At trail's end, triumphant Dent

Iditarod: The famed sled-dog race was far from a smooth trip for Baltimore's entry, but he and his "marvelous animals" hung in, made it home to Nome.

March 22, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

"Oh, my God!" It was happening again.

Almost exactly a year after severe dog bites to his hands doomed his first attempt to complete Alaska's 1,150-mile Iditarod Trail sled dog race, Dan Dent was in deep trouble.

In the darkness, at nearly the same spot on the Big Susitna River where the dog fight had broken out, the 58-year-old Baltimore investment adviser realized that his team of 16 huskies had lost the trail.

He halted the team, set his sled's hooks like emergency brakes in the snow, and walked forward, intending to lead the dogs back to the main trail.

It was then that the dogs raced away up the river. The wrong way. With the sled. Without Dent.

"I'm thinking, `Oh, my God, here we go again. I've got a major problem on the first night of the race, just like last year,' " he said.

Speaking yesterday by phone from Nome, a bruised, cut and aching Dent reflected on his adventure, which ended happily Sunday -- 14 days, 5 hours, 7 minutes and 28 seconds after it began on March 4.

"They were pulling so hard, the hooks pulled free," he said of his dogs. Immediately, he set off in pursuit, tracking them by the light from the miner's lamp strapped to his head.

For two hours he followed their trail through the wilderness. When he found them, they were miles away, lines tangled, immobilized.

It was just the first in a series of collisions, spills, bad stretches, runaway dogs, broken gear and missing markers the Iditarod Trail would throw at him. But he would never give up.

"I've finally removed the ghost of 1999," he said. But most of all, "it was simply a privilege for me to be with these marvelous animals, some of the most extraordinary animals in God's creation. It is unbelievable what they can do. So, first and last, the whole credit goes to the sled dogs."

Dent began the race in Anchorage with 16 dogs: Ham, Blue, Camilla, Maggie, Solo, Sundog, Drew, Fred, Lima, Tornado, Streisand, Rip Tide, Rhombus, Panda, Hammer and Blitzen. All were Iditarod veterans drawn from the "yards" of some of the best Alaskan mushers, including winner Doug Swingley, a three-time champion.

Dent was racing with the likes of Bob Hempstead, a mountaineer who has summited Mount Everest, but found the Iditarod far more demanding. And Fedor Konyukhov, a Russian adventurer who has climbed the tallest mountains on seven continents and sailed solo around the world. He would finish last, exhausted.

After catching his team on the Big Susitna River, Dent pressed on. But two days later, trouble found him again in the Alaska Range, where parts of the trail are steep and bordered by woods. Collisions are common.

"It looked like a sled graveyard," he said.

At 3: 30 a.m., Dent's sled slammed into a tree, and his gangline -- the steel cable that connects all the dogs to the sled -- snapped just in front of the pair closest to the sled.

In a flash, 14 of Dent's 16 huskies vanished. He stood therewith two dogs, a 200-pound sled, and five miles of hilly trail -- mostly up -- between him and the Rainy Pass checkpoint.

He had but one option: to push. "On some of the hills, we came almost to a complete stop. We would just barely make it, one after the other for five miles," he said.

When he finally reached Rainy Pass, his 14 runaways were there, waiting. "It totally exhausted me physically," he said. He would be days recovering.

Then, near Nikolai, on a flat, windswept section of trail called the Farewell Burn, the wind had exposed the rocky, frozen tundra. The dogs struggled and the sled scraped. Exhausted, Dent stopped and camped.

He fell asleep and remained for six hours. In a race in which the norm is 90 minutes or two hours, this was oversleeping. But for man and beast, it was a balm.

Dent and his team pressed on through Nikolai, McGrath and down to the Yukon River at Takotna. There, the trail struck again.

Coming down onto the ice, his sled failed to make a turn and flipped, spinning in the air and landing upside down. Dent came down face first, smashing head and headlamp into the ice.

"I was a bloody mess when I came in," he said. "I was a little stunned."

He took his mandatory 24-hour break at Takotna, a favorite stop for mushers because of food provided by the villagers. "Steak, pancakes, waffles, hamburgers, hot dogs. The food just keeps coming," Dent said, "until you say, `No more, I can't take it.' "

At Cripple, the race's midpoint, Dent left 8-year-old Ham behind. Despite the massages and salves, and wraps Dent applied at every stop, the lead dog's arthritis had become too painful. So Dent moved on with 15 dogs.

He reached the checkpoint at Ruby in last place, but the worst was behind him and he was beginning to relax. He broke out his tape player and his Johnny Horton ("North, to Alaska") and Hobo Jim tapes.

Hobo Jim's songs celebrate the "caribou tundra, the wild barren land, the fierce arctic ice where the polar bear stands." They appeal to the romantic in Dent.

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