Ghosts of a Thought


A turtle the size of a dog bootie laid motionless on the snow-covered trail. Small as it was, it caught the attention of the musher driving her dog team toward the next checkpoint in the race. Soon, other turtles like it appeared, dozens of them.
And the musher began to weep.
She was concerned about returning the turtles to water and the safety of their homes. But with temperatures in the forties below zero, every pond and lake was frozen for hundreds of miles.
The musher was Colleen Wallin, a perpetual top-ten finisher in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. At the time of her turtle episode, the Beargrease showcased nearly four-hundred miles of trail. It ran beside the North Shore of Lake Superior from Duluth, Minnesota, to just south of the Canadian border, and back.
Colleen’s strategy for that race included a fast stop at a later checkpoint simply to reload snacks for the team, change booties on some dogs and fill her Nalgene water bottle. Though she stored the bottle in an insulated holder, it somehow didn’t slide back properly and the water began to freeze. When she needed it later, she had to muscle off the cover and use a knife to chisel out as much water she could. Then she began seeing turtles.
Colleen’s sister Mo was one of her dog handlers. No sooner did Mo hear the turtle stories, than she forced Colleen to chug three consecutive bottles of warm Gatorade. She also insisted that Colleen eat and sleep for a few hours.
Colleen was hallucinating, a condition that occasionally infiltrates musher psyche during marathon-distance events. They’re often caused by sleep deprivation, dehydration or both.
Once rehydrated, Colleen was able to reflect, reassemble and retell her adventure: The turtles were actually dog booties that had fallen off the paws of other teams on trail.
Dehydration had monkeyed with her head earlier in her career, too. On that occasion, she was crossing a lake during a ground blizzard and approached a cabin. Its lights glowed from inside like a Terry Redlin painting. Blizzard notwithstanding, she could clearly see her husband, Ward, and another handler. They were leaning against a beautiful porch railing at the cabin and wearing yellow sunglasses. Colleen was furious. They were supposed to be handling dogs for her.
In reality, the cabin was a mirage. In reality, Ward and the handler were at a checkpoint waiting for her arrival. In reality, she wasn’t quiet about what she thought she saw and lit into them. Everyone nearby started looking toward their truck.
“Okay you guys!” she barked. “I’m in a ground blizzard on a lake and you two are standing there, just standing there on the porch with your stupid yellow sunglasses, watching and not helping!”
Recognizing the situation, Ward turned to the other handler. “Get some water,” he said. “She’s dehydrated.”
Trail phantasms are familiar territory in the Wallin family and Ward has not been exempt. He said one of his most memorable occurred during his first run of the Can-Am Crown marathon in Maine. A heavy, wet snow had amassed shortly into the race and compounded the grueling conditions of a two-hundred-fifty-mile trail already designed to be extraordinarily rugged.
Being his first time, Ward didn’t know many of the Eastern mushers. But he and his team took up traveling with two French Canadian teams as a group for safety. One, Andre Longchamps, spoke no English. The other, Robert Fredette, spoke some English and became interpreter. Unfortunately, Robert fell behind, leaving Ward and Andre to figure ways to communicate. Ward had been breaking most of the trail and tried to encourage Andre to take a turn, but Andre didn’t catch on.
Over time, they joined other mushers including Matt Carstens. Ward asked him to spend some time up front to give his lead dog Lizzie a rest. She’d been in snow up to her neck. In this way, teams leap-frogged each other as they traveled, sharing the grind of being in lead on unbroken trail. Finally, they reached a long, downhill stretch and Ward saw a light on a hill ahead. He asked Matt about it, but only received a baffled look in return. The conversation that ensued almost became an argument:
“Is that the checkpoint ahead up on that high hill?” Ward asked. “It looks like the lights of a semi-truck.”
“What are you talking about?” Matt replied.
“Is that the checkpoint up there by those lights. We’ve been at this for hours.”
“I don’t know what the hell you’re looking at, Ward.”
“Don’t you see those lights. It looks like it’s a Peterbilt truck with its headlights shining up that high hill over there.”
“There is no hill over there.”
“I thought you said you’ve run this race before.”
“I have.”
“Well, there’s a hill there. Right there!”
“What are you smoking, man? There’s nothing.”
Though Ward had consumed all his water, he said he had turned to absolute mush. He was the only one seeing lights. Word of it traveled the trail, too, and other mushers let him know it. “Hey Yankee,” one razzed. “Thanks for blazing a great trail. Did the headlights of the semi show the trail for you?”
Ward has run the Can-Am many times since and has made good friends in the process. He prides himself on knowing a trail and its landmarks. But this aberration lingered. When he returned for subsequent races, he still couldn’t recollect where that long downhill was. “After maybe the third time,” he said, “I quit looking around because there was no high ridge where that semi was parked. It was snowing so damn hard and I was tired and…oh, God.”
Shaking the effects of visions can vary. Beargrease veteran Shawn McCarty said he was having a pretty uneventful run three days into the race. He’d had about six hours of sleep since its start. Then from nowhere, he noticed a highway-sized billboard advertising for State Farm Insurance slightly off trail. He pushed on and eventually the billboard disappeared on its own. “It didn’t move with me,” he said. “It was just there and I went by it.”
But common sense kicked in once he realized the State Farm billboard was gone. He said it looked real, then remembered there are no billboards on trail. However, he questioned its real-world correlation. “I don’t have State Farm and I don’t think about insurance a lot,” he said.
Those later days on the Beargrease trail can take a mental toll and showed no mercy on seasoned musher Peter McClelland. He said his dogs know that running the race includes mandatory rest along the way. So the dogs hunker down and sleep hard immediately when given the chance. They know they’ll be on trail again shortly. But sleep isn’t that easy for Peter. He’s busy caring for the team and he can’t fall asleep on demand. He often just lays down without getting a wink.
During the early-morning hours of the third night, only the small circle of light from his headlamp illuminated the woods. Then gradually within the timber, Peter began seeing colossal, multicolored fish. They were twenty feet tall and swimming in and out of the trees like in an aquarium. He shook his head and they’d vanish only to reappear.
Peter had kept tropical fish when he was in high school. But that possible link to real life might sound humdrum compared to a hallucination he’d heard about. It involved a well-known Iditarod musher who saw risqué images. “And boy,” Peter wondered, “I see fish.”
Veterinarian and musher Jen Freking takes a scientific, matter-of-fact view of hallucinations she’s enjoyed throughout her career. She’s twice finished second in the Beargrease marathon. The first was her rookie year of the race. But she also experienced one of her favorite hallucinations.
Fatigue had set in by the second night. Moonlight from behind the trees cast linear blue shadows across the darkness as she came upon a straight, flat section of trail. She said that type of terrain is less stimulating, the team gets lulled into a rhythm and the dogs just lope along. It’s a setup for drowsiness.
Without warning, a collapsed stepladder materialized in the middle of the trail. Her heartrate skyrocketed, she jolted awake and braced herself for the collision. But as soon as she ran over the ladder, she looked back. The ladder wasn’t there.
“It was nothing too serious, just hilarious,” she said, “a little hallucination from fatigue…I must have connected those shadows with something that looked like a ladder.”
Every marathon musher interprets these close-to-true encounters in their own way. But as a community, mushers are close and generous. Mention a hallucination to one musher and they can name the musher it happened to. Their sense of collaboration complements their competitive spirit and radiates a willingness to help shepherd everyone across the finish line. Their stories have taught winter survival, kindled friendships, sparked laughter, and for Colleen Wallin, scored a box of chocolate turtles from co-workers when she returned to everyday life.


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