ANCHORAGE - Three days after doctors removed a third of Charlie Boulding's cancerous colon last summer, the 60-year-old dog driver was back on his feet.
Four days after that, he was back at work, setting up a fish wheel along the Yukon River not far from his home near Manley.
"I never really went down," Boulding said before the start of the 31st Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage. "I stayed pretty active the whole time.
"I figured if you sit down too long, your strength goes down and you have a hell of a time recovering. I knew if I laid in bed for a week or two ... I'd be way down."
So he willed himself home and back to work.
While Iditarod race veteran and fan favorite DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow waged a well-documented battle with breast cancer after surgery this summer, Boulding disappeared into the Interior to pursue the life that has been his since he moved to the north country in 1983.
Not much was written about Boulding's battle with a life-threatening illness, because not much could be easily learned.
It wasn't that the perennial Iditarod contender and two-time Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race winner was reluctant to talk about his colon cancer. He was simply busy keeping on with his life. And most of his life takes place away from the telephone.
When writer and former Iditarod champ Joe Runyan sought information on Boulding's condition this fall, he ended up talking to Jonrowe, a friend who stayed in contact over the summer through letters.
Boulding wasn't always fishing. He spent a lot of time commuting to and from Fairbanks for weekly chemotherapy treatments.
"The biggest thing with the chemo was it just took two days to go to town and back," Boulding said.
When the rivers were flowing in summer, he'd motor a riverboat 90 miles up the Tanana to the Nenana River, then jump in a car and drive the George Parks Highway to Fairbanks. That worked until the river started to freeze.
Then Boulding and his wife Robin had to figure out how to reach the Alaska road system near Manley with a four-wheeler.
"Actually we ended up one time cutting a new trail over the bluff because the river wasn't frozen up," Boulding said.
Once winter came, Boulding could again use the river to go back and forth to Nenana - this time by dog team. He and his dogs often ran on the route that will serve as the first leg of this year's relocated and modified Iditarod.
The new trail heads down the frozen Chena River to the Tanana River, which runs through the town of Nenana, then follows the Yukon River downstream to join the traditional Iditarod course at Ruby.
Boulding said the trail will probably pass "within sight of my house."
This morning, Boulding was running in sixth place after leaving the Manley checkpoint - close to his home - at 7:39 a.m.
Despite the cancer, he said the dog training went as well as could be expected. Robin had to help out more than usual, and the couple fought the same weather problems almost everyone did. But the dogs got the miles they need to be ready.
The training was pretty bad early," Boulding said. "We had to leave. We went to Paxson for 10 days. We didn't have decent trails where we could go a long ways.
"From Christmas on, though ... we had pretty good training."
Or as good as the training can get interspersed with Boulding's regular visits to the doctor to have cancer-killing chemicals pumped into his body. Boulding said those chemicals caused some of the strands in his notoriously shaggy mane of hair and beard to fall out, but most remained.
Best of all, the chemicals appear to have done their job. Doctors tell Boulding he appears free of cancer.
Cancer or not, Boulding figures to be in the top 10 again this year. He has run the Iditarod every race since 1994, finishing in the top 10 seven of those nine years. He was third in 1998.
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