We were deep in the Alaska Range….


Image courtesy of lanl.gov

It took me a very long time to write Ballad of the Northland. It first came into my mind to create ‘Ballad’ when I was eighteen years old. I had volunteered my services to the Iditarod as a checker, and the first place they sent me was Finger Lake. This was back in 1990, when Gene Leonard had a cabin out there, and long before there was any lodge or resort.

I and a number of other fellows and fellowettes (including Montana’s Jack Beckstrom and Norman Vaughan’s wife Caroline) were charged with setting up a camp/checkpoint, figuring out where to park all of the incoming teams, and organizing a mountain of mushers drop bags. We had about a day and a half before the first teams were to arrive to get all of this done, and we worked day and night to make it happen. For a kid like me, this was all terribly exciting. Just looking at the surrounding forest was enough to give me chills (even 20 years later), and the mountains! Simply awe-inspiring. And this was before the drivers even showed up, legendary drivers like Joe Runyan, Joe Garnie, Jerrie Austin and Dewie Halverson; Susan Butcher and Rick Swenson, and tons more. Yeah, you could say I was a bit overwhelmed.

The first driver in was Runyan, and watching his team break out of the woods on the far side of the lake and come motoring towards us like a freight train gave me a feeling of awe which I never forgot. By that night, our little rustic checkpoint was filled to overflowing with all of the teams and drivers who I had grown up looking up to as if they were gods. It was glorious pandemonium.

It took several days for the race to pass us by; right after the tenth driver departed for Puntilla Lake deep in the Alaska Range, a great cloud of ash and grit descended upon us, and by daybreak, over an inch of the stuff covered the ground. Mount Redoubt in southern Alaska had blown its top (we later learned), and was belching out a continual plume of smoke, steam, and ash. This left us, and somewhere around 50 dropped dogs, stranded for almost a week. All in all, I spent about ten glorious days there, and it was during this time that the ‘Ballad’ began to germinate in my head.
The sheer magnificent immensity of the wild bushland, and the intrepid explorers who stood the runners of their sleds and went out into the heart of it to do battle with one another until a victor was crowned in the far off gold fields of Nome. Heady stuff for an 18-year-old boy; heady stuff for me now. These things were to serve as my inspiration.

Image courtesy of bentler.us

But I was frustrated, even there at the beginning. The story I wanted to tell was not really about a person, or collection of people, it was much much larger than that. The story I wanted to tell was first and foremost about the Northland, and the sheer scope of the idea, and the place, overwhelmed me.

For the time being, I contented myself with writing a series of epic poems titled Northland 1, Northland 2, and so on. The first of them was written right there in that Finger Lake checkpoint by the light of my failing headlamp, while a storm of black ash rained down upon my head. I wrote those poems because at the time, I didn’t know how to tell someone a story as big as the Northland, didn’t even really know how to make it into a ‘story’ at all. See, I knew even then, that the moment I started naming drivers/characters with real names, that I gave the eventual ‘hero’ a real handle, that a big part of the magic and mystique would be lost. And this stumped me.

I have spent the last twenty years compiling notes and thoughts on this matter, and all I can tell you right now, is that the moment I figured out how to tell the story I dropped everything I was doing, sat down at the computer, and pounded it out.

Twenty years after that experience back at Finger Lake, came The Boy.

Notes on ‘Ballad of the Northland’.

Thanks for tuning in–more to follow….

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