Poetry Sunday: “The Yukon Quest,” by Therése Halscheid

The Yukon Quest           
………………………………..for Greg Parvin

What was it like when the sled spun on a river
frozen enough to create a deceptive sheen,

that moment, when his body lifted in wind, sled and all,
while the huskies were held in mid-air

before falling to the watery surface
only to wipe out once more on the overflow.

What was it like after the whirling ended, when his body quieted,
the pack too, when the world came back to their eyes

and they saw land again as it first seemed, everything the same,
such vast areas of white

they sped in the wrong direction. With snow blown
over the musher’s tracks they lost their way

and could do nothing, had lost their way
braving the barrenness.

Imagine the shock at sighting their previous camp,
and the sharp turns he made to set off once more

just as the moon rose over the mountains, racing once more,
riding the long road, the smooth long road of the moon;

of his growing concern when food ran out for the pack
when the dogs refused to go on

and bedded down in small nests of snow and lay there and there
were fierce winds, the lost feeling in his fingers.

Imagine his eyes smarting as the sun fully returned
when he trudged to a distant tree

broke a few branches only to find them green—
and the hours which followed when his sweat froze

and he thought of the dogs surrounded by stillness
everything whitened as with mists in a dream.

Think of the power needed to deny his own urge to sleep,
and stay obedient to his course walking the hills for dry wood

until an abandoned miner’s camp came into view,
where he stacked some wood in his arms

before starting back to the dogs, knowing he would lose the race
but had just won something far more important.

Picture then, after crossing his own finish line,
when he began a fire, poked a branch in a drift to hang his clothes to dry

that he stood before the great flickering flame, bare-chested in forty below
with nothing around for miles, only the dogs and himself.

There, he quietly raised his hands in thanks
knowing it was enough to watch

how the moon moved slowly over them
the old moon, so silvery, that round and silvery moon in the arctic sky.


First published in Tattoo Highway. From Frozen Latitudes (Press 53, 2014), published with permission of the press and available here.


Therése Halscheid’s latest collection, Frozen Latitudes, received the Eric Hoffer Book Award Honorable Mention for Poetry. Other collections include Uncommon Geography, Without Home, Powertalk, and a Greatest Hits chapbook by Pudding House Publications. Her poetry and essays have appeared in literary magazines such as The Gettysburg Review, Tampa Review, Sou’wester, and Natural Bridge. Recent awards include Welcome Table Press’s Essaying the Body Electric contest and Tiferet Journal’s poetry and creative nonfiction contest. Since 1993, she has been an itinerant writer by way of house-sitting. Simplicity connects her to the natural world and is the focus of much writing, both poetry and prose. Her photography has appeared in juried shows and chronicles her nomadic lifestyle. She teaches for Atlantic Cape Community College in New Jersey, visits schools, and has taught in unusual locales such as the far north of Alaska, where she lived with the Inupiaq, and the Ural Mountains in Russia. Author’s website is here.



Poet’s Note

The poems in Frozen Latitudes meld two kinds of journeys. One is to the literal location of Alaska, where the writer lived among clans of the Inupiaq people as well as in the frontier town of Homer. The second location is the place and time where her father’s life was frozen during heart surgery, when he suffered brain damage. In this new body of work, landscapes are linked to the rugged terrain of home while caring for a father with dementia.

“The Yukon Quest” is based on an actual experience. I was sent to the frontier town of Homer, as part of the Alaskan Art Council’s artist residency program, and my trip coincided with the start of the Iditarod in Anchorage. I left early to catch the race and stayed with a family who knew the musher that is the subject of this poem. We spent time with Greg Parvin and his team of frisky dogs, during which time he relayed to me his harrowing experience during the Yukon Quest—a race that does not get the attention of the Iditarod, though it is said to be a harder course.

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