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The Ice Rookie


Irene Marie Cruz

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure…than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

CINDY ABBOT'S SLED DOGS surged at the sight of the harnesses, howling and spinning, drawn by the sound of metal hooks bashing onto the wooden sled. They knew that their moment was coming. They were bred for this: to be powerhouses of strong muscle and sinew and endurance. To scramble and bolt. To run.

Cindy watched each of the creatures as her handler, Cain Carter, harnessed them. She watched the dogs’ enthusiasm, their paradoxical desire to sprint free, willingly bound by rope and metal. Cain raised the front legs of each dog. He knew it would be dangerous to hook one up on all fours. After all, he had been doing this for twelve years, nearly half his life.  People tended to underestimate the strength of these dogs. Those who did so often found themselves dragging along ice and snow or nurturing broken fingers and damaged joints.

Cain pushed the dogs’ heads and legs through the harnesses. He latched the hooks onto the gangline, the rope connected to the sled. The dogs squirmed and fidgeted, ready to take off down the trail.

There were only patches and pockets of snow on the ground that day. It would be tough for Cindy to maneuver a sled on such a roughly inconsistent surface. Being a fifty-four-year-old rookie from sunny California made it difficult enough. This was only Cindy’s second time on a sled, but she had to start somewhere. She needed to learn how to understand the true sensation of gripping the handlebar, how to move the body in and out of turns, how to deal with the feeling of being pulled by sixteen brawny animals. Cain cursed the lack of snow.

He tried a different approach. Cain rolled out his ATV. He would have the dogs “pull” him on his four-wheeler, while he would pull Cindy.  His hands hooked the team’s gangline onto his front bumper. Then he took Cindy’s whip sled and latched it onto his back fender. She would be dragging along behind him.

Whip sleds were generally used for training, tied behind another sled. All mushers knew that riding one meant that turning corners would be faster, harder, like “cracking a whip.”
Cindy stepped onto the sled’s bottom, the runner, gripped the handlebar and braced for the momentum of the start. Cain jumped onto the four-wheeler and put on his helmet, pulling the chin strap tight. He grabbed his goggles and secured them over his face. He turned the key and held the brake handle down. Then he snapped on the kill switch and hit the engine’s start button.           

“You ready?” he shouted over his shoulder.
“Ready as ever, Master Cain!” she yelled back.
“Let’s go!” he told the dogs.

The team catapulted off at a brisk pace. Cindy felt the tug of the whip sled and gripped the bar.
They passed by frost melting off spruce and aspen trees and came to a winding trail, nothing too difficult, nothing too fast. Cain shouted “Gee!” to make the dogs turn right. He yelled out “Haw!” to make them turn left.  The four-wheeler continued to purr. The whip sled made inconsistent shhhhhhhhhhhh-crunch-sh-crunch-shhhhhh-crunch-shhhhhhhhhhhhhhh sounds as it trudged through icy snow and course gravel. The team came up to loop in the path. The dogs gracefully negotiated the curve in unison, pulling Cain’s ATV behind them synchronously. Cindy, however, had difficulty leaning her body into turns.

Her sled missed the curve and slammed straight into another frosted tree. But the team didn’t stop. The dogs had no idea that she had failed the turn, that her sled had tipped sideways.  Her hands gripped the brushbow as her body dragged on the bumpy earth full of sharp twigs and jutting stones. Sure, she was new to this, but if there was one thing she’d learned, it was to never, ever, let go. As Dick Mackey, Lance’s father, once told her “If you lose that dog team you better come back with part of the sled in your hand, ‘cause I won’t accept anything short of that.” When mushers fell off their sleds, often their dogs would not stop. They would endlessly lumber and huff until they got killed or tangled up. Cindy later earned the title “The Drag Queen.” She sure as hell would never let go.

The line broke. Cain looked back and immediately killed the gas on the four-wheeler.

“Whoa!” he yelled out to the dogs to stop.  Aw, man. Okay, no big deal.
Cindy got up and brushed her hands off.
“You okay, Cindy?” Cain asked.
“I’m good.”

Cain grabbed his extra rope and latched her up behind him again. He jumped back on the four-wheeler and they pushed on. The dogs were still eager to dash. You could hear it in the way they frantically panted - breaths of dedicated fervor and a mere twinge of fatigue. They were heading back to the kennel to rest up for the day. Only two more miles. Cindy fell once more and recovered. Cindy cautiously stood on the runner. Her mind ran through all the ways to learn, to adjust to the mistakes she’d made. But learning was a process and no one said processes were easy.
At that moment, the sled hit something uneven in the ground and tipped over. There she was, her body getting very much acquainted with the roughly hostile ground. Snap! The line broke again. Cain signaled the dogs to a halt and hopped back off the ATV. Cindy picked both herself and her dignity up off the ground.

“Cindy, are you all right?”
“Yeah I’m fine,” she said flatly. Cain only had a little bit of rope left.
“You can’t crash one more time, I’m not going to be able to tie you back on.”

She nodded, hoping she could manage to make the next two miles without having her face smash into a frozen tree trunk or a snow bank or anything vicious of that sort. So Cain fastened her whip sled back up. Only now, he had such little rope that Cindy’s handlebar touched his back bumper.

No room for error this time around.

None made. When they made it home Cindy laughed hard at how many knots Cain had to tie. His fingers were probably so tender that day. This is how Cindy began training for the famous Iditarod.


The Iditarod Race was never just a race. It was a tradition. When Russian and American pioneers came to the Alaskan frontier in the 18th century, they encountered an unusual relationship between man and animal. Dog teams transported the natives through snow and ice across the frozen landscape. The dog was to the Alaskan what the yak was to Indians, or what the llama was to Peruvians. A tool.

Sleds moved people between villages, fish camps, and hunting areas. Dogs of yesteryear were much bigger than the small, sleek versions of today. Each could haul up to 150 pounds, weighing in at a massive 75 pounds.

The Russians made team sizes larger and trained dogs to follow voice commands. Sled designs became more efficient. Demand for dog teams skyrocketed as gold rushes in the late 19th and early 20th century sprouted throughout the area. Mushers and their teams even helped the Eskimo Scouts patrol the western Alaskan wilderness during World War II.
The invention of the airplane and the snowmobile changed everything. A mass abandonment of dog teams made mushing more of a nostalgic notion than a means of day-to-day living. It remained only as a little pocket of Alaska’s lore.

One of the major trails used during mushing’s glory days was the famous Iditarod Trail, a major “thoroughfare” through the state’s frontier. In the mid 1950’s talk began about having a race over a portion of the Iditarod Trail to commemorate mushing’s historical significance. Eventually, in 1973, twenty-two mushers ran in the first Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome. Since that very first year, the Iditarod maintained its lengthy distance of 1150 miles across dangerously beautiful territory. It featured thick forest, jagged and rocky mountains, frozen tundra, and blinding winds. The race was never intended for the weak-willed.

Cindy wanted to show people that even a California rookie had thick skin. She was a slim woman of fifty-four with short cropped-hair. She lived with her husband of twenty-one years, Larry, and her daughter, Teshia, in Irvine, California.  She had a parrot in their upstairs bedroom-- a macaw that didn’t like men-- four bullfrogs in her backyard pond, and a three-legged cat with an intestinal disorder. They rescued each from an animal shelter.
She worked part-time at Cal State Fullerton as a health instructor and maintained an income- tax preparation business.  Everything she had dreamed of doing she had done: scuba diving, ballroom dancing, underwater videography, mountain climbing, book writing.  For nine years, she was a First Aid and CPR instructor for the American Red Cross. Cindy had even held a San Diego Chargers season ticket for twenty years.

In 2007, she decided to climb Mt. Everest. But right after she began to pursue her new dream, her life changed. She was out shopping at a local nursery one day when vertigo came over her. She blinked. Her left eye had gone blind. The doctors said it was a vascular occlusion, a blockage of a blood vessel.  On August 1 of that year, the doctors diagnosed her with the rare, incurable, and potentially life-threatening disease known as Wegner’s Granulomatosis. They told her that she had been living with it for fourteen years. Her immune system was continuing to destroy her blood vessels. They said that the disease wasn’t quite in remission, it was merely being “quiet.” The doctor prescribed an immunosuppressant medication to control the disease. Healing after injuries would forever be a slow and dangerous process.         

Despite this diagnosis, Cindy climbed Mt. Everest in fifty-four days. She believed the only limits that people had were the ones that they placed on themselves.
People asked her, “What’s next, Cindy?”

“I don’t know,” she would say.
“You going to run the Iditarod?” someone teased.

She thought to herself, Well why not? Only 3700 people had climbed Everest in 2010 and only 707 people had completed the Iditarod. Only one person, one man, had done both. She could be the first female to do it. Considering her disease, age, and vision problems, people would say, “This should not be possible!”

And so… a joke gave birth to a new dream.


Two years after she started training, Cindy in March 2013 found herself closer to reaching this new goal. The Iditarod start would commence the following morning. Cindy slumbered soundly in her Millennium Hotel room, grateful for the rest. She wouldn’t get this much sleep for the next few days. Not with the wind howling and the cold biting and the snow soaking her clothes. In this moment, the blanket was her warmth. Warmth was luxury.

While she slept, Cain prepared the food supply she would pack onto her wooden sled. Official race rules required all mushers to have food for both their dogs and themselves in case they needed to stop between checkpoints. This was the last meal he’d make for her before she plunged into the wilderness.

Cain had previously spent hours at the Comeback Kennel, Cindy’s training facility owned by Iditarod champion Lance Mackey. Cain had prepared her food drops to be flown to the checkpoints by bush plane. He had sawed heaps of frozen meat, cutting them into 40- lb. blocks, packaging them into plastic trash bags. The meats included beef, chicken, and fish. A lot of fish. Even beaver. Some kennels used horse meat, b ut that had always been weird to Cain and Lance, his stepfather. Beaver was going far enough. Cindy would later mix this with a dry kibble, promoting high performance and containing fatty oils, good for the dogs’ coats. Cain had stuffed dozens of bags. He had heaved them into the back of a black pickup truck, each bag labeled “C. ABBOTT”. This would be enough to feed the dogs for ten to fourteen days: a total of 1,303 lbs. 

Cain was her handler. Preparing food was his job. But for two years he had also been in charge of Cindy’s training.

“Here, train her,” Lance told him as he handed Cindy over.

Cain didn’t think she would ever run the Iditarod. She was from California. She was a rookie. She was going to hate this. She was going to quit. And damn, she was old. Not to mention her immune system was attacking her own blood vessels.

The next morning finally came – the morning of the Iditarod ceremonial start. To look through Cindy Abbott’s eyes would be to see the blocked off streets of Anchorage, with orange lines painted on the icy roads. In the early morning, fresh powder snow lined the ground, brought in by Iditarod volunteers. The vast whiteness made the race appear lush and fresh for the 50,000 spectators. It painted a picture for an audience that only saw the tip of the iceberg, the good parts. In reality, the Iditarod did not involve the smooth elegance that this first event encompassed. In reality, it was treacherous, especially this year. The weather had produced very little snow. The trail of the Iditarod would not be smooth and white. The path would be laced with more jutting rocks and branches and flowing rivers. It would be extremely perilous, life-threatening to both dog and musher. As the race marshall said, “Man, it’s doable. But that’s about it.”

It was a day of festivities. Mushers would run for ten miles through the town of Anchorage to Willow, smiling and waving and smacking high-fives on the sidelines. Cindy waited for her turn to take off with her team, number sixty in a lineup of sixty-nine mushers. Each would leave the starting point in two- minute intervals.

She and Cain prepared her team. Cain strapped the red, black, and pink booties on to the ankles of the dogs and pulled the harnesses tight.

“You know there’s a big sharp turn a few miles in, right?” Cain asked, “It gets people every time.”
“Yeah I’ll watch out for it,” Cindy reassured him.

Her hands stretched out over the gangline to make sure that they had hooked everything in perfectly She adjusted her one- piece bib, double-layered pants, double-layered boots, thick layers of jackets, hat, gloves, head light, and face mask. Underneath all of this she had long underwear and more layers to fight off the cold in the coming days. She didn’t feel anxious. There was too much to take care of to worry. They accounted for all fourteen dogs: Dred, Shasta, Sexy, Prego, Falcon, Italy, Raven, Barb, Wayne, Tyrell, Rapper, Pimp, Tim, and Drool. Their colors ranged from dark black to rich chestnut brown to a creamy white.

Her hands inspected each one. Her fingers ran through their Alaskan Husky manes and felt the soft fur behind their ears. To Cindy, these dogs were unforgettable, stunningly beautiful. A longing and happiness permeated their faces. They wanted to run. She could just tell. She could see it in the way their amber eyes looked back at her, in the way their snouts faced forward with a driven eagerness. If she were to unharness them at this moment, they would bolt. She knelt in front of Raven, pulled the dog close, and kissed him on the fuzzy fur right between the eyes. Raven pushed his snout into the crevice between Cindy’s neck and shoulder. For the next fourteen days, her life would rely on these dogs, and they on her.

“Just smile, wave, look at the cameras. I’ll watch the dogs,” Cain told Cindy. She nodded.
A man stepped up to her sled. Before the ceremony, fans of the famous race had the opportunity to bid online for “Iditarider” positions. The top sixty-nine bidders became these “Iditariders” – grabbing at the chance to sit in the sleds of mushers for this first leg of the race.

“Are you ready for this?” she asked him
“This is gonna be great!” he said.

After all the preparation and anticipation, it was time for Cindy and her team to start the first part of the race.  She stepped on to the sled and placed her double- layered gloves on the front bar. Cain latched up a whip sled behind her to help her through these first ten miles. Her “Iditarider” stepped in and sat facing forward. The dogs kicked up their heels, bustling and churning.

“Let’s go!” Cindy called out to the dogs.

The dogs’ tongues hung out as they ran, almost smiling. Cameras flashed on the sidelines. Cindy passed thin Alaskan trees that shot up straight from the ground to the sky, covered in frost. The audiences had come from all over the globe by foot, skies, snowmobiles, and even bush planes.
“GO CINDY!!!!” people cheered.

Their faces glowed and as they waved and reached over the orange paint for high fives. To Alaskans, an Iditarod musher was a celebrity, bigger than any visiting movie star or any other professional sports athlete.

The kids on the sidelines yelled, “Booties! Booties! Booties!”

The spectators all wanted these - the old worn-out dog booties that could not be used anymore. The booties’ stench was incomparable. They smelled of mud trails and wet dog and pieces of fur poked out from the fabric. Yet, everyone loved them – souvenirs from the famous Iditarod racers. Cain threw out booties filled with lollipops and Cindy’s website cards as the crowd reached for the prizes. Not only did these booties entertain fans, they served a greater purpose. Maybe more people would learn about my disease. Maybe more would understand and support. They just needed to know.
She had never slapped so many hands in her life. One girl was too small to reach. Cindy leaned the sled to the side of the path, tilting her body out at an angle with arm outstretched. Still, the girl was too far.

Reach for me.

She could not cross the orange paint. Getting too close to the sleds was dangerous for the spectators, and the dogs spooked easily in a crowd as big as this. But the little girl’s father grabbed her hand so she could lean out. The girl reached as far out as she could and Cindy did the same. Her sled tilted more, one hand gripping the handlebar and the other pushing fingertips farther and farther. Cindy and the girl created a triangle between their bodies. In the briefest of moments, she touched the glove of the little girl. A flash of a camera signaled the capture of a picture, the moment frozen forever on a screen. The girl’s cheeks warmed and her eyes glowed.

Cindy and Cain rode on down a road surrounded by trees and more gau ntlets of people. Little kids lined the streets the entire way. The pair ran over a narrow freeway overpass. Everyone below stopped their car to watch the mushers go by. They waved and shouted. Some felt comfortable enough to jump up and down and wave their arms.

Cindy looked back at Cain on the whip sled. “Did we pass the turn?”
“Not yet,” he said.

Another mile up the road, the turn awaited them. Its 90- degree corner challenged mushers of the highest talent. People flocked to this fragment of the run because they knew it took mushers down every year. They cheered Cindy on.

The team flew forward. They rounded the corner, the dogs stopping for nothing, the people shouting, Cindy holding onto the brushbow, the “Iditarider” gripping the sled, and Cain praying that they make it. As the dogs curved around the bend, Cindy and Cain both leaned their bodies into it. The “Iditarider”, despite having mild instruction beforehand, pushed his weight in the opposite direction. The sled shook and tipped and skidded sideways into the snow. Cain watched as Cindy and the “Iditarider” tumbled into the white powder, 300 pairs of eyes gawking and mouths gaping.

The cheering stopped as only silence settled over the crowd.

Cindy stood up. The fall had ripped off her hat and her hair was a mad flurry of white powder. Cain looked around and started screaming, “OOOOOOOhhhhh!!!” The seemingly-incessant silence broke and the spectators cheered even louder than before.

Cain rushed up to the team, apparently unscathed.
“You okay?” he yelled out to the “Iditarider,” “Don’t move!”
“Yeah, can we do that again? It was fun!” he replied with a full grin.
“No! We’re not doing that again!” Cindy said, half amused and half-relieved.

After righting the sled and checking the gangline, the team took to the road once more. Cindy’s husband, Larry, awaited her at the Willow checkpoint. He had flown up from California and had never seen Cindy step a foot on a sled, let alone manage a dog team.

Cain tried to smother a smirk as he remembered Cindy’s surprised face blanketed in flecks of white.


The next day, the real start of the race launched the mushers into the Alaskan wilderness.  Cindy continued on through the first run.

It had been hours since she had seen any trace of civilization. By now, the mushers were far apart from each other. The tundra curled around Cindy, lapping frigid winds against her thick insolated parka. All she could hear were the breathy pants of the dogs up ahead and the shushing sound of her sled’s weight on the river’s snow. The moon disappeared from the sky. Her head piece cast a narrow beam of yellow into the trail beyond the team, the only evidence that God allowed light into this dark stretch of land.

At one point, Cindy thought she was seeing things. Perhaps the frosty cold and the almost-silence were causing to her to hallucinate. Perhaps the past hours were twisting her brain. A figure formed up in the gray shadows far up beside the trail. What is that? Is it real? Wait…is that a plane?
Her sled team crept closer to the image. Sure enough, a little bush plane sat on the frozen ice. Two people huddled around the glow of a fire. A tent stood next to them. They had flown in to spend hours watching mushers go by. They waved as she passed.

Cindy needed to go another twenty miles to reach the first checkpoint in Skwentna. Her dogs pushed on. She followed the straight path on the frozen river. Spruce and aspen loomed over them, casting dark shadows on the ice-covered banks.

Days before, younger mushers had run the same route in the short 150-mile Junior Iditarod race. Only, at this point on the trail they had looped back through a forest opening at the side of the river. Cindy and the other Iditarod competitors were supposed to continue straight on the trail.
But no one told Dred, her lead dog, that part of the plan. His nose inhaled the faint scent of the junior mushers and their team. The scent called to him and drew him in. He began to lead the team in that direction.  They followed him without hesitation.

“Haw!” Cindy called out to her team to get them to turn back to the river.

They angled back to the straight trail pass, where Cindy wanted them to be. But the scent still beckoned to Dred. He circled the team back to the opening.

Dred no! Stop!

“Gee!” Cindy called out again. Only this time, the team kept moving in the wrong direction
Cindy had one more chance. Soon, her team would push through the narrow chute leading into the Alaskan woods.

“Woah!” she yelled out to stop. Dred pushed on, ignoring her voice command.

If Dred managed to get them through the forest opening, it would take her hours to untangle the harnesses, to turn each dog around, to regain control. There was no time for that.
But the dogs kept running, wide-eyed with tongues dangling, their mouths puffing clouds of vapor. Their paws pounded rhythmically on the river’s frozen surface. Their breath bounced in a frantic delirium, a hectic balance between their growing thrill and their adrenaline high. The gangline snapped and pulled from the team’s powerful momentum. Dred moved them a little closer to where she didn’t want to go. The team thought: Follow the leader. Follow the leader. Follow the leader.  But Dred was not the leader. Cindy was the leader. Cindy was supposed to be the Alpha, their protector, their commander – God in their eyes.

She needed to stop them. The speed of the dog moved them too fast. The frozen ground wouldn’t be strong enough to grip an ice hook. Cindy would soon run out of options. She pulled a hook out anyway. Hastily, she set the metal piece into the ice. She kept one leg on the runner and then threw her entire body on top of it.

In a race like this, she only had what she had. And her body was weight. She needed to be the anchor.

Everything happened so fast. Her legs ended up in a split position. She pulled the hook up through the ice. The dogs finally started moving in the right direction. She had to get back up on the runner so she wouldn’t get left behind. Her body started to move. And then she felt it –an intense searing pain burning through her groin area. It pulsated, like a wave of nausea rolling and gnawing through her body. Her right leg needed to get planted back on the runner. But when her brain commanded it to move, her body didn’t respond. Cindy grasped her leg with her free hand and pulled it up.

Her team was finally back on track. But another wave of pain shuddered through her limbs.

I can’t move my leg voluntarily. I’ll probably need  to scratch when I get into Yetna.

The pain kept at her, even as she reached the first stop. She halted the team, though she didn’t want to. Her plan had been to run another thirty miles to the checkpoint at Skwentna. But now her plans had changed.

If I can’t control my sled, I can’t protect my dogs.

The volunteers at the Yetna riffled through her sled, checking that she had all the mandatory gear. The dogs banged and rattled on their harnesses, the metals hooks clanging together. They jumped and whined and looked at her with desperate eyes that said, “What are you doing, Mom? It’s only been forty miles. We need to go! We need to go!”

“Are you staying?” the volunteers asked.
“I was, but never mind, thank you. I’m just going to go.”

Cindy grabbed a bale of straw, hauled it onto the sled and tied it down just in case she would have to stop out on the trail. The dogs could sleep on it and keep warm. Once they were back out, the team delighted in the sensation of being in the open, running and feeling free. They had no idea that terrible pain was throbbing through Cindy’s lower body. If they knew, they would never run. So, she would have to fake it.

I want to go to the next section trail. I know what it’s like. It’s a bit tricky. But they don’t want to stay. I want to go there and I can stop for a longer period of time. Then, I can evaluate my leg.

She stared at the road ahead. She stared at the dogs. She stared at anything except her leg, trying to ignore it. To ignore the salient ache in her body. Yet how do you block out a biting pain that never quits – a pain that never sleeps or feels mercy?

Her two years of training had prepared her for many things, but now this. Endless waves of pain. She remembered flying back and forth between California and Alaska on any break she could get. Thanksgiving weekend she went to train. Winter Break she was out doing practice runs. She flew back for her 200- to 300- mile qualifying races for the Iditarod.

Cindy skidded into the Skwentna checkpoint after driving nearly 70 miles non-stop. The tent camp was cold, not as welcoming as other stops. She tossed out some bedding for the team. The dogs eased and relaxed their fatigued muscles as they settled on the ground. She checked her equipment and cooked her food; took off the booties and gave each dog some well-earned affection; cooked their stew and fed them. Cindy limped over to an open space on the ground and laid her body down with a grunt. She wanted to stay. Her hand set an alarm for two hours. As she stretched out, her leg still refused to lift on its own. She decided that she would choose whether or not to move on after rest. When she woke up, she could barely move her right leg. But at least she knew the next trail. She had been to Finger Lake on a race last month.

Alright, I know I can manage the sled on what’s coming up. Let’s just take it to the next leg.

And that’s exactly what Cindy started doing. She took the race leg by leg, all the while watching the progress of her own leg. She went in and out of multiple checkpoints. The injury had to be some sort of tear or pull in the muscle. The pain did not dull, did not weaken, did not decrease in intensity. Neither did the race itself. The dogs went hundreds of miles, passing through notorious areas such as “The Steps,” “The Gorge” and “The Burn”.  These were known for smashed sleds, fragmented bones, and shattered dreams. Mushers disregarded day and night. They ran whenever they could. The raw wind reduced Cindy’s visibility, the frigid cold penetrated her layers of insulation. The rising and setting of the sun and moon did nothing for her but indicate the time to take her anti-inflammatory pills for the Wegner’s. Cindy had a timer in her deep parka pocket, but mitted fingers made it difficult to retrieve it. So the light of day instead became her alarm.
Out on the trail, seeing nothing but the dogs bobbing up and down ahead, hearing nothing but nature’s lonely silence, feeling nothing but the need to push on, Cindy’s mind relaxed into a trance-like state. She recalled another of her days preparing with Cain:

Cain and Cindy had been training for months. They bustled along a sixty- mile trail, climbing into the white mountains with a full team of sixteen dogs.  Cain grasped the handlebar firmly as the sled swerved through the pass, Cindy shooting through the snow on the whip sled behind him. They rounded corners and glided through patches of glossy ice, surging forward gracefully as they headed back toward the kennel. Cain scouted the upcoming pass, a gnarly twist of downslope trail. He knew she was going to crash. She was going to topple and plunge head first into a pile of snow. Cain yelled for the dogs to go faster. He wanted to get through there as fast as possible.

“All right Cindy, here we go!”
“Okay!” she replied.

Cindy tensed her forearms and gripped the handlebar with her mitts. They approached the downward curve, accelerating faster. Cindy’s whip sled shuddered and wobbled a bit, her shoulder muscles gripping and contracting close to the bone. The dogs panted louder and Cain’s sled lumbered forward. He reached the end of the hill and glanced back over his shoulder expecting to see Cindy sprawled out on the frozen ground.

Well, shit.

She looked up at him, eyes beaming, her feet remained planted on the runner. Cindy picked up her hand to flip him a thumbs-up.

Oh my God. There is fate. She can do this.


Twenty miles from the Eagle Island checkpoint, Cindy’s team hurt led down the trail into the freshly darkened night, b ooties still clasped around the dogs’ ankles to prevent ice cutting into their soft paw pads. The sharp, bitter pain ceaselessly rolled through Cindy’s groin and down her right leg. In the lonely dimness, she grew disoriented, not knowing where she was or where she was headed . It had to be at least 35 below, one of the most frigid runs of the Iditarod. Hip-deep pockets of snow lined the outer edges of the trail.

What’s that on the road?

A long figure obstructed the path up ahead. They came closer. Someone had flipped a sled upside down.

It must be a sled that lost their team.

Cindy crept closer with her dogs. No it wasn’t a lost sled. A woman’s figure cast moving shadows underneath the wooden structure.

“Are you all right?” Cindy called out to the woman

The other musher popped out her head. “Yeah my dogs were just tired.”

She and her team were sleeping on the trail. The only problem was that camping out on the path violated the Iditarod rules. Doing so blocked passage for other mushers trying to get by. But Cindy was never one to rock the boat.

She stepped off her sled, limping and hobbling, practically dragging the right side of her body across the ground. Her dogs’ eyes searched her for answers on what do next. With both hands, she clutched the front of the gangline and began to pull the team towards the side of the trail. She was determined to get her team around this woman. Her breath deepened as she steered them off solid ground. The waist-deep powder made the dogs hitch up their legs as they marched. Cindy’s body torqued and twisted. The harsh movements deepened the cruel ache in her groin. She grimaced and grunted as she struggled.

After forty-five minutes of towing the dogs and the sled through heavy blankets of snow, they were back on the trail but in worse condition than before.

Just keep going, keep pushing. Protect the team at all costs.

The pain was unimaginable. It pulsed through her, eating at her body. She drove on, cursing for the next thirteen miles.


Cain clicked open the Iditarod website on his computer screen to check on Cindy’s progress. He had never been one to constantly hit the refresh button or frantically anticipate an update. Nor was he one to stress over the musher standings. But talk around the town was that Cindy had been falling behind the others at a discouraging rate.

Aw, man Cindy, what’s going on? I know you can step up your game .

His screen revealed that she had taken up last place. This was bad. Everyone would ask Cain, “Do you think she’s going to make it?”

“I have confidence…no, faith that she will, even in last place,” he would tell them.

Cindy’s goal had always been merely to step one foot over that Iditarod starting line. As far as Cain knew, Cindy had accomplished everything that she had worked for. Every face plant into the icy ground, every bruise, every ache and soreness had brought her to this moment. All that she had was worth it. Running the race was just the icing on top. People used to see Cindy as a joke. Now they saw a musher.

Still, a pang of disappointment twisted in Cain’s chest. She had been away from a checkpoint for twenty-six hours. Cindy always fought through anything. Her drive allowed her to get past any winding trail, any steep slope, any obstacle on the path.
No this was different. Something was very wrong.


Cindy drove her team straight into the tent at the Eagle Island checkpoint. She could have easily filed a formal grievance against the musher on the trail. She could have easily unleashed a vicious string of insulting comments at her. But what good would it do?

The damage had been done. The twisting of her body in that hip-deep snow had intensified the horrific pain ripping at her leg. She couldn’t fix it. 

“You’re going to have to hop off and swing your sled into the position we’re going to park you in,” the race official said.

“I can’t hop off my sled.”

Cindy pushed her leg off the runner and realized she couldn’t even walk. The volunteers and officials regarded her with concern. Their faces contorted as if they wanted to reach out and become her crutch. But they knew, better than anyone, that if she accepted help she would be disqualified. The only thing they could do was hold her leader’s ropes as she hooked and unhooked the team.
By then, Cindy was moving on all fours, in an awkward and slightly embarrassing motion of crawling palms digging into the floor, her kneecaps dragging, the pain spreading through her entire body. She clambered over to the bales of hay stacked up in the checkpoint. She managed to get up on her knees, brace her muscles, and heave the bale over to her team in jerky movements. Her body screamed for her to stop. Her hands pulled out pieces and bedded down the icy ground for her team to lie on. The dogs watched her. She scooped up some snow in a bowl and melted it for drinking water. She pulled off their booties one by one. She strained to pull the dog food from one of her drop bags and cook it. By the time she made it into her tent to sleep, her body was shaking and trembling. She soaked up the warmth from the heater in the corner and slept for two hours.
When she got up, the pain had eased in her leg. She could limp while she set up her dog team. The dogs’ eyes watched her again. It took her two hours to finish. Cindy knew the next section was river running on the Yukon. It would be difficult. The wind usually blew out the trail. But there weren’t any drop offs or mountains to pass through. She wouldn’t have to clamber through gorges or delicate ice shelves. Cindy wanted desperately to make this last, sixty- mile leg.

I’m going to get my dogs and probably have to scratch at Kaltag. Once I get on that sled I can handle it.

They took off on the trail and into the blinding wind. The dogs flew and muscled forward as a rough storm rolled across the sky. They crushed harder into the swirling air.  Cindy still had no idea what was wrong with her. It felt like her weight had shifted on to her hips rather than her groin area.

Whatever it was, it hurt like hell.

The dogs kept bulldozing through the wind’s pressure, but Cindy could tell that their limbs had slowed and tired. She took them to the side of the trail and shut the team down. She wanted to let them sleep for four hours. Cindy walked on her knees to hook them up and bed the ground with straw. Her hips wouldn’t bend anymore. Then she sat on her sled and forced her back down onto the runner. Her eyes closed but she couldn’t sleep.

The dogs stretched out on the bedding, some resting their heads on the front paws, the others curled up into furry balls. Their coats protected them from the cold. Baby Drool remained sitting on his hind legs, staring at Cindy. His eyes bored into her, watching her lie on the runner. His ears stuck straight up and his body never wavered or swayed. He stared at her for hours.

After not moving for a while, Cindy’s blood had slowed circulation, causing a stiff soreness in her lower half. She would need to run fifteen miles to get to Kaltag and it was twenty degrees below. Soon, the river would funnel the winds into a frenzy. Night would come and the temperature would plummet.

Cindy readied the team for the run to Kaltag. The dogs all stared at her and watched her movements. She stepped back onto the runner.

“Let’s go guys!” she called out to them.

The dogs walked, taking small steps. She yelled out for them to move faster. The dogs kept the same pace. Cindy crawled out to the front of the gangline on her knees and pulled the team down the trail. They followed her, still walking. Cindy hopped back on the sled and grabbed the brushbow.

“Let’s go!”

Again, they trotted in the snow.

Cindy apparently couldn’t fake it anymore. The dogs knew.

People had started calling into the race. Watching Cindy’s tracker on the race website, they had a feeling something was wrong.  Race officials sent out two snow machines and a medic. Cindy knew that if she accepted help, she was finished.

“Hey!” the man on the snowmobile called out, “you’re about thirteen miles from the checkpoint. Everything okay?”

The medic began to check her out. Cindy struggled to form words, but the pain had eroded her basic abilities. It came now not in heinous waves but constantly. The pain blazed through her body like a thousand firecrackers exploding in each of her muscles.

“I don’t think you’re in any condition to be running the dogs. You seem hypothermic,” the medic said as she looked at Cindy’s face. If Cindy couldn’t fool her team, there was no way she could fool the medic.

She managed to find the strength to draw up words. “Yeah I feel a little shocky, a little disoriented.”
“Can I stuff a handwarmer in your pockets?” the medic asked. She pulled one out. Something was definitely wrong, even if she didn’t want to admit it. Allowing Cindy to drive her team to the next checkpoint would be dangerous, not only for herself, but for the dogs, too.

“I’m not cold really,” Cindy said.

The first sign of hypothermia was not feeling cold. The two men hung out on the snowmobiles. They couldn’t help unless she asked. The pain wouldn’t let go. She felt stuck between the reality and the odd feeling of not being completely present.

“I can bring them in. Let me do it,” Cindy told the medic. She didn’t want to hand them over.

“I don’t think you’re fit to. I’m sorry,” The medic replied.  Cindy’s face fell. Somewhere in the midst of her incessant agony, she knew what she had to do.

“Okay. Go ahead,” Cindy said, “I can’t.” She knew it was the right decision. It didn’t bother her much at first.

“Don’t worry,” the medic replied, “Will’s going to bring your team in.”

“Wait! Who’s Will?” There was no way that Cindy would turn her team into a complete stranger.

After ten days, these creatures had become a part of her survival and her soul.
Will came closer and reassured her. She told him how they run, how her lead dogs, Dred and Shasta, directed the team. She told him everything she could. Then, she handed over the team.
The medic put her on a snowmobile and the dogs watched her and followed her as she zoomed by on the machine. She began to cry. Every time she hit a bump, it felt like a piece of her body was breaking off.

When they reached Kaltag, the village health care worker called a doctor from Anchorage for a proper prescription for the pain. The worker gave Cindy some of her own clean clothes. These were a luxury that she hadn’t had for a while. She stripped off her soiled base layers and her first pair of boots. The fresh fabric soothed her skin. Cindy hadn’t changed in over a week and her body smelled anything but feminine. She was gross.

“Can I use your phone?” Cindy asked.

The health care worker nodded. Cindy called her husband. She hadn’t checked in for twenty-eight hours. He rejoiced in knowing that she was safe.

The next morning, Iditarod officials sent four planes into Kaltag to evacuate her team and the volunteers. Cindy couldn’t walk. Will drove her dogs up to the planes in the middle of the wind storm. Cindy knelt down beside her team, wrapping her arms around each one, feeling the soft fur tickling her skin. She looked them in the eyes and nuzzled her face into their coats. She kissed them on their noses and between their eyes. She gave them all she had to give. She gave them her love.
The dogs squirmed and bustled as the volunteers unhooked and loaded them into the planes. Cindy sat in the right seat of the small bush plane next to the pilot while the dogs settled in the back. They flew to the checkpoint at Unalakleet.

Cindy boarded another airline, headed to the large medical facility in Anchorage. Her team was supposed to follow on the next flight but the winds picked up again, blowing at fifty miles an hour. All the flights out of Unalakleet were cancelled. She had never felt so estranged.
She made it to the emergency walk-in facility down the street from her hotel. Cindy stripped off the remnants of her clothes and stepped forward with only her base layer on. A doctor examined her and took an x-ray. She had broken her pelvis in two places and it was slightly dropping. It resembled a big mangled chunk of bone that had been mashing on itself for days. It looked ragged and displaced. She stared at the x-ray, shocked at how broken she was. The injury registered in her mind.

“I’m not too surprised,” she told the doctor.

She had spent ten days with the pain. Of course something like that had happened.

He gave her a prescription for pain killers and told her that he couldn’t do much. Cindy would possibly need to have surgery. She thought on that for a while. There was no way that she would have the doctor operate on her in Alaska. That would mean months of rehabbing up here, away from her husband, away from her daughter, away from her California home.

No. She would have to fly back and have a doctor check her out there. The only problem was getting cleared to fly. Broken bones had a high risk of forming clots. Only an orthopedist could authorize her to fly.

She was able to see one before the facility closed that day. He checked out her x-ray and cleared her to fly. Cindy booked a flight two days from then. The bad weather had stranded the dogs in Unalakleet. How could she take care of her team if she couldn’t even walk? They were her responsibility. She couldn’t just leave them. But she had to.


Back in Orange County, she soon learned that she didn’t need to have surgery and that her pelvic bone had stabilized. But still, an emptiness crowded her heart. The last time she had seen her dogs was when she kissed them goodbye in Unalakleet.

She sat in her home, wondering what it truly was that pushed her to run through excruciating misery. Her hand clicked the mouse and a new page on her computer screen popped up. Cindy had just booked a flight to Alaska to visit her team.

She had to go back. She needed to see them. Who else was going to teach Dred that he wasn’t always right?

Cindy plans to run in the 2014 Iditarod race next March.k letter