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The hard ride
Rookie smiles through mishaps


Daily News outdoors editor

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OPHIR - One-hundred-ten-pound Anna Bondarenko is running the pinball Iditarod: off the tree, into the stump, over the cliff - nothing but miles and miles of agony.

The 35-year-old rookie musher from Chugiak was working on her dogs here Thursday with a purple-striped left hand swollen to twice its normal size. Her little finger didn't appear to work at all, and the finger next to it barely moved.

"It's OK," she said. "Not functioning really but not too bad.

"It's better. The first day was the worst."

Bondarenko smashed the hand on a tree while crashing down into Happy River Gorge a couple of days ago. Veterinarians at Rainy Pass and Rohn thought it was broken and tried to get Bondarenko to see a doctor.

Bondarenko pressed on. Pain is relative.

Coming out of Rohn on the glare ice of the Kuskowkim River, she diminished the throbbing in her fingers by increasing the agony elsewhere in her small body.

"I wrenched my arm and shoulder so the hand wouldn't feel so bad," she joked. "It's just a minor thing now."

As she left the thick spruce forest at the confluence of the frozen Tatina and Kuskokwim rivers on the trail out of Rohn, "it was blowing very hard," she said.

A big gust of wind hit Bondarenko's sled and sent it skittering.

She stood on the brake, but she didn't weigh enough to slow the slide.

The brake chattered across the ice.

Bondarenko could see what was coming: a driftwood stump frozen into the river ice and overflow.

The sled hit it sideways.

"I hold onto the sled, and it slammed me over," Bondarenko said.

Her worst fear was losing the dogs, but the impact on the ice made it impossible to hang on. As Bondarenko bounced on the ice, she let go of the sled and the team took off.

"They didn't go far," Bondarenko said. "But it took me an hour or two to recover."

She collected her dogs, got back on the runners and headed on down the trail that crossed the Farewell Burn to Nikolai.

Bondarenko, the wife of Anchorage doctor Jim Lanier, comes from hardy Russian stock. She was born in Stavropol, a city in the Caucasus Mountains that is also the hometown of Mikhail Gorbachev.

She came to Alaska in 1991 on a cultural exchange, met Lanier, got married and ended up infected with his passion for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

About six years ago, she and Lanier began raising their own huskies, inspired by a litter of white pups. After a dog from DeeDee Jonrowe's kennel produced 10 white offspring, Bondarenko named them all after characters from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." A plan to create an all-white Iditarod team began to take shape.

Lanier ran the team in 1998 and 1999. This year, it was Bondarenko's turn. She hopes to become the first Russian woman to complete the race.

Lanier has made the 1,100-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome four times, but in all those miles he has never had as many misadventures as his wife is having in the first part of this year's race.

Even before the race began, Bondarenko was in trouble.

Bondarenko and Lanier were rescued from Rainy Pass just days before the start of Iditarod 2000. Lanier had been trying to show Bondarenko the tough 320-mile stretch of trail through the Alaska Range from Wasilla to McGrath.

The couple ended up lost on their snowmobile in a snowstorm in the pass.

Then the snowmobile fell into open water on a creek. Lanier got sick.

Bondarenko turned on an emergency locator beacon to summon help, but she panicked when an Air National Guard helicopter showed up.

She and Lanier then tried to walk out to the Rainy Pass Lodge at Puntilla Lake, but they decided they couldn't make it. Bondarenko turned on the emergency beacon again, and this time the couple rode a helicopter back to Anchorage.

On Thursday, outside the lone log cabin here, a beat-up but still smiling Bondarenko joked that she was running out of people to thank for helping her along the trail.

As she massaged Algyval balm into the shoulder of lead dog Garlic with her bad hand - the massage balm made it feel better, she said - she had yet another rescue to recount.

This time black-clad veteran musher Linwood Fiedler from Willow came to the rescue of Bondarenko and her all-white dog team after the group went over a steep embankment.

Bondarenko and her team rolled over and couldn't get back up. She thought she was going to be trapped under a sled heavy with Iditarod gear.

"There was no way I could push it up," Bondarenko said.

She yelled for help, and Fiedler happened to hear as his team slid along the bluff above.

"She was just over the bank," he said. "It wasn't a big-deal curve. She probably wasn't paying attention. It happens to all of us.

"It did take the two of us to pull her sled back up."

Fiedler didn't think the incident significant, but Bondarenko - with her long list of problems this year - was more than thankful.

"I should have an award for the most helped musher on the trail," she said.

q Outdoors editor Craig Medred can be reached at when the race is over.

©2000 Anchorage Daily News
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