Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
It was a cold morning outside the village of Talkeetna, Alaska. Partly this was because it was January, and the rest was because it was only two in the morning on a crisp, clear night. The temperature was down to somewhere around thirty below. However you cut it, it was awfully damn cold, a time and condition when most sensible people were in bed, preferably with a good furnace or wood stove taking the edge off of it.
The fact was, Duane MacRae and Michelle Rawson were not in bed, but instead were right out in the middle of the bone-chilling weather, out on one of the numerous dogsled trails in the area. Each of them was behind a team of dogs that needed night-running training, and also to get used to the cold. Both the dogs and the humans.
This was the third year Duane and Michelle had taken their winter off from running rafts on the Colorado River to train dog teams for Spearfish Lake musher Phil Wine, a serious competitor who had run the Iditarod dog sled race between Anchorage and Nome the last several years. In years past they’d trained in the somewhat-milder conditions around Spearfish Lake, but this year, with Phil’s connivance, they were trying something new. Duane was planning on making his rookie Iditarod run with Phil’s second team, and while discussing it the year before, the suggestion had been made that they spend the latter part of the training period in Alaska. This was partly to get the dogs (and the mushers) used to the more extreme conditions, and partly because Duane wanted to try running one or more of the shorter endurance races that were held prior to the big event in March.
Phil’s operation, Run-8 Kennels, had long had an ancient Airstream travel trailer located in a small campground near Talkeetna, and it was where they’d put the final touches on the training season in years past, but usually that hadn’t started until around mid-February. This year things were different. Not long after Duane and Michelle had finished up their river season in late October, the young couple had gone to Spearfish Lake, loaded forty dogs into Run-8’s big dog box on a big pickup, stuffed tons of dog food, gear, and sleds into a huge box trailer, and headed up the Alaska Highway. They’d had only minimal contact with Phil and his main dog trainers Josh and Tiffany Archer since the drive, and they’d been working with the dogs right along. Both of the teams seemed to be coming along well. Phil and Josh planned on joining them around the first of February to help with putting the finishing touches on the teams, but for now Duane and Michelle were pretty much on their own.
As it happened, this leg Duane was following Michelle. He wasn’t clear on what time it was, only that it was the wee small hours of the morning, and this far north it would be a long time before the sun came up. It would have been possible to look at his watch but not worth the trouble since it was buried under several layers of clothing. However, in the low light he was able to pick up landmarks that told him they still had several miles to go. They were getting closer, but they were a long way from the trailer. When they did return they’d still have a lot of work to do before they could head inside where it was a little warmer, grab a bite to eat and a few hours sleep, before they had to go back out and run the dogs again.
Things would ease up a little when Phil and Josh showed up to help out, but even then they were going to be busy and would stay busy right up to the end of the race in Nome, toward the latter half of March. Just about as soon as the race was over they’d have to fly back to Arizona, hurry through raft rigging that the other team leaders would probably have been working on for a month or more, then get out on the river. The long days there seemed like pure relaxation compared to what they were doing now.
This was not, Duane thought wryly in the cold as he tried to help the time pass, exactly what he’d thought his life would be like at this time. Ten years ago he’d figured himself for an outdoor junkie, yes, but this wasn’t quite what he’d expected.
On a summer break early in high school ten years ago, Duane and his father Jason, along with friends of theirs, another father-son team, took a two-week hike on Isle Royale, a national park in Lake Superior. While there, Duane made a wonderful discovery: there were people who got paid to live lifestyles like that, hiking around, and in neat places like Isle Royale. They were called park rangers, and that discovery settled his life plans right on the spot. As a result, he’d been through Northern Michigan University, majoring in environmental conservation and minoring in criminal justice.
But a job with the National Park Service had never come through for whatever reason, and he’d found himself doing other things. In celebration of graduating from high school, he and his friend – without the dads along this time – had made an 800-mile two-month hike on the North Country Trail. In his summers in college after that, he’d worked as a raft guide on a river in North Carolina. Then, to celebrate his getting through college, he’d done a five-month end-to-end hike of the Appalachian Trail, Maine to Georgia, backward from how most folks did it. Towards the end of the hike he’d met a girl, Chica, who’d turned into a girlfriend before they finished. The name was a trail name – her real name was Charlotte – and then they’d tried living together, but it proved that they were better friends on the trail than they were off it. He was struggling through the winter, working at a McDonald’s, filing National Park Service applications everywhere he could find, and trying to figure out whether to hang on with Chica or what. Then, while he was working the counter early one morning, opportunity walked in the front door.
The break came in the form of three women, one of whom he recognized: Scooter, an old pal from his river-rafting days; the other two women were Crystal and Michelle. It turned out that the three were on a boatman recruiting trip from Canyon Tours, their employer, a Grand Canyon rafting company, and they were looking for him. The three of them sang their siren song, and it wasn’t long before Duane left Chica behind, pointed his Jeep Wrangler at Michigan to leave some gear at his father’s house and pick up other stuff, and then headed for Flagstaff.
He’d taken to being a boatman like a duck takes to water; it seemed a heck of a lot more interesting than being a ranger at Grand Canyon National Park or about any other park would be – most of the time, anyway. The pay was not anywhere near as good as being a fulltime ranger, but Duane was young and single, and the adventure potential more than offset the money. With his experience and qualifications, over the course of a couple years he’d risen to being an assistant trip leader, which was pretty good as things worked at Canyon Tours.
Like any boatman, the winter dragged by slowly for him. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, since with the help of Al, his boss, he picked up his Emergency Medical Technician certificate at Northern Arizona State. It made him more valuable to Canyon Tours, and might help if he ever got around to applying for jobs with the National Park Service again. He was at a little loss about how to make the next winter less stultifying but figured he had some time to work on it. Then, on one Canyon raft run, dogsled racers Josh and Tiffany Archer, friends of Crystal, offered him a winter job as a dog handler. That brought him to Spearfish Lake and got him interested in dogsledding.
He’d gotten to know Michelle a little during the first summers he’d been at Canyon Tours, but just as co-workers. Occasionally people called her “Alien,” because, as one boatman had put it, “She’s a little spacey, if not downright weird. And besides, her parents are from Roswell.” Duane didn’t think she’d stepped off a UFO, but the little blonde with the long hair had a reputation for looking younger than she actually was, at least partly due to wearing braces and teeny-bopper clothes, along with a bubble gum addiction and Valley Girl speech. It turned out Michelle was actually a little older than he was, and was the senior boatman in the company with the exception of Al, the owner, himself. She was an extraordinarily skilled rafter, very strong, nearly impervious to alcohol, and liked to party, all of which went a long way toward making her a legend on the river. She was fun to know, but in two years Duane had not gotten to know her very well.
It was in the hinterlands of Spearfish Lake a little over two years ago now, when the unexpected had happened. One evening a month or so after the rafting season-wrap party, where Crystal had married Preach and Scooter had married Jim, Duane had come back to the battered mobile home after working with the dogs to find Michelle not just there, but wearing heels and a slinky black cocktail dress as she made linguini and marinara sauce. It was, Duane thought, about the most unlikely place that she could turn up, especially dressed like that.
It turned out that she had a good reason for showing up there – in previous years she’d spent most of her time out helling around with Crystal and Scooter. With her winter buddies now trying out their new marriages, she really felt at loose ends, and she knew Duane was doing something interesting and different. Besides, he was the only appealing and unattached boatman close to her age in the company. Not only did she invite herself to Spearfish Lake, she invited herself into his bed before the evening was over with, and it had been damn good.
She wound up spending six weeks there with him, learning how to train dogs and having a good time of it. Duane knew that Michelle had a reputation for being flighty, so every night she was there after that first one came as a huge surprise to him. Finally, she had to take off for two and a half weeks to go on a previously scheduled sailing trip, and Duane thought that was the end of that. But one night a couple days after the sailing was over with, Duane woke up to find she’d come back and crawled in bed with him again, announcing that she’d missed him more than she’d expected. Although the sex up till then had been the best he’d ever known, even ever dreamed of, it got even better.
Only a couple weeks after that Duane had to go to Alaska to help Phil get set for the race. Josh and Candice, Josh’s sister-in-law, were also going that year, with Candice being the second musher for that year’s race using Phil’s backup team. It proved to be an interesting experience, even though it had been pretty quiet while Phil and Candice were out on the trail. After the race was over with, they all flew back to Spearfish Lake. Duane helped them get things squared away there, then got in his Jeep and headed back to Flagstaff to get ready for the new rafting season. It proposed to be exciting; a scheduling shakeup meant that he’d be a trip leader instead of an assistant that summer. He had a lot to do to get rigged and ready to be leading his new team, one of the four teams Canyon Tours ran on the river.
When he got back to Canyon Tours, he found most of the work had already been done. While he’d been in Alaska, Michelle had gone back to Flagstaff and used her considerable energy – and considerable seniority – to get everything as ready as it could be, at least partly because she was going to be his assistant trip leader. That was a job she’d always shied away from in the past, mostly because she looked so young that she figured no customers would ever take her seriously. Now, that was gone, too – along with the braces and teeny-bopper clothes and bubble gum. She still didn’t look her age, but now seemed a lot closer to it.
While Duane was still getting over the surprise, she hopped in his Jeep with him and had him drive out to her parents’ place in Grand Canyon Village, where she announced they’d be staying when they were off the river. Her parents had put a nice new queen-sized bed in her room so they’d have plenty of room for fooling around. What’s more, it had been almost a month since he’d seen her, and that had been an awful long time . . .
By then Duane realized he’d been hit by an avalanche and there was nothing much he could do but go along for the ride, not that he was complaining. After all, even with her quirks, Michelle was so much more woman than Chica had been, more of one than he’d ever dreamed would pick him to take up with. There was no doubt that they’d worked out something special, something neither of them had quite expected. They hadn’t yet gotten married, and didn’t have any plans to, but a piece of paper wouldn’t change anything between them. He still wasn’t real clear why Michelle would have fastened onto him, of all people, but he was very glad that she had.
Despite now being out freezing their butts on dogsleds on this early-morning Alaskan trail, both Duane and Michelle still thought of themselves more as Grand Canyon boatmen just doing something interesting to kill time until rafting started again. The dogsledding made for interesting campfire tales deep within the Canyon, and they were both sure that actually running and hopefully finishing the Iditarod would just add to their stock of such tales. The dogsledding had given him a reputation for being a pretty serious adventurer in a group already known for being pretty serious adventurers; the fact that he’d tamed the “Wild Woman of the Grand Canyon” just added to his luster.
Still, that didn’t make him any warmer in the dark of an Alaskan winter night.
Even with Phil, Josh, and Tiffany providing a lot of support, doing the Iditarod wasn’t cheap. It was something of a reach to be doing it this year, and how Duane’s first rookie run went would have a lot to do with deciding whether to even think about doing it another year. For instance, they had yet to make it down to Costa Rica, where some of the other trip leader couples wintered over for one to several months, doing a lot of surfing and partying, or so at least the stories went. Duane and Michelle were both surfers and pretty good at it; Duane, in fact, was known as “Icewater” in the Grand Canyon. That started out as the trail name he’d used on the Appalachian Trail, deriving from the fact that he and some friends used to occasionally get some winter storm surfing in on Lake Superior.
Right now, surfing down in Costa Rica seemed like a hell of a good idea. Among other things, it would be warm there! Michelle cut a fine figure in a bikini on a surfboard, but it had been far too long since Duane had seen it like he’d wanted. And it was clear that he wasn’t going to get to see her in one this winter, either. Still, it gave him something positive to think about as the trail miles crept by in the darkness.
Eventually they found their way back to the camp trailer. The trail was well-marked, after all, and they’d been over it a lot in the past few weeks. Still, getting back didn’t mean they were done for the night; they had to break down the teams, picket the dogs, and then feed them. There had been a pot of mixed dog food and water simmering on a propane stove in the work shed; as soon as they had each dog on its chain in front of its individual house, they had to feed it. All forty dogs, which included the ones that hadn’t been on the training run, just to keep peace among the pack. Getting the chores done now would give them time to sleep in a little in the morning, which didn’t mean they’d still be sleeping after the sun was up. They were well practiced at the various tasks and were soon heading into the Airstream.
It was warm in there, or at least it seemed like it to them. In fact, the heater wasn’t strong enough to bring it up to a comfortable room temperature, but it was so much warmer than outside that neither of them cared very much.
“I don’t know about you,” Michelle said as she peeled out of her parka and began working on some of the other layers of clothes that made the warmth still seem odious, “but I think I’m just a little too worked up to want to crash right now.”
“Me too,” Duane agreed. “Soon, but not now. What do you say we make some hot cocoa and unwind a little?”
“Sounds good to me,” she agreed. “I don’t need the caffeine, but I could stand some sugar. That might relax me enough to let me get to sleep.”
“Yeah,” Duane agreed. “I’m not sure how I’m going to manage to get enough sleep out on the trail. But Phil, Tiffany, and Josh all tell me that you get so tired that it’s not any real trick.”
“You know,” she said as she stepped out of her overpants, “one of these nights we’re going to have to work it out that we go to bed before we’re ready to go to sleep. Do you know how long it’s been since that happened?”
“Too long,” he agreed. “And it’s something we’re going to have to do before Phil and Josh get here, because there’s not going to be many opportunities after they arrive.”
“Don’t remind me,” she sighed. “While the winter training up here in Alaska has been fun, and a good experience, there are downsides, and that’s one of them. We are just a little busier than I want to be.”
“Yeah, me too,” Duane agreed. “If I wasn’t doing the race this year and did the training on the normal schedule, we could call it a winter in about a month when Phil and Josh get here. We could have headed down to Costa Rica so we could see how the surf is down there.”
“Right, and see how true all those stories we hear are,” she grinned. “God, it would be so nice to go outside in a bikini and not be flash-frozen in the process. Scooter and Mary tell me they just about live in their bikinis down there.”
“Nice thought,” Duane agreed as he peeled off yet another layer. “Mary looks pretty good in a bikini; I’ve seen her in one a few times. Scooter, on the other hand . . . ”
“Looks like Scooter,” Michelle replied. Scooter was built like the typical fire plug and was about as sturdy. Though not heavily muscled, there was no doubt she was in shape, and she was about as far as you could get from being a classic beauty. Michelle was not all the way stripped down to indoor clothes, but she was far enough along that she could take a couple minutes to get a pot of water going on the stove for cocoa, which would be pre-mixed stuff from packets. As she worked, she continued, “She doesn’t exactly have what you call a bikini body, even if she’s not smoking a cigar. Jim doesn’t seem to complain, though.”
“Well, there’s no time for Costa Rica this year, and that’s that,” Duane said, continuing to remove clothing. Dressing in layers was the key to staying warm in outside conditions like they had here, but that meant that getting dressed and undressed was a fairly complicated process. “Assuming I manage to finish the race, which isn’t a foregone conclusion, we’re going to have to rush right down to Flag again to get started on rigging.”
“Yeah, we’ll have to wait around Nome for a few days for the Musher’s Banquet, and that’ll eat up more time,” she agreed. “Even with Al diddling the schedules so we’re the last to launch, it’s going to be tight to do all the rigging we need to get done.”
“Right,” he agreed. “And if we’re the last to launch, it’ll mean we’re going to be the last team off the river next fall. That means we’re going to have to rush right back to Spearfish Lake to get started on dog training. If you’re going to do the race next year we’ll have to hit the ground running. It’d be nice to have a breather in there somewhere.”
“True,” she said as she finished at the stove and continued to remove her outside clothes. “But you damn well better get to Nome among the top finishers, because waiting around for the banquet looks like the only possible breather we might get for a while. That’s part of the reason I don’t think I want to try the race next year. I was thinking about it while we were out on the trail this evening, and even with my folks helping it’s still going to be a reach financially. I mean, it would be nice to say that I’ve done it, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if I really want to do it that bad.”
“A lot of it depends on whether Candice decides she wants to do it again next year,” Duane pointed out. This was not a new discussion; Candice Archer had had a ball taking the second team to Nome the previous two years, and she wanted to do it again – but she’d also decided that she needed to not do it this year. She’d taken a lot of time from her family over those two years for the sake of training, and she’d realized she needed to make it up to them. It was part of the reason that the decision had been made to do the training in Alaska this winter, so she wouldn’t be tempted to spend time on a dogsled when she should be making dinner for her husband and her boys.
“Yeah, and that means we can’t commit to it until she makes up her mind,” Michelle agreed. “And if she decides to run, that means we’ll be training back in Spearfish Lake again. At least we could sneak off from there for a week or two to try and thaw out down in Costa Rica or someplace. I’m not sorry we’re having the experience here, but Spearfish Lake has sort of become like a second home, and this winter I’m missing some of the friends we’ve got there. That kid of Randy and Nicole’s is going to be like eight months old before we get to see him or her. Crystal and Preach were going to try to get there and see them along about now, and I don’t know if they managed to, or what.”
“I’m missing them this year, too,” Duane yawned. The warmth of the trailer was starting to get to him, and the cocoa was going to make him even sleepier. “You know, as much as I like running dogs and being a boatman, there are times I really envy them having a nice house and a steady job.”
“There are times I envy them, too,” Michelle agreed. “But Duane, I don’t know how I’d ever manage to survive if we turned square.”
“Me, either,” Duane agreed. “I’m just glad we don’t have to face that issue for a while.”