Facing the Storm

"A Spearfish Lake Story"

a novel by
Wes Boyd
©2001, ©2009, ©2012

Chapter 9

Once Tiffany and Phil were out of Nikolai, Brandy and Shelly knew there would be no further word of them until late, so they’d shut the computer off and just spent some time talking until they could barely keep their eyes open.

They were up early the next morning; a quick check of the computer showed Tiffany in thirteenth, and Phil in fifteenth, both of them still in McGrath after arriving there in the wee small hours. They’d made good time; McGrath was just about the halfway point. They’d each have to make their required twenty-four-hour stop pretty soon, and Brandy knew that McGrath was one of the places they’d talked about, although they’d considered going on to Takotna, depending on how they were running and what kind of day it was. Since they’d already been in McGrath several hours, both suspected that McGrath had gotten the nod, so there probably wouldn’t be any more information until the evening, if then.

With that, they headed for the airport. The ticket agent remembered Brandy from yesterday, and really wasn’t pleased to see her. Perhaps he’d gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, or had a fight with his wife, or just had too many hassles with people trying to get out on the next flight, but he was very sarcastic when Brandy told him she didn’t care if she had to pay full price, she had to get to Nome today. "I’m sorry," he said. "There are no seats available," then sarcastically added, "If you have to get to Nome so bad, why not charter a plane? It’ll only cost you maybe five or ten times full price."

He was a little surprised to see Brandy smile at him. "I should have thought of that," she said. "That’s the biggest help you’ve been yet. Thanks."

Shelly saw Brandy storm away from the ticket counter in the direction of the nearest pay phone, so she grabbed Brandy’s bags and followed her. Brandy had the phone book open to the yellow pages and was dialing a number by the time Shelly caught up with her. She could only hear Brandy’s end of the conversation: "I want to get to Nome today. Can you set me up with a charter? . . . Is that all? What would it cost? . . . Yeah, just drop me off and come right back . . . No kidding? Is that all? . . . Do you take plastic? . . . Now, where are you at, anyway? . . . OK, roll it out and warm it up. I’ll be there as quick as I can."

Brandy hung up the phone and turned to Shelly. "I’m off to Nome. You want to go along for the ride?"

"I can’t go to Nome," Shelly protested. "I have to be in class tomorrow. I had to have subs for my class two days as it is."

"Suit yourself, but the plane’s coming right back. You can be here tonight. I had to pay for the plane both ways, so there’s no extra charge."

"Sure, it’ll be fun."

Not long afterward and far below, over eighty mushers were using an ancient form of transportation on the Iditarod Trail, heading from Anchorage to Nome. It would take the fastest almost ten days to get there, and the slowest almost a week longer. Some wouldn’t make it at all, having to quit along the way. They would face exhaustion, frostbite, sickness, and injury at great expense to make the journey. Brandy Evachevski and Shelly Goodlock covered the same distance in a little less than two hours, while reminiscing about old friends and old times, and basketball and softball games won and lost, and in much more comfort and, surprisingly, at less expense. And that all while seated in the comfortable cabin of a somewhat more modern form of transportation: an aging, but carefully maintained Learjet.

We will not encounter Shelly Goodlock in this tale again, except to mention her in passing, so this is a good place to tell the rest of her story. She was getting to an age where she was starting to wonder if she was going to wind up an old maid, but on the trip back, the pilot of the Learjet invited her to ride in the cockpit with him, and she accepted. A friendly conversation about what she knew of Brandy’s trip turned into a date, and then another, and after a while, an engagement ring. In the fullness of another Alaskan spring, it turned into a wedding, with a number of her friends old and new from her home town attending.

The Spearfish Lake Connection had worked for her, too.

*   *   *

The rest of the week flew by for Josh, and not without some successes.

While he was still working on the coffee he’d gotten from McGuinness, Glenn Sprow walked in. Glenn was a big guy, a former local football player who was now close to 300 pounds. He’d taken up kayaking the summer before and liked it. He’d done well with the Old Town Heron he’d bought, but it was a little on the snug side for him, and he was a bit above the boat’s capacity, so it wouldn’t do for tripping. And, he had a hankering for a sleek fiberglass kayak. Josh had told him to stop by and try on a Nimbus Telkwa when they got in, and Glenn had noticed the lights were on in the store when he drove by. The two of them had to dig the big guide’s kayak out from under a pile of other boats and unwrap it, but Glenn liked the fit of the boat so well he agreed to buy it before he got out – not a bad way to start out a season, and a brand new line for Spearfish Lake Outfitters. There weren’t a lot of Nimbuses in this neck of the woods, as it was mostly a Pacific Northwest boat, but they had an excellent reputation. They were top-end boats, and there wasn’t that big a market out of the store for boats like it – they sold a lot more low-end plastic boats, so Josh had been a little leery about taking the line on. A quick sale like that relieved him a lot.

Something else that relieved him a lot was when Eric Aho walked in late in the afternoon, also attracted by the lights being on in the store. Eric had worked for him last summer, mostly helping out with feeding the dogs, and said he was looking for a summer job again this year. He was willing to start spending a few hours after school any time Josh was ready. Eric wasn’t a dog handler yet, but having extra hands at one feeding a day, and someone who could handle a feeding by himself on occasion would free him up a lot. Needless to say, Josh jumped on the offer in a heartbeat and put Eric to work on the spot, using him to help move boats down to the vacant storefront and unwrap them, then taking him home to help with the evening feeding.

They did the same thing the next two days after school, and by the end of it, they had the kayaks moved, the floor cleared out, and the dumpster packed with bubble wrap. And, just in time; the truck from Necky came in Friday morning with a dozen more kayaks, but those could wait until Josh got back after the trip to Wisconsin. Josh worked it out for Eric and Mark to do the feedings over the weekend, so he’d be free from dog chores for a while.

Late Wednesday evening, Tiffany called from McGrath. They didn’t talk long, but she reported that she’d been in for a while and had been waiting for Phil to arrive before she called to report. Things were going pretty well and the dogs were doing fine, although there were a couple she was going to drop there at McGrath to be sent back to Anchorage for pickup later. She hadn’t had a lot of time to talk with Phil, but she reported that things seemed to be going all right for him, too. Josh told Tiffany that he loved her, and she promised to call from Nome.

Earlier that evening, Josh had taken some time to try and work out some ideas on how to run the C&SL schedules in some way that would allow the track crew time to work on the bad track down near Blair. There had once been a time that this would have involved a lot of paperwork, but the power of computers had turned this into some real fun.

The Christmas before last, Mark had given Josh a CD with a railroad game on it. It was designed for model railroaders, to simulate traffic flow and work out schedules, and it could be operated like a real railroad. It took a little setting up, but once Josh figured it out, he made up a scenario for the C&SL on it, and set up both of the schedules he and Bud had talked about. The game could be set up to throw some difficulties into the game, some common, a few unlikely – but it could be made to run much faster than the real railroad, so it was possible to do several days’ worth of operations in an hour or so. It was clear early on that the modified version of their usual scenario would work if the time each train started was fiddled around a bit. But, if one of the rock trains ran more than an hour late, it impacted the track crew, and it didn’t take much running late to screw up the schedule for the next day – but that was the way things normally were, anyway. On the other hand, keeping one engine set to do a Meeker-to-Camden run just didn’t work at all – there was too much work above Spearfish Lake that had to get done at about the same time. The engine time worked out about all right, but it took more crews.

After proving it to himself, Josh took the CD and the setup for the program down to the railroad office and put it up on Gina’s computer. Bud wasn’t much of a computer user, but he caught on to the idea right away. "That thing could have saved us an awful lot of work over the years," he grunted.

The trip to Canoecopia went well. Joe and Josh got on the road about 11:30, leaving Dawn to sort of watch both the office and the store that afternoon. Josh had missed the long road trip down the Alaska Highway that he’d taken every year, and while this didn’t make up for it, it was good to be out on the road. He and Joe yapped about a lot of things while the miles went by. Josh told him a detailed version of the run on the Yukon Quest, and they talked of kayaking trips they’d both like to make. Joe had several neat ones he’d like to get in before he got too much older, but he told Josh he was going to have to do something about his business before he could do any major trips. They talked about the outfitting business; Joe had several good ideas.

The show was good for them, and Josh saw several boats that he’d like to try out, and a few that he thought might do well in the store. The Current Designs kayaks impressed him as top-end boats, and they were better known in the east than the Nimbus line. If the Nimbuses didn’t take hold, Josh thought he might take on the Current Designs line – and then, he might just do it anyway. He talked with the guy who ran Current Designs, and was impressed; it sounded like a good idea. Josh also talked to a number of people who outfitted big trips, bigger than Josh normally planned. If he ever got the time, it would be nice to expand that part of the business, and this show would be a good place to make contacts. Joe knew Gordy, the guy who organized the show, and introduced him; Gordy said that if Josh came back another year, he’d be happy to have him do a presentation on the Iditarod. A lot of kayakers were also dogsledding fans, it turned out. The trip back to Spearfish Lake on Sunday went just about as quickly, with Joe and Josh talking over some of the good points and bad of what they’d seen, and both wishing they had more time to follow up on some of them.

The bad part about the trip to Canoecopia had been that there was little news from Alaska in the more than two days that they were gone, and Josh hadn’t had much of a chance to get to a computer with an internet connection. The last he heard before he left was that Tiffany and Phil were not yet on the Yukon River. When he finally got back home and switched on the computer he found they had just gotten into Unalakleet on the Bering Sea. Although it was tough not to be able to follow them for those two days, he realized that it may have been for the best; without the show to keep his mind occupied, he’d have been thinking about them constantly, wishing he was there. At least, he had some diversions to help get him through the weekend, and still plenty of work to do at the store to get ready for the upcoming season.

Other than that, though, he spent a lot of time on the computer, never letting more than a few hours pass without checking for updates. By the time he’d gotten back from Canoecopia, Tiffany had opened up a fair lead over Phil. However, a lot of the top names were having good races this year, and he could see that she had lost touch with the front of the race and was slowly losing ground with them. Still, the chance for a top-ten finish was still there.

Not much work got done around Spearfish Lake Outfitters on the last morning that Tiffany was on the trail. The night before, Josh went to bed knowing that she’d left White Mountain after her required four-hour stop. He got up early the next morning; under normal conditions she’d be through Safety and just outside Nome. But, she still hadn’t checked in at Safety yet. That worried him; he knew all too well that the stretch between White Mountain and Safety was dangerous, right through the howling winds and ground blizzards of the Topkok Funnel. He gobbled some cereal, checked again, fed the dogs, then checked once again – and she still hadn’t made it to the Safety checkpoint.

By now, he was starting to get worried, although there was nothing he could do. If Topkok got to raging, as it often did, a musher could be held up for days. It had happened before. There were safety cabins along there that did provide some shelter; one year, sixteen places of the race had found themselves held up at one small cabin. After the winds had quit the mushers who had been marooned there agreed to parade on into Nome in the order that they had reached the cabin. If it was blowing, Josh hoped that Tiffany had either stayed on the safety of Topkok Summit, rather than going down into that wind tunnel of a valley, or was in one of the safety cabins. Getting caught out there, at night especially, was really life threatening. Knowing that she might be in trouble didn’t make it any easier; in years past, when he was out on the trail – usually far behind her at that point – there was no way of knowing if she was in trouble or not. Now that he had a chance to reflect on it, it seemed easier not knowing.

His worries driving him now, Josh rationalized that he could worry at the store just as well as he could at home, so he got on some store clothes, checked the race updates one more time, and headed to work. He did turn on the lights before he turned on the computer and headed back to run up the heat while it was booting. Once online, though, the newest report showed Tiffany in and out of Safety, not far behind Rick Swenson, who had run – and won – the Iditarod more than anyone else.

The last stretch to Nome took about three hours in normal times, and after checking the weather, nothing seemed untoward. He knew, of course, that the conditions could be crazy in Topkok and benign elsewhere, and at least she was through the worst of it, however bad it might have been. The worst was over. Still, that didn’t keep him from checking every ten minutes long before she would be likely to be arriving in Nome. Phil was in White Mountain, by then, about six hours behind Tiffany, and Josh noted that he would be leaving at about the right time to hit Topkok at dawn. The winds there were usually at their calmest then, but not always. He worried about that, too; Phil was a good dogsled driver, but he didn’t have the sort of experience that Josh and Tiffany had gathered in several runs along that open, cold, windy and dangerous coast.

Finally, late in the morning, the updates showed Swenson in Nome, and Josh’s patience vanished as he sat there alone in the office, feeling more isolated than ever. It seemed like he was hitting the "reload" button every thirty seconds looking for the word that Tiffany had finished, but every time he checked, it was still the same page. Finally, the page scrolled down a little slower, indicating a new update: she was safe in Nome, in ninth place – not her best finish ever, but respectable.

Josh only half expected to hear from Tiffany any time soon. If she was in fairly decent condition she might call in an hour or two, but then again, she might not. Josh knew all too well the extreme of exhaustion that hit in the final stages of the race. He’d done it five times, after all, and only the first time had he been even halfway conscious for more than a short time after the finish – and that first time, he’d been somewhat more rested than in later years. Still, he’d slept fourteen hours straight as soon as he got to a bed. Adrenaline and excitement had always carried him through the last phases; once the finish had passed, they collapsed, and he did, too. He wouldn’t blame Tiffany for getting some sleep before she called. If she didn’t call in the next hour or two, it would be the small hours before she called, and Josh didn’t mind a bit.

The front door opened, but Josh didn’t pay any attention. He just stared at the columns of the update sheet, imagining the scene he’d experienced many times before: the finish arch overhead, the crowd on either side of the chute – probably not a big crowd, he figured, since it was still early in the morning there. Leo Rasmussen would be making the final check of gear and logging the final checkpoint, making her a finisher once again. There would be a brief interview on the radio station, KNOM, while strobe lights went off; the gang of helpers who would help her and her weary team down the block to the dog lot, while she followed behind, exhaustion numbing her excitement of having completed the epic race.

"Guess your mind is up on Front Street," Joe said.

Josh looked up to see Joe standing there holding a bottle of champagne. Behind him were a lot of friends, most wearing broad grins and carrying things like boxes of food and bottles. Tiffany’s parents, Mike and Kirsten, were there; so were Mark and Jackie, who’d helped them so much over the years. Josh knew that they knew what it was like there on Front Street; they’d stood there themselves the first year Josh and Tiffany had finished. But, there were other people, too – Jennifer Evachevski and Blake Walworth, who, through their company, Jenny Easton Productions, had been their primary sponsors since their first Iditarod; and dog mushing friends like Fred Linder, Greg Mears, Norm Niven and Dave Stitely, and others, too. Josh’s parents were there, and Gil and Carrie Evachevski, Phil’s sort-of in-laws, and so was Bud Ellsberg, who had cut him an awful lot of slack to give him the time to be able to run the race in years past.

"Yeah," Josh said, surprised at the crowd, all people who had been part of their Iditarod dream, and had helped along the way. Tiffany and he could not have done all they’d done in the past few years without this wonderful group of friends. "I guess it was."

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