May the sled dog devoured a hearty, steaming serving of canned salmon and kibble stew Wednesday night in Birchwood, her first real meal since getting loose from her team six days earlier in the 41st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
May, a strawberry blonde Iditarod veteran, probably logged 300 to 400 miles in her homeward-bound trip across some of the most rugged country Alaska serves up, said Iditarod veteran Stan Smith, who is giving love, food and temporary shelter to May.
"She traveled several times from Rohn to Nikolai, all the way up the Dalzell Gorge, up the Alaska Range to the other side, through Rainy Pass, across Shell Lake; she was spotted multiple times in Skwentna," Smith said.
"So many reports of seeing her. They were all heading south.
"It's an incredible journey."
Smith, who raced in the 1993 and 1994 Iditarods, is friends with May's owner, Chugiak musher Jim Lanier.
The dog was on loan to Jamaica musher Newton Marshall, and she got loose last Friday between Rohn and Nikolai when Marshall's team became tangled with another team, according to a post on Marshall's Facebook fan page. Lanier finished the Iditarod in 35th place shortly after noon Thursday. Race rules required Marshall to scratch in Nikolai for not having all of his dogs.
May proceeded to run the anti-Iditarod, backtracking for miles and miles, from checkpoint to checkpoint, eating other teams' leftovers along the trail.
"I'm still in utter amazement at how far she got," said Kaitlin Koch of Anchorage, one of three snowmachiners who captured the dog Wednesday evening on a trail that leads to Big Lake.
By Tuesday, maybe earlier, May had been spotted in Skwentna, the second checkpoint in the 1,000-mile race from Willow to Nome. She kept moving south, down the Yentna River, toward Willow, toward trails she had run before.
"She was absolutely running home," Smith said.
Except she missed the turn to Willow, where the Iditarod began on Sunday, March 3. There's a maze of trails in the area, and May wound up on one that leads to Big Lake, where Koch, Matt Clark and Michael Hansmeyer encountered her.
"We had just pulled over on the side of the trail and were talking about where we should go next," said Clark, 22.
"About 100 yards away a dog was trotting down the trail. It was coming at a pretty slow pace and we were waiting to see if someone on a four-wheeler or snowmachine was with her."
But the dog was alone. She was wearing her red harness, she had blood on her paws, and she was skinny, Clark and Koch said.
They approached May on their sleds.
"My boyfriend and my buddy were on their sleds, seeing if she'd follow them," Koch said. "I stopped my sled and got off and went to the ground and she came right up to me. She sat in my lap the entire trip back to Big Lake."
The three drove to Hansmeyer's Horseshoe Lake cabin. They debated where the dog had come from.
"We'd heard about a missing (Iditarod) dog, but we figured we were too far away," Clark said.
"Kaitlin was like, 'That's that sled dog.' And we were like, 'There's no way, that sled dog's dead. A wolf would've got it.'"
Once at Hansmeyer's cabin, the rescuers wrapped May in a blanket, offered her a little food and called Iditarod headquarters. May was sleepy, and Koch said she kept her hand on the dog's heart to make sure it kept beating as she dozed.
About an hour later, Smith arrived to take May to Birchwood.
"I grew up watching the Iditarod, my sister and me, and we loved it," Koch said. "We were just watching the finish the night before and hearing this story about a lost sled dog.
"Then the next day you're actually saving the actual dog; it's so crazy."
Smith said he spent days on his snowmachine searching for May. He stopped other snowmachiners to give them a description of May and a number to call if they spotted her.
Lanier's wife, Iditarod veteran Anna Bondarenko, rode with Smith a couple of times. In a post on Marshall's Facebook page, Bondarenko said the Iditarod paid her way to McGrath, and from there she went to Nikolai and Rohn in search of the dog, which was spotted last weekend hanging around both checkpoints. Bondarenko kept missing the dog, according to Facebook updates.
May is 9 years old and has finished the Iditarod "many times," Smith said he was told by Bondarenko.
Early this week, Smith said, Bondarenko returned home to join the search as it moved closer to Willow. By Wednesday, she had left for Nome so she could greet her husband at the finish line for his 16th career finish.
Also early this week, May reached Skwentna, a place often considered the end of civilization for northbound Iditarod Trail users. Once she got that far south, it's likely encountered at least 50 snowmachines a day as she continued south along the Yentna River, Smith said.
On Wednesday morning, Myra Phillips, the caretaker at Joe and Norma Delia's Skwentna home, saw May. One of her dogs had wandered down to the Skwentna River, and when he came back, a skinny white dog with a red harness followed.
"I tried coaxing her," Phillips said. "I slowly inched my way toward her, got probably within two feet of her, and she just bolted."
Norma Delia worried about the dog's safety. "There's coyotes out there and there's wolves out there," she said.
By Thursday, May had settled down at Smith's.
"Today she's kinda lazy," Smith said.
Though May didn't travel at race pace or help haul a sled and a musher, she covered a lot of ground -- "She did 50 miles yesterday," Smith said -- and she fended for herself.
She did all those miles without booties as her internal compass pointed her ever south, toward home. She subsisted on kibble and scraps left by 65 Iditarod teams that had traveled the same route days earlier, only in the opposite direction. When she slept, she probably curled up in a snowbank or in straw used and left by other teams.
"Everybody who has a dog has a tendency to think these sled dogs are poodles or something, and they're not," Smith said. "These are absolutely incredible athletes, and they have the internal drive of an athlete.
"She knows, 'Well, I came from here, so let's go.' It just shows the determination of those guys."