Notes on the Ballad


It was late in the year 1985, or perhaps very early in ‘86. My big brother Laird and I were putting some training miles on our Junior Iditarod teams; this was back in the days when we still lived out on the Big Bend of the Yentna River in Alaska.

I’m sure that the two of us made a shabby sight, though we had no frame of reference at the time: Really crappy Salvation Army hand-me-downs for cold weather gear, sleds built from salvaged plastic sheeting and old pieces of lumber scrounged from garbage piles, and dogs that looked (and ran!) like rejects from the Pound.

It had been a very warm winter, and had rained a lot, and just recently started to cool off. As a result of this warming/cooling trend, there was a lot of overflow on the surface of the river, some of it quite deep, and in the places where it had begun to freeze up it was terribly ‘rutted’ from snowmobile traffic.

Laird and I were on our way to the mouth of the Big Su, where the two rivers joined on their way down to Cook Inlet, just a routine 40 mile out and back training run for the two of us. Forty miles were a much bigger deal back in those days. Keep in mind that not only were our dogs physically slow and mediocre ‘pullers’ to begin with, they were also saddled down with sleds sitting on quarter-inch steel runners and dragging automobile tires hooked up to swing behind the sleds.

We were running through alternating beds of steaming wet overflow that was deep enough to reach up the dogs’ chest in some places, and vast stretches of ice where the overflow was a bit shallower and had frozen into savagely rumpled and serrated sheets, half a mile wide and sometimes miles long. These were very difficult, very technical areas; the dogs had to be managed with the utmost care and the thought of flipping the sled and going down on the harder surfaces was dreadful to imagine. We had reached a point on the trail about fifteen miles south of where we had originated, and it was time for a snack break for the dogs, so Laird and I were pulled over in the exact center of a wide frozen spot and tossing bloody hunks of moose to our dogs. While we were standing around talking and watching our dogs, a pair of snowmobiles came into view about a mile distant, traveling side by side and heading our way.

They were little droning specks at first, but they quickly grew in size as we watched, moving much too fast for the conditions. After a short time, they resolved into a pair of Yamaha Phazers (some of the first ‘fancy’ machines to hit the market) pulling these bizarre, unwieldy loads behind them; stacks of 2”x20’ building material, lashed together and mounted on top of tandem runner beds. Altogether a great deal more mass than the machines themselves, or the drivers perched on top. With some sense of fuzzy precognition, I knew that something was about to go dreadfully wrong.

It was as if the two operators failed to see us or our teams. They just came zooming right at us at about forty miles per hour, engines roaring and ice sizzling under their tracks, and it was only at the very last moment before running into our teams that they seemed to become aware of our presence. Both operators reacted violently, standing up on their footboards and wildly jerking their steering columns to avoid us and careening out and across the rutted, jumbled ice.

One of them made it, cutting a wide semi-circle around us and rejoining the main trail. One of them was not so fortunate.

I still remember what happened to this him as if I were watching in on a tv screen with the sound turned way down. His machine began to buck wildly in the ice field, and even as he struggled to crouch back down on the seat and regain control, the steering column was ripped from his hands and the machine turned sideways and launched off of a pressure ridge the size of a road embankment. He flew for a long terrible moment, and then he was slapped down face first to the ground like a child’s ragdoll and ridden by his overturned machine and load in an awful spray of shattered glass, sundered plastic and splintered wood. He slid for a long, long ways, and at some point his helmet shattered like an eggshell and went shooting off down the river.

Laird and I ran to him, stumbling over and through the slick ice and jagged pressure ridges, and it was at this point when sound again began to filter back into the world. The steady ticking of a cooling engine; a horrible groaning; ravens circling in the distance and sending out word to their fellows; something dripping. The man was still alive, but in a semi conscious state. His face was a ruined caricature, stripped of much of its defining qualities and rendered into a senseless slab of meat. He had worn thick plastic framed glasses, and these had been reduced into splinters and embedded into the frame of his skull. I remember the smells of burnt plastic, hard liquor, raw gasoline, and pooling blood, all mingling together to pall the air in the unmistakable scent of destruction.

We did what we could for him, which wasn’t very much, and his friend reconfigured his load and strapped his buddy down and hauled him away to find help. We never learned what became of these strangers. We just went back to our teams and got them moving again.

Notes for Ballad of the Northland

Thanks for tuning in–more to follow….

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2 Responses to “Notes on the Ballad”

  1. Wow…words fail me. There are so many what ifs that it is mind boggling…I know that snow machines have their place but I have never liked them, at all. Another great story well told.

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