My friends at Northern Lights media did a neat little 'ghost stories' from the trail story today and it got me thinking that that might be a good topic for the blog, this weekend being Halloween and all!
The Iditarod Trail has an incredible history to it. Now much of it is empty, lonely and unused except during March, but thousands of feet and paws have padded over it for centuries. Fortunes and lives have been made and lost along its route. If there is a place in my travels that deserves to be inhabited by presences from another world, this would be it.
I've read and been told many odd tales of mysterious encounters along the Iditarod Trail, some are obviously hallucinations from dehydrated, sleep deprived, twisted musher minds, but others......?
A friend of mine tells me of waving at folks on the porch of a roadhouse between Nikolai and McGrath on a number of his Iditarods; problem is that there is no such roadhouse there. Jon Van Zyle tells a great story of hearing voices near Kaltag on one of his Iditarods.
My first encounter actually didn't happen on the 'Iditarod Trail'. It happened on the original Serum route between Tanana and Ruby on the detoured 2003 Iditarod. The dogs and I were traveling along the wide Yukon River at about 1 or 2 am. We hadn't been traveling with anyone and hadn't even seen another musher or headlamp in many, many hours. Not that that really matters, mushers often travel without headlamps on and 'sneak up' on other mushers. So when I was bumped on the back of my legs, I just assumed that the lead dogs of another team had come up behind me. I turned around to offer the faster team 'trail' to find nothing but darkness. I shone my headlamp around and found nothing but empty river. Hmmm.... I turned back around and gave my attention back to my dog team, only to have it taken away moments later by a second bump on my calves. I again scanned the river to no avail. It's not like there is anywhere for someone to 'hide' on a 1/2 mile wide, flat frozen river. We were completely alone. I felt no threat from my 'visitor' - and really, it seems to me that any presence that might be hanging out on that stretch of trail would be nothing short of delighted to see dog teams out racing along it again.
My second strange event happened in 2004 on the trail between Koyuk and Elim. At the time it happened I never thought it had 'ghostly connotations', but when I told my tale a couple years later to a friend, I got a different perspective on it.
I had left Koyuk late at night, followed shortly after by my friend Doug Grilliot. For awhile I could see Doug's headlight behind me. Eventually he caught up with me, we snacked dogs together and then took off again. Throughout the night his faster team gradually pulled away, then I only sporadically saw his headlight when he glanced over his shoulder and finally I stopped seeing it altogether. I was traveling along a section of the trail that runs along the coast of Norton Sound, so to the left of me was sea ice and a half mile or so out, the open Arctic Ocean.
The dogs had been moving along quite steadily when all of a sudden Hector's head snapped to the left and he started barking a low, deep warning bark. The other dogs all stopped moving and joined in on his barking.
In all the years and miles I have traveled wilderness trails with dogs, I have never seen my team do this. My dogs are the bravest, toughest creatures I know, so the thought of what might be putting them all on edge made my blood run cold.
Honestly, my first thought was 'polar bear'. Although a few mushers claim they have seen polar bears along the coast during Iditarod, Iditarod officials claim they were all hallucinating.
I was very worried about stepping off the runners of the sled, as I expected the dogs would bolt when they finally decided to move, so stayed where I was and encouraged them to get moving. All the while wishing my gun wasn't buried up in the front of my sled bag well out of reach (there is normally nothing along the coast that would make having it handy necessary). After what seemed like ages, but was probably only a few minutes, the dogs slowly began to move, although they kept throwing the odd menacing bark over their shoulder - and I was throwing numerous nervous glances over mine.
Two years later I was having breakfast with my friend Iditarod finisher and checker Palmer Sagoonick and his wife Fena in Shaktoolik. Palmer and Fena are locals and I wondered what they thought could have made my dogs act like they did.
I'll never forget what Palmer said to me. He dismissed the thought of a bear in the area. "Likely spirits", he said and Fena nodded in agreement. "Spirits?", I replied. "They sometimes think it is fun to try to lure you out onto the thin ice", he said very matter of factly.