*Names and identifying details have been altered to protect the innocent people who could sue me.

March 11, 2011

Day 9

Of the Iditarod, of course ... should I be counting anything else?

Dear all,

Um, thank you all for the concern, but as far as tsunamis go, I’m doing just fine.

Mild-to-moderate obsession with a certain ongoing dog sled race, however, is becoming a slight problem. That said, I will try to keep my new-found passion in check, avoid boring you to death with a myriad of details about drop bags and checkpoints and booties (of the dog-paw kind, thank you very much).

You say “I,” I say “ditarod!” Ready? Ok. Here we go!

These pictures are from the ceremonial start last Saturday in Anchorage. In Anchorage, the mushers take riders -- ok, they're called "Iditariders" -- as a way of raising money for the race. And behind them, either directly on their sled or on a second sled, they have their handler ride along. Not entirely sure why, maybe just so this person gets some credit too. They go just outside of town, to the airstrip, and then the race restarts, with officiality and timing and all that fun, the next day in a town called Willow. Once the mushers leave Willow, it’s roughly 1100 miles to Nome – all dog sleds, all the way.

I starting taking photos up at the actual starting line: the photo above is before anything had started, when the mushers were lined up along the road waiting for their turn. This is Dee Dee Jonrowe's team, though you can't see her in the photo (the parked car was in the way). She's a crowd favorite: in her 50s, a breast cancer survivor, and a perenial top-twenty finisher since she started running the Iditarod in 1980. She's even placed second several times - but has yet to win outright. She wears a bright pink parka on the trail. I'm rooting for her to win ... and after getting lost on part of the trail early on, she's now recooped time and is back up in the top ten. As they like to say around here, GO DEE DEE!

You may have noticed that there is more than one handler assigned to her team. If you look closely, you can see why. No? How about in this photo ...

I believe this is Ray Redington, Jr's team, lined up just behind Dee Dee's. His dogs, like all the others, were just jumping at the chance to start running. Some of the teams had one handler per dog, just trying to hold them down until it was their turn to start. These dogs were ready to run ...

Ray Redington, Jr's grandfather (Ray Redington, Sr) is the "father of the Iditarod." Wait, you say, what about Balto? Yes, I know ... we've all heard the Balto story (um, especially those of us who have ever lived with my little brother), and that the Iditarod race was creating to honor that serum run to Nome in 1925. It's true that the 1925 serum run was an amazing feat, and that it took place on the Iditarod trail, which was used as by mail-and-freight mushers during the Gold Rush and ensuing heyday of sled dog travel, and which had been used for untold years earlier by Alaskan natives. Portions of the trail are still used today for snow mobile traffic between villages, but large parts of it are maintained only for the yearly race traffic.

[This year the Iditarod had upwards of 60 mushers, most from Alaska or Canada -- but there's always Newton Marshall, the musher from Jamaica!]

Dorothy G. Page was the "mother of the Iditarod" and it was her work in the 1960s, along with Redington, that led to the first full "Iditarod" race in 1973. Their intent was to honor and preserve the memory of the great Alaskan mushing tradition, of which the 1925 serum run was one of the last great feats. Balto (and his musher, Gunnar Kaasen) did lead the team that made the last leg of the journey to Nome, but around here it is Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo who are considered the real heroes of that event. In fact, Seppala was the ceremonial starting musher at the first few Iditarod races, and Togo's body is now taxidermically displayed at the Iditarod museum in Wasilla (where the race used to restart, until it got moved to Willow). [Also an unsung hero of the "Great Mercy Race": Emily Morgan, the nurse who braved the same horrible conditions as the mushers to deliver the vaccination, on foot, to her patients.]

People line the streets (and parking garages) of Anchorage to watch the start - I saw roughly half of the mushers start at two minute intervals. I started walking away from the start line in order to get a better view, and ended up at the corner of 4th Ave and Cordova, where the group of professional photographers were staked out - if you saw shots in any of the major non-Alaskan newspapers, they probably came from this stretch. This was also the spot where at least one team took the corner too tightly and dumped the handler-rider into the snow. And here, the trail guard told us, a musher who had a camera man riding with him got distracted, forgot to tell his dogs to turn at this corner and ... they headed right over the berm (that's Alaskan for "large pile of snow pushed out of the way"). These dogs really will just run ... and run ...

The trail guard is there to make sure nothing gets in the way of the mushers -- people, rocks, photographers, dog booties, and so on. Our trail guard also had a listing of the mushers and would give us a heads up on who was coming through. The system worked as a kind of relay - she'd get the signal from around the corner, shout "dog team coming!" and wave her arms so the next trail guard down the line could relay the message. Then the people with rakes and shovels cleared out, the people on the side lines got excited ...

... and the dog team was come and gone in seconds. I'm not sure I can try to describe it - it was simply an incredible thing to watch. [There are some videos up on the official Iditarod site , complete with melodramatic soundtrack if you want to try and get a feel for it.] After the team passed through the guards were back on the trail, raking it clean for the next team. The most excited the crowd got was for #17, Lance Mackey, reigning champ and record-holder for four consecutive wins.

For some reason, his dogs lost a ton of booties on the corner, and it was a mad scramble from the crowd to get one -- anything Lance Mackey being somewhat sacred in these parts. He's kind of like Tom Brady - only without the money, and with a good deal more regular-guy-charm-and-humor .

So, the dogs are off and running, the mushers are on their way to Nome, and - after a somewhat unheard-of lead pack of about ten in the running all the way up the Yukon River - one of the two in the lead will pull into Nome sometime in the early afternoon tomorrow. And then, perhaps, finally, I will be able to get something productive done ...

Much love,

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