KALTAG -- Ask most Iditarod racers how they're doing and, most of the time, they'll say everything is fine.
Many competitive mushers hide their game faces behind frosty fur ruffs and icy fleece neck guards, not wanting competitors to see them struggling. Few who watch mushers from afar ever get to see mushers' hands close up.
With brutally cold temperatures haunting Iditarod racers the last six days, hands have become more vital than ever. Racers are working to care for their dogs swiftly while at the same time working to fight off cold and injuries to their own extremities.
Dog mushing may seem like a game of long, slow movements, but in reality it comes down to small details. Mushers need their hands, often bare, to do things like fix their sleds, change runner plastics, unhook brass clips, massage dogs' tired muscles or work ointment deep into the crevices of their dogs' feet.
Those tasks require nimble fingers, often fingers that have to be exposed to extreme cold temperatures.
In Koyukuk Saturday, Bethel musher Pete Kaiser said his hands were fine, but as soon as he removed the green cotton fleece gloves he was wearing, it was hard to miss his reddened, puffy hands that still worked swiftly, despite the cold.
New Zealand musher Curt Perano said about the same thing, showing similar hands in Huslia. They were red, swollen and a little cold, but still workable.
Others wrestle with more severe problems.
DeeDee Jonrowe nursed swollen, blistered fingertips in Huslia, the result of quick frostbite she received traveling the 80 trail miles between there and Galena. Lance Mackey's hands, already fighting poor circulation due to Raynaud's disease, had a blackish hue, the result of mere minutes of exposure on the run between Fairbanks and Nenana.
Even two-time champion Dallas Seavey nursed a swollen right hand in Huslia. It was puffy and turning a deep reddish purple, from the wrist to his fingertips. He said it felt better on his 24-hour break in the checkpoint, but that it had been difficult to close his hand into a fist the previous day. Moving fast on the trail, he wasn't sure what he had done to cause the injury.
Others, like Scott Janssen, dealt with lingering injuries, with scars on the tops of some fingertips. Front runner Jeff King showed off hands with missing fingertips -- lost to frostbite years ago -- the thick nails curling over the tips to make them look more like claws than fingertips.
But he, like everyone else, makes it work with few complaints, even if it looks a little rough along the way.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing