First, Debbie Clarke Moderow felt the cramping. Then came vomiting and other “gastrointestinal events,” as she delicately puts it. And that was to say nothing of the vertigo, hallucinations, exhaustion, blizzards, sled wipeouts, and the moment when, less than 200 miles from the finish line, her dogs refused to run.
But when she got sick, Moderow was more worried about her 16 Alaskan huskies than herself. After a night’s rest, she ruffled her dogs’ necks and spoke sweetly to them. Then, with a call of “Hike!” they set off again, the dogs towing her sled across snowy mountains, icy rivers, and stark tundra.
“Nothing is sacred out there,” says Moderow of her experiences on the more than 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail. “There’s all sorts of real-life stuff that happens out there, and you become extremely casual and straightforward about all of it. It’s just the way it is.”
Moderow, originally from Greenwich, Conn., first entered the notoriously grueling Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 2003, at age 47. She did it again in 2005. She recounts the story of these two expeditions in her new book, “Fast Into the Night: A Woman, Her Dogs, and Their Journey North on the Iditarod Trail.” The memoir tracks Moderow’s quest to overcome defeat and doubt on the trail from Anchorage to Nome, and to mourn loss and recover grace, as she connects with creatures that control her fate in an unforgiving landscape.
Competing in the Iditarod, over what is typically an 8- to 15-day course, the author drove sled dogs named Piney, Kanga, Su, Nacho, Sydney, Reno, Fang, Juliet, Snickers, Taiga, Zeppelin, and Strider. But she herself was driven by something else: “the dynamic between the musher and the 16 beating hearts out in front of you,” says Moderow, now 60, reached by telephone at her kennel near Denali National Park in Alaska. “Your dogs read you, possibly more than you can read yourself.”
The roots of this New England woman’s canine devotion, and her surprising journey to becoming an Iditarod racer, go back to childhood. The daughter of adventuresome parents — a pilot mother and a father who gave his bride a shotgun as a wedding present — Moderow grew up vacationing on Cape Cod, skiing in Vermont, and wandering with her dog in the woods behind her house. These formative experiences were “a huge gift to me,” she says. “It’s really what I’m made of, this desire to interact with the land and other species that are out there.”
“We were doing crazy stuff,” recalls Stefan Schernthaner, 68, Moderow’s skiing coach at Vermont’s Stratton Mountain, who first met a teenaged Moderow in 1973 (coincidentally, the same year the Iditarod was born). “She has a natural instinct for movement and a lot of common sense.”
In 1979, after graduating from Princeton and a restless stint as a paralegal in Manhattan, a young Debbie Clarke moved to Wyoming. Then, on vacation in Alaska for a mountaineering expedition, she met a fellow outdoors nut named Mark Moderow. During a hike together, she suffered a nearly fatal fall into a glacial crevasse, which sealed the deal. Five months later, they married, settled permanently in Alaska, and eventually had two children, Andy and Hannah.
Sled dogs entered the picture when, a decade later, a surprise gift arrived to help nurse Moderow’s grief over two miscarriages. The present? Her first husky, Salt, whose “quiet, inquisitive companionship,” she writes, “steadied my world.” Before long, the family had raised a team of 20 sled dogs, and began mushing. After Andy finished his first Iditarod in 2001, at age 18, he issued a challenge: “Mom, you have to do this.” When her kids left for college, Moderow began to train for the race.
“I think it’s in her nature. She excels at everything she does,” says Vern Halter, a family friend and top five Iditarod finisher, via phone from Willow, Alaska. Dogsledding is the rare sport “where men and women can compete equally,” Halter notes. “Now the numbers of women have gone way up. Believe me, they are competitive.” Last year, two women finished in the top five. He says that fewer that 700 people worldwide have finished the race.
As for Moderow’s own success or failure, this reporter is loath to reveal any spoilers. The entire two-race escapade is captured in “Fast Into the Night”— from the dozens of “drop bags” crammed with 1,300 pounds of dog food and 2,500 dog booties and distributed across the race’s checkpoints, to the sorrow of “dropped dogs” a musher must abandon if a canine misbehaves or becomes injured.
“By the time I got to the finish line of my double Iditarod, I knew I wanted to write a book about it,” Moderow says. “I had lived a big story. I knew that if I had gotten to Nome easily, I wouldn’t have much of a story at all.” She had no idea how long that next journey would take. Moderow began scribbling in 2005, then attended writing conferences and spoke to agents. Realizing she “needed to learn how to write better,” in 2010, she enrolled in Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop. Eleven years later, her memoir was published.
Her mentor, Dinah Lenney, a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and core faculty member at Rainier’s MFA program, says Moderow’s writing odyssey mirrored the ups and downs of a long-distance race. “She wasn’t sure how she’d get to the end, and isn’t that just like mushing, not to mention life? But she knew she could do it,” Lenney wrote in an e-mail. “You have to discover something in the writing. You have to surprise yourself. Otherwise there’s no point in writing it.”
Today, Moderow still raises huskies, and in recent years she’s competed in shorter 50- to 200-mile races. But the Iditarod no longer tempts her, even as its start date, the first Saturday in March, approaches. She wants to keep blazing fresh trails. “I’ll never,” she begins to say, then stops herself. “We’re not going to do Iditarod again.” That “we” means her and her dogs.
Still, even to promote “Fast Into the Night,” it pains her to be away from her pups, her team, now in the heart of winter. “How can I be gone this time of year?”
Debbie Clarke Moderow will read at Harvard Book Store on Feb. 22, Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport on Feb. 23, and the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vt., on Feb. 26.
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com. Follow him on Twitter @ethanfreak.