It is Iditarod day. Fifty-six dog teams will race through 1,151 miles of rugged Alaskan terrain from Anchorage to Nome. Akiak knows these miles well. As lead dog, she has raced the incredible trail before, but never won. She is ten years old. If she is going to win, it must be now.
Akiak knew it. The other dogs knew it too. Some had run it many times and others had never run it at all. But not a dog wanted to be left behind.
“Come on, old girl, show ’em how,” Mick called. “Haw!”
Mick worked the sixteen-dog team through Akiak, calling “Haw!” when she needed the dogs to turn left, and “Gee!” to go right. Mick was the musher, but the team followed the lead dog. The team followed Akiak.
Through steep climbs and dangerous descents, icy waters and confusing trails, Akiak always found the safest and fastest way. She never got lost.
High in the Alaskan range they caught up to Willy Ketcham in third place. It was his team that had beaten them by just one minute last year.
“That old dog will never make it!” he laughed at Akiak across the biting wind.
“She’ll be waiting for you at Nome!” Mick vowed.
Akiak and her team had to break trail through deep snow. It was tough going. By the Ophir checkpoint, Akiak was limping. The deep snow had jammed up one of her pawpads and made it sore.
“You can’t run on that paw, old girl,” Mick said to her. “With a day’s rest it will heal, but the team can’t wait here a day. We’ve got to go on without you. You’ll be flown home.”
By morning, most of the other dog teams had passed through the Ophir checkpoint. Akiak tore at the leash as the volunteer brought her to the airplane, which was eager to take off because of an incoming storm. She jumped and pulled and snapped. All she wanted was to get back on the trail. She twisted out of the handler’s grip. By the time they turned around she was gone.
Akiak ran while the storm became a blizzard. She knew that Mick and the team were somewhere ahead of her. She ran and ran until the blizzard became a whiteout. Then she burrowed into a snowdrift to wait out the storm.
At Shaktoolik, Mick dropped two more dogs and raced out, still six hours ahead of Akiak.
Hungry now – it had been two days since she had eaten – Akiak pounded over the packed trail.
She struggled into Shaktoolik in the late afternoon. Three men chased her into the community hall. One musher opened the back door and she escaped.
“Go find them, girl,” he whispered.
At Koyuk, Akiak raided the mushers’ discard pile for food. No one came after her. At Elim, people put food out for her.
When her team left White Mountain, Akiak was running through Golovin, just two hours behind. A crowd lined the train to watch her run through the town.
Halfway to the checkpoint at Safety, Mick and the team came upon a maze of snowmobile tracks. The lead dogs lost the trail. The dogs wouldn’t go. They wandered about, tangling up the lines. Something was blocking the trail.
“Akiak?” Mick called.
She ran to her usual spot at the harness, waiting to be hooked in.
“Sorry, old girl.” Mick hugged her, “Rules say I can’t put you back in harness. Get in the sled.”
But instead, Akiak circled the lead dogs, pushing them and barking.
Then Mick laughed. Willy Ketcham’s team had taken the wrong turn.
“Take us to Nome!” Mick called to her.
Mick first heard the noise a mile outside of Nome. At first she wasn’t sure what it was. Then she was the crowd and she heard their cheers. People had come from everywhere to see the courageous dog that had run the Iditarod trail alone.
As sure as if she had been in the lead position, Akiak won the Iditarod race.
“Nothing was going to stop this dog from winning,” Mick told the crowd. Akiak knew it. The other dogs knew it too.
Story excerpted from Akiak by Robert J. Blake.
Godspeed, Icy. Your good friend, Diablo, will miss you dearly.
We don’t know why you were killed so soon after your owners surrendered you to Toronto Humane Society. If they had not, you would still be alive, with possibly many more years of love to give.
We do know that THS has been seeking answers and amending their policies in light of this tragedy. We would like THS to take this all the way and make a commitment to being a No-Kill shelter.