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Classic: Worst 30 Minutes of My Entire Life

“We were just talking about that,” he said. “You know somebody said a few years ago we were just chasing a fantasy. Mine is to have a sponsor someday, to be able to retire into sled-dog racing. Who knows,” he shrugged, “maybe
someday people will get bored with golf, maybe this will take off one day.”

He told me of friends who had lost their houses and their families to pursue sled-dog racing in Alaska; of a nonstop l,200-mile drive, 20mph for 40 hours, bringing the dogs from a race in Wisconsin; of 200-mile drives to find enough snow for 30-minute training runs; of the meager winnings and the tremendous expenses. He explained it simply. “A lot of people in our sport are obsessed,” he said.

Saturday night we sat in the bar of the inn, and every so often a driver would go outside to check the dogs and when the door opened you could hear the dogs yelping as they dropped to the ground from their boxes.

Ivan came in on one occasion from dropping his dogs (letting them out of their boxes). “It’s really wild out; it’ll be awfully bad tomorrow. And they’ll be sore — and they may decide this isn’t any fun. So the real test may come tomorrow.”

I yawned and stood up. “Well, folks,” I said cheerfully, “I can go to bed knowing as bad as it was today, at least tomorrow will be worse.”

“Don’t lose your nerve,” Ivan said. “They allow a change of drivers only for heart attacks.”

“Well, at least there are alternatives,” I said, then went to bed, where I drifted to sleep to the sound of crying from a baby next door.

Sunday came clear and cold; by 6:30 Ivan had dropped the dogs and was waxing the runners of the sleds. “I want you to cut five minutes off,” he said.
We started slowly, the dogs and I, heading into the wind, and I braced for the worst. But Sobi knew the trail now, and with every stride I realized we would be all right.
We rounded the island and Sobi kept her nose low to the trail. My spirits soared. It didn’t even matter that inexplicably I forgot Sobi’s name. My mind searched madly through a collection of names until I settled on Lobi.

”I’m helping Lobi,” I shouted, “here we go, move it! He wants five minutes — we’ll give him ten off! I’m working Lobi,” surely one of the stranger cries heard on the lake that day. I pumped the sled hard and when I approached the finish I saw Ivan smiling and I didn’t care that at least I had survived.
I wanted to know my time. I had come in at 28 minutes, 11 seconds, nearly seven minutes faster, good for 15th place!

Ivan clapped me on the back. “For a cheechako (greenhorn), you did all right” he said. “I wasn’t sure you could pull it off. If you’d had a whip to crack, you could’ve taken two more minutes off. I’ll make a sled driver out of you yet.
“But you have no sense whatsoever of a big dog learn. I mean 16 dogs, 64 legs, over 1,000 pounds of dogs. Very few drive them successfully. You have to dominate all 16.”

We said goodbye after lunch. Ivan had finished with the day’s second-best time. He was satisfied. The drive home seemed an eternity when darkness came on and weariness replaced my euphoria. The roads were narrow. hugging the woods, and there were few lights or passing traffic.

I remembered reading in a sled-dog book what a young Danish soldier had written upon learning to drive a dog team in Greenland: “Nobody who has been admitted to that mystery is ever the same again.”

I knew the mystery was far from my reach — if anything the dogs had controlled me. But for many days afterwards I was haunted by the demonic yelping of the dogs as they braced to race; of the moment when we would pass another team and the heads of the dogs would snap to the side, and sometimes there would be a low growl and a fleeting nip and then we would be past. And there was a dream of another race, when I would have 16 dogs, their string reaching so far in front I could barely see my leader as we raced furiously, noiselessly, across the snow.

Updated Monday, August 11th, 2008

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3 Responses to Classic: Worst 30 Minutes of My Entire Life

  1. Needel, Sylvia December 30, 2008 at 2:26 pm #

    Awesome story!

  2. Georgianna Rodman December 30, 2008 at 6:53 pm #

    Captivating. Found myself out of breath racing along with Sobi.

  3. Kathy Beliveau April 26, 2009 at 10:08 am #

    Hi Mel,

    One of my children sent this to me, she was the baby you heard crying when you went to bed after the first day of racing! It was wonderful reliving that weekend in Maine. It really was a great story and one I repeat to people who say “Gee, racing must be fun!!!” It was fun, but like you mentioned, it could be 30 minutes of shear terror when things go wrong.

    Always enjoy reading Yankee Magazine! I send it to my far flung family to keep them in touch with how special New England is. Thanks, Kathy

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