WHITE MOUNTAIN -- Redemption was waiting for musher Scott White in Nome in the next 24 hours. All he had to do was get his seven remaining dogs to grind out one last 80-mile march to grab it.
For a 9-year-old wheel dog named Earnhardt, as in race car driver Dale, it would be the last run. Retirement awaited her after the end of this Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He wanted her to see the finish line, but she had twice before tried and failed.
One time a mushing friend of White's took her north along the 1,000-mile trail, but she was dropped before the finish line and sent home. And then there was the disaster with White in 2007.
That was the year of the big blow that pulled a curtain of snow across Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range. Some mushers decide to try to beat their way through it. White -- a sometimes musher whose real job is with a general contractor in Woodinville, Wash. -- was one of those who tried to give it a go.
"I went up there,'' he said Friday, "and I was lost up there for five hours.''
He wandered off the trail. His dog team got into deep snow and wallowed. Pretty soon the whole outfit was in an uncontrollable downward spiral.
"Dogs were frustrated,'' he said."They were fighting and chewing (their lines). Four got loose.''
Luckily, the loose dogs came when called, but more problems arose when White took off his mitts to re-rig lines and refasten dogs.
"When I took off my mittens,'' he said, "I frostbit my hands.''
Eventually, he did find the trail. But by then it was too late. Both he and his dog team were in such bad shape the only wise thing to do was retreat. Earnhardt was in on the withdrawal. They survived to fight another day.
They've done that this year, battling through deep snow and strong winds early in the race, and enduring vicious cold in the Interior before arriving at the doorstep of victory. Everyone in the White team seemed to be smiling Friday. It was hard to do otherwise. The Alaska that can be so cold and harsh had turned all warm and soft.
As White and friend Randy Adkins from Montana waited to complete their mandatory, eight-hour layovers at the penultimate checkpoint before Nome, their concerns were more about heat than cold.
The trail ahead over the Topkok Hills was softening in the midday sun. On the southwest-facing slopes of the river, snow was melting. Earnhardt was spread out full length on a bed of straw to try to stay cool. Most of the other dogs were doing likewise. Dressed only in a pile pullover and wind pants, White worried about sweating too much on the run out to the Topkoks.
What a change a week makes.
"Half our problem this year was that we were freezing to death,'' White said, careful to add that he didn't mean that literally. No dogs actually froze to death, he said. But it certainly seemed like everyone might.
Temperatures in the Interior a week ago plunged to a face-scarring 45 to 50 below. Everyone struggled to stay warm. Some of White's dogs got sick. More suffered shoulder or ankle injuries on hard, rolling trail. Eventually most of his dogs got dropped and shipped home to the warmth.
White and the rest kept going. By the time they got here, the seven-dog team was a remnant of the 16-dog powerhouse with which White started. But Earnhardt was hanging in there. She got up stiff, as old dogs will, after a big meal and a six-hour rest. She loosened up quickly when White took her for a walk along the ice-covered river, and as soon as she returned to the team she started eating again.
White had originally had doubts about taking the old dog along on this trip, but brought her because of that appetite. To survive the Iditarod from beginning to end, dogs need to eat about 10,000 calories of prime beef, lamb, chicken or other meats every day. A big appetite helps.
White was glad he brought Earnhardt. He wasn't quite sure about whether to be glad or not about being on the verge of completing his first Iditarod. At the finish line, he said, he expected to feel "a great sense of accomplishment and a little disappointment.''
He never expected to finish Iditarod in the top10, but neither did he expect to be part of the bottom 10.
"I do feel that I had a much better team than me,'' he said.
It is the lament of almost everyone who ends the race at the back of the Iditarod parade. White could at least laugh at it. A man who looks a little like actor Robert Downey Jr. -- a haggard and dirty Downey Jr. after 13 days on the trail -- he joked that he'd learned one thing from the race:
"Not to do it again.''
And yet, he was already thinking about doing it again. To finish would be great, but to come back and finish respectably -- say in the top half of the Iditarod field -- would be better.
"I'm competitive,'' White confessed, though his finish will not look anything like that.
It happens. The excitement of the Iditarod causes many a team to charge out of Willow too fast. Then they start falling back, and can't stop falling back.
"I guess I played all my cards too soon,'' White said. "I knew all the mistakes I was making, and I made them anyway.''
A student of philosophy and design at the State University of New York before moving West, the 45-year-old White knows he should know better. But he got caught up. Maybe next time...
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.