UNALAKLEET -- With the temperature near 45 degrees below and two dogs already dead from the cold, 55-year-old Lou Packer huddled all alone beside a meager fire in one of the most remote areas left in North America and wondered if he would be next.
Already he had spent one night zipped in the bag on his dog sled wrapped in a sleeping bag listening to the winds howl across an exposed ridge on one of the rolling hills in the Innoko River country. On waking that morning, he knew he had to find better shelter for himself and his dogs or all would perish.
So Packer went to the front of his team to try to lead them through the storm to safety. It was a staggeringly difficult task.
The wind was blowing so hard, Packer could barely stand up. And blowing snow had buried the Iditarod Trail, leaving nothing to follow across the vast emptiness except an occasional piece of wood stuck in the ground with a piece of surveyor's tape tied to the top.
Sometimes, Packer said Tuesday, he would stand for minutes peering into the brutal wind before he would spot one of these markers and start walking the dogs toward it.
"Then,'' he said, "if you went off the trail, you'd fall in up to your chest.
"It was a very, very bad situation.''
Back home, his wife, Ellen, monitored a satellite tracking device on Lou's sled and wondered about his faltering pace. When the GPS showed Lou moving, which wasn't often, it reported his speed to be less than one-half mph. This was not the way it was supposed to go in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
NO ORDINARY CITY BOY
Ellen tried not to worry. Her husband might have been a city boy from Los Angeles who once strolled the campuses of UCLA and Berkeley, but his 22 years in Alaska had taught him a thing or two about survival in the wild. He was an Iditarod rookie, but no clueless cheechako. He knew what to do when the going got tough.
"I knew he had to be in front of the team,'' Ellen said.
It is never a good sign when a musher takes the position of lead dog, but Ellen could not begin to know the reality of the nightmare into which Lou and his team had driven after leaving the ghost town of Iditarod.
At Iditarod, everything had been fine. He'd been having a good, if slow, run on the 1,000-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome. Checkpoint veterinarians told him his dogs looked great, and though he was near the back of the pack of more than 60 teams still headed north, there were heroic reasons.
Packer had lost hours in the Alaska Range helping another musher, a woman from North Dakota, who'd suffered a disastrous sled crash. She'd been forced to drop out of the race while Packer had moved on north over the range into the vast Interior and on to the race's halfway mark at Iditarod.
"When we left the checkpoint (there), things were going fine,'' Packer said. "A few hours later, we climbed up this series of hills.''
Atop the highest of them, above tree line by then, "we got hit by this wind that hit us like a hammer, and the temperature dropped pretty cold, and then I lost the trail,'' Packer said.
He got off his sled and sank up to his chest in snow. He floundered trying to find the trail, finally found it, then got the team back on. Now the problem was that between the wind and the sun in his eyes he couldn't see a thing.
"So, I decided, 'OK, we're going to stop here.' It's not the best place to take a break and feed the dogs,'' he said, but it was better to stop and make sure everyone was well cared for than push on blindly.
"And then the wind started to build and build,'' Packer said. It blew over the dog-food cooker he was using to melt snow for water. He had to restart it and begin again. The wind almost blew the cooker over again, but this time Packer managed to save enough precious melted snow to fix his 15 dogs a hearty gruel.
By then, it was getting dark and Packer knew he'd never be able to find the trail markers. So he decided to camp, calculating "in the dawn, we'll reassess and then we'll go forward,'' he said, "and then the wind got really bad.''
Packer put coats on his dogs, got them in the lee of the sled and some bushes as best he could, then he emptied out his sled bag, crawled in, got into his sleeping bag and zipped everything shut. He was in pure survival mode.
"All night the sled was just like rocking,'' he said.
SUNSHINE AND NO TRAIL
But in the morning, at least he could see. The trail was gone, lost beneath the new-blown snow, and the wind was still blowing, but with the sunshine coming from the east Packer could now see trail markers heading off to the west. He went to the front of the team and started walking them toward the village of Shageluk, marker by marker.
It did not go well. The team would go a few yards. Some dogs would get tangled. Packer would go back to untangle them. They'd go a few more yards. The same thing would happen.
"The dogs were pretty well freaked out at this point,'' Packer said, and some didn't look good. Packer decided to turn them around and try to retreat to the woods he had passed through the day before. He thought it would be easier.
"I had already broken trail behind me,'' he said, "but that trail was all gone. The wind was (so strong it) was picking up pieces of ice and throwing them.''
Packer assessed distances, recalculated and decided he and the dogs had a better chance of making the woods ahead than the woods behind, so he turned the team around again. That's when he noticed one of his dogs -- Grasshopper -- really struggling. He unhooked the dog from the gangline and put it in the sled and started forward again.
"The sled just kept falling over and he looked really bad, and then he died,'' Packer said. "I sat there and held him. Horrible.''
DIZZY BEGINS TO FALTER
There was, however, nothing to do but keep going or everyone was going to die. Packer pressed on. Then Dizzy started to falter.
"I felt his shoulder for hydration, and ice crystals in the skin is what I felt. I think those two guys probably froze to death in the high winds,'' Packer said. "I didn't think it possible.
"Then Dizzy, he died. It was horrible.''
Both of the dogs had been wearing coats to protect them, and one of the dogs was a thick-coated husky of old, not one of the thin-coated animals that have become common as mushers contend with warm winters. Necropsies conducted by veterinary pathologists have found no obvious causes for the deaths, but hypothermia has not been ruled out.
With Grasshopper and Dizzy dead and packed aboard the sled, Packer feared for losing the whole team and his own life as well. The father of three children age 10 and under, he knew he and the dogs had to get out of the wind.
"I held it all together,'' he said. "I had to, you start losing your cool, you're going to die. We got in the lee of this little hill where the wind was probably blowing 15 or so,'' he said. "It wasn't the 30 or 40 up there on top.''
Thankful for a sharp ax, something Iditarod rules require all mushers to carry in the sled, Packer cut down some trees, used some of the precious fuel that remained for his dog-food cooker to start a big fire, and began melting water to feed the dogs. They had to eat to survive, and if the dogs weren't cared for, his predicament would only grow.
"I was in big trouble at that point,'' Packer said. "I was worried I was going to freeze to death. I really was, but I was doing OK.''
The dogs had been fed twice, he said. He had his sleeping bag, his sled and some heat packs to put inside the sleeping bag. The would be OK, he thought, even at a bone-numbing 50 degrees below. But he decided it wouldn't be a bad idea to start trying to signal for help anyway. So he began trying to block the transmission from his GPS transmitter.
By then, Ellen was starting to get seriously concerned, and demanding the Iditarod check on her husband. Iditarod officials were also starting to have their own worries not only for Packer but for two other rookies behind him at the very end of the Iditarod rope -- Kim Darst from New Jersey and Blake Matray from Two Rivers.
Volunteers from the village of Shageluk were asked to head back down the trail on snowmachines to look for them, and the all-volunteer Iditarod Air Force put a couple planes aloft. One of its pilots spotted Packer late Monday evening. Packer was surprised to see the aircraft circle and then land atop a dome nearby.
The two struggled toward each other until the pilot could help Packer maneuver his team back to the airplane.
TWO RESCUE FLIGHTS
"He took most of the team (out),'' Packer said. The musher waited with the rest, thinking he might still have to spend another night out. But just before dark, the plane was back to rescue Packer and the rest of the dogs. The snowmachines came through about the same time. Packer gave them his sleeping bag to take to Darst.
"She was in tough shape, too,'' Packer said.
The snowmachiners from Shageluk, fortunately, reached her and Matray in time to grab a hypothermic dog and get it back to the plane before the pilot took off, Packer said. That dog is expected to be fine.
So is Packer. His hands are beaten up, though not really frostbitten, and he thinks he might have frostnipped a cornea. By Tuesday, though, he was back in the warmth of civilization, even if it was the limited civilization of this village, trying to sort out what happened and grieving. There was pain in his voice when he talked about Dizzy and Grasshopper, and how he felt like he'd let the rest of the team down.
"Numb, just numb'' was how he described his feelings. "I feel like I should be out on the trail. I kind of feel like I failed my dogs. (This was) not how I expected my Iditarod to end.''
The same could be said for Darst and Matray. With the help of the volunteers from Shageluk, they reached the rugged village on the Innoko River on Tuesday night and quit the race -- disappointed to be out, but happy to be alive.
By KEVIN KLOTT and CRAIG MEDRED
Anchorage Daily News