FAIRBANKS - Sepp Herrmann finds himself at a spiritual crossroads.
He hopes a 1,000-mile trek behind a dog team can provide insight.
A November encounter with a grizzly bear decimated the German musher's dog team. It was his confidence in that team that lured him into this year's Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
Despite the attack, Herrmann was at the Quest starting line Saturday. But he is left wondering about his mushing future.
"The whole thing is still sticking in my bones," Herrmann said. "It's just so unrealistic. Some people always look for clues, like why did it happen, what did it happen for."
Herrmann's team was the link to his trap line. The dogs helped him earn his living in a manner that he grew to cherish.
Now Herrmann finds himself slipping toward the modern world. Time may be slowly catching up with the 43-year-old musher.
"I think maybe I should quit with dogs and get a snowmachine," Herrmann said. "I want to do this race, and I want to think about what I'm going to do.
"I got a family now, and it's very expensive to have a yard full of dogs," he said. "To have the snowmachine would make life easier. I got to think about this after this race."
There was a time shortly after the attack when Herrmann considered his Quest dream over just eight months after it began. Herrmann said he got the itch to race last spring as he mushed his dogs through the Brooks Range.
His only news came over the radio. He followed the Iditarod, which he ran in 1991. He had always been bothered by his 51st-place finish that year. He traveled in the race with Linda Plettner and the back of the pack, a group that was dubbed "The Kaltag 10."
Plettner remembers Herrmann's "phenomenal relationship" with his dogs and that he sewed his own sled bag and some clothing before the race. She said that he trained his dogs in the mountains before the Iditarod and it made them vulnerable to the flu.
When they fell sick, he took the race at their pace.
Herrmann's mettle carried him through those difficulties and one of the Iditarod's stormiest years. Plettner said she and Herrmann were instrumental in helping other mushers reach the finish line.
"Anybody else under those conditions would have scratched," she said. "I've watched people with a whole lot less going wrong go home."
Herrmann had abandoned the thought of long-distance racing until a year ago, when he began to wonder about his trapping team's ability. Herrmann entered the Quest in summer and was training in August with a four-wheeler.
"I had a really tough dog team by the end of September," Herrmann said. "They were crossing rivers deeper than I could cross on foot."
Two months later, Herrmann lost his dog team during the grizzly attack outside of Wiseman. He and his team were headed uphill when the bear charged down. The bear pushed the dogs down and bit eight of them to death. When it turned toward Herrmann, one of the dogs bit the bear's backside.
"That dog died for that," Herrmann said.
Among the bear's canine victims were three sisters, Rasta, Luna and Raven, whom he had raised from pups. A fourth sister, Zula, survived the attack.
Still, Herrmann all but abandoned plans to complete his 200-mile qualifying race for the Quest. Then the support started trickling in from Fairbanks and across the United States. He even found a great deal of support from his countrymen in the Black Forest region of Germany.
Hans Peter Wagner, the mayor of Herrmann's hometown in Germany, said people in the community were shocked by news of the attack and began collecting money for the musher. He said customers of the local pub raised $1,000, while others wired money directly to a special account.
A specialist built a sled, and arrangements were made to transport it to Alaska.
"Finally, it became so much money that Sepp can now pay for the food for dogs and other expenses for the race," Wagner said. "A group of 10 persons will come to Fairbanks and give Sepp support at the race. We are all very anxious for the Yukon Quest and how Sepp will finish it."
Herrmann is a bit reserved in assessing his team. He drove them to a fifth-place finish in December's Henry Hahn 200. While his dreams of winning the Yukon Quest have faded, Herrmann said he would like to keep pace.
He's already completed one race just to reach the starting line. Those who know him know he'll stick to it, no matter what happens.
"The guy is part dog," Plettner said. "You have to be. If something happened and there was nobody left in the world, he would live to a be a ripe old age."