CARIBOU HILLS -- All hell is breaking loose outside, but Tim Osmar, a commercial fisherman and musher who grew up here in the wildest reaches of the Kenai Peninsula, will not budge until paramedics arrive.
Less than a mile from his log cabin is the wildfire that has torched thousands of rugged acres of dry grass and beetle-killed spruce trees on this corner of the Kenai for the last two days. But Osmar just lies inside on his sofa in agonizing pain, smelling smoke and knowing the fire is creeping closer to his two-story cabin.
Every now and then, Osmar glances at his right ankle; it's dangling at a 45 degree angle, throbbing like it's ready to fall off, the bones shattered.
It's 3:30 in the morning on June 21, the longest day of the year and the longest day of Osmar's life. Though he skirted a state trooper roadblock three hours ago to save his family's cabins, that move ultimately would leave him injured and prevent him from doing the two things that make him Tim Osmar: fishing for salmon and racing sled dogs.
The sun is rising in the northeast, but the smoke is so thick -- and it's light nearly 24 hours a day -- it's hard to notice. As Osmar rests inside, he listens to his handler and his daughter's boyfriend dousing the cabin outside with water pumped from a nearby spring. The water is keeping the cabin that is protecting Osmar from going up in flames.
About 30 minutes ago, Osmar helped them fight the fire that was buffered by his dog lot. Thinking of his dad's cabin next door, he hopped on the left running board of his four-wheeler and drove with buckets filled with water. Racing against time, Osmar navigated quickly in near-zero visibility.
But Osmar could tell he was veering off the road and headed for a gully. He tried steering the machine but turned too fast. Losing control, he sailed into an abyss of smoke and landed awkwardly on his ankle in the middle of the dirt road.
He tried sprinting toward his runaway machine and fell flat on his face.
"What the (explicit)?" he said. "How come I can't run?"
The fire roared so loudly, nobody could hear his cry for help, so he crawled 60 feet to his idling four-wheeler. He sat on the vehicle for a half hour, inhaling smoke and wondering if this was a bad dream.
His body shivered -- he was going into shock -- so he puttered home.
In his cabin now and lying on the sofa, Osmar calls his wife, Tawny, who's at fish camp more than 50 miles away in Kasilof, and tells her the news. She hangs up and dials his dad, Dean Osmar, to tell him his cabin is OK but his son's foot is severely broken.
With Dean on his way from Kasilof, his immobilized son waits patiently for hours inside the two-story cabin built from the spruce trees that once stood on the property, replaying the last several hours in his mind.
"What are you doing?" Tawney said as he left fish camp hours ago after evacuating dozens of their sled dogs from the cabin.
"I have to go back," he replied. "The house was still standing. I have to save it."
"Take someone with you," Tawny pleaded.
With his prized Iditarod bibs and trophies hanging on the wall and his ankle shattered, all Osmar could think about was the likely end of his 22-year ironman streak of racing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Osmar has been an Iditarod staple since his 1985 rookie year. He's placed in the top-10 ten times and has never scratched. No other musher has accomplished that feat except five-time champion Rick Swenson, who finished the race 28 times between 1976 and 2005 when he scratched. Swenson sat out the 1997 race in a rules dispute with officials.
Some say next month's Last Great Race won't be the same without Osmar.
"It's been a tough year for the Osmars," said Chas St. George, Iditarod's public relations director. "We're going to miss him out there. But Tim knows how to get back up and into the game.
"I know he'll be back in the (2009) Iditarod."
'CRAWL TO NOME'
Since Tim Osmar was an infant, growing up here in the Caribou Hills at the end of Oil Well Road, his life has revolved around fishing, sled dogs and caring for his family.
He makes his living doing what his dad has done for decades. Each summer Tim, 40, sells salmon his crew nets in Cook Inlet, then spends most of his earnings on his dogs to prepare for the 1,100-mile Iditarod his dad won in 1984.
"That's all I've ever done," said Osmar in his cabin on a chilly evening in January. "I've worked every day of my life, but never had a job."
The time is 5 p.m. Normally, Osmar would be outside at this hour, tending to chores in the dog lot. But he is still recovering from that ugly four-wheeler accident.
Two of his smaller cabins were destroyed, along with a slew of other cabins and homes in the area during the Caribou Hills fire that cost roughly $6 million to fight.
Though his main cabin and his dad's cabin avoided fire damage, the painful and slow-to-heal injury slowed him during commercial fishing season.
But with the help of his four children, the fishing business rolled on. He was able to bark orders from the stern of his setnet skiff while standing on an ankle that had shattered into 30 pieces.
"Our fishing season wasn't good anyway," Osmar said.
His Iditarod season turned out even worse.
Replacing Osmar for this Iditarod is 1989 winner Joe Runyan, who was hired to take over for Osmar as young musher Rachael Scdoris' visual guide. The Bend, Ore., woman is legally blind and has been training with Runyan here in the Caribou Hills, with Osmar blazing their trails on a snowmachine.
A still-hobbling Osmar can't picture himself guiding her from Anchorage to Nome.
"I could probably crawl to Nome," he admitted. "But if I'm helping someone else, that's just too much."
Jerry Scdoris, Rachael's father, said he was pleasantly surprised when Runyan offered to replace Osmar, whose life took another tragic turn late in the year. In December, Osmar lost his stepmother, Sarah Armstrong, 46, in an automobile accident on the Sterling Highway.
"It's been a hard year for the Osmar family," said Jerry Scdoris. "That's the understatement of the year."
'CASUALTY OF WAR'
Osmar is lying on his sofa now, waiting for help while he rides out the pain. He hadn't hurt this badly since he broke his nose ice skating as a child.
Paramedics arrive at 5 a.m., five hours after his group dodged state troopers and rode four-wheelers down Oil Well Road with flames roaring on each side, and two-and-a-half grueling hours after he spilled off his machine. At the hospital in Soldotna, doctors drill a rod through his heel to his shin to keep his ankle together.
"It looked like my foot was falling off," Osmar said. "It was the most painful thing you would ever want."
In hindsight, he would be training today to run his 23rd straight Iditarod on March 1 had he worn motorcycle boots instead of Croc sandals on that fateful morning on summer solstice.
"That was probably my biggest mistake, not taking the time to change shoes," he said. "Crocs aren't good for forest fighting. But we had to do some fast moving.
"There was a forest fire, man -- gotta save the dogs first, and once everything is under control, sneak back and save the house. Casualty of war; I broke my ankle."
But at least he's got a cabin in which to recuperate.
Find Kevin Klott online at adn.com/contact/kklott or call 257-4335.