Saturday, March 13, 1993

Iditarod VI

It didn't hurt matters, from a publicity standpoint at least, that the women kept kicking butt. In 1985, Libby Riddles went out into a screaming blizzard to win or die trying. The Bering Sea ice was her home turf though, and her team found its way up the coast and rolled into Nome before eveyone last one of those big, tough Alaska guys. Then Susan Butcher cleaned everyone's clock, racking up four wins in five years. Recently, it's hard-working, soft-spoken types like Martin Buser and Jeff King covering the distance in ever shorter times, nine days and change in the last few years. That works out to about 120 miles a day. Hard-core Alaskans follow mushers' standings and gossip about the very personal grudges that develop much in the way that the lower 48 follows NFL playoff stats and felony convictions.

On the trail beyond the gold fields, the character of the land begins to change. After following the Yukon River's broad winding avenue for a couple hundred miles, wading through the periodic hip deep slush found in patches of overflow, the coastal hills give way to exposed coastline. The mushers reach the Bering Sea coast at the continent's western edge in Unalakleet. The name means "Place where the west wind always blows," and even if an icy gale wasn't whistling through the power lines night and day, snow drifts to the top of the church steeple would make me a believer.

From here it's a simple matter of racing nearly three hundred miles north and west along exposed rocky coastline and ocean ice through some of the most godawful blizzards on the planet, blowing in unimpeded direct from Siberia.

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