five hours out of the Grayling checkpoint on a desolate stretch of the Yukon.
She'd left Grayling just behind Swenson, but his team pulled away.
Jonrowe was alone with her dogs - trusting them as she always has to get her on down the trail.
But her main leader, Commander, decided he didn't want to continue into the wind and minus-30-degree cold. He would stop and go, stop and go, Jonrowe said. It was a pattern her other leader, Jobe, quickly adopted. Then the whole team followed suit.
Trying to break the pattern, Jonrowe got off the sled and walked the team for what she estimated to be six miles. It didn't help.
She unclipped the dogs from the gangline and tried letting them run free to play. That didn't help, either.
They'd play for a while, Jonrowe said, but what they mainly wanted to do was dig a hole in the snow and curl up out of the wind. At one point, her dogs even started barking at the wind whistling through the willows along the riverbanks.
"We were in the middle of nowhere," Jonrowe said, her face chapped red from the wind and tears coming to her eyes. "There was no way I could walk them all the way to Nome.
"What was wrong was mental, not physical, and no amount of rest is going to change that. They didn't just not do it; they didn't want to do it."
Commander, a 5-year-old male, was the ringleader, she added, and Jonrowe was second-guessing her decision to put so much faith in him.
In last year's race, Commander hesitated as the team crossed Golovin Bay, Jonrowe said. But it was a momentary thing, and Jonrowe quickly got the team moving again. From then until her second-place finish in Nome, everything was fine.
She did, however, start to wonder when Commander braked the team to an unexpected halt once again in this year's Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race.
Each time, she said, the behavior appears to have been triggered by a headwind. Commander doesn't seem to like the wind, she said.
The Yukon's headwind can be demoralizing, and other mushers have had problems with it in other Iditarods.
Three-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser from Big Lake was chasing Montanan Doug Swingley up the river in 1995 when he had to make a 90-minute, unplanned stop for a team that had grown frustrated with the constant headwind.
"They needed rest," Buser said at the time. "They're not machines. They couldn't make it. They went a little mental."
"You know," Jonrowe said, "I used to live in Bethel, where the wind blows all the time. Now I live in Willow, where there isn't a breath of wind. Your hood isn't popping back, and things aren't swirling around. Maybe they just need to experience it."
At this point, though, there is no way to train the dogs to deal with the wind. Trying to force them to go on would make things worse instead of better, she said.
"The dogs come first, and they just don't belong out here right now, for whatever reason," she told KNOM radio. "They're creatures of habit, and they no longer trust what's happening."
The dogs and Jonrowe were flown off the trail on Saturday after she got word back to race officials they weren't going on.
Still dressed in her bright purple and turquoise race parka and pants, she stopped here with the team on the way back to Willow.
"I plan to fly back with this group and regroup," she said. "We've got a lot of work to do."
Jonrowe has had some experience with balking dog teams. A decade ago, her Iditarod team quit four miles from the Nome finish line and she had to wait five hours for them to decide they'd walk on in. But she's never scratched before.
On Saturday afternoon, she was trying to put that in the best light possible. Noting that her yearling team had scratched in McGrath after driver Steve Crouch frostbit his feet, she said, "maybe this will make (the young dogs) feel better."
Anchorage Daily News
March 16, 1999