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The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has not been particularly kind to Scott White, a musher from the wine country of Woodinville, Washington. White was forced to quit the 2007 Iditarod after seriously frostbiting his fingers in a Rainy Pass blizzard. He refused to give up on his dream, however, and returned to Alaska for Iditarod 2010. Things looked to be going much better for him in his second race, until his team decided it want to make the Safety checkpoint just outside of Nome its new home.

In the Depths of Iditarod Dispair

AlaskaDispatch.com reporter Craig Medred was in Safety with White when the musher found himself in the depths of Iditarod despair. In this excerpt from the new Iditarod book, “Graveyard of Dreams, Dashed Hopes and Shattered Aspirations Along Alaska’s Iditarod Trail,” Medred describes how White doggedly refused to accept defeat at the historic Safety checkpoint and, in the end, became an Iditarod finisher.

Once the cold of winter freezes Safety Lagoon and the snow begins to pile high on the barrier beaches along Norton Sound, the landscape east of Nome turns almost lunar. Safety Roadhouse, 20 miles from the Iditarod finish, looms like a moon station. Rising on pilings above a sea of white, it is an outpost in a lifeless land. Miles ahead along the Iditarod Trail, the immensity of 300-foot-high, mile-long Cape Nome appears a beached whale. To the south, snow-covered ice hides the bay and the landscape stretches toward the even greater nothingness of the frozen Bering Sea. Back down the trail to the east toward the ghost town of Solomon, there is a frozen emptiness that the eye follows into the rolling hills that lead to the equally great emptiness of the Seward Peninsula.

Some years there is visible a hint of the bridge that carries the Nome-Council Road across the entrance to the Sound about a quarter mile east of the roadhouse, but in 2010 there was so much snow the road itself was invisible and the bridge nearly so. The 25-by-50-foot roadhouse stood as lonely as a desert garrison with only the occasional movement outside of a passing dog team, the checkpoint veterinarian, the Iditarod checker or the rare checkpoint visitors.

Once, back in the golden days of Alaska’s mining boom, there had been a community here. Long before daughter-of-Alaska and former governor Sarah Palin became a national celebrity, the Safety Roadhouse played a role in the creation of two national celebrities — dog musher Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog, Balto – who starred in the diphtheria serum run of 1925. Mamie Maloney, whose father owned the roadhouse from 1910 to 1951, told a historian for the Iditarod National Historic Trail that once the roadhouse was surrounded by a lot of “little cabins.’’ The cabins, she added, floated away in flood. The first roadhouse burned down, too, she said. But it was rebuilt prior to 1913, and that old structures still stands.

It has seen a lot of Alaska history. Maloney was there with an Eskimo babysitter in 1931 when an airplane on pontoons circled overhead and then landed on the nearby lagoon. The babysitter, terrified by the noise of the new-fangled contraption in the air, hid under a bed, Maloney said in her 1980 interview with federal historians. At that very moment, the roadhouse phone started ringing. Maloney answered to find someone wanting to know if Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator, was in Safety.

Then came a knock at the door. Maloney answered, and there was Lindbergh. She took him the phone, she recalled, and said, “It’s for you.” And he looked at me like ‘How do you know who I am?’’’ She knew who he was because everyone in Nome knew who he was. The Lindberghs, Charles and wife, Ann, were due there on a pioneering flight to the Orient. Anne Morrow Lindbergh later wrote a book about the adventure, “North to the Orient” while Safety quieted down for a few years. That changed with the birth of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1973.

Safety Roadhouse, Where Iditarod History is Made

The Safety Roadhouse is the last stop for Iditarod mushers as they march toward Nome. It’s the place where mushing history has been made, where dramatic strategies between competitors have unfolded, and where the race can still be lost. In 1978, it was the place where mushers Dick Mackey from Wasilla and Rick Swenson from Eureka came through neck-and-neck dueling their way to the finish in Nome. Mackey eventually won in the Iditarod’s only photo finish. Swenson’s dogsled crossed the line first, but victory went to Mackey – the father of future champs Lance and Rick — because he was the musher behind the first dog to cross the line.

Nine years later, Swenson played a part in another drama that unfolded at Safety, but capitulated to archrival Susan Butcher after his dogs lay down and refused to leave the checkpoint. What had been a cat-and-mouse duel between the one-time neighbors all the way up the coast ended with Swenson walking into the roadhouse, slapping a bill on the counter, and ordering a Coke with a shot of whiskey. It was the worst of times for the old dog lover from Two Rivers, but the best of times would come for Swenson at Safety in 1991.

Not quite serum run bad, but bad

He was that year the fourth musher out of White Mountain behind Butcher, Runyan and Tim Osmar, a former Junior Iditarod champ from Clam Gulch. The weather was horrible. Not quite serum run bad, but bad. Butcher, Runyan and Osmar eventually turned their teams back for the safety of the White Mountain checkpoint. Swenson kept going. He walked much of the way through the Topkok Hills at the front of the team to find the trail. He put his thickest-skinned dogs in coats on the windward side of his team to shelter their teammates in the lee.

He was, he said, later worried about his own survival a few times, but figured that just as long as the team didn’t lose the trail, they’d survive.Swenson emerged from the storm at Safety. He blew on through the checkpoint to grab his fifth Iditarod victory. That is how mushers want to pass through Safety – in and out quickly – on the way to the finish, but it doesn’t always happen that way.

Fairbank’s Judy Currier, a University of New Hampshire-educated veteran of two Iditarods by 2006, had her dogs quit four miles out of the Safety checkpoint that year, and watched her early-race hopes of becoming another Lance Mackey go poof. Her race had looked so good early on, too. Ninth behind four-time Iditarod champ Swingley at the Cripple halfway point, she started falling off the pace thereafter and kept falling. She was all the way back in 41st position by the time her dogs laid down short of Safety.

She managed to get them up, get in front and walk them into the checkpoint, and there they sat for almost 24 hours. Currier watched 11 teams go past. Physically, the dogs were fine. Mentally, they’d had enough. They eventually recovered and went on to Nome, but Currier’s hoped for top 10 finish turned into 53rd. In 2010, it was almost worse for Scott White.

Frostbite on the Trail

The musher, whose first try at the Iditarod in 2007 ended with frostbitten fingers at Rainy Pass, thought he had it made at White Mountain on his second attempt. His dogs looked solid, and after the mandatory eight-hour rest at the penultimate checkpoint they trotted over the Topkok Hills at a steady seven miles per hour. They should have blown right through Safety, as most teams do, and gone on to Nome. Nobody pauses at Safety except to drop a tired dog slowing the team. White, however, dawdled just a little too long signing the check-in sheet and looking around the roadhouse. His dogs lay down and waited.

They had grown accustomed to stopping at checkpoints. They were used to eating and napping in such places, and so they decided to do just that in Safety. White got them up, but they didn’t want to go. He walked them out on the trail to Nome. They followed along quite contentedly behind, but they were unwilling to let him ride. White no longer had a functioning dog team. So he turned around and walked the dogs back to Safety. There he went through the checkpoint ritual. He cooked dog food. He fed the team. He let them rest. Four hours later, they all headed off toward Nome. Everything looked to be fine, but it wasn’t.

“They stopped in the exact same spot we’d turned around before,” White said. So, once more, he walked the team back to Safety. He snacked them. He bedded them down again. He went into the roadhouse, admired all the signed dollar bills tacked to the walls and looked over the bar, which was closed. The Iditarod in 2010 was cracking down on drinking along the trail, along with drug testing mushers for the first time ever. Unable even to get a drink, White sat dejectedly on the sofa next to the pool table in the bar’s little lounge.

Friend Chris Atkins from Sand Coulee, Mont., went past outside riding behind his dog team bound for Nome. So did Dave DeCaro from Denali Park and Ross Adam. White was lower than his dogs when Adam, an Alberta buffalo rancher enjoying a camping trip to Nome behind a fast bunch of young dogs, blew through the checkpoint. It only got worse when Soldotna’s Jane Faulkner, who’d once been a day behind White and was at that point the second-to-last musher in Iditarod, showed up.

“This isn’t the way it was supposed to turn out”

White got up from the sofa to see her in and out and then he went back and plopped down dejected.“This isn’t the way it was supposed to turn out,” he said.And, in the end, it wasn’t the way it turned out. A snow machiner arriving at Safety pointed out to White that it was only 20 miles to Nome. A man can walk that far in good weather easy enough if he really wants to finish the Iditarod. If the dogs were willing to follow, the snow machiner suggested, White should get out in front of them and start hiking to the finish. With just a little luck, the musher was reminded, the dogs would probably get tired of poking along at man pace and go on by, offering the driver a chance to jump the sled.

White thought about the suggestions for a while. Then he put a leash on one of his leaders and started off on a long walk. The dogs followed. The whole bunch was plodding toward the base of Cape Nome when Montanan Celeste Davis — the last musher still in the race — reached the roadhouse and signed through. For a time, it looked like she might catch White and pass the red lantern to him. White, meanwhile, was wondering if he would, indeed, walk all the way to Nome.

He’d hoped the dogs would pick up steam at the top of the cape, but they didn’t. Only the sled did. Coming downhill, it wanted to overrun the dogs. White had to stop and throw out his snowhooks to drag behind to hold the sled back.Another snow machiner, seeing this, stopped to tell White how lucky he was to have the snowhooks designed by a friend. Those particular snowhooks, the snow machiner noted, were designed so that if a sled got loose they would automatically flip over to imbed their points in the ground and stop the team. White was testimony to the idea the design was better in theory than in practice, but that was fine with him. In practice, at least at walking speed, the hooks dragged along with the points aimed at the sky, which was just enough to slow the sled but not enough to stop it.

White didn’t want it stopped.  He wanted it slowed down enough to stay behind the dogs until they decided to go faster than man-walking speed.Eventually, they did. Part way down Cape Nome, White’s dogs passed him and he jumped the sled. By the time the team hit the bottom of the hill and started along the last stretch of beach to the City of the Golden Sands, White, miraculously, had a dog team back. His dogs were out of their funk and suddenly racing for the finish line. They beat Davis there by 45 minutes. White was mighty happy and more than a little relieved. After two tries, a huge effort, and a pile of money, he’d finally earned himself a belt buckle.


Picture of Craig Medred

Craig Medred

After leaving the Anchorage Daily News where he was a journalist for over 20 years, Craig Medred now writes for Alaskadispatch.com. His book, “Graveyard of Dreams” can be found at amazon.com and other book outlets or through the publisher: plaidcabin.com

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