Catching motion out my window, what should I see but a yearling cow moose at our front steps, apparently praying on bended knee to be let in to warm herself up . Can’t blame her. Measured against those old proverbial standards using certain anatomical features of well diggers and witches as metaphorical gauges, this cold snap leaves those qualifiers far behind. Any right-minded brass monkey harboring aspirations of fathering little brass monkeys is cozying tighter than bark on a birch next to his double-stoked wood stove. I hear that up around Allakaket, which sits square on the Circle, it’s been in the 70s below. That’s cold enough to put out a lighted match. Boiling coffee pitched briskly into the air will crackle into frozen brown fog.
Our local highway generally parallels, or overtops the historic Iditarod Trail. Various and sundry constabulary patrol the nearest thirty miles. Now I don’t know how you’d prove it without being earmarked a significant percentage of Obama’s stimulus to fund the finding out, but I’d bet dollars to—er, donuts—that, per capita if not mile, our breed up here choffs down more of those confections with which cops are so identified than any other of their brotherhood anywhere. No contest.
Last Sunday, as our family motored toward church, ahead at a pullout right beside the old trail, the red lights of a patrol car flashed. Rubbernecking in passing, what did we observe but that, incredibly, the officer had pulled over what we recognized to be the long familiar, plain-black, undercover bane of the disobedient and unwary who flaunt or forget the law along these local miles of the Iditarod. Now its driver had his eyes closed, frowning. My first thought was that we were witnessing a rare occurrence, the police-world equivalent of a citizen’s arrest.
After several days of hunting and hard packing, we had our winter’s meat supply hauled in from the two kill sites to our lake camp. Early next morning, my younger brother Alan and I, with our four pack dogs, pulled out bound for the highway with the larger of the boned-out young moose on our backs. Alan bent under 110 pounds. I, the big brother, was humping 140. Each of the huskies lugged around 40 in his panniers. Dog Woman—we always liked to have a “dog woman” or “dog man” along to keep the dogs quiet back in camp while we hunted—stayed behind to guard the second moose from bears. We figured to make the five miles to the highway, return to the camp in good time, and get our second load out by dark.
It was shaping up as an unusually warm fall day. Sweat ran in rivulets from every pore. With no rest stops, in but two hours our procession arrived at the ancient International Scout, parked hidden in the timber from the many sets of snooping eyes that would have loved to discover the Perry’s trailhead. Bone dry thirsty, as we spread out the meat bags over a latticework to allow air circulation, we guzzled down the only drinks found at the truck: One quart of grape juice, and one quart of pure, thick prune juice per packer hit our empty stomachs, dehydrated systems, and hot, racing metabolisms.
My inbox is still smoking from the urgent appeal just in. Sender is my friend, that wonderful, internationally-adored darling of the Iditarod Race and perennial top contender, DeeDee Jonroe. She’s urgently soliciting prayer from the multitudes making up the vast Iditarod family for her neighbor George Murphy, just landed on Providence Hospital’s helipad, and fighting for his life in the emergency room. George is a legend here in the North, a great bush pilot who not only flew race dogs, mushers, supplies, and media during his almost thirty years winging the trail in the Iditarod Air Force, but served a stint as Chief Pilot.
Now George, 82 years of age, with a six-inch-long gash to the head running blood like a faucet, with his heart bruised and other possible internal injuries, seven of his ribs smashed in, his leg lacerated, was at risk for even holding on until reaching Anchorage, and would have almost certainly been headed for the morgue instead of raced by chopper to emergency had not a very remarkable someone else been fighting for his life.
At the time back in the mid-1970s when I finished filming my motion picture Sourdough, (see About the Author) some considered me Alaska’s foremost outdoor cinematographer. At that peak, I put down my camera. I’ve never felt inspired to pick it back up—that is, until recently. A couple of years ago a light flashed and an idea began to take shape for a television reality show I would like to create, codirect, coproduce, and be featured in. It’s not at a point where I feel free to divulge format information. Suffice it to say that I’m very excited about prospects for it to start right out of the chute with an instant following of millions.
By now, if you’ve been following the first three installments, I don’t have to waste lines paralleling steering, rudder dynamics, and getting moving for you to pick up that this wrap-up is on the same topic, which is gaining direction and moving out to act on it. Many have been inspired, as I have, by my late friend Col. Norman Vaughan’s signature admonishment to Dream Big and Dare to Fail.
When the idea hit me to make a dramatic career change and begin writing, speaking, and making public appearances supporting the Iditarod, I had confidence God was source of the inspiration. Since then, so many evidences of his help have rained down I’ve grown all the more sure he’s directing me. Revelations. Pieces fitting together. Occurances seemingly from out of nowhere—most would call them “coincidence”—that further my work and keep me pumped about it. Altogether it just stacks up as one big, growing mound of proof and assurance that I’m working in the area of my God-given talent under his favor and aid. Now as I work on my writing, public appearances, and lately, ideas for a television reality series, I just move out and do the next item of work or follow the next line of inspiration it looks like he’s set before me and excited me about. As I do, I rest—rest assured that he’ll show me a further step, if necessary making the needed corrections if, with a pure heart and motive, I’ve taken a wrong heading.
Whether it’s strangling red salmon for a living on Alaska’s Bristol Bay or navigating a course through life, you need to know where you’re boat’s going, and to steer your way there you need the force of moving water shoving against the rudder.
When younger, I’d plunge into unknowns the most hairy-chested angel might well hesitate to stick even the tip of his toe into. With abandon, I’d fly into whatever wild adventure or enterprise came to mind or appeared in my path and seemed appealing. Never a consultation with those who could have mentored me. Never a seeking of or dependence on God for his leading or help. I had a lot of water flowing over my rudder, but it was undisciplined.
As the same time, I often dismissed with a wave of my hand tremendous opportunities, opportunities that if taken up, would have probably given me a life of wonderful economic success. As if they grew on trees, I turned my back on offerings, openings and chances at veritable gold mines that, as I watched them develop for others over the years, proved to be sure-fire. I’d list a half dozen, but I don’t want to make you or myself sick.
The many years with my old business partner Keith Lauwers, sharing the wild adventures and unique experiences attendant to the strangling of salmon on Alaska’s Bristol Bay, provided an unparalleled classroom. Other notable schooling during decades spent in other realms have provided valuable lessons as well. My ever-growing 20-20 look-back at time, energy, and resource-wasting mistakes and blown opportunity have made me eager—even desperate—to do better.
The clock ticked down, nearing the hour. Our gillnetter, the FV New Life rose and fell with the swells, drifting with the tide, the 3208 turbo Cat engine idling. In the pilot house I discussed alternatives with Keith, my partner in our commercial salmon fishing business. Out on the famed Bristol Bay grounds, site of the world’s greatest red salmon fishery, with time approaching a big opener, we tried to guess where the fish might be concentrated.
Full partners, Keith and I alternated year by year skippering the boat and running the operation. Though we discussed such major decisions as where to set on this opener, this was my year and the final call would be mine. I prayed for guidance as fervently as I knew how. “God, where, in all this vast expanse of water, should I point our bow to position us in front of the densest schools?” There were fish moving out there somewhere in net-sinking masses, but where?
Iditarod Central recently requested all official finishers to contribute a thumbnail of their experience. Submissions will be published as part of the Forty Years of Iditarod History celebration. I sent this:
By definition, “adventure” involves a bold undertaking featuring hazard, risk, and an unknown outcome. Beyond question the trailblazing race qualified far beyond any other as the most daring Iditarod adventure of all time. Thirty-four intrepid men rose to the irresistible challenge. Their headlong plunge into the unknown would test an incredible new concept in sled dog racing, a contest so novel and extravagant in all its facets that few believed something so audacious could be brought off.
The Iditarod had one unique chance and one only. It was, truly, in that very year of 1973, make or break, do or die. Would it ascend to heights of glorious success and international renown? Or would it go down to the grave in ignominious death, never to be heard from again? Not only out on the trail, but back at race headquarters (where major logistical failures were being dealt with on the fly and the failure to secure the promised prize money had organizers utterly panicked, as the racers were already in the Alaska Range) the race and its hoped-for tomorrows truly hung in the balance.
There are few of God’s giftings for our earthly pleasures and uses that exceed a really good dog. My daughter Laura’s dog Fuzzner, is such. As I write she’s challenging the two, thousand-pound, long-legged, brown intruders browsing willow on our property uninvited. To her single-focused reasoning, they’re grave threats to the family she guards with a jealously that over the years has never relaxed or relented. Even the young neighbor kids who live across from us at the end of the rural road, whom she no doubt recognizes perfectly after years of their coming over to play with our children, she would most forcibly keep from our yard if she were not restrained by her running line. When our kids leave our yard to play at their place, Fuzzner strains at the end of her tether, watching her charges at a distance, barking her worried bark with no let-up until they return to her safe and secure.
I just commented in an email to old friend Raine Hall who is heading up the project of creating the coffee-table book on the Iditarod’s first ten years—-
Someone recently observed to me, “Rod, there are mushers out there who ran the race fifteen times and nobody remembers their name. You just ran three times yourself—though I know your team was in the first dozen races—and yet it’s amazing you’re so remembered.”
These two resident moose, a cow and her yearling female calf, have really become addicted to the snow-melt salt on our porch. Now they come back several times daily for a prolonged licking session. They just ambled past my window only four feet from where I’m seated at the computer. From where they’ve bedded in the yard they walk under the deck next to the house to pass by my truck. I park so close to the house I don’t know how they squeeze by the hose spool. Continue reading