As a child growing up in Northern California, Braverman remembers hearing Alaska described as a mystical wonderland, where nature was unbounded and ripe for exploration. She had coloring books of the wildlife and of dogsleds. She’d lace up roller skates and tie herself to the family golden retriever, who’d run up and down the street in front of her house in Davis.
She learned to dogsled properly during high school when she studied abroad in Norway for a year. Now Braverman, a correspondent for “Outside” magazine and author of the book “Welcome to the G------ Ice Cube,” and her husband own a team of dogs. They moved to Cantwell, Alaska, population 219, in November to train for the race.
Braverman, 30, is documenting her training on Twitter, and she recently shared a lengthy thread of tweets about a day in her life preparing for “The Last Great Race.”
To find Cantwell on a map, go to the westernmost edge of continental Canada and drive west for another eight hours. During warm weather, Cantwell can be accessed via the Denali Highway, which ends at the foot of the Denali National Park and Preserve at the edge of town. But from November until the spring melting period, the road is covered with ice and snow. It’s passable only by snowmobile and dogsled. The closest traversable road is 70 miles away.
Living in such a remote location presents its own set of dangers independent of training for a dogsled race. The nearest hospital is 10 hours away. If you run out of supplies or food, there aren’t any stores close by. No one is driving around outside to notice if you’re hurt or lost.
On the sled, a training run can last as long as several hours or several days. Braverman carries sutures in her first-aid kit along with all other kinds of emergency supplies: a sleeping bag, a fire starter and tinder, a tarp, a shovel, dog and human food.
“I’ve kind of been mentally prepared to stitch myself up,” she said in a phone interview.
She needed three stitches last month when she split open her lip. Luckily a doctor on vacation was staying at the same mountain lodge. He performed the procedure, but Braverman didn’t have any anesthetics on hand.
“I just took a couple shots of alcohol with a straw and he stitched me up in the bathroom,” Braverman said. “It wasn’t that bad.”
“The stakes are just a lot higher on small things,” she said. “Any time you’re alone in the wilderness the stakes are higher. If you sprain your ankle, you’re on your own. And it’s very cold, so there’s no room for error. And once you have more than six dogs, you can’t physically control them. I can ask them to do something, but at a certain point, there is nothing you can make your dog team do.”
The dogs live in little wooden boxes that look like undecorated gingerbread houses. The walls are insulated and the insides are stuffed with straw. Braverman will race with 14 dogs, though she came to Cantwell with 29.
They are Alaskan huskies, a non-pure breed mix of dogs kept by Inuit tribes and other breeds brought west by gold rushers. Born to run, even puppies instinctually take to pulling a sled when first clipped to the tow line.
“Their fur is closer to that of a wild animal,” Braverman said. “And they burn a tremendous amount of calories a day. They’re like little furnaces.”
The process of prepping the sled is perhaps more important training than actually running the dogs. Just organizing the dogs is at least a two-hour task. Each needs to be harnessed and put on the towline with redundant fail safes in place. The dogs wear bright pink or orange bootees to protect their feet from jagged pieces of ice and snow packing into their pads.
Braverman’s routine must be unforgivably exact. The dogs’ food must be thawing and their water — blocks of snow and ice — melting as she prepares them for a run. The clips and ties that keep the dogs in line, the way supplies are stored on the sled, it all must come as second nature in every condition.
During a race, she said, mushers might get an hour of sleep each day. A strong wind can kick up snow and create whiteout conditions. The sun rises late and sets early. The darkness is yet another danger.
“Endurance is so important,” she said. “And knowing how to do things in all kinds of conditions, like when you can’t see because your headlamp goes out or you’re too cold to feel something. You just have to know what to do.”
On this run, she sets the dogs for a 10.5 mile per hour mark, what she’ll aim for during the race. The team is slowed by fresh snowfall because the dogs have to break it down to set a new course. On packed-down trails, the sled can make up time.
The two lead dogs set the sled’s pace and she’ll swap them based on the speed and distance she’s trying to achieve for a particular run. For a plodding, endurance pace, two of the team’s slower runners will go up front, forcing the rest of the pack to ease off the throttle. For the final stretch home, she’ll often put the two fastest dogs up front and let the team open up its gait.
And behind the sled, things are quiet, save for the jingle of the line and the wind rushing by.
“You’d think that you have a lot of time to think, or that’s what people assume. But that’s not it,” Braverman said. “You’re aware of what your body is doing. I’m always thinking about my body and my temperature. I’m very well acquainted between being cold and being too cold. And if I get to that point, I drop everything and try to warm myself up.
“But your feet are on the runners and you’re watching the dogs run. And it gets kind of hypnotic. You’re just watching ears flopping and you’re watching that for hours.”
The run is a musher’s primary time to rest. At camp or back at the cabin, the dogs need nutrition, care and attention. They get untethered from the towline and their bootees are removed and hung out to dry. Braverman inspects their feet and legs and rubs down the muscles, checking for cramps or sore spots.
“That’s when the work really starts,” Braverman said. “You’re melting ice and snow to make water. You’re preparing food for them. You’re repairing equipment. And you’re doing all kinds of things that are a lot harder when it’s really cold.”
The dogs get massages and lot of affection. Some get vitamins, others joint health supplements. Their food, mostly ground beef in a bloody broth, sits steaming by their houses.
More than teaching the dogs how to run, Braverman needs to teach them how to rest, she said. A sled dog spends its entire existence wanting to work or play. Even after hours on the run, they’re full of energy. When race day arrives, they must know the difference between time to work and time to recharge.
By 11:30, Braverman can finally climb back in bed. The world is quiet again, with two dozen sled dogs asleep in their wooden huts, though they have the proclivity to howl at the wind at 2 in the morning. Beneath the blankets is warmth and recovery. The Iditarod begins in 56 days.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified a joint-heath supplement as a painkiller. None of the dogs receive pain medication.
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