Akiak – A Tale from the Iditarod, by Robert J. Blake
Akiak was an experienced lead dog – an intelligent dog who was good at finding the trail, noticing hidden dangers (like thin ice or big rocks), and who understood what the human musher wanted the dog team to do. She was part of a team running the Iditarod Sled Dog Race seven times, with three top-ten finishes. She was getting older and would not run another Iditarod race.
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is 1,151 miles long, from Anchorage, Alaska to Nome, Alaska. The race commemorates the famous 1925 dog team relay that rushed life-saving serum to Nome, Alaska during a diphtheria epidemic. Mushers and dog teams come from all over Alaska, the rest of the United States, and from countries all over the world to compete in the race. They stop at checkpoints along the way – where vets examine the dogs, and mushers check-in with race officials.
“The team followed Akiak. Through steep climbs and dangerous descents, icy waters and confusing trails, Akiak always found the safest and fastest way. She never got lost.”
Akiak and her team began the race in Anchorage, and raced steadily for several days. When the team moved into first place, they had to run through deep snow. By the time they reached the Ophir checkpoint on the fourth day, Akiak had snow jammed in one of her pawpads, and was limping. Mick (a woman), her musher, knew the injury was not serious (it would be better in a day), but needed to continue the race. So, she left Akiak at the checkpoint with race volunteers to be flown back to Anchorage.
However, on the morning of the fifth day, when race volunteers tried to get Akiak into the airplane for Anchorage, the small plane shifted in a wind gust. Akiak twisted out of the volunteer’s hands, and was off.
Akiak ran off looking for her team. She was the lead dog. She needed to lead the team on the trail. Trail volunteers knew Akiak was loose, and that an experienced lead dog would stay on the trail. They tried to catch her as she trotted into the next checkpoint, but she got away again.
By the eighth day, when Akiak got to the Shaktoolik checkpoint, she was about six hours behind her team. Volunteers chased her into a building where some mushers were sleeping – and chased her around knocking things over until a musher opened the back door letting her escape, whispering: “Go find them, girl.”
As Akiak ran along the trail, people’s thinking changed.
At Elim, people put food out for her. Almost everybody was rooting for Akiak to catch her team.
By the ninth day, when Akiak was running through Golovin, people lined the trail to watch her run through the town. She was just two hours behind her team.
By the tenth day, Mick and the dog team were almost to Safety (the checkpoint before Nome and the end of the race). They were confused by a series of snowmobile tracks and were trying to find the right trail. Mick got the team going along what she thought was the right trail, only to have the team stop. Akiak had found them. And, Akiak stopped the team, turned them around, and directed them to a different trail. Then, she ran to her usual place at the head of the team and waited. Mick could not put Akiak back in harness (rules of the race), so Akiak got in the sled and, in her own way, Akiak led the team to Nome where a crowd awaited their arrival.
As sure as if she had been in the lead position, Akiak won the Iditarod Race.
“Nothing was going to stop this dog from winning,”Mick told the crowd. Akiak knew it. The other dogs knew it, too.
This story cheers for Akiak. Blake’s oil painting illustrations of the dogs and the snowy landscapes beautifully accompany the text. There are maps showing the Iditarod trail in the inside covers of the book. There is an author’s note with information about the race. For more information about the race, go to Iditarod.com — they have a section for students, with activities.