July 7, 2022
By Rebecca Ross, Field Reporter
If you’ve been following Race to Alaska, you know how unbelievably challenging the race is— especially for the human-powered teams. For most people, making it to the finish line requires unbelievable mental fortitude and physical stamina, especially if the weather gods aren’t particularly kind during those taxing days out at sea. There is no guarantee that racers will even make it to Ketchikan under ideal circumstances with fair weather, extensive skills, and experience.
But then, there’s Team Let’s Row Maybe?—an all-female row team who had never done anything like this before and yet managed to cross the finish line, barely intact, but still, they did it!
Following their journey, I realized it may have been their unyielding determination, endless reserves of pure, raw grit, and a substantial amount of humor that got them through it. Especially since they felt there was a conspiracy against them—receiving every obstacle the universe (and maybe even the Race Boss) could conjure up.
If I hadn’t seen Carling and Michelle in person, I would be inclined to think that their stories of 10-foot swells, soaked gear, lost gear, merciless insects, and a rudderless boat that insisted on tracking to starboard, were just tall tales. After seeing their physical state in Ketchikan with my own eyes, I have no doubts.
Sitting across the table, I stare at their exhausted, hunched bodies—any slight shift in their position sends waves of pain across their faces. I wince while looking at Michelle—her darkened skin peeling like an orange from sunburn. Her body was alarmingly inflamed from sandfly bites so numerous that they have swollen one of her eyes nearly shut and turned her back into one colossal red welt. Open, soggy blisters line her stiff hands that are incapable of closing. I shudder to think of the open ass sores she describes from constant friction and dampness. Carling, 15 kilos lighter than she was at the start, has veins popping like hernias out of her biceps. Her swollen knee is most certainly infected and ultimately requires a visit to the doctor. And now I ask them to relive it for me? I ask myself. But then Michelle cracks a joke about pain, sending us all into a bout of laughter and permitting me to ask about their trials.
“How did you two feel about Don’t Tell Mom finishing ahead of you?” I start.
“When we heard that they finished the morning of, I was like ‘Right on,’” Carling mildly praises, but her lack of enthusiasm comes more from severe sleep deprivation than from rivalry. “We weren’t competing at all.”
Michelle joins in, “Right, we were just out there surviving.”
Assuming from the look of them that every moment of the race was a challenge, I ask the questions anyway, “What were some of the challenges you two had?”
Michelle and Carling let out an incredulous chuckle that was half cry—they didn’t even know where to begin.
“Well, we lost our 200-foot rope on the second day,” Carling quietly states, “which made the next ten days miserable. It added an hour each evening and morning to our day to haul our boat up and down.” Michelle sympathetically nods. Carling adds to her statement, this time her soft-spoken, kind demeanor rises louder, taking on an uncharacteristic bitterness, “No one told me Alaska was only cliffs!”
I recall their pre-race agreement to sit, maybe play crib while drinking hot chocolate, and take in their surroundings each night. “But after you made camp, did you get to at least enjoy dinner and the scenery?”
The two again break out into a cynical laugh—they had zero time for that petty shit. “Those things were at the bottom of our bags and never came out,” Carling explains. “We would eat dinner together for maybe ten minutes, and the whole time I’m eating, I’m trying not to gag.”
Michelle interjects, “Yeah, Carling always went to bed right after dinner while I tended to my wounds.”
The sores and swellings on these two look like an Old-Testament curse. My eyes are involuntarily drawn back to them like a trainwreck I can’t peel my eyes away from. I didn’t want to know more, but I had to. “Exactly how was it physically?”
“Oh god,” Michelle says, and for a moment, a desperate, exhausted laughter stops any words from getting out. Eventually finishing her sentence, “There was never a day we came out of the boat thinking, ‘Hmm, that was a good day’—Never. Every day was miserable.”
Carling picks up the thread, explaining, “There were times we overshot our breaks. And my body started to give out. The first hour, I tell myself, ‘It’s okay just keep going.’ The next hour, again I tell myself, ‘Just keep going.’ Then hour eight, everything just wanted to stop. But I kept telling myself, ‘Gotta keep going.’ Then at times there were some strokes when everything just stopped.”
“Yeah, I saw Carling’s head go down, and was like ‘uh-oh.’”
I thought I understood, but up to this point, they had been sparing me the details.
“One day,” Carling continues, “We rowed well past where I knew we should have stopped. I yelled at Michelle, ‘WE NEED TO STOP!’ At one point, when we stopped to look for a camp spot, all of a sudden, both my nostrils started spurting blood. It was everywhere. My entire jacket had blood spots, and the whole area of the stern had blood. Blood was everywhere. Then I thought, ‘Oh shit.’”
I wince to myself as I listen to them recall moment after moment painted with torturous pain, but they continue laughing despite the PTSD-inducing misery that envelopes their bodies. Stunned into silence, I stare at Carling and Michelle thinking, They may have had a taste of what hell feels like. I ask Carling the question that I thought I knew the answer to, a foregone conclusion, “Did you ever think about quitting?”
Michelle shakes her head no. Carling looks straight at me with a deadpan expression, “No. Quitting just wasn’t an option.”
Rebecca Ross, field reporter
Rebecca is a freelance writer and outdoor photographer based in Longview, Washington, who spends time backpacking, traveling, and summiting peaks.