SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
March 27, 1989
When Joe Runyan and his dogs won the Iditarod, males wept with joy
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March 27, 1989

Man's Best Friends

When Joe Runyan and his dogs won the Iditarod, males wept with joy

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By that point, the race had taken shape. Five teams had forged to the front, well ahead of the rest. Someone from the group of Runyan, Butcher, Swenson, Jonrowe and a soft-spoken Swiss named Martin Buser was obviously going to be the winner. But Buser had already suffered a heartbreaking handicap when, on day 4, he lost his lead dog. "She must have run into a broken branch or something," Buser said mournfully. "At any rate, she ran until she died of internal bleeding."

From Anvik the trail turns north, following the frozen Yukon River. Normally at this time of year the wind funnels downstream, sharp as a skinning knife, flailing the mushers and their teams with billions of tiny ice flakes. This year the weather was kind. The sun glared down from a cloudless sky, the wind blew a zephyrlike five miles an hour, and temperatures—which had plunged to—80° F earlier this winter—rarely dropped to 0°, even at night, when the sky shimmered with spectacular displays of northern lights that painted the Yukon's austere landscape a shocking pink. Daytime temperatures rose to 32°. Snow stopped squeaking under the sled runners and turned to slush in some places. Moose basked huge and black in the timber brakes, and even the wolves were quiet in the balmy weather.

On through Grayling and Blackburn the lead mushers slogged, laying up during the day, forging on when the snow hardened at sunset. The lead changed daily—almost hourly—among the front-runners. While Swenson, Butcher, Jonrowe and Buser rested their teams at Blackburn, Runyan zipped past them, waving, and pushed his team on toward the checkpoint at Eagle Island.

There Helmi Conatser awaited the racers. Her husband, Ralph, was away working in Nome, but Helmi had the situation well in hand. "This is the high point of the winter," she explained as she baked pies, cheesecake and cupcakes at a fast clip. A moose stew simmered on the wood stove of the Con-atsers' cabin, perched 72 leg-stretching steps up from the Eagle Island slough. Down the slope, a cabin built of peeled logs provided sleeping quarters for the mushers as they came through.

The first to arrive at Eagle Island, on March 11, was Runyan, his sled hissing in behind his long chuffing train of dogs, the animals blowing steam rings into the dark. After he placed straw on the snow to keep the dogs dry while they slept, Runyan fed and medicated his team, then mounted the snow stairs for a bowl of moose stew. Soon he was sound asleep on a cot at the back of the one-room upper cabin. He slept like a man without a worry in the world.

Not so Swenson, who was part of the rush-hour jam of Butcher, Buser and Jonrowe that blew in an hour and a quarter later. Swenson didn't sleep at all. As for Butcher, she had to drop two of her 14 remaining dogs at Eagle Island because the diarrhea had recurred. At Iditarod she had denied having a problem—an attempt to complicate her opponents' race strategy—but now she had to admit that her team was badly weakened. The evidence was clear on the snowy trails.

Jonrowe and her dogs looked in fine shape. "My dog team has never been as good as they were tonight," she said. "All 15 of them trotting just like machines. They're stronger than they were when they started."

Buser, though, looked morose, as if he felt additional disaster looming. Frostbite had puckered his left cheekbone, and he looked like a man built of wrinkled paper.

While Swenson disdained sleep and held forth with trail yarns in the upper cabin, stuffing himself with blueberry cheesecake a la Conatser, Butcher slept fitfully on the floor of the lower cabin. She had not bothered to remove her red jumpsuit and dozed with a white portable alarm clock balanced on her chest. Whatever she did, she knew that she would be risking disaster. If she over-medicated her dogs, they would be weakened by the antibiotics. If she undermedicated them, they would be weakened by the diarrhea. All she could do was try to find the right dosage.

Runyan was off before dawn, with the rest of the front-runners decamping behind him at about 10-minute intervals. At Kaltag, a windswept fishing village 70 miles farther on, the mushers broke away from the frozen Yukon and headed east and overland for the Bering Sea. They pushed up a low ridge that night, then debouched into a gently sloping, widening valley that led to the town of Unalakleet. In a normal season the wind off the Bering Sea is fierce—100-knot gusts are not unusual—and bush pilots tell tales of Cessnas behaving like VTOL Harriers, hovering their way to a landing at the town's airstrip.

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