On the seventy-five-mile stretch to Nikolai, beleaguering winds swept the sandbars and gravel of Kuskokwim River's South Fork clear of snow. Claire muscled the sled around driftwood tangles and glare ice. She and her team confronted the Buffalo Tunnels – narrow tracts of exposed dirt, rock and tussocks wallowed out by roaming buffalo in the area – and managed to avoid any wrong turns. She stopped trailside to snack the dogs, check their feet, and repair the sled's cracked brushbow with duct tape and wire.
Crossing the Farewell Burn – once a wicked path of snags and stumps through the remains of a massive forest fire that consumed over a million acres in the late '70s, now a groomed stretch of intermittent dirt and new growth – she stopped trailside to snack, check feet, and replace sled runners. She met one challenge after another with increased confidence in herself and her team. Muscles she didn't know she had complained from pumping and ski-poling to help her dogs power up hillsides and through soft snow. Fogged by lack of sleep, everything took longer than expected, from dog care to reaching the next checkpoint.
She'd never felt so alive.
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