A ground blizzard drove snow and ice sideways through the narrow wind-tunnel of Kwik River valley, obliterating the trail. It tore at the little warmth remaining in Claire's exhausted limbs and scoured the exposed areas of her face with a gale of pellets like course sand.
"Hey there, Zach," she shouted through her neck gaiter, "how're you doing? Riley, you still with us? How's that Pepper and Trouble doing up there?"
They had endured frigid gusting winds on the barren coastline from Unalakleet to Shaktoolik, crossed pressure ridges serenaded by the unnerving sound of cracking sea ice over Norton Bay to Koyuk, and finally headed inland, hoping to make Elim checkpoint before dark. If they kept moving, they'd make it.
The wind and cold weren't her only enemies as evening neared. Fatigue made every move and decision an effort in determination. Talking to her dogs helped her stay awake, if not alert. She wondered if this was how it felt to be an addict trying to go clean, her mind obsessed with that next fix – in her case, a good night's sleep – while her body just tried to survive.
Her goggles frosted over. She swiped at the lenses but they frosted again within minutes. She lost sight of the trail markers, lost sight of Handsome and Ranger, then Toolik and Treker.
Are we even going in the right direction anymore?
She pulled her goggles off and attempted to peer through the fir edge of her parka hood. Ice crystals formed on her lashes and froze her right eye shut. She rubbed at it with her mitten and put her goggles back on. Unless the wind had changed direction, they were still headed toward Elim. She hoped.
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