From Ruby, the Iditarod Trail traveled the snow-covered frozen Yukon River. The next checkpoint was Galena, fifty miles away, and then Nulato, another fifty miles. Claire and her team were somewhere between Galena and Nulato when the setting sun bled brilliant red and orange across the horizon. "Isn't that the most gorgeous thing you've ever seen?" she called out to her dogs. Picking up on her enthusiasm, they trekked along as though eager to reach it before it disappeared.
Almost two miles wide in places, the Yukon's vastness commanded awe. Chunks of pack ice interrupted an otherwise flat surface bordered on the right by a low range of mountains. Claire ski-poled to help her dogs maintain their speed and to lessen the bite of the thirty-below air frosting the fur rim of her parka hood. The temperature seemed to drop another ten degrees when they passed through the shadows cast by the high bank. Thankfully, they had the wind at their back.
Watching the sun dip low and the colors wane, Claire decided this moment alone made the whole Iditarod experience worth it. "How about it, guys? Does it get any better than this?"
In the pause between sunset and darkness of nightfall, she saw what looked like steam rising from the river ice in the distance. She stared for long seconds, thinking it might be another hallucination. Her forehead still smarted from the powerline delusion. But the steam remained steady, reminding her of Bagby Hot Springs in the Mount Hood National Forest.
"What on earth?" The dogs ears stood up. Claire understood their skittish curiosity. Ice should not steam. And there certainly weren't any hot springs out here. The trail appeared to head straight for it. "Easy, guys."
As they got closer, she saw the slice of open water to the left of the trail markers. The cold river water condensing as it hit the colder air above it created the steam cloud. "Would you look at that," Claire said. "Hold up. I need to get a picture."
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