The frozen ocean

What fuels a dogsled race across the Russian tundra, says Julia Phillips, is booze, anger, and desire.

HOW DO YOU see what the mushers see? You mush. Turn in an application to the Beringia, a dogsled race stretching 685 miles over Russia’s easternmost tundra. In March, make your way to the village of Esso, in the remote Kamchatka Peninsula, nearly 5,000 miles from Moscow. Meet your competitors; check your dogs’ harnesses one last time; lift the toothed snow anchor that was holding your sled in place; mush.

If you’re not a musher, you can still make it across those 685 miles of snow. You just have to figure out how. Here’s my advice: Live in Kamchatka’s capital city. Speak English, write articles, and be patient. One morning you’ll find you’re in the right place at, finally, the right time—the race leader says you can accompany the crew as a writer. Get your sleeping bag, ski mask, and pens. Get to Esso.

THIS YEAR'S RACE featured 16 mushers. Preparation for the start drew on until just when it seemed unbearable—then, in a clamor of shouts and barks and cheers, the bearded judge checked his watch. He signaled 16 times for the staggered start. The sleds were off.

The race had begun.

Imagine the desert. White dunes, white peaks, white sun, white sky. Imagine a frozen ocean. This was the tundra.

I’d never seen such emptiness in my life. I couldn’t stop staring around. It was far below freezing, and in my thermal underwear, fleece layer, snow suit, face masks, hat, and shearling mittens, my skin prickled as gently as it once did when I sat on summer afternoons in air-conditioned movie theaters. Let’s be clear—I had no qualifications for such a trip, which took nearly three weeks and covered a mostly unpopulated wilderness. People in the capital, when hearing about my plans with the Beringia, had asked me, “Do you understand it’s very difficult?” It seemed to me that I did. I’d never gutted a fish, peeled potatoes with a knife, or ridden on a snowmobile, but soon I’d learn.

Sitting on the back of a snowmobile was a roaring, swooping, unsteady motion I came to love. We sat on reindeer pelts culled from the herds that climb Kamchatka’s peaks, and under my legs, the fur bunched. The first time a snowmobile driver slid off the track, I wasn’t paying attention, and discovered myself flying nose-first into him. “What were you thinking back there?” he said lightly. I had been staring at the mountains, at the snow.

Walking through the tundra was an experiment in flatness. Around the little cabin where we’d set up camp, tiny figures rose up in motion. After 58 miles, the long-anticipated mushers, one by one, were finishing for the day.

The mushers were hungry, exhausted, and wonderful. They got short with the volunteers. There must always, always be boiling water, for dishes and thermoses and endless cups of black tea, and when there wasn’t any ready the mushers jammed up against the cement stove and started growling. We all shared soup. The mushers ate first. They swallowed condensed milk by the spoonful, then poured water into the emptied cans and drank the dregs. Around me, they talked about old adventures. The snowmobile that fell into the river, remember? The team that got lost for four days in a blizzard? The fish they’d caught, the animals shot.

An hour before the next start, a musher went out in the soft white morning. From a plastic tub full of fat used for milking cows, she worked yellow cream into the pads of the dogs’ paws, because without such a layer, snow melts against their feet, freezes, and makes a case of ice that slowly fills with blood. “Give me your little paw, my sweet boy,” she murmured, and Velcroed booties to their lotioned feet. Untangling their chains from frozen branches, the musher led her dogs one by one to the sled. Each was slipped into a hand-tooled harness with the animal’s name stitched inside. She lined them up and let them go.

At every start, dogs lunged toward the unwound trail before snapping back against their lines. A good team of huskies wants to run. A perfect team frightens its owner. One snowmobile driver who had won the Beringia years before told the story of the ideal animals he’d bred—at the start of his final race, seven men had to hold his sled back before the judge’s signal. The dogs were in a frenzy, straining against their ropes, clawing the snow, and screaming. Anchors and brakes and his will were useless. He’d felt their strength ripple backward and known he was no longer in control.

“I gave them away after that,” he said. “They would have killed me.”

One day hit minus 39 degrees. Cracking open a hard-boiled egg for breakfast, I found a layer of rippled ice beneath its shell. Frost cased over our eyelashes. After two weeks of cold, the snowmobilers’ faces began to blister. The edges of their nostrils cracked open. They bled. When we arrived in the next village, townspeople were drifting the packed snow, trailing the sharp smell of alcohol from their open mouths.

THE  BERINGIA OPERATES under a dry law. Still, it has a long history of tying sodden participants to trees so they wouldn’t attack anyone. In theory, any member of the group could have been expelled for drinking, although in practice people carried flasks and stashed bottles under their seats. One blacked-out snowmobile driver drove a wavering quarter mile before he was pushed to his own passenger seat and someone else took over the controls. No one mentioned it to the organizers, who in turn pretended not to already know.

Competition came and went. The mushers slept pressed side by side like baby mice. But as the days drew on, the race grew harsher between them all: This one, that one, was cheating. He shaved off a mile by leaving the trail. She refused to admit that she stole two dogs. He was switching out his tired animals in every town. They reported each other. Some were docked minutes. There were disputed friendships, soured friendships, years of anger, old affairs. Rivalries, jealousies, sport, sex.

Sex. Always sex. Despite our padded snowsuits and the fact that no one had bathed in ages, the Beringia was ruled by desire. My notes became not much more than a catalogue of touches, winks, and suggestions. I’d pictured this event as a race, then as an expedition, but at times in truth it seemed only like a mat of intimacies and betrayals. Because I could hardly speak, people came to me with their secrets: one about marriage, another about disease. I promised not to tell and so I won’t...but. But riding on the back of a snowmobile through an entirely white world, I thought, who cares about connections, who cares about confidences? 

We slept on reindeer skins that smelled like vanilla tobacco. We lashed tarps and smashed sleds. I scraped lines of black blood from the spines of frozen fish, and watched my hands turn from red to purple to white from the cold, and loved it.

And then I was left behind. “No,” I told an organizer in a hallway 250 miles from the end. “I’m here to write about the race...you understand that if I don’t see it all, I lose my story, I lose everything?” Zrya, I kept saying in Russian, which means “in vain”—in vain I’ve shaped my life these past weeks around your appetites, in vain I’ve arrived here with my notebooks and knives only to be abandoned. Zrya.

Another organizer, who was also being left, said, “Can’t you just make the end of your story up?” Covering my face with my dry palms, I got hysterical.

The race was dropping volunteers to make room for extra fuel. After a week, a helicopter would bring four of us to the race finish. Gutted, I stood outside without my jacket to watch the yellow oil barrels being secured to trailers. When the organizers were finally pulling on their masks, I plucked at the race leader’s sleeve. “Take me, please,” I begged, but he didn’t. The four of us stood at our base’s door and lifted our palms in farewell, and the departing volunteers waved back, and then they were gone. We went inside. My heart was broken.

I would never see what the mushers saw.

THE FIRST WAS so angry. It wasn’t his fault—he’d been pushed into this blood rage by the race organizers, the regional bureaucrats, the mushers who wouldn’t talk to him, the people that didn’t love him, his dogs that refused to cooperate, his ex-wife. He shoved his sled forward in hate. 

The second finished in third place years ago, and now he was coming in second to last. What did he care? The race gave him food and shelter and a month-long tour through the wilderness. The third dropped out. The fourth got sick. The fifth couldn’t stop crying. 

The sixth had already run this expedition a dozen times. The seventh passed out holy water in the villages and blasphemed on the track. The eighth had been this competition’s champion long before she herself began participating. The ninth was racing toward his 50th birthday, the last day of the race. The 10th was running near the back of the pack, but she still seemed like a winner. The 11th would race this length and then mush another 600 miles home. 

The 12th thanked God. Thanked Him for the packed powder underfoot, good health, bright sun. Thanked God he won this year—he won—he did it—he did it—thank God!

The 13th shouted at his dogs, “Catch up! Catch up!” The 14th put his arms around the others’ shoulders and slurred against their ears. The 15th sent the rest of the racers running in fear. Hunched on their sled runners, they called, “How far away is the 15th musher? How many minutes?” He came at them like a storm. Though he finished second this year, he blew in to the finish line grinning.

The 16th’s dogs refused to move. A metal-tipped pole cold in his glove, the 16th musher rose from his sled. Knowing the pole’s weight, his dogs, shrinking, began to cry.

OPEN THE WINDOWS of the helicopter. That’s my advice to you: A mile up, slide open the portholes, so snow can settle against your feet and your broken heart can rattle in your rib cage. In the tundra at the top of a peninsula, at the far eastern edge of an enormous country, return to the Beringia and feel that you are coming home. Kiss the cheeks of the tired racers. Black and yellow ribbons mark 685 miles of beaten snow at your back. After 20 days, the Beringia has reached its final finish line in Ossora, leaving in its wake iron crosses, donated clothing, dog urine, and stripped reindeer bones. Did you get your story, after all? Yes. No. Chase this race forever. Return in 11 months. Want, now, most of all, to be back on the endless Beringia. 

This article was originally published in the online magazine TheMorningNews.org. Reprinted with permission.


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