The Bravest Thing


I’ve lived an adventurous life witness to numerous acts of heroic bravery–the following passage is an essay detailing one the bravest things I’ve witnessed in my personal life .

1–

I love my dogs. I love the places they take me. I love their spirit and heart and quiet heroism. Yes, that’s right: heroism.
My dogs, indeed, all sled dogs, continually fill me with a sense of amazement and fierce joy. They are the quiet, unsung warriors of our sport, and stand alone as the greatest endurance athletes on the face of the planet. No man, woman, or other animal in existence can match a trained sled dog step for step on even that dog’s worst day. Quite simply, never in history has there been a match for the endurance of a sled dog. And they don’t do it for the money, or the accolades. They don’t do it for the cheering crowds or the adulation of fans, and certainly not for the acquisition of trophies or bragging rights. They do it because they love us, their mushers, and above all else, they love to run. Simple as that.

I was in the ’04 Iditarod, still 300 miles shy of Nome, preparing to decamp and start a monumental run from my present location of Old Woman, through Unalakleet, and on to the village of Shaktoolik, a distance of ninety miles, and I was fully aware of some serious problems brewing in my team. We were running in a good position that year, but we had sustained quite a few minor nagging injuries over the last eight hundred and fifty miles, and I was down to ten dogs and out of ‘official’ lead dogs. I was not worried about making it to the finish line exactly, but I was worried about making it to the finish competitively. In that situation, your choices are frighteningly simple: you give your dogs a bunch of rest and ‘limp’ along, or you get hard and put the hammer down. Obviously, I had made the choice to get hard, but it remained to be seen if I had the dog power to back up my attitude.

I was traveling with my good friend, fellow Iditarod veteran Aaron Burmeister, and we took off together as the sun went down and the wind started to whip in off of the not so distant coast. I had Copenhagen and Spud in lead, and they were both starting to get very tired from the last week of running, and while they were capable of moving down the trail, neither wanted to set anything remotely resembling a good pace, nor would they continue to lead me at any pace for much longer. As we left the straw, the team felt very sluggish and weak, and as it turned out, neither Copey nor Spud wanted anything to do with the responsibility of a lead position. My heart sank. Aaron passed me and disappeared into the dark. I just stopped and planted the snow-hook and went through the team patting heads and doing my best to let them know that I was going to figure out a solution and get us back on the trail. All ten of them were standing there looking pretty sad and demoralized, and I was hardly encouraged. And let me tell you friends, this situation I’m describing, late in the game, tired dogs, parked on the side of the trail with no more leaders, this is it, this is where the rubber meets the road. This is where you find out what you and a handful of your best animals have down deep inside where science can’t go.

The sun is not just setting on the land; it’s setting on your dreams.

Aaron’s headlamp fading up the trail; five new headlamp sparks winking into existence about three miles back, coming up over Unalakleet pass; all ten of my dogs standing with their heads down, ears planed out, lines drooping; desperation rising like bile in the back of my throat, threatening to choke me.
And then a dog starts to whine. A three-year old female named Voodoo, positioned in the wheel. I look at her and see that her eyes are bright and she is wagging her tail. This was her first Iditarod, and she had never before shown any desire to be a leader during training, but now I took her out of wheel and swapped her with Copey. She immediately began to bounce on her front end and bark excitedly. It was like some breaker had just been thrown, allowing a surge of electricity to pump down the gangline. Ears stood up, tugs tightened, heads whipped around. The snow-hook let go and the sled jumped forward. Adrenaline blasting through my bloodstream, I jumped on as the sled flew past.

With Voodoo in lead with Spud, we sped down the trail and quickly overtook Aaron as well as five other top mushers, including Baker and Buser. With this untested three-year old showing me and the rest of the team the true meaning of leadership, we rocked the trail the rest of the way into Nome and claimed our kennels very first top fifteen finish in Alaska’s Last Great Race.
Years later, my skin still crawls with goose-flesh when I recount this tale. Every dog in that team was important, but without Voodoo stepping up to the plate when me and the rest of the gang were floundering, our race would have stalled right there. She never led one step again during the course of her career, but I will never forget her example of unassuming heroism.

Voodoo’s story is never far from my mind or my heart. I share it with you now as an example of the type of heroism and perseverance that have shaped my heart, soul and imagination.

Thanks for tuning in–more to follow….

Images courtesy of H. Barron 


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10 Responses to “The Bravest Thing”

  1. A very articulate well written blog! Drew me inside of the story. There is no “I” in team and your dogs realized that. I have to admit, I must admit I love the fact, Voodoo, a female, stood up to the plate!!
    Its not the position of finishing (although, yes money is important) its the very essence of comprehending what (“you and the committed dogs”) did as a team for an Unimaginal to those of us who are armchair mushers.
    Cannot wait for wait for more blogs….
    Marlys Sauer
    (Member of Mushaholics)

    • Thank you so much, Marlys!!! Your observations are spot on, and your thoughts on the female Voodoo stepping up to the plate when the chips were down is a subject that is near and near to my heart: dog mushing is a sport where males & females alike–canine & human–compete against one another without advantage or disadvantage. I love that.
      Thanks again for commenting 🙂
      –Jason

  2. Marlene Phillips-Daniels Reply June 25, 2011 at 21:15

    Jason, These stories of your experiences with your dogs—growing up, racing successfully or not, are among my favorites. I enjoy all of your writings, but these stories make the most heart memories.
    As I’ve said before, my husband and I watched silently and from a little distance when you had to make the decision to scratch in McGrath in 2008. We could see what it cost you, we could see your dogs were down, not well. I cried for you and your dogs at that place, at that time. It has made it possible to put a real face on your connection with your dogs—-making your experience stories even more real to read.
    Your life experience stories will always be my favorites.

    • 2008 was one of two major scratches for me in my career, and they both were for the same reason–the seriously compromised health of my team…both tragic occasions, but inescapable decisions. Marlene, I’m glad you like the “true” stories from my youth, because Harm & I have just reached a decision that there will be a joint project getting started this fall…a non-fiction accounting of all of our mushing adventures tentatively titled “The Barron Chronicles”.
      –Jason

  3. This is the part about mushing that too many people just don’t get. Sled dogs live to run. It’s such a joy for them so much of the time. I can feel the frustration and fear, though, through your words when they all just gave up, but also feel that turn to total exhilaration again when Voodoo stepped up to the challenge. Sled dogs, and mushers, are my real life heroes. Mushers who can write about their dogsledding experiences as well as you do are at the very top rung of my hero worship ladder!

    • Indeed, my opinion is that 90% of the opposition to racing sled dogs is based on ignorance, both subtle and gross. The other 10% is a combination of idiocy & a bizarre species of ideological fanaticism. Thank you so much for reading & commenting, Laurie! I hope you keep reading 🙂
      –Jason

  4. Jason,
    I so enjoy your writing. You describe the dogs feeling tward running very well. I wish the anti’s could get what mushing is about.
    Thanks for doing what you do for the sport.
    Craig

    • Hi Craig
      Thanks for the comment–I feel that the world is made up of people with individual tastes, and that the best I can do, as a writer, is write the truth as I see it as accurately as I’m able, and then let the chips fall where they may. As far as the sport goes…I love it with all my heart.
      –Jason

  5. Jason,
    No picture, no video, nothing brings the world of dog sledding to life like your writing does. For those of us who have never raced except in our dreams, you make it real. I simply can not wait to share this story with my students next year.
    Thank you once again from the bottom of my heart.
    Margie

    • You give me great honor, Margie. My writing, as well as my mushing, is a passionate act of artistic expression, and I’m glad it brings you such enjoyment. Thank you so much for your generous praise.

      –Jason

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