By KEVIN KLOTT
Anchorage Daily News
March 16, 2006
Sun and calm skies smiled on King as he left the White Mountain checkpoint 80 miles from the finish Tuesday afternoon. A bright yellow moon and hundreds of screaming fans behind snow fences were out to greet him here on Front Street nearly 11 hours later on an almost windless, 7 degree night.
Only a month after his 50th birthday, the inventor of the sit-down dogsled became the oldest musher ever to win the demanding, 1,100-mile race that begins in Anchorage, crosses the Alaska Range and cuts across the vast Interior before heading up the Bering Sea Coast.
Along the way, Alaska this year dished out all its extremes: deep snow in the mountains, 50-degree-below zero cold in the Interior and winds near the coast strong enough to blow dogsleds right off the trail.
"This is pretty cool," King said when he finally reached the end. "I worked pretty hard this year."
Their time of 9 days, 11 hours, 11 minutes was more than seven hours faster than Norwegian champion Robert Sorlie made the trip last year.
King joined the most elite club of Iditarod mushers - those with at least four championships. Rick Swenson has five titles, while Martin Buser, Susan Butcher, Doug Swingley and King all have four.
"One of us will hit that No. 5 soon," said King, who hadn't won since 1998.
In an interview at the finish line, King went almost teary-eyed talking about lead dog Salem. He credited the dog with keeping the team in check when he lost his sled near Old Woman Cabin on the crossing from Kaltag on the Yukon River to Unalakaleet.
"Those of you involved in mushing know that is a high-risk deal" to expect a lead dog to stop a runaway team, King said, but Salem is special. A great athlete, he is also a pet and, probably more than that, a friend.
"He goes with me on a walk," King said.
Salem's role in the team turned pivotal early Sunday morning as the race headed for the Bering Sea Coast. King that day checked out of Kaltag 11 minutes behind Swingley. The forecast reported strong winds blowing snow over the Kaltag Portage.
King harnessed his team, knowing it might be tough going but unaware he was about to confront an epic 90-mile adventure over a windblown, drifted trail to Unalakleet. Five-year-old Salem was alone in lead.
"You could see the moon up through the spin drift," he said. "Basically the world was a cloud of blowing snow at our back."
Outside of Kaltag, King found the trail crossed with snowdrifts, some as hard as ice. They dropped steeply in waves, and King had to maneuver his sled though dozens of them over a 7-mile stretch. It was tough going.
"One of my dogs lost his footing," King said. "Between maneuvering the sled and trying to see through the snow, I wanted to make sure I saw a marker first."
Snow pelted his face in the swirling wind as he tried to confirm he was still on the trail.
"I don't remember seeing it, but I remember sensing there still was something wrong," he said.
Suddenly, he said, he realized he was looking ahead at two dogs running in lead instead of one. Somehow, he decided, one of his black females in heat must have gotten loose and was looking to run along with Salem.
King braked his sled, put in his snow hook and screamed the dog's name. She ran 20 yards away.
"The wind actually makes dogs nervous," he said. "Wind was blowing in their faces, in their ears, in their fur."
Racing dogs don't like running loose, King said, especially when it's dark and cold.
"Dogs like organization, confinement and want to be a team member," he said. "Getting loose can be disorienting to the point where they don't come rushing over to you."
King finally figured out the loose dog wasn't one of the females, but Angus, one of his wheel dogs who'd somehow broken his harness.
With the wind blowing at his back at nearly 35 mph, King was stalled on the trail, yelling, "Come here, come here, come here."
Finally, Angus came, but just as King grabbed Angus' harness, the rest of the team went past.
He yelled again, "Come here, come here, come here."
But the sled was pulling away.
"Oh my God," King said. He tried to chase the sled, but he struggled with Angus and kept post-holing in the deep drifts. The dogs moved forward with his sled.
"My hand never got 10 feet from the sled," he said. "I yelled, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa!' They wanted to get the hell out of there.
"I thought, 'If I let (Angus) loose, they're going to chase him.' So I didn't want to let go of him. But I did.
"(Then) I watched my sled disappear into a moonlit cloud of swirl like something out of Harry Potter. It just disappeared."
King knew Swingley would be arriving soon, but didn't know when.
"Who's in lead?" King thought. "Salem!"
Before the team was out of earshot, he yelled, "Salem! Whoa, Salem! Whoa!" He didn't know whether Salem heard or not, but he started punching trail, hoping he was going the right way, praying that his snow hook caught to anchor the team.
"I didn't go more than 100 feet. Then, in the moonlit fog, is this silhouette of my sled," he said. He yelled, "I can't believe it!"
King walked up to the sled. Angus had stayed there with the team. He snapped the loose dog into the gangline and hugged them all, maybe Salem the longest.
The snow hook "was dragging along, but it didn't appear to be making a lot of friction," King said. "So I'm willing to give a significant amount of credit to my leader."
Salem, as King describes him, is an ugly gray dog who loves his master and running. He's athletic and "very macho," King said.
And if Salem hadn't stopped at "whoa," King said he believes he might have lost this race. The whole incident took about three minutes, he said, but it could have cost him hours.
"It could have cost me the race," he said. "It certainly should have cost me more than three minutes, and I will absolutely take luck as part of what happened. But it isn't just luck. That dog loves me, and he knew that I wasn't on the sled.
"If he didn't love me, he wouldn't have done that because they wanted to get out of the wind."
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