Out in the Great Alone
I. Snow Crash
In the summer of 1977, a fire swept across the wilderness of interior Alaska, west of Denali, which was then still officially known as Mount McKinley. Tundra burned to rock; 345,000 acres of forest—more than 530 square miles—disappeared in flames. When the smoke cleared, it left behind a weird scar on the map, a vast, charred crater littered with deadfall. In the winter, when temperatures in the interior dive to forty below, the skeletons of burned trees snapped in the cold or were ripped out by powerful winds. Tussocks of tundra grass froze as hard as bowling balls.
Every year in early March, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race sets out from Anchorage, in the south-central part of the state, and runs northwest toward the finish line in Nome, on the coast of the Bering Sea. In its early stages, the trail runs uphill, into the mountains of the Alaska Range, then plunges down, into the interior, where it enters the fire’s scorched country.
For the mushers of the Iditarod, the Farewell Burn, as that country became known, was a nightmare. The race had been founded only four years earlier, as a way to commemorate the importance of sled dogs to Alaska. Large expanses of the state had, for much of its history, been unreachable by other forms of transportation. Now dog teams were forced to navigate through blackened stumps and fallen limbs, along a trail that was often impossible to follow. Many years, the Burn accumulated little precipitation. Sleds intended for snow and ice had to be dragged across hardened mud and gravel. Runners broke; tree shards snagged tug lines; speeds dropped to three or four miles per hour.
In 1984, the Alaska Bureau of Land Management cut a swath for a better trail. But even then, a seasoned musher could need twelve hours or more to cross from Rohn to Nikolai, the checkpoints on either side of the Burn—a passage that would frequently be made in darkness, through heavy wind and extreme, subzero cold. The novelist Gary Paulsen, who ran the Iditarod twice in the 1980s, describes the Burn as a place where mushers literally go mad. “It was beyond all reason,” Paulsen writes in his Iditarod memoir, Winterdance. “I entered a world of mixed reality and dreams, peopled with the most bizarre souls and creatures.” At one point, he thinks he’s on a beach in California; at another, he pulls out a real ax to fend off an attack from an imaginary moose. When he comes to, his dogs have vanished; he’s alone in the landscape. He stumbles across them a hundred yards away. He has built a fire and bedded them down without knowing it.
The Iditarod Trail runs across the Farewell Burn for around thirty-five miles of its total length. The total length of the Iditarod Trail is more than one thousand miles. The Burn is not the most difficult section. In late February 2013, I flew to Alaska with the intention of following the Iditarod all the way from Anchorage to Nome. This was a plan of—I might be quoting my editors on this—dubious sanity, even before you consider the logistical complexity of chasing several dozen sled-dog teams across a subarctic wilderness the size of the Eastern Seaboard. That’s not an exaggeration: There’s disagreement over how long the Iditarod Trail really is, but the best estimates peg it at just about the distance from Carnegie Hall to Epcot. The fastest mushers take around nine days to reach the finish line, and that’s assuming ideal conditions, say fifteen below, with blue skies and hard-packed, ice-slick snow.
I was staring at a week and a half of bone-deep cold, probable-verging-on-inevitable blizzards, baneful travel conditions, and total isolation from the civilized (read: WiFi-having) world. I hated snow, did not play winter sports, kept the thermostat at sixty-five on a good day, and hadn’t logged out of Spotify since 2011. I wasn’t even a dog person.
I called a pilot.
“Do you have experience in winter-survival-type situations?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. “I survive them by staying indoors. It’s a technique that’s worked well for me so far.”
“Have you spent any time in small aircraft?”
“I’ve, uh . . . I’ve watched movies where people spent time in small aircraft.”
“How about winter camping, backpacking, anything along those lines?”
“Day hikes,” I said miserably.
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Well,” he said, “I’ll be straight with you. There are a lot of ways to die in Alaska.”
That was in September. Over the next five months, the phrase “please don’t die” started cropping up with maybe slightly more frequency than you’d like to see in your work e-mails.
Why was I so keen to do this? To make this trip for which I was patently unprepared? It had something to do with Alaska itself, its sheer hugeness and emptiness—731,449 people spread out over 570,640 square miles, a territory larger than Spain, France, and Germany combined holding slightly fewer people than the metro area of Dayton, Ohio. The density stats are a joke. The U.S. average is 87.4 inhabitants per square mile. The forty-fifth-most-dense state, New Mexico, thins that down to 17. Alaska as 1.28. And more than 40 percent of Alaskans live in one city! Factor out metropolitan Anchorage and you’re looking at about three-quarters of one person per square mile, in a land area ten times the size of Wisconsin.
I don’t know how you roll, emotionally, with respect to population-density tables. Personally I find this haunting. I’ve always been fascinated by the cold places at the end of the world. Back when I used to spend a lot of time in libraries, I wasted hours going through polar-exploration narratives, tracking the adventurers who froze to death, the expeditions that vanished. The generation of Scott and Shackleton was probably the last one to live with the old intuitive belief that the world went on beyond the part of it that their civilization had discovered. That there were meaningful blanks on the map, terra incognita. It’s riveting to watch these practical-minded emissaries of high European culture hurl themselves into an unknown that they’re not equipped to handle. Robert Falcon Scott, who died in Antarctica in 1912, tried to take ponies to the South Pole because he didn’t trust sled dogs. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who wrote, with no trace of exaggeration, a memoir called The Worst Journey in the World, nearly died several unimaginably horrifying early-twentieth-century deaths while trying to retrieve an emperor penguin egg, for Science. I know the genealogies of their ships. HMS Terror and Erebus, the vessels in which
James Clark Ross charted the coast of Antarctica in the 1840s—you’ll find a Mount Terror and a Mount Erebus there still, volcanoes on Ross Island—which disappeared, along with Sir John Franklin’s entire expedition, in 1845. Fram, the ship from which Roald Amundsen set out for the South Pole in 1910, which was first designed for Fridtjof Nansen’s mad, brilliant scheme to embed himself in Arctic sea ice.
I’m not saying this is right, but there’s something magical to me, something literally entrancing, about a place that can inhale a clutch of Victorian sailing ships and leave behind a handful of brass buttons and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield. Terrifying, but entrancing. That high white vanishing fog—doesn’t it call to you, too?
No one’s sure what the word “Iditarod” means. The best guess is that it comes from the Ingalik and Holikachuk word hidedhod, meaning “faraway place.” It’s the name of a river; in 1908, a couple of prospectors found gold on one of the tributaries, Otter Creek. A boomtown, named for the river, sprang up. Now it’s a ghost city, an empty bank vault and an abandoned brothel. This year’s race goes right through it. People who’d been there told me about camping out under the northern lights, watching the green shells of the dogs’ eyes come gliding out of the dark.
At some point during all this, I copied down a line from Melville. He’s talking about being lost at sea here; it’s the same thing.
The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity . . .
“Come a week early,” my pilot said, “so you can learn how to fly the airplane.”