PUNTILLA LAKE -- Neon green northern lights danced across a clear midnight sky, overpowering the glow of a pale half-moon as mushers pulled into this Iditarod Trail checkpoint high in the Alaska Range on Monday night.
Big Lake's Kim Cummins turned off her headlamp to savor this special Alaska moment as she waited for her husband Randy's dog team to show on the snow-covered lake ice.
With temperatures dipping near minus 10 and the wildness of the place near overwhelming, Kim looked up, praying Randy was safe. An Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race rookie, he was out there somewhere in the dark on a nasty, twisting, pockmarked 30-mile stretch of trail climbing up from Finger Lake.
Throughout the day, mushers had checked in here with broken sleds and tales of ganglines that had snapped when sleds hit trees and dogs kept going. On "The Steps," leading down to the Happy River gorge, miles of bad trail took their toll.
The bashing grew worse Tuesday as back-of-the-pack mushers battled trail churned up by the teams that had gone before.
But late Monday, as the aurora brightened the crisp sky, Kim Cummins walked over to the heated checkpoint tent.
"What do you know about musher No. 49?'' she asked a race volunteer.
The official Iditarod Web site, available here at the Rainy Pass Lodge through the miracle of satellite technology, had him in Skwentna. But Kim knew he couldn't be there; he'd arrived 3 a.m. Monday.
"He should have been long gone,'' she said.
An hour passed. A team came rolling in. Cummins switched on her headlamp as soon as she heard the musher yell, "Unuk! Line out!"
She knew the name and voice. It was Randy, yelling to his lead dog to keep the gangline taut. She walked up to him as he signed the clipboard to check in, headlamp still burning bright.
"He actually wanted to chat with me," she said later. "He gets that way when he's hyper."
The time was 11:25 p.m., and the dogs were restless. They wrapped themselves around the stack of boxes that held Heet, the bottled alcohol mushers use to fuel their dog-food cookers. Unuk, who is named after an Athabascan word for scat, lifted his leg to mark the stack.
Kim flinched, wanting to help Randy move the dogs, but she held back and walked away.
"Being his wife, I can't help," she said.
The Iditarod Trail Committee has rules banning outside assistance. No pit crews are allowed. The rule is sometimes referred to as the "Monson Rules," in reference to retired musher Dave Monson, husband of four-time Iditarod champ Susan Butcher.
Back in the day, when mushers stayed with whoever would host them at checkpoints, Monson helped make sure there was always someone to greet Butcher. Sometimes, he showed up to make sure she found her accommodations quickly and that the dogs got bedded fast.
Other mushers didn't like it, and so the Iditarod passed a rule -- Rule No. 31 -- that called for corralling the teams in checkpoints and treating all the mushers the same.
Here, Rainy Pass Lodge owners Denise and Steve Perrins personally invite all the mushers to eat breakfast, lunch and supper inside their cozy cookhouse, where friends and family members cook warm, hearty meals. That's legal, but all other "outside assistance" is prohibited.
Kim Cummins knew rule No. 31 could force a penalty on Randy if she helped untangle his team. So she just watched him for a while and then went to bed around 1 a.m. in her own bunk, for which she had paid $150. It was a steep price for the limited engagement.
"I'm in debt up to my ears," said Kim. "It cost more than we planned."
COSTS OF THE RACE
The Cumminses live a meager lifestyle in an off-the-grid cabin just north of Point MacKenzie. Kim said she simply can't afford to follow her husband along the trail.
"It would cost about $10,000,'' she said.
That's no exaggeration. The round-trip airfare to Puntilla alone is $650.
"Traveling the Iditarod isn't cheap," she said. "Between the (41) dogs being at home, the dropped dogs and the finances, it's really hard."
Tonya Mackey, wife of Kasilof musher and two-time Yukon Quest champion Lance Mackey, doesn't travel the Iditarod, but she can relate to Cummins' concerns.
"I go nuts during the Iditarod," she said.
She prefers the 1,000-mile Quest from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, which allows her to drive the family's Ford truck to many of the checkpoints along the trail.
"To see him at each checkpoint and know that he's OK is so much easier," Tonya said.
Flying along the trail has other drawbacks. Kim Cummins was scheduled to leave Puntilla Lake on Tuesday to return home, but snowy weather in Talkeetna grounded all planes. Flights from Anchorage were canceled too. People have gotten stuck here for days.
Cummins and Willow musher Lori Townsend spent the day cooped up in the cookhouse.
"This is driving me insane," Townsend said. "And my dogs too."
Townsend scratched Monday night, possibly with broken ribs. She'd fallen off her sled multiple times between Finger Lake and Puntilla Lake and at least once smashed her face against a tree. Her left cheekbone was bruised and swollen.
Most of her problems came on the Happy River steps leading to Rainy Pass. There the trail does several near-90-degree turns that link steep, luge-like ramps. Some giant cottonwood trees and some smaller spruce trees seem almost strategically placed to mangle sleds. Townsend said she fell so many times going down the path she stopped counting.
"I couldn't go any longer," she said. "I don't remember the fall that broke my rib, but I just remember falling and saying, 'That's it. I'm done.' "
MUSHERS HELPING MUSHERS
She was hardly the only busted-up dog driver.
Homer's Trent Herbst, a recent transplant from Wisconsin, arrived at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, thanking the mushing gods that he, his team of 16 dogs and his sled were in one piece.
Heading down the happy path to pandemonium, Herbst's team went one way around a tree while his sled went the other.
"You don't know it's coming," he said. "I just wrapped right around it."
The impact snapped the gangline in front of his wheel dogs, leaving 14 of his 16 dogs trotting downhill in a bunch. With the two dogs still connected to his sled, Herbst sprinted downhill, yelling at the rest of his team to stop.
Luckily, Eagle River musher Eric Rogers had bashed his sled into a tree on the turn below. He anchored it there and was blocking the trail, straightening his team and rearranging supplies in the sled basket.
"I heard a guy yelling from above," he said. "Then a balled-up team was moving slowly downhill."
Rogers caught the dogs and tied what was left of their gangline to a willow branch.
"Thank God for Eric," Herbst said. "Otherwise I would have lost my team."
The idea that mushers should help other mushers in trouble is an old and unwritten rule in the Iditarod, the longest sled dog race in the world.
"We have to help each other," Cummins said. "We don't have help from nowhere else."
Not usually, at least. Townsend, who had scratched, was getting some help from Kim Cummins, who was handing out the Advil on Tuesday. The two hung out all day, listening to tourists come in and out and Steve Perrins talk about the lodge's rich history.
It's the oldest hunting lodge in Alaska, Perrins said, serving hunters, mushers, Iron Dog snowmachiners, trappers and Bush pilots since 1937.
Perrins bought the lodge three years ago.
Before Randy Cummins walked to the lodge for a hot cup of coffee, he looked over his team and lit a Kool cigarette. A photographer snapped pictures.
"Take that cigarette out of your mouth for the camera, honey," Kim said.
"Oh, come on," he replied with a sigh. "It's cool with a 'K' out here."
Daily News reporter Kevin Klott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.