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Just wild about dog sledding

Last time I checked, my old mukluks were stored away in the bottom of a closet, toes appropriately pointing north.

Since the start of the annual Iditarod sled dog race on Saturday, I've been fighting an urge to slip into the boots and head for the nearest patch of snow.

I bought them in 1984 — could it really be 29 years? — upon arriving in Alaska to write feature stories for the Anchorage Times. Those boots kept my toes toasty when I covered a portion of the roughly 1,100-mile Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome in March of 1986.

And they were there for me during those unforgettable dog-mushing trips with Gary Soderstrom, an old childhood chum.

Few things in life are as pleasant as riding on a sled pulled by 10 excited dogs racing across the frozen Last Frontier.

Gary and I went to Illinois Valley High School in Cave Junction together, then served separately in the Marine Corps. Shortly after completing his hitch, Gary headed north to Alaska, where he and his family built a log house near a lake a few miles west of Trapper Creek. The cabin is roughly halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

When we got together at an Anchorage watering hole to talk about auld lang syne, Gary announced that he had become a "dog-sledding fool" who lived for the winters. Dozer, his team leader, was smarter than your average humanoid, he proudly proclaimed.

Gary decided then and there that a winter camping trip was in order. But we would have to wait until there was a decent amount of snow on the ground and the temperatures were cold enough, he lamented.

Never mind we already had 2 feet of snow with the mercury shivering at around zero at the time.

Because Gary was a seasoned Alaskan who had thrived through more than a decade of winters, and I was a cheechako, a newbie yet to survive one cold spell under the northern lights, he wisely decided to do the planning.

All I had to do was get on the train heading north out of Anchorage on a Saturday morning and tell the conductor to drop me off at a certain milepost. He and his sled dogs would be waiting, Gary assured me.

Snow was flying and the temperature was diving when we clanked out of Anchorage. A few hours later, the train began to slow. The friendly conductor informed the apprehensive cheechako that he had reached his destination.

Wearing thermo everything and my new snow boots, I stepped out into the white landscape. The cold bit like a rabid dog.

There were no buildings, only a numbered post, falling flakes and 4 feet of snow on the ground.

Doctor Zhivago would have shivered at the sight.

But, sure enough, once the caboose passed by, the dog-sledding fool and his team could be seen waiting across the tracks.

Any qualms I had about what would be the first of many mushing trips fled when I got into the sled and snuggled into a down comforter that had been supplied by Gary's wife.

It was like riding on an easy chair. When Gary handed me some smoked salmon to munch along the way, I had achieved nirvana.

As we sped along, Gary stood on the end of the runners behind me, periodically enlightning me on the finer points of mushing.

When we hit a snowy bump and were airborne for a second, he yelled there were no worries.

"Just a hibernating grizzly," he shouted, hopefully in jest.

We covered perhaps a dozen miles that day on a trail that Gary and his dogs had previously broken. Mount Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, towered in the distance like a giant white diamond.

The temperature continued to plummet. My smile froze on my face. You could have pulled one of my incisors sans pains killer and I wouldn't have felt a thing.

Late that afternoon we camped in a grove of spruce trees that provided shelter from the wind cutting across the snow. We started a small, warming fire, and Gary filled a pot with snow for some hot tea.

As we waited for the snow to melt, I pulled a couple of sodas out of my pack. They were frozen solid. Gary nonchalantly put them on the grill next to the melting pot of snow.

We would take a sip from our sodas, then put them back on the grill to allow them to melt a little more so we could take another drink.

That night I was advised to put my boots inside my sleeping bag.

"You don't want to stick your feet inside frozen boots in the morning — frostbitten toes are no fun," Gary warned.

The temperature would drop to 28 below zero by morning, according to the thermometer attached to my coat.

But that night, snuggled in my sleeping bag with my snow boots, I couldn't help but grin as I peeked out at the northern lights dancing overhead.

Gary wasn't the only dog-sledding fool on those trips.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.