Growing Up Alaska: The Race

Field trips for a rural school are a little different. Anytime we traveled, it was for more than a day since it was over 125 miles to the nearest city, Fairbanks.

When I was about 9, my school traveled by plane to Arctic Village. Arctic Village is even farther north than Central with no road access, but we were invited there as part of their pilot program for Native Cultural Studies.

We were there for a week which culminated in a festive party which included traditional foods and games. The game I was most interested in was the dog sled race.

I hadn’t driven dogs before. I had seen the mushers in my community along with the teams that came through my backyard during the Yukon Quest. I’d always wanted to run dogs, and this was going to be my chance.

They ran the races in heats by age level. My age level got just one dog to run a short 2 mile course out to the airport and back. After a few pointers from the mushers, 7 of us lined up for a sprint style start.

The race started with two dogs getting into a fight off the line and as we settled onto the trail, I was in fourth. I hung on for dear life as the sled flew and my heart raced. The wind whipped around me and I could hear it whistling in my ears.

It wasn’t long before we overtook the next team and moved into third. I wasn’t really guiding the sled, but hanging on for the ride. I could tell my dog was enjoying this as much as myself, if not more.

I could see the other two teams ahead of me and at first I wasn’t closing the distance. I tried to jump off and run like I’d seen mushers do and nearly fell. We were going way to fast and I drug along behind for a second before getting up onto one of the runners.

When I looked up, the other two teams were gone. I was puzzled for a moment before I saw the orange marker that showed the trail was turning left. I froze as I tried to remember the call to make the dog turn right, but she already knew and we flew around the corner.

The sled skidded around and luckily didn’t flip as we turned onto a narrower and bumpier trail. I tried to spot the other teams, but was jostled about so much I had to focus so as to not fall off the sled.

It was a short distance before the trail turned right up a short incline and onto the airstrip. My dog turned and we shot up onto the airstrip where we had to turn right again and sprint down the taxi way.

I could see one team ahead of us and we were closing in. The second team had failed to turn and must have run across most of the width of the runway before turning back to trail, so halfway down the side of the airstrip I moved into second.

By the time we reached the end of the runway, my dog was in a long stride, tongue lolling out the side of her mouth happily as we came up on the left of the lead team. We turned off of the runway and onto the road to sprint for the finish line.

It was still a ways, and as we turned onto the road, my sled went wide and I lost ground. The other boy was pumping one leg and with each stride I could see he was bobbing a little faster.

So I followed suit and quickly found a rhythm that let me pull up alongside. He jumped off his sled and began running, which I have to admit I found impressive after my near fall, but my dog had a longer stride and we soon passed him.

His dog slowed to a trot as we passed and I could hear the boy yelling for him to go faster, to no avail.

I could see the finish line. Just down this dip in the road and then rise up again and I would win!

I looked back and could see three teams along the road, but they were all well behind me. My dog had slowed her pace now that we had passed the others and it would be an easy trot across the finish line.

Then my dog slowed even more. Then she began running funny, her hind legs coming up into the air as she tried to sit down at the same time. I called for her to go, but she was soon squatting and I realized she was using the bathroom.

The second place team sprinted by and my dog tried to pursue them, but she was having a terrible time going to the bathroom.

Then the third place team sprinted by. My dog tried to run after them and I pushed the sled as best as I could to keep up, but my poor dog was still having issues.

I could hear the crowd cheering on the teams. I could hear them laughing at me and my dog. I had been so close.

The fourth place team approached and my dog finally finished and carried us across the line a few second before fourth place.

I felt embarrassed and angry at all the jeers and the pointing, but not so much for myself, but for my dog. She coward as I ran forward to grab her collar. Her ears down and tail tucked broke my heart and I loved on her.

And she vomited on my leg.

Despite being sick, and no one knowing, she had ran her heart out, not because she would get anything from it, but rather because she loved it. The musher who owned her apologized for giving me a sick dog, but I didn’t care. I would race again someday, not because I would get anything from it, but rather because I loved it.

Author: matthewlasley

I am a school teacher and an author. I like to write picture books, middle grade, science fiction and short stories. I live in Alaska and I love history, so those two things often influence my creative writing.

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