HE KISSED HIS BOYS goodbye late morning, grabbed his survival gear and headed out into the Alaskan wilderness to try and find their mom 60 miles away in a ground blizzard.
Scotty Watkins had felt this helplessness before. Six weeks earlier.
But this was March 18, Watkins' wife Bridgett was stranded at the Iditarod and conditions were so poor that snowmobiles were being blown over like tumbleweeds. Rescue workers were turning back, but Scotty and his cousin Drew McCann kept going, following ski tracks while crouching in their snowmobiles.
After nearly four hours, they came upon her, and she was standing by her sled. Her collarbone was broken, and her face and fingertips were frost-nipped. Wrapped in a white wind suit, she looked like a marshmallow. He grabbed her and pulled her face to his. "Are you OK?" he asked.
"I'm fine," she told him. "We've just got to save these dogs."
Bridgett Watkins got into her Prius on Monday and returned to her day job as an ER nurse in Fairbanks, Alaska, which may seem anticlimactic after the two months she had.
In February, Watkins and her dog team survived a violent moose attack.
On March 18, Watkins, who'd dreamed of competing in the Iditarod since she was a child, had traversed more than 900 miles and was on her way to the final checkpoint when she ran into the ground blizzard.
Multiple people who were in the storm believed wind gusts topped 70 mph, though there is no weather station in the remote Topkok Hills to clock exact wind speeds. Longtime Iditarod volunteer Mike Owens, who assisted in the rescue, had to turn back after the wind blew over his approximately 750-pound snowmobile.
"Was it life and death? Absolutely," Owens said. "Those people had to move or we were gonna have trouble."
Owens said a total of six mushers were trapped in the storm, but all of them, and their dogs, eventually were rescued and are OK.
Watkins hunkered down with a fellow rookie musher who says she saved his life. Upon her instructions, he helped build a snow cave with an axe and a dog dish. If all of this sounds unbelievable, here's the real kicker -- Watkins, possibly the unluckiest participant of the 2022 Iditarod, is not giving up her quest to ride under the burled arch. And Scotty Watkins, a rugged outdoorsman who broke down twice recalling his desperate search to find her, isn't going to try and convince her otherwise.
"As my wife and my family and all of that, yes, I would love to say, 'You're not doing this again,'" Scotty said. "But I also know that people are made differently.
"I see how happy my wife is on the back of a dog team. And would I quit running dogs or dealing with dogs or scooping poop and feeding dogs and all the craziness that we deal with every day? Would I quit it tomorrow? Sure. Wouldn't bother me a bit. I love dogs. Do I love the running? Yeah, I like it, but I do it to support her because it truly makes her whole."
THE NIGHT OF March 17, Bridgett called Scotty from the White Mountain checkpoint. She asked about the weather. Scotty was already in Nome, which is the site of the finish line. He had a hard time sleeping throughout the Iditarod.
Memories of the moose attack were still fresh. She was on a training run Feb. 3 when a bull moose stomped on her dogs and charged at her and her handler. Watkins emptied her .380 pistol into the 800-pound animal, but it was unfazed. After about an hour, a friend with a rifle arrived and shot the moose dead.
Scotty was at his banking job in Fairbanks that day, hours away from reaching her remote spot, and felt helpless.
Now he was tethered to an Iditarod tracker, watching her movements through a tiny icon. Every time she'd stop to give her dogs a snack, or the tracker froze for a half hour, Scotty's anxiety would soar. Why isn't she moving?
Any comfort he had that Bridgett was in the home stretch, on pace to finish in a day, maybe two, was quickly swallowed away by thoughts of what those final miles on a desolate stretch near the edge of the Bering Sea would entail. The couple lived in Nome shortly after they were married, so they knew the brutality of that trail. "It's not made for human life," Bridgett said.
The most dreaded part of the final stretch of the Iditarod is the Topkok Blowhole, an area in which crippling winds cut through the mountains. She'd never make it to the Blowhole.
But Bob Ten Eyck, senior meteorological technician for the National Weather Service in Nome, said when the wind kicks up in that stretch of tundra between White Mountain and Nome, it can be like "dropp[ing] yourself into a giant snow globe on steroids."
"It would be very, very easy to get disoriented there," he said. "Even in a small enclosure. You can't tell right from left, north from south. You can't stop; once you do that, it's over. I mean, we've had stories of people around here out in the tundra literally freezing to death 10 feet from a cabin or a house. You almost made it, but you didn't. That's how bad it can get here."
When Scotty talked to his wife late into the night of March 17, he'd been tracking the weather for three days. He told her that winds had reached 50 to 55 mph that day in around the Blowhole, but a number of teams had gotten through the area that day and made it out fine. "It's doable," he told her.
The group of six mushers had become friends on the trail, traveling together for about 700 miles. Five of them were rookies. Gerhardt Thiart, 54, was from South Africa. He served in the military, got into the restaurant business and then moved to the United States. He worked more than 20 years to get to the Iditarod, but had far less knowledge of the trail than the 38-year-old Watkins, who ran dogs as a child. Her stepmom, Aliy Zirkle, and father, Allen Moore, competed in more than two dozen Iditarods combined.
Iditarod veteran Brent Sass had won the Iditarod two days earlier, and the group of six mushers in White Mountain the night of March 17 decided that they'd leave 20 minutes apart from each other for the final stretch. That way, they wouldn't spoil each other's moment at the finish line.
Watkins would be the second-to-last one to take off that morning, around 4 a.m. Scotty, who was up by 3, watched her leave on a checkpoint video. Thiart went last. Less than two hours later, Watkins' tracker icon stopped moving.
THE SKY WAS still dark when the winds hit. Watkins had stopped to give her dogs snacks, and fell behind Thiart. About two hours into their run, Thiart's headlamp suddenly disappeared. A strong gust had blown the dogs and sled over once they hit the ice, and Thiart and his team slid down the river.
He managed to stick a hook into a crack in the ice, but Watkins kept falling as she tried to make her way to him. She put on ice cleats and helped his team inch across the Klokerblok River.
Then they had to navigate Watkins' dogs through the ice. Situated at the bottom of a hill with no trees or bushes to provide wind block, Watkins grabbed her cell phone and called Moore and Zirkle. She had to scream to hear anything. They told her she was 12 miles away from the final checkpoint, which had a cabin, and she knew there was no way they'd make it that far. Moore and Zirkle told her the best thing they could do was hunker down. Watkins said that snow was beginning to bury the dogs.
They dug an eight-foot long, three feet deep snow cave big enough for all 19 dogs. They dug so much they sweated. Watkins placed one dog in the cave, and the rest followed, creating a giant pile of gray fur. By then, Zirkle and Moore had told her that the other four mushers were stuck, too.
"Kiddo," Thiart told her, "you grew up in this area. You lead, I follow. Just tell me what to do. Let's save us. Let's save us and the dogs."
The winds were so strong that Thiart asked her if they were in the Blowhole. They positioned themselves outside the cave's opening with their backs against their sleds in the hopes it would shield the dogs from the wind. But snow was still blowing inside, and Watkins said she had to dig the dogs out every 30 minutes.
She told Thiart that if they didn't make a decision soon, the dogs were going to die.
"No dog's going to die on my watch," he told her. "I'm pushing my button."
He hit his SOS button, which disqualified him from the race. Thirty minutes later, Watkins pushed hers in case Thiart's signal didn't go through. They cried. Help was still hours away.
BACK IN NOME, Scotty Watkins was pacing. Instinct told him to hop on his snowmobile and go get her. But if he did actually find Bridgett, she'd be disqualified. He couldn't ride in and destroy her dream.
He felt sick to his stomach. He was supposed to meet Mike Owens at Iditarod headquarters when the came in that Thiart had hit his SOS button. Owens gave him the OK to go, and called Ed Stang, a dentist who had a cabin in an abandoned town site east of the storm. He asked Stang to do a welfare check on the mushers, and around 11 a.m., Stang came upon Watkins and Thiart.
Stang decided that they should move the dogs to a wooded spot about three miles away for shelter. They piled seven dogs into a nylon sled bag, placed them on a sled and Stang's snowmobile towed it while Watkins steered. They made it to the trees and Watkins tied the dogs down.
When Stang went back for more dogs, Thiart fell off the sled and broke his ankle. He propped his leg up, and Stang and Watkins went back for more dogs. Upon their return to the wooded area, Watkins noticed that Thiart was hypothermic, and his pulse was threading. She said he was going into shock.
"He's going to die," she told Stang, and asked for a helicopter. But the winds were too strong to land, so Stang took Thiart to White Mountain on his snowmobile while Watkins waited alone with the dogs. She looked in the distance where the rest of the dogs were, and saw a white cloud enveloping the land.
A man who lives in a nearby village was traveling home when he spotted Watkins. She asked him to take her back to the snow cave. When they arrived, the dogs looked as if they were buried, she said. She got off the snowmobile, and a gust of wind knocked her over, and she landed on her shoulder.
She said she laid on the ground and cried for a moment, then picked herself up and started digging her dogs out of the snow. Just when she thought things looked hopeless, two snowmobilers pulled up. It was Scotty and Drew McCann.
Scotty said Bridgett was delirious. All she could talk about was saving the dogs. But to get them to the wooded area three miles away, someone who knew how to mush had to drive the sled.
"So here I have a broken collarbone trying to drive a dog sled," Bridgett said, "Seventy-mile-per-hour winds, and I would get flipped and barrel rolled down the mountain. I got thrown and beat up more in the last 12 hours than I did in the previous 12 days."
When they came upon the wooded area with the rest of the dogs, two volunteer Iditarod veterinarians were there with straw and tarps for the animals.
Ralph Yerex, a vet from Wisconsin, bedded the dogs down. He said the dogs were healthy and ate and drank well. They were transported to White Mountain, then flown to Nome.
He wasn't surprised that none of the dogs were injured.
"These guys are the Olympic athletes of the dog world," Yerex said.
ROOKIE MUSHERS WHO complete the Iditarod receive the Finisher's Belt Buckle, and for a long time, Thiart really wanted that trinket. But now he has a different perspective.
He hobbled over to his dogs, who were at a kennel in Sterling, Alaska. The dogs were barking and playing, tails wagging. They were all safe. He and Watkins were OK, and he's certain he'll keep in touch with her. "It's a bond," he said. "It's a thing we experienced together and it's going to stick with us for a long time."
The group of six mushers snapped a photo the night of March 17, just before the chaos, and Thiart posted it on his Facebook page. He joked that he finally got to see the Blowhole on his helicopter ride to the hospital.
He said the events of March 18 left his body feeling old. But he isn't ready to retire from the Iditarod.
When Watkins got home, she spent the next three days sleeping. At first she thought she was just fatigued from being out in the harsh conditions. That Friday, she tested positive for COVID-19.
It took her a little time to process everything that has happened in the past two months. She went from battling PTSD from the moose attack to getting back on the sled and training.
She's cleared the virus and is back to normal life, as normal as Bridgett Watkins' life can be. But she can't explain why she has to get back to the Iditarod. Most people wouldn't understand.
"I mean, I don't have these dogs just to look at," she said. "This wasn't a one-and-done. This is our lifestyle. This is what we do. They're part of our family.
"I have unfinished business. I'm going to get to that finish line."