Hundreds of miles into an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race a quarter of a century ago, Bill Cotter was mushing his dogs on the frozen Yukon River when he began to see things. Cold and weary after long, sleepless nights along the trail, Cotter became convinced he was watching television. He saw pictures flickering in his mind and he didn't like what he saw.
"I thought, 'I don't like this program,'" the Nenana resident said recently. "I switched the channel. I never found anything good."
The Iditarod calls itself "The Last Great Race on Earth." Others have termed it the most challenging endurance race in the world. The race pits a team of one human and 16 dogs against cold, wind and snow while crossing more than 1,100 miles of the Alaskan interior. Even at a speeded-up pace much faster than it used to be, the race takes nine or more days to complete. (Mitch Seavey of Seward took 9 1/2 days to win this year's race, finishing late Tuesday night.)
During that time mushers almost constantly are sleep-deprived, the frontrunners snoozing about two hours a night. Because they are more focused on dog care than their own comforts, they risk dehydration because the interior of Alaska is an Arctic desert.
The combination of lack of sleep for days and failure to drink and eat properly, contribute to musher hallucinations. Cotter's TV hallucinations occurred in the late 1970s, but the musher, now 58, is back on the trail this year after a brief retirement.
"I sleep more now than I did," he said.
A week and hundreds of miles into the 32nd annual Anchorage-to-Nome race, this is the time mushers may be courting hallucinations. Although their physical condition may be no laughing matter, the imaginary images they see will bring cackles later on.
Four-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake, who owns the fastest time ever recorded in the Iditarod, has not been immune. Once, Buser said, he was mushing his team along a slow trail in midday when one of his chief competitors, Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, the all-time winner with five victories, zapped past. Buser examined Swenson's leaders and watched forlornly as he was left in the dust.
"I marveled over his dogs," Buser said. "I saw everything."
One problem: Swenson was actually 100 miles behind him at the time.
Another time, Buser was seen bobbing and weaving on the back of his sled as he pulled into the Bering Sea coast village of Elim. Mushing through a forest, he was dodging low-hanging branches.
"I was steering my sled erratically," Buser said.
Elim, however, is surrounded by treeless tundra.
"There's not a tree within 200 miles," Buser said.
Four-time champion Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., who was forced to scratch during this year's race when his corneas were frostbitten, was asked before the event if he ever hallucinated on the trail.
"I don't do drugs," he joked before adding, "Most of my sleep-deprivation stuff is that I wake up talking and there's no one there."
That counts as a hallucination in my book.
I have run long distances, taken long hikes, climbed mountains, but I never have hallucinated. I have run short of water and realized I was headed for trouble. Last summer, hiking in Death Valley with the temperature well above 100, I was getting woozy on a short hike. But the effort of moving one foot after another and the thirst forming kept me focused.
Certainly, most people associate hallucinations with extreme hot weather. The Iditarod provides vivid reminders that extreme exertion in cold can produce the same results.
Jeff King of Denali Park, a three-time Iditarod champion, said he doesn't see things that aren't there along the trail, but he does hear voices. King, the father of three girls, said he has heard his daughters distinctly say, "I love you, daddy," when he was in the middle of nowhere.
It is common for mushers to doze off while on the sled runners. Sometimes the dogs dash under trees and the human gets clobbered by low hanging tree branches. Retired musher Dick Mackey of Fairbanks, the 1978 champion, said one time he was swiftly approaching a branch and dived off the sled to save injury. There was no tree limb. The first rule of mushing is never to let go of the sled to prevent being stranded.
"The dogs stopped, which was in itself a miracle," Mackey said.
Jon Little of Kasilof, an Iditarod veteran not racing this year, once saw marble statues in the woods. In reality, they were tree trunks.
"If you drink enough water, the fun stuff doesn't happen," Little said.
Drinking plenty of water is good advice when participating in any outdoor activity. You can get dehydrated simply sitting in a fishing boat on a lake for long hours if you don't take care of yourself.
Of course, fishermen don't call it a hallucination when they talk about the big one that got away. They just say, "True story."
Chicago Tribune columnist Lew Freedman is the author of several books on the Iditarod. He is the former sports editor of the Anchorage Daily News.
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