Iditarod under the Northern Lights

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The end of the grueling 1,100-mile Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska came this Tuesday when Lance Mackey drove his team of huskies across the finish line on Front Street in the town of Nome, up on the Bering Sea. Nine days and five hours of battling the elements were over. Mackey kissed his lead dog Larry and broke down in tears, emoting the reverence he's had for this race his entire life. Mackey had watched his father win the fabled Iditarod in 1978. And then his brother won it in 1983. Lance grew up dreaming of mushing into Nome ahead of the pack, his beard stiff with icicles, his body aching with the fatigue of running alongside the sled in knee-deep snow, of hustling through the rest periods to care for the freeze cuts on his team's paws, of sleeping himself maybe a mere hour a day. Tuesday was a long time in the making for Lance Mackey.

When I worked as an announcer for ABC's Wide World of Sports, in the '80's, I very much enjoyed reporting the spectrum of sports week to week. But I admit I balked when I got my first Iditarod assignment. First of all, I don't function well in extreme cold. I'm happiest at latitudes closest to the equator. I also knew dogs died on the Iditarod Trail. One died this year, for example. I wasn't comfortable with that aspect of the race. In any case, I was assigned. And I went.

I can't say I ever warmed up to the bitter cold of the Alaskan bush in February and March. We weren't cozied up in some five-star hotel in Anchorage. We bunked on the wooden floors of kind people out in tiny villages along the route. There were no stores. A plane would fly over once a week and drop supplies. I had expedition gear, supposed to protect you down to 60o below zero. I found that to be false advertising. Our award-winning nature cameraman, Peter Henning, wanted to camp out on the Yukon River one night, to experiment with an infra-red camera. My mind must have slowed with the cold for a moment. I volunteered to go with him. We pitched a tent on the edge of the river where the temperature dipped to 45o below. But around 10pm the Northern Lights put on a show, one of Nature's literally shining achievements, and 45o below didn't seem that bad. Peter focused his infra-red toward the trail, about half a mile away and it was thrilling to see his experiment work. It was 2am, pitch black. We heard through a radio communiqué that a team was coming our way but we certainly couldn't see them. Yet the infra-red lens picked up 13 streams of heat, puffing like metronomes in perfect synchronicity, which was the exhale of the 13 dogs of that team as they trotted faithfully toward us. The dogs and the musher whooshed by us in silent effort and Peter and I hugged to have borne witness to one of sport's most extreme moments.

We waited for our small plane to pick us up just after dawn, even though dawn doesn't bring much light in wintertime Alaska. The plane came swooping down the Yukon. One wing dipped too low and the plane crashed about 400 yards down river. We pushed hard through hip-deep snow to get to them, fearing they were both dead. The plane was shaking--not from wind but because the two pilots were laughing so hard. They had cuts and bruises but for hardy Alaskans, a plane crash into a snow bank is pure amusement.

I wound up covering the Iditarod five times. And, after that first year under the Northern Lights, I actually lobbied for the assignment. I came to respect the grit of the mushers. And I came to see how devoted they are to their dogs. The Alaskan husky is hard-wired to run past the point of exhaustion for his master. It's not cruel. It's their nature. But more than anything, I got to experience the Alaska wilderness in the full glory of winter. It's a most special place, at a most special time.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad