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 http://www.myronangstman.com/