Yotam Haber is an established composer and pianist, an assistant professor at the University of New Orleans, a former artistic director of New York’s MATA festival and winner of a Guggenheim fellowship and a Koussevitzky Foundation commission, among many other honors and awards. Since childhood, though, he has had another dream: to race sled dogs in Alaska.
Last week, Haber’s dream came true. On March 2, he got to ride through the streets of Anchorage, Alaska, in the ceremonial opening leg of the 2019 Iditarod, the legendary dogsled race, on the sled of Blair Braverman, one of the most visible contestants in this year’s race. Haber had come to Alaska to help with Braverman’s sled dogs, as well as to record the sounds of runners on the snow to incorporate into a piece he was writing for the New York-based Argento Ensemble.
But the dream ended three days later when, dragged behind a tipped dogsled, Haber watched his right index finger snap off “like a twig,” followed by a geyser of blood.
“I told people on Twitter that I’m going to call my piece ‘Finger Lake,’ ” Haber said ruefully on Sunday from his home in New Orleans after surgery to reattach his finger. (Finger Lake is a stop on this year’s Iditarod course.)
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It was chance that linked Haber to one of this year’s best-known Iditarod competitors. In a field with more women than any previous Iditarod, Braverman, a 31-year-old writer, has drawn attention through an active social media presence, tweeting her preparations for the race to more than 60,000 followers on Twitter. (Her fans, who identify themselves with the hashtag #uglydogs, a reference to a derisive tweet aimed at Braverman some months ago, have helped defray her considerable Iditarod expenses through online donations.)
Braverman’s husband, the writer Quince Mountain, is an old friend of Haber’s wife, the visual artist Anna Schuleit. After Braverman qualified for the race, the pair asked Schuleit whether she’d want to help out in Alaska by looking after the members of their 30-dog pack that weren’t among the 14 chosen to pull her Iditarod sled.
“That’s Yotam’s dream,” Haber’s wife told them. Born in Holland to Israeli parents, Haber had grown up in Israel, Nigeria, and Milwaukee, where he moved at age 10. As a child, he was so focused on his goal of becoming a veterinarian and racing in the Iditarod that he built his own sled and rounded up neighbor dogs to pull it. But as his musical career took off, he put his mushing dreams aside – until Braverman’s offer came along. “It felt like this was the culmination of my life, in a way,” he said.
On the race’s first day, Braverman pulled Haber onto the back of her sled for the ceremonial ride. The bulk of his visit, however, was to be spent in a remote, family-run lodge 63 miles from the nearest highway, accessible only by snowmobile, where he would take the dogs out for a run three times a day. His own social media account reflected the exhilaration of the experience. “The dogs go crazy until you tell them to go,” he said. “And as soon as you start sledding, it’s total silence – just the sound of their feet, and the runners on the snow.”
On the third day, as he was being pulled down a steep slope by an exuberant team, Haber made a mistake: Rather than riding the brake with two feet, he rode it with only one, creating enough of an imbalance that the sled tipped over. Every musher has drilled into them that Rules 1, 2, 3 and 4 of dogsledding are the same: Never let go. Lying on his side, dragged along by the dogs and feeling his grip slipping, Haber reached up and grabbed the only thing he could see for purchase – a snow hook, a heavy piece of metal used to anchor the sled in the snow. His right index finger got jammed into it, and he watched it snap off, held only by a flap of skin. His first feeling, he said, was disappointment that his Alaskan dream was surely over.
Getting out of Alaska proved a much longer journey even than getting there. Haber jammed his finger back into place, the lodge owners swaddled his hand in towels and they began an eight-hour wait for a helicopter that never came. They finally got out by snowcat, a Jeep fitted with tanklike treads that took four hours to creep out to the road, where an ambulance was waiting to drive him to Fairbanks, three more hours away. The doctor in Fairbanks sewed the finger provisionally into place but recommended he have it treated at home, since it was likely to be a long process, so he got on a plane and flew back to Louisiana. He was taken into surgery a matter of hours after he landed, and was scheduled to learn on Tuesday whether the surgery had been successful.
The Iditarod will conclude this week; on Monday, Day 9 of the race, Braverman was still competing, with 11 of her original 14 dogs (substitutions are not allowed). Another handler has stepped in to care for the dogs Haber was watching. Following along at home, encased in a cast reaching from his fingers to his armpit, Haber still has a few things to be thankful for. For one thing, he’s left-handed.
And for another thing, musicians are understanding.
“During those eight hours waiting for the helicopter,” Haber said, “I contacted the head of the Argento Ensemble. I said to him, ‘I’ve never missed a deadline on a commission, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to finish this one.’ “