My first bush plane. The Cessna 185. Just me, the pilot, and a whole lot of video gear. I was looking forward to this adventure, but I wasn’t so excited about my nauseous headache and churning stomach on the morning of day 1. Was I getting the flu? Was I nervous? Must have been the moose stew I ate the day prior.
As we lifted into the air from The Millennium (aka The Lakefront Hotel – home base of the Iditarod Air Force) the headache started to subside and all nausea vanished. The clear sky and cockpit air conditioning (an open vent) couldn’t have been more refreshing, beautiful and calm.
In contrary to the “bus-like” experience of riding a commercial jet I would compare the small plane ride to riding your bike to work. You are swift, direct, mobile, tangibly in control (well, not me, but the pilot), and free to move as you want.
The Longest Night
It was calm. Ten, maybe fifteen below. Fahrenheit. Little did I know that as I stepped out of our cozy sleeping quarters (the village school building) that I was stepping into the beginning of a national news story.
It was sometime after midnight when I stepped into the cold, bundled head to toe, to check my generator’s gas supply. It was my job to keep the power on to our satellite, which kept the crew connected and our live stream camera ready. Based on Aliy Zirkle’s GPS tracker, she was about 12 miles out and could be the first musher to arrive to Nulato as soon as an hour.
Between the door of the village school and my generator, a native man on a snow machine (aka a snow mobile for those lower 48 people) pulling a sled, pulled up and stepped off. It was just me (the Iditarod film crew rookie) and a dog veterinarian that appeared to be awake. He quickly engaged us, explaining he was hauling freight down the Yukon when he came across racer Aliy Zirkle. “She isn’t doing good, she’s really shaken up,” he said. Aily told him someone was trying to kill her, a man in white. He went on to relay the story: someone had been driving their snow machine at high speeds directly at Aily, nearly missing the moving target.
After telling us the news, the man quickly jumped back on his snow machine and headed back into the dark, where I can only assume was further down the river toward his destination and out from harm’s way.
We stood there dumbfounded. We were of no help other than to hustle back inside to relay the message to race officials.
It turned into an hour-and-a-half of confusion. With stories of evil spirits from the village natives, we all began to wonder if it could be a ghost or simply delusions of a sleep-deprived musher. The story was just too bizarre to believe or understand.
We were all relieved when Aliy finally made it in to the checkpoint, but it was a sobering moment when we realized the traveler’s story was true. When we discovered Aliy, she could barely speak, her hands shaking too much to write her name on the check-in paper.
Within a few minutes of making it to safety, she calmed down enough to tell us that the assailant had kept at his attacks for over an hour while she defended herself and her dogs with her only weapon; a race marker (a pointed wood lathe stake). The instigator even stopped and taunted her, only to pull away and come back later to make more attempts.
It was thirty minutes later when musher, Jeff King, pulled into the checkpoint. He was less fortunate. His team had been plowed through. One beloved dog killed, another dog seriously injured.
The assailant did not leave completely unscathed this time. The cowling from his snow machine broke off in the high-speed collision. Jeff grabbed this cowling (pictured above) and the two dogs, and put them on his sled.
It was with this piece of white plastic that the townspeople were able to track down the drunken man who was responsible for the longest night of the 2016 Iditarod.