There was still an hour before the start of the 1966 World Championship Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska but already crowds were beginning to jam the sidewalks along downtown Fourth Avenue. At any time of year Fourth is a lusty, neon-lighted midway—part Times Square, part Bonanza City—but now, during the three days of the championship, it had become a winter carnival.
On one corner a Ferris wheel lifted red-cheeked children high into the frosty sky as bright wooden horses pranced in endless circles to the notes of a nickelodeon. Almond-eyed Eskimos peeked from within billowy ruffs of fur, their handsome, knee-length parkas lush with sable. Everywhere young and old nibbled delightedly on cones of cotton candy, trailing long pink wisps of sugar through the thin, cold air. Against one building an emperor's ransom in animal pelts hung ready for auction. There were mink and sable, parkee squirrel and arctic fox, wolf, otter and wolverine, the last the most prized fur of all because it does not freeze even in the lowest temperatures.
On the avenue itself traffic had been stopped since early morning, an exception having been made for the crane-necked television vans. Yellow police barricades lined the road and carpenters hammered the final nails into wooden grandstands. At F Street a thick rope lay across the breadth of Fourth Avenue, half buried in the snow that had been freshly spread for the race. The rope marked the start and finish of the 25-mile championship trail, a trail that begins and ends each day in the center of Anchorage but, in between, winds far out into the white wilderness that surrounds the city. The trail circles across streams and frozen lakes, through forests of stunted trees and over windy plateaus rutted with the tracks of moose and other game. It climbs into the foothills of the Chugach Mountains before eventually returning through choked stands of birch and evergreens and across snowbanked permafrost to the city and Fourth Avenue. It is regarded as the toughest sled-dog trail anywhere, and each contestant must run it three times—a total of 75 miles—during the championship. There were 22 entries in the race in 1966 and I was one of them.
"Not long to wait now," one of the officials said as he stopped next to me at the line. I looked past him down the seemingly endless string of dog vans parked on either side of the avenue behind the reviewing stand. Handlers and drivers scurried about in a confusion of sleds, dogs, harnesses and racing banners. Over all, the din of almost 300 barking dogs muted other sounds. At the starting line the lead-off team already was being hitched. Its driver, Elia Anelon, a young Aleut from the village of Iliamna, bent over the first dog in harness, quieting its violent efforts to be off and running.
The official looked at his watch. It was 10 minutes to one. The first team would leave at the stroke of one. At two-minute intervals the other 21 teams would depart.
"Too bad the weather isn't better," the official said, looking up at the overcast sky and the scattered snowflakes drifting to earth. "Good luck anyway."
I'll need it, I thought. Until 10 days before I had never even seen a racing sled. I walked back to where my dogs, five of them, were waiting. I patted each, not sure who was comforting whom. They looked at me, solemnly it seemed, making curious whining noises deep in their throats. A roar went up from the crowd as Elia Anelon started. Two minutes later the second sled was away, then the third. I was to be eighth. My dogs flung themselves violently against their traces, howling to be off. Friendly hands held onto them, to my sled and to me as we moved toward the line. Then the team ahead was gone, disappearing down the long, wide avenue. A blur of almost 10,000 faces turned expectantly to await the next starter—me. The announcer said, "One minute." A young man pushed a microphone at my face and asked, "How do you feel?"
"Fine," I heard myself mumble. Fine! I had never been so terrified.
Most mushers, I learned later, are nervous to some degree before the start of a big race, but I am sure that there was not one musher on that first day as nervous as I. To begin with, my fellow contestants were all experienced. Sixteen of the other 21 entries had competed in previous world championships; two were three-time winners and two others had won the championship twice. The remaining five mushers had all raced in lesser but nonetheless demanding contests. Many had won qualification races at home and in neighboring villages for the privilege of representing their communities in Anchorage. All had worked intensively with their teams for months and, in some cases, years prior to the race. They knew the mood, mannerism and idiosyncrasy of every one of their dogs. Finally, I was the only woman.
Considering the long list of discrepancies between myself and the other mushers, the sex factor was not a relatively serious handicap. Far worse was my total inexperience. The dogs in my team had been leased from a kennel, and the only thing I knew about them for sure was that for most of our brief acquaintance I had been on the losing end of a deliberate, diabolical and frequently disastrous contest of wills, which I had no reason to think would not continue into the race.