ROHN -- Everything was going perfectly fine for 58-year-old musher Kathleen Frederick right up until the second it wasn't. One little mistake as she rounded a corner in the Dalzell Gorge and her Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was over.
Luckily, that was all. Things could have gone ugly but for the fact Frederick had the sense to violate the number one rule of dog mushing: Never let go of the sled. Ever.
As they say, the exception makes the rule, and in this case the exception turned out to be a wise move. Frederick let go of the sled just as it started to skid sideways off an ice bridge over Dalzell Creek. The dogs just made it over the bridge. The sled didn't. It went crashing into a five-foot deep slot in the ice and then wedged, upside down, in the water beneath.
"It was ironic," Frederick said. "All my survival gear was in the sled, and I couldn't move it. It took five people to get it out."
The ice bridge in question had been waiting to nab someone all race. Narrow and with big holes on either side, it came up quickly after a sharp left-hand corner. All that kept it from snagging any number of teams was that the snow that fell just before the start of this Iditarod bonded to the glare ice that served as the approach to the bridge. A race's worth of traffic over the trail had, however, broken the bond.
"Actually, it was deceptive," Frederick said, "because it looked like good snow. Normally, you see something like that and you slow down and it's fine."
Frederick tried to slow down. She stepped on the drag brake, a piece of snowmachine track mounted between the runners of her dog sled. One of two brakes on an Iditarod toboggan, the drag brake is designed for stopping in snow. It works great for that.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work at all on ice. What Frederick should have stepped on was the ice brake, which drives a couple of spikes down into the ice to slow the sled. She realized this almost as soon as she stepped on the drag brake, and it started skidding over ice.
Her dog team had already gone fast around the corner and over the ice bridge. The sled behind was being whip-cracked toward the gaping, five-foot-deep hole in the ice. Frederick knew there was only one sensible thing to do:
All she needed after that was a little luck. "It would have been fine if the sled hadn't flipped," she said.
If the sled had landed so that Frederick could get at her sled bag, she would have been able to get out her ax, maybe dig out some rope, maybe figure out a way to get the sled free. Instead, the sled stuck in such a way a petite woman could not budge it. Frederick had to wait for hours until Iditarod Trail sweeps arrived to help her get the sled out.
"When I fell in the hole, I knew it was going to start a bad chain of events," Frederick said. Technically, she could have been disqualified from the race for accepting so-called "outside assistance" to recover her sled. But there really wasn't any other way to extract it, and she didn't want to leave her dog team camped out in the middle of the trail on the gangline for days trying.
A 5-foot, 3-inch, 58-year-old woman, Frederick admits she probably never could have extracted the sled on her own. Race manager Mark Nordman called her on a satellite phone to talk about all of this. After a conversation that left Frederick in tears, she decided to scratch.
"I'm totally bummed out," she said. "I'm telling myself, 'I didn't get hurt. The dogs didn't get hurt.' But I'm totally bummed out."
The crying seemed to help, and a little rationalizing didn't hurt. "Not many women my age do something like this," she said. Not many men, either. And certainly not many who spend most of their lives in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Frederick -- a former librarian, former teacher, and now practicing attorney -- didn't get to Alaska until she was 50, and even then she ended up in Juneau, which might be the capital of the 49th state but is most definitely not the sled dog capital.
Never mind that, though, Frederick was in Alaska at last, and since she was here she figured it was time to start the pursuit of the sled dog dream she'd had since going for a ride behind a team in Maine in 1996. A decade later, with help from nearby Canadian mushers and a handful in Southeast Alaska, Frederick started to work building her team for the Iditarod.
She had the plan going pretty well, too. She got her Iditarod qualifiers out of the way in 2009. She got good training on her digs this year, and started this Iditarod slow and easy with a plan to slowly move up.
"It was going great," she said. "I was cruising by the time I was going into Rohn. I was only going to stay here four or five hours."
She would still have left among the back of the pack, but that schedule would have put her well ahead of the red lantern, the award for finishing last.
Instead, she never left at all. She pulled in late in the night with an ice-encased sled, ice-encased gear that must have been carrying 500 pounds of water, and a dog team unhappy about dragging this new, hefty load of ice out of the Dalzell Gorge.
"What a mess," Frederick said. "Everything's frozen. It's the first time; it's the last time. I can't afford this. I had to take off work. It exceeded my cost estimate. Next year, I only want to do the (Yukon) Quest 300-miler and the Percy de Wolf," a race from Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada to Eagle, Alaska, and back.
"Now, I have to find a job and get back to work. This was a one-shot deal. That's what makes it so hard. I can't believe people do this year after year. It's so expensive."
More expensive than a drug habit, she noted, and possibly almost as addictive for some.
Craig Medred's Iditarod coverage for Alaska Dispatch focuses on the "back of the pack" mushers trying to reach Nome. His coverage will document the real life struggles of ordinary people when they cash in everything to chase their dream of becoming an Iditarod dog musher. The stories are a prelude to the forthcoming book, "Graveyard of Dreams: Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations along Alaska's Iditarod Trail." Click to pre-order a copy.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing