A Tahoe City Nordic ski legend faces his toughest rescue yet: himself
By Tim Hauserman
Long time Tahoe local Doug Read was one of the original founders of the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team back in 1976 and served as its President for eight years. As a member of TNSAR’s A-Team, he has gone on over 150 searches: many in the middle of a blizzard in the middle of the night. He also has been the Great Ski Race Director for 42 years. While the last few years of mild winters have been tough on the race, in the past it has been the largest cross country ski race in the western United States.
When Read purchased a second home in rural Sierraville with his wife Laura, he founded the Tour De Manure Metric Century bicycle ride, which is the primary fundraiser for the Sierraville Fire and Rescue Department. Read has always been in the thick of the work for this quirky event — now in its 11th year — complete with installing fun “Burma Shave-style jingle” signs like “Bull Shipper” all along the course.
Read has also been a board member and volunteer extraordinaire for the Tahoe Cross Country Ski Education Association, which runs Tahoe Cross Country (Tahoe XC) in Tahoe City. He is affectionately known for serving up waffles on busy weekends from the Tahoe XC portable grill as a fundraiser for the center. You can also see his handiwork in the trademark wooden arrow, a kind of art bomb he makes that he’s mounted in conspicuous spots around Tahoe City, and has also installed right in front of the Tahoe XC web cam.
The North Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce named Read Volunteer of the Year in 2018. Also last year, he received an award from Placer County for work with the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team, a group of 100 skiers and snowmobile riders who rescue people lost in the backcountry and educate people about how to survive in the mountains.
This January, the California Office of Emergency Services gave him a special commendation, stating, “Doug’s physical strength, endurance, great sense of humor, knowledge of the local terrain, skiing ability, and mental fortitude make him the most valuable member of the team. There is no one we would rather have watching our backs or leading the way when the going gets tough.”
Sounds like 2018 was another great year of fun adventures and accomplishment for Read, right? Not exactly. In December of 2017 he started the biggest challenge of his life: conquering myelofibrosis, a blood disease in which bone marrow is not producing enough red blood cells. This condition leads to severe anemia, fatigue, and an enlarged spleen.
Read has been anemic over the last 20 years. He regularly had his blood tested and while the red blood cell numbers were low, he was still able to lead his extraordinary life, which included endeavors such as skiing across Finland and through remote parts of Nevada.
“Then the numbers took a real nose dive,” said Read when I interviewed him on January 19 at his home. “The next step is leukemia. We asked a lot of doctors. They gave a grim forecast, or said you could try a stem cell transplant and be cured.”
For 70-year-old Read, the first challenge was getting approval for a stem cell transplant at his age. But Read is no ordinary 70 year old. Even with anemia he could out ski, out bike, out persevere most people much younger than he, so the doctors gave the go ahead. In June of 2018 Read underwent radiation in an effort to shrink the size of his enlarged spleen, then chemo for several days before receiving the transplant, which was rushed from a 38-year-old donor in Europe. Just a few days after the transplant, dozens of people rode their bikes carrying pictures of Read in the Tour De Manure, and a life size portrait of him wearing a Superman cape waited at the finish line.
The chemo that accompanied Read’s transplant caused painful mouth sores and a total lack of energy. His diet was limited, he had to avoid germs, and he received frequent transfusions of platelets and blood cells.
Read was on the road to a slow recovery when his weakened immune system couldn’t fight off a fungus infection in his leg. “That really complicated the situation,” Read understated. He underwent three surgeries and was delayed from getting out of the hospital for ten weeks. Before the third surgery, Read remembers a meeting with 11 doctors who told him, “if the fungus is in the bone, your leg is coming off.” While the surgery was successful, he was in a wheelchair with strict demands to keep his leg elevated for two months.
When you spend hundreds of hours in the wilderness on searches, you create a deep lifetime bond and unique camaraderie. When Read started facing the battle of his life, his search buddies and close skiing friends stepped up to the plate. “Some days when I was really down, they picked me up. People came all the way from Tahoe to Stanford to see me,” said Read.
Fellow Search Team member Dirk Schoonmaker came down to help Read several times. “One time Laura came down with a cold. She wasn’t allowed to be around me because I could get sick from her germs, so she had to go home to Tahoe. Dirk jumped in his car right away to come down and take over for Laura as caregiver. If Dirk is in your camp, you are covered.”
The process went way too slowly for the anxious Read, who was ready to live as Mary Oliver would say, his “wild and precious life” to the fullest. Eventually, however, he improved enough to come back to Tahoe in December. His blood is tested twice a week. He still gets transfusions and must be extra careful not to fall. But he has taken a few short skis back at the place he loves, Tahoe XC. Skiing builds his strength, but more importantly improves his mental attitude. He revels in the beauty of being on snow in the Tahoe Sierra. “It is so great to be back home and among my friends,” said Read. “Today, I felt the strongest I felt skiing yet. I’m going to try to join the 5K race tomorrow.”
Tim Hauserman wrote the official guidebook to the Tahoe Rim Trail as well as Cross Country Skiing in the Sierra Nevada. He teaches and runs the Strider Glider after school program at Tahoe XC in Tahoe City, CA. Read’s story has reminded him how important it is to donate blood and he is committed to making it to more blood drives.