Dog after dog scurried into the helicopter, finally free of the ripping wind. When every inch was covered by small furry bodies, rescuers closed the doors and began handing more animals through the windows.
The rescues by the Alaska Air National Guard on Monday marked the end of a search for six mushers and 88 sled dogs that became stranded along a stormy stretch of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. The dogs and mushers were recovering Tuesday.
“I was holding myself up, trying not to sit on the dogs,” flight engineer Staff Sgt. Dave Torrance said.
The 1,000-mile competition is considered by many to be the world’s toughest sled dog race. After 22 mushers began the trek on Saturday from the frozen Chena River in Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon, nine mushers were reported missing. Three ended up finding their way back to the trail Monday morning.
The six teams, along with dogs that had sprinted away from their musher, were caught in a blizzard at Eagle Summit, which has a descending slope considered challenging in the best conditions.
“It was like being in a sandstorm,” said Regina Wycoff, 36, of Healy, who was among those who made it back. “It was cold. The top of my head was just coated with ice.”
Conditions were so bad that the Guard crew in the Pavehawk HH-60 helicopter had to find an alternative route to search for the mushers at Eagle Summit. By the time the crew reached the site, a Guard crew in a rescue tanker had spotted two dog teams. The other four mushers and dogs soon emerged in the same half-mile stretch.
Rescuers reached musher Jennifer Cochran first. Her dogs were barely visible, all but their snouts burrowed in mounds of snow. The 33-year-old Fairbanks musher was nowhere to be seen — at first.
“The dogs didn’t move at all and the musher was zipped inside her sled bag,” said Lt. Col. Dave Looney, the helicopter’s chief pilot. “She had crawled inside for shelter. The wind was blowing so hard, she didn’t even know we were there, and the helicopter is really loud.”
Cochran and her worn-out team were the first lifted from the slope. The others soon followed, dogs and mushers stacked within the 5-feet by 7-feet of available space inside the Pavehawk. Some eagerly went in, some were spooked by the noise.
“Once they were in together, though, they were pretty calm,” said Senior Master Sgt. Dave Shuman.
Race veterinarians quickly tended to the animals. Some were dehydrated but quickly bounced back, according to race marshal Mike McCowan. The animals and people were doing fine Tuesday, he said.
“My hat’s off completely to the search-and-rescue folks ... although I imagine it had to take some time to hose down that helicopter after all those dogs,” McCowan said.