Katherine Keith taps the tips of her pink, cracked and dirt-crusted fingers against her thumb. She has no feeling in them, the consequence of racing more than 700 miles on a dog sled across Canada’s Yukon Territory and Alaska in the past eight days, and that lack of feeling is making even simple tasks difficult.
After several attempts, she finally manages to zip her coat. Her laugh at the repeated tries it takes to do so speaks to the pain she’s enduring. She has to laugh or maybe she’ll cry. It’s 3:30 a.m., 30 degrees below zero, and now she’s about to get back on the sled for another lonely ride in the Yukon Quest, a lesser-known but equally grueling (some say more so) counterpart to the Iditarod.
She aches from her ankles to her neck, but she sounds like she’s having a blast. She has already bid me a good morning with exuberance far out of proportion to the actual quality of the morning — did I mention it’s 3:30 a.m. and 30 below?
“It’s warming up,” she says with a smile.
At first I think she’s joking, but she’s right: 30 degrees below zero is 8 degrees warmer than when Katherine arrived the previous night at this checkpoint in Circle, Alaska, on the banks of the Yukon River. And earlier in the race the thermometer on her sled read 55 below. So yeah, it is warming up, and it’s just like Katherine to be cheerful about it.
Her parka finally zipped over her four other coats and two Smartwool shirts, she starts putting Velcro-strapped booties on her Alaskan huskies, a tedious task even in ideal conditions. It’s like putting Velcro boots on a baby, only instead of two feet there are four and instead of one baby there are 11, and instead of being inside a warm nursery, she is outside in Alaska in February. She’s barehanded, with fingers that have been wrecked by the cold for days already.
The danger of this cold is very real and goes beyond frostbitten finger tips. With more than 200 miles left in her first Yukon Quest, Katherine, 38, can’t afford mistakes. Her body wants her to hurry, but her mind tells her to take her time and do it right. If she doesn’t strap the boots on properly, the result could be disastrous, for the dogs and for Katherine. The dogs need the booties to protect their feet from razor-sharp ice, and Katherine does not want to have to stop the sled and use precious (and waning) energy to replace them if they fall off on the trail.
Starting with the dogs closest to the sled (Mozart and Shadow) and ending with the leader (her favorite, Blondie), Katherine methodically attaches the booties. Along the way, she scratches ears and rubs bellies and whispers sweet nothings to the dogs who need to hear them. She wants them to be mentally ready for the difficulties to come. She hopes she will be, too. So far in this race, the climbs have been tougher and the weather more brutal than she anticipated, and she thought both would be rough.
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