Saturday, March 9, 2013

Back of the Pack by Myron Angstman

As the  back of the pack makes their way to Eagle Island I am reminded of one of my favorite stories about that place.  For many years Ralph Conatser  lived at Eagle Island and served as checker.  I visited Ralph and his wife Helmie and their son Steve often,  and  soon learned that  Ralph  was  great at telling a story.  Some of his stories probably can’t be printed on the Team Baker website, but  this story is   PG rated.

It seems a group of six mushers bunched  up at the very  back of the Iditarod and were very slowly making their way to Nome a  few years back.  They had a hard time making it to Eagle Island because of blowing snow which quickly obliterated the trail, much like today  on that same stretch.  When the group  reached  Eagle Island they were worn out,  and settled in for a couple days of rest.  Ralph was anxious to  get them on their way and wrap up his job as checker,  and  get back to enjoying his quiet life  on the Yukon.  The leader of the six, a race  veteran,  approached  Ralph with a question about when a snow machine could be expected  to come by headed for Kaltag. Ralph told them it rarely happens after the race passes through.

Right about then Dean Painter showed up from Grayling to pick up the left over dog food for his team.  Ralph devised a plan.  He asked Dean if he wanted to hire on to put in a trail to Kaltag. Dean agreed, and said $50 per racer seemed about  right.  Ralph floated the idea with the six racers, who quickly rounded up $300 cash.  They returned with the  money and handed it over to Ralph, who was serving as the middle man.  Ralph took the money to Dean, who  unhitched his  sled and took off for Kaltag.  Now for a man from rural Alaska,  a contract such as this is not for some time in the future. Once Dean  was paid, it was  time to leave, even though it was about 6 am.   One fact increased his  desire to leave quickly—the next village  up from Kaltag is Nulato, where adult beverages can be purchased.  Grayling and other  villages in the area  are dry.

About a half hour later, the musher rep came back to Ralph and asked when Dean would be leaving, and was shocked to learn he had already taken off.  The six  racers  hurried to prepare  their teams and took off about  an hour later, just as it was good light.  Ralph watched them leave  his place, and for the first stretch of river the trail was easy to see, protected from the wind.   All six were in a bunch, as they slipped out of sight around the bend.  From his long years on the Yukon,  Ralph knew that as soon as they got around the bend, the  stiff north   would leave them with a blown in trail,  scarcely a sign of  Dean’s  $300 contract from there to  Kalskag.  But  they were gone,  and the checkpoint was closed.

Myron Angstman, lawyer, pilot, and dog musher, lives in Bethel, Alaska. Read more about dogs, law suits and rural Alaska gossip by checking 

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