Iditarod mushers must have the fortitude to withstand a handful of earthly obstacles: competing racers, the health of their dog team, Mother Nature, and the perseverance of their own minds and bodies during the 1,150-mile, cross-country adventure from Anchorage to Nome.
But as the mushers drive their sled dogs over mountains, through valleys and along wind-swept sea coasts, other forces have been known to haunt them along the way.
Are mushers hearing the wind or a woman humming? Weary with hunger, thirst and fatigue, are they hallucinating when they see beady-eyed men with dog teams from a bygone era? Are they losing their mind when they feel a shadowy form tapping their shoulders?
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which happens in March, takes mushers on a course through Alaska’s raw wilderness. Unencumbered by the bustle, lights and clang of city life, this experience can augment the body’s senses. And armed with this heightened perception, racers and their dogs have been known to become divining rods for things not of this world.
Years ago, musher DeeDee Jonrowe was surprised to see she had company when she pulled into the abandoned mining town of Iditarod, one of the race’s checkpoints.
“When I came there in the early years, I was certain I saw other teams,” Jonrowe says. “But they were old teams, wrapped in blankets” and wolf skins.
The 90-mile run between another ghost town, Ophir, and Iditarod -- the once-frenetic gateway to the gold fields -- is so isolated that the Iditarod Sled Dog Trail Committee calls it one of “the emptiest legs on the entire race ... lonely country and endless trail.” Race organizers describe Iditarod itself as a place where “the wilderness has reclaimed almost everything” and “wolves howl at night amid the old collapsed buildings, reminding you that this is their territory now.”
In its heyday, Iditarod lured as many as 10,000 visitors a year. But that was a century ago. Jonrowe was passing through decades after the gold-rush boom had gone bust, leaving Iditarod a ghost town.
Jonrowe questions whether her haunting vision was merely a trick of the mind. But she has a hard time dismissing the smoky smell from the bygone miners’ fires.
“All of those people are there, and you can see and hear and smell the wood smoke,” she recalls. The ghost town clattered with the noise of fire pokes and slamming doors as miners milled around, their arms heavy with gold weights and scales.
“They weren't happy to see you. They would just give you looks like they were hording their stuff,” Jonrowe recalls. “You wanted to get away from them.”
The mind plays tricks
An Iditarod legend who has finished 27 races, Jonrowe has confronted the full matrix of experiences the race can unleash. She’s persevered through personal turmoil, crashes, bad weather and ailing dogs. And over time, she’s developed a way to test the reality or trickery of the sometimes unexplainable and strange things she encounters along the trail.
One year she had a vision of a farm’s grain silos along the Yukon River. She knew her mind was playing tricks because there are no grain silos along the river, let alone roads. When common sense alone doesn't offer an answer, Jonrowe compares what she thought she experienced one year to her perceptions of the same place on the trail during other years of competition. Often she’ll know right away her own sensibilities must have been out of whack.
But not all visions and sounds can be explained away. As in the town of Iditarod, Jonrowe has experienced some strange things at Old Woman, a trailside cabin beneath the shadow of a mountain.
Chased by ghosts all the way to Nome
Old Woman -- the name of both the mountain and the cabin -- is the threshold where the race transitions from a protective inland run to one that cuts through the harsh, whistling winds along the Bering Sea coastline, the last leg before the finish line in Nome.
Old Woman’s also a place long known among Iditarod racers to harbor wandering spirits.
The haunting presence is so well known that race organizers warn mushers to “be sure you leave something (such as food) for the Old Woman when you leave. You don’t want her ghost-chasing you to Nome and throwing bad luck your way.”
There’s something about the mountain and the old cabin -- which, legend has it, belonged to a woman who once lived there and may never have left -- that infiltrates a musher’s desires.
It’s happened to Jonrowe at least a half-dozen times.
“I’ll go by there and tell myself, ‘Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look. Can’t stop here, can’t stop here, can’t stop here,” she says.
And yet, there are times when Jonrowe can’t help herself.
Old Woman “kind of hums,” she says. “First you think the humming is the wind coming through the boards. But it’s a tune, soothing but also kind of haunting, with minor notes rather than melodious notes.”
Old Woman ‘a time-suck’
Like a siren calling out to sea-weary sailors, Old Woman’s power is in her ability to hold mushers suspended in time.
“I remember being lectured in Unalakleet ‘Why did you stay (at Old Woman) so long?’ One time I spent nearly 24 hours there,” Jonrowe says. “She is a time-suck. You just want to rest for a bit, but you stay longer. She definitely can wreck the strategy of a race.”
Who is Old Woman? Is she friendly? Or is Old Woman a trickster threatening to delay mushers in the middle of the race?
One story claims Old Woman is a form-changing person who can transform into a bear. Long ago she died in an avalanche on the nearby mountain now named after her, perhaps the result of being cursed for “doing a man’s work” (the mountain was used by men as a hunting lookout in the old days), according to Kevin Keeler, administrator of the Iditarod National Historic Trail for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Some Old Woman accounts warn that anyone who climbs the mountain will similarly meet their fate buried under the weight of sliding snow. And that may have happened to at least one unlucky man, who, some believe, now protects passing travelers.
At the turn of the century, a maintenance man working on a telegraph line in the area was also killed in an avalanche on Old Woman mountain. Years later, one story goes, a spirit woke up a sleeping traveler who, had they not awakened, would likely have died from hypothermia, Keeler says.
Unalakleet’s Doug Katchatag -- a dog musher, trail-breaker and periodic race checker -- has had his own run-ins with the spirits and witnessed first-hand the toll they take on racers.
According to Katchatag’s account of the Old Woman legend, a woman and her husband were trappers who lived there long ago. One day they were on the mountain, spread out checking their traps. The mountain suddenly unleashed an avalanche. She was buried and never found. The man, who refused to leave the area, eventually died there.
Their spirits, Katchatag believes, are still wandering around Old Woman.
‘You know there are ghosts’
One year two mushers running the Norman Vaughan Serum Run, another of Alaska’s celebrated dog sled races, arrived at Unalakleet shaking and looking awful from what they’d experienced on the trail in Old Woman. After some coaxing, Katchatag got them to talk. Coming down a gradual descent, they told Katchatag, they’d seen a dark-faced, old lady in a bright kuspuk walking two feet off the ground. Someone told the mushers to avoid looking at her and walk with their heads down and not look back -- which they had done with fear-fueled speed.
A few years later Katchatag had a personal encounter when he was in the area for a smaller race. Three miles above Old Woman, as night set in and enclosed in trees, his dog team suddenly slowed down. When he flipped on his headlamp to investigate, he noticed the dogs’ hair was standing on end. The team refused to move. He tried one by one to get the dogs going, and eventually the team reluctantly started to creep along.
Soon a figure appeared and jumped at the musher and his dog team. “Something grabbed my shoulders,” Katchatag recalls. He shouted, “Get out of here! I’m just running a race! I’m not bothering you!” The thing – whatever it was – disappeared in a flash.
At the Old Woman cabin, he’s had similar experiences. One time a nail dislodged from a window and ended up stuck in the wood behind where he and another man were sitting. As before, he found himself telling whatever was in the room to leave.
Katchatag says he heard of another strange encounter when a local family was visiting Old Woman. When a boy in the group was exploring the cabin’s attic, he saw a beautiful woman. Entranced by the woman, the child had to be pulled off the steps to the attic. The incident was so haunting that the rest of the family refused to check out the second level of the cabin.
“If a little boy like that could see a ghost, then you know there are ghosts,” Katchatag says.
Entertaining the spirits
Are these ghosts dangerous? Depends on which seasoned sled-dog driver you ask.
“A ghost can’t hurt you at all. They just want to see what’s going on in this world,” Katchatag says.
Jonrowe isn’t as resolute.
“The world gives us this vision of this bad thing -- of ghosts. The spirit world can be both good and bad,” she says.
A woman of deep faith whose extra-sensory experiences have included seeing and hearing her grandmother sing angelically in the clouds above, Jonrowe has her own technique for coping with the more sinister side of the spirit world.
“I choose to entertain the good spirits,” she says.
It’s possible a new spirit travels among the old at Old Woman.
After four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher died of leukemia in 2006, some of her ashes were scattered at Old Woman during the following year’s race. Dave Monson, Butcher’s widower, told an Associated Press reporter at the time that Old Woman was one of Butcher’s favorite places on the trail.
"She always loved it," Monson said. "People always get a spiritual feeling going through there, a little shiver like someone is watching you."
Now, the spirit of Butcher has joined those watching over the mushers as they pass through Old Woman on their way to Nome.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.