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Iditarod code dictates musher's actions on the trail

As an evil cold settled over the Innoko River country and the winds roared across its wild desolation, Blake Matray knew his Iditarod dream was dying, and he let it go.

In a tent he'd pitched in the lee of his dog sled, Kim Darst, a fellow rookie in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, huddled in a sleeping bag with a dog near death from hypothermia. The woman from New Jersey needed Matray's help to save the 8-year-old husky named Cotton.

A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, a pilot trained in survival, Matray had offered his tent for shelter from the howling winds. He'd explained that if they were going to keep the husky alive, Darst would have to warm the dog in a sleeping bag as best she could with her body heat. He fired up a butane stove he carried for emergencies to provide what additional warmth it might generate inside the tent.

Matray could have been excused if, at this point, he'd headed on down the trail toward Shageluk. The Iditarod is, after all, a race, a competition. But the code of the trail is old and the musher from Two Rivers knew it well: You don't leave man or dog out there alone in life-threatening conditions, and Cotton was in serious trouble.

"At that point," Matray said, "it was like, 'We've got to get this dog some help.' The two of us wanted to do right by her dog."

How two people who never knew each other before the Iditarod came together to save a dog in a place as alien to most of America as the moon is one of those stories usually lost in the twilight that settles over the race once the winner reaches Nome.

A FEW DOGS

Back home now, Matray fully understands his Iditarod dream was sacrificed in the interest of a stranger's dog, but he says he has no regrets. There is just a hint of sadness in his voice when he says he is sticking to a promise made to his wife, Erin, that his first Iditarod would also be his last.

After 15 years of sled dogs, Matray said he was ready to hang up his racing mukluks and mittens. But he wanted to make that one run up the Iditarod Trail he'd long dreamed of, then quit.

"We have family plans," Matray said.

He did not expect his race to end just past halfway, but then fate has not been kind to Matray's Iditarod dreams.

The first time he signed up to run, in 2002, the military called him back into service. Instead of going off on the trail to Nome, he went to Guam to fly refueling missions for combat aircraft operating over Afghanistan.

His service there complete, Matray returned to Alaska. The finish line in Nome this year was supposed to close a chapter in his life that began innocently enough with a few dogs in North Dakota in 1995. Matray fell in love with them and decided he had to have more, and had to go farther north. By 2000, he had found a job flying tankers for the Alaska Air National Guard and settled in the sled-dog hotbed of Two Rivers to pursue his passion in earnest.

He entered a variety of mid-distance races with his sights set all the time on The Last Great Race. The grand adventure finally began March 7 on Fifth Avenue in Anchorage with the sun shining brightly and the city alive with excitement.

For days, the journey went better than Matray had imagined. The temperatures that crept above freezing were a little too warm for the Siberian huskies that composed the bulk of his team, but nice for the musher. And the climb up and through the Alaska Range into the Interior was spectacular.

Matray got to know Darst along the way. Besides a love of dogs, they shared an interest in flight. Darst is a helicopter pilot back on the East Coast. By the time they hit McGrath, about 350 miles up the trail, they were sort of traveling together. It was not planned, but they found their teams moving at about the same pace and on the same schedule. And they discovered traveling with someone is easier than traveling alone.

Thus it was that they rolled into the ghost town of Iditarod together early in the afternoon of March 15. They gave their dogs a long rest, fed them well, and headed off toward Shageluk near 2 a.m. on March 16. Ahead of them, the trail ran west across an old burn -- exposed ridges and swamps -- into some of the emptiest country in North America. They asked Iditarod volunteers what to expect on the run ahead.

"The only trail report we got was that Jen Seavey (a rookie from Sterling) did it the night before in six hours," Matray said. He and Darst figured it shouldn't take them more than eight.

As it turned out, they were wrong.

BOTTOMLESS SNOW

Only a few miles out of the checkpoint, Matray said, "we started running into drifted-over trail. We started breaking trail."

Most of the time, the dogs wallowed belly deep. When the teams got lucky, Matray said, they might find a stretch, maybe a quarter mile, of good trail where the route went through a patch of trees.

Mainly, though, they broke trail hour after hour. Darst's team was in front. She'd wanted that position when they left Iditarod so Matray's faster team wouldn't pull away. They talked about trying to swap off the trail-breaking duty, but passing was difficult.

As it was, any time either musher's lead dogs wandered off the narrow trail they'd get stuck in almost bottomless snow. When the mushers went to guide them back onto the firm surface hidden beneath the drifts, Matray said, "you'd sink up to your waist. It was a 10-to-15 minute ordeal to get them back on the trail." It was sometimes better to get on his belly and swim out to them to avoid sinking so deep.

The weather just kept getting worse, the temperature plummeting and the wind building, swirling snow everywhere.

Six hours out from the checkpoint, the mushers called a halt. The exposed ridge on which they stopped was not a good place for camping but, Matray said, "we needed to give these dogs a break."

In the blowing snow, Matray and Darst couldn't see anything ahead that looked better, and they knew dogs need regular rest and food or they simply run out of energy. "I started stomping out snow caves for my dogs to get out of the wind," Matray said, sprinkling the bottoms with straw he'd hauled from Iditarod.

"I put that down in the snow caves, and the dogs kind of settled in there in pairs," he said.

Matray wanted to cook warm food for his dogs, but that was out of the question. The wind was blowing too hard. "The bowls would have blown away," he said. "So I put some dry kibble down. Everybody ate."

Nearby, Darst was also tending to dog chores. She reported her dogs ate, too, which was a good sign. Fatigued dogs lose their appetites. If the dogs were good, Matray knew everyone would be OK.

"I realized, 'Boy, it's bad out here,' " he added. "I didn't feel my life was going to be in danger, but it was to be a rough night."

The temperature was already near 20 below and falling, and the wind wasn't letting up. Matray was glad he'd taken to carrying a two-man mountaineering tent in his sled. It was extra weight, but now it looked like paradise. He invited Darst to share it. The two crawling inside, got into their sleeping bags, closed their eyes and went to sleep hoping their Iditarod nightmare would be ending when they woke.

It got worse.

"THAT'S NOT WHO I AM"

"We got a few hours sleep in that tent, and then we looked out," Matray said. "The dogs were all drifted in."

The wind was still howling. The mushers fed their teams. Matray had a short-haired pointer mix rescued from a Fairbanks shelter that he was concerned about. He made sure to put a coat on the dog and give it extra straw when he settled it into a snow cave. He was happy to find the pointer curled up and looking cozy. Darst, however, had a problem.

"Kim came running over holding a dog in her arms," Matray said. It was Cotton.

"She was in rough shape," Matray said. "Her eyes were starting to roll back a bit, and she was starting to convulse."

Matray told Darst the only hope Cotton had was to be warmed by her in a sleeping bag in the tent. He fired up the butane camping stove. It only burned for about an hour, but it helped pump some heat into the tent.

"Cotton stopped convulsing," Matray said. "Her eyes came back a little bit toward normal."

Matray and Darst estimated they were halfway down the 65-mile stretch of trail between Iditarod and Shageluk. They discussed trying to move on, but decided Cotton wasn't up to it.

"We stayed put because of that dog," Matray said.

Darst was carrying a SPOT satellite signaling device. It has two buttons for calling for help. One sends a signal to friends asking for assistance; the other notifies search-and-rescue personnel. Darst and Matray knew that if either button was pushed, their Iditarods were over.

Still, Matray said, it didn't take the mushers long to realize that didn't matter. Cotton needed help.

The only decision was which button to push. Though they and their teams were uncomfortable, nobody was in imminent, life-threatening danger.

"We didn't want to put other people at risk" by signaling a rescue was needed, Matray said. So Darst pushed the button that sent a message to her mother at the Millennium Alaskan Hotel in Anchorage. Mom got the message in the middle of the afternoon and went downstairs to tell Iditarod officials.

Unknown to her, or to Matray and Darst, officials were starting to worry about musher Lou Packer from Wasilla, who'd been gone from Iditarod for 24 hours, but still hadn't shown up in Shageluk. His wife, who'd been monitoring a GPS satellite tracking device on his sled, notified race officials her husband spent hours moving at less than walking speed, and then just stopped. She worried he was trapped by weather.

The volunteers who man the Iditarod Air Force were ordered aloft to try to get a look at what was going on along the trail. About 3:30 p.m. on March 16, Matray and Darst heard an airplane.

"We opened the tent and motioned to him," Matray said, "but there was no way to signal to them we had a dog emergency. That was frustrating."

The plane kept going. Matray and Darst got back into the tent with Cotton. They decided that if nothing happened before dark, they would push the button that calls for a rescue.

As it turned out, they didn't need to. At about 7:30 p.m., Matray said, a pair of Iditarod volunteers from Shageluk arrived on snowmachines to ask if the mushers were OK.

They explained Cotton's situation, and learned the snowmachiners had found Packer about three miles ahead on the trail with two dogs dead from hypothermia. A plane was on the way to evacuate him and the rest of his team.

Darst's ailing dog was soon on her way to safety.

The snowmachiners packed out a trail to a clump of trees, helped the mushers move their teams up into the shelter of the forest, chain-sawed some firewood, and went back to Shageluk for the night. Darst and Matray were left to sit around a fire discussing how their Iditarods ended.

"We were done," Matray said. "We talked through some things. There could have been more drastic results. It was potentially going to harm that dog more to try to go on. We weren't going to risk losing the dog with hypothermia, and if even if we had gone on, we would have run into Lou.

"I couldn't have mushed past him. That's not who I am."

They went to sleep again in the tent that night confident they'd done the right thing, Matray said. Outside, the winds were finally dying down.

When the mushers got up in the morning the weather was almost nice. Four Iditarod Air Force planes appeared out of the skies to the west.

"They ended up flying us out to Unalakleet," Matray said. "When we got flown in there, Cotton was standing there. She was still on an IV, but she was doing fine.

"If that's the last thing I do in my mushing career," Matry said, "help save a dog and it lives, I'll hang my hat on that any day."

Find reporter Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred.

By CRAIG MEDRED

cmedred@adn.com

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