When he opened his eyes, his sled mangled, his head throbbing, Scott Janssen awoke to find his dogs huddled around him. There was Queen, the eldest at age 6. There was Moegli, the youngest, only 18 months old. His full team of faithful, yelping charges was there, eagerly awaiting their musher’s next command.
“I realized something wasn’t right, though, because we all had a blanket of snow covering us,’’ said Janssen, reached by phone late last week, recounting his Iditarod race gone so terribly off the track. “When we crashed, hit my head on a stump and went night-night. It didn’t seem that long, but I must have been out, oh, I guess for a couple of hours.’’
Janssen, 52, is known as the “Mushing Mortician’’ in and around Anchorage, where he runs a successful, funeral home business. He has now entered the legendary Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race four times, including in 2012 when one of his dogs suffered cardiac arrest on the trail and was revived when an alert Janssen applied heart massage and mouth-to-snout resuscitation.
“That’s Marshall and he’s doing great now,’’ said the alpha dog/lead daredevil in the Janssen household. “He’s retired and lives with us in the house . . . with full benefits.’’
This year’s Iditarod, which could see its first musher cross the finish line in Nome on Monday, ended after only a couple of days for Janssen, soon after he reluctantly triggered the “SOS’’ button on the GPS device that only this year became mandatory for sledders.
“I stared at that [GPS] and flipped the cover at least 15-20 times before I hit the button,’’ said Janssen, a veteran outdoor extremist, a man accustomed to Alaska hurt and cold in all their menacing shapes and forms. “Pushing the SOS button was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.’’
It wasn’t the wrecked sled and head slam that finally scuttled Janssen’s adventure. He was able to right the sled, mend its broken parts, and mush on across a trail that this year, according to Janssen, has been inordinately and painfully bereft of snowcover. The Alaskan wilderness remains a wondrous, breathtaking beauty, he said, but warm temps this year, have made for a trail “that’s just all kinds of hell.’’
“I don’t use the term ‘global warming,’ ’’ said Janssen, who grew up in Minnesota and moved to Alaska in the mid-’80s. “But I do know what we’ve had here is climate change. I see mountain shrub growing in places I’ve never seen it grow, the glaciers melting faster than ever. Climate change here is undeniable.’’
Ultimately it was one of Janssen’s dogs, Hooper, who greased the skids for his exit from this year’s race. On a particularly tricky part of the course, Janssen loosened the neck lines on Hooper and a few of the other dogs in order to keep them from being injured. Well, the slackened line was Hooper’s invitation to do some sightseeing, by himself, which in turn forced Janssen to recover Hooper.
This is where the 2014 Iditarod turned into Janssen’s wilderness version of the “Out-of-Towners’’, the 1970 Neil Simon film that starred Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis as George and Gwen Kellerman. The Kellermans, visiting New York City from Twin Oaks, Ohio, found nothing but trouble in Manhattan. During their brief visit, they were mugged (twice), kidnapped, blasted by an exploding manhole cover, attacked by protestors in front of the Cuban Embassy.
There are no manholes in wilderness Alaska, but there’s plenty of ice at this time of year. In pursuit of the miscreant Hooper, the 5-foot-6-inch, 178-pound, previously-concussed Janssen slipped while dashing across an icy creek. His Kellerman moment. Upon his crash landing, he cracked a bone in his right foot, sending pain searing up his leg. Worse (if that’s possible), his fall smashed the ice, sending chilled water rapidly filling into boots and soaking his outerwear.
To add a touch of comedy to rival Simon’s script, amid it all Hooper returned dutifully to the rest of the pack and was ready to resume what was left of the 1,000-mile haul. But Janssen, sprawled in the creek, was finished. He figured he might have coped with the pain, but the soaked gear in that bonechilling cold left him with no option other than the SOS button.
The bit of fortune in it all was that another musher, Newton Marshall, a Jamaican, pulled over to help Janssen straighten up and prepare for the rescue helicopter.
“I always try to keep a sense of humor . . . it’s the best medicine,’’ said Janssen, recounting how Marshall discovered him, flat on his back and soaking wet in the creek. “Marshall says to me, ‘Hey, mon, what are you doing there?’ And I said, ‘Hey, this is how we cool off in Alaska.’ ’’
It took the Alaska Air National Guard rescue helicopter and an in-flight assist from a C-130 refueling tanker to whisk the hobbled, addled, chilled Janssen back to Providence Hospital in Anchorage. He was admitted with the foot fracture, concussion, and a core body temperature, he said, of 76 degrees.
“They scanned my brain and found out, yeah, I have a brain,’’ he said. “But my wife’s not so sure of that.’’
Rescuers gathered up Janssen’s dogs and by late last week the pack was on a reunion flight back to Anchorage. The proud owner recited the passenger manifest as he awaited their arrival: Beatrice, Jack (lead dog), Murray, Eagle, Queen, Cutie Pie, Cosmo, Moegli, Iceman, Spot (of course), Hooper (Janssen: “He’s nuts!’’), Toby, Possum, Rocky, Poseidon, and Raja.
“I never would have pushed that button just for me,’’ said Janssen, recalling the end of the trail once more. “But the shape I was in, I couldn’t take care of my dogs. And when you’ve got your best friends standing there, looking at you, needing your help . . . I’m telling you, I cried when I hit the button.’’
Janssen intends Sunday to be on a flight out of Anchorage, headed to Nome. By late last week, only 56 of the 69 starters were still in the race. He wants to stand at the finish to see his friends, root them in, all of them winners.
“I’m worried about my fellow mushers,’’ he said from his home in Anchorage. “The hell isn’t over for them yet.’’