A FAN'S GUIDE TO THE IDITAROD
Reprinted from Mushing Magazine, March/April 2006 issue.The dogs. You’ll hear the dogs first.Then, as you make your way toward 4th Avenue to watch the start of Iditarod 2006, you’ll gradually become immersed in a cacophony of sounds and sights unique to the Iditarod. As you approach, take a moment to ponder the history of this event. The history of the race is far too broad to be covered by a quick summary, so let me just say it began with dreamers, two people who dared to dream of a race across Alaska, Joe Redington Sr. and Dorothy Page. They were unlikely partners, Page a history buff, Redington an adventurer, but together they created an event that is synonymous with Alaska, The Iditarod: The Last Great Race.Unconsciously, your pace quickens as you near 4th Avenue. The sounds of the dogs, always the dogs, and a rising chorus of human voices begin to merge as you turn a corner and see the snowy street. Overnight, 4th Avenue will have been transformed from one of downtown Anchorage’s busiest streets to a compact, snowy trail leading the mushers out of town. The snow you’re seeing has actually been stored for the occasion, and then hauled in by a parade of dump trucks, trucks that reverse the procedure after the start. It usually takes about the same amount of time to remove the snow that it’ll take you to catch lunch afterward. The street is lined with webbed, orange fencing to keep spectators back, paper plates or hastily written signs with numbers tacked to the posts indicating which musher will be parked where. For a brief time on the morning of the start, anyone can get out onto 4th Avenue and walk up and down the street, snapping photos, grabbing autographs, posing for photos under the start banner, or simply gawking. This is prime viewing time for most and the street quickly becomes crowded. It’s impossible to predict what your experience will be; just that it will be unique. Dog trucks line the streets, some sleek and shiny, others seemingly held together by that all-purpose tool, duct tape. Dogs of all colors bounce about them, some turning to take you in as you pass, others, perhaps the ol’ pros in the bunch, cool and calm, rarely deigning to waste energy on fans. They come with a variety of names, many obvious, such as the spotted Spot, or flop-eared Flop, but names can vary from ol’ time rock’n’rollers to favorite foods, places, movie characters, or….well, just about anything, even insects such as Termite and Grasshopper. Try to pull your attention from the dogs long enough to take in the variety of sleds on display. Since they’ll be carrying an Idita-Rider for this part of the journey, many use oversized sleds and add padding. Lance Mackey even jokingly added a boat seat one year for his Idita-Rider. These are the people who’ve paid to ride in the mushers’ sleds, so they’re catered to and many return year after year to experience the Iditarod in this unique way once again. While most mushers won’t have their race equipment in view today, if you’re lucky you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of a variety of snow hooks, sled designs, and even harnesses. Keep an eye out for “famous faces” strolling along the street with you, too, as it’s not uncommon to find the likes of past champions in the crowd. Take advantage of this up-close opportunity because, almost before you know it, you’ll find yourself being shooed off the street. The mushers need to start preparing. Of course, for the mushers involved, the journey to Nome began long ago, with countless hours of training, endless miles of travel with their dog teams, and an intense focus on a dream that tends to exclude all but those who have gone before them. That’s all behind them now, however, as they gather on 4th Avenue. Look carefully, though, and you might catch a far-away look in their eyes as you speak to them, a look that tells you they’re already out there, traveling the trail carved in ice and snow by so many others.On paper, the concept behind the race seems outrageous. Take sixteen dogs, a sled, and cross wilderness Alaska in winter. No wonder many laughed at Redington and Page. To date, only 602 mushers have completed the race, a tribute to and symbol of the difficulty of the journey. More people have climbed Mount Everest than have finished the Iditarod. Yet, it’s a journey made freely, even eagerly, and one that fans from around the world follow avidly.Those who run the race are a mixed bag. There are doctors, lawyers, even the proverbial Indian Chief, most likely. If not, Native Alaskans are well represented anyway by the likes of soft-spoken John Baker of Kotzebue and Ramy Brooks, whose public revelation of suicidal thoughts as a youth have become a focal point of his efforts to provide hope for others like him. Both Baker and Brooks are extremely active with educational forces, as are many others, for that matter. Some are teachers themselves, such as rookie Bryan Bearss, most recently as a substitute, who sees running the Iditarod as a means of testing himself as a teacher, this time of his dogs. Among the doctors on the runners are veterans Jim Lanier, a pathologist, and Tom Knolmayer, a surgeon on the Elmendorf Air Force base in Anchorage. There’s even a well known author amongst the group, Gary Paulsen, whom many cite as the reason they discovered and follow the race as the result of reading his book “Woodsong,” his tale of his adventures running the race twenty years ago. He’s back now, planning to stay. “I never should have left,” he declares.Nearby, you might spy young Rachael Scdoris, who is legally blind, but determined to run the race. She’ll attempt it this year with Yukon Quest champion Tim Osmar as her VI, Visual Interpreter. Up the street, you might find another Quest champion or two, such as Aliy Zirkle, the first woman to win the Quest. One late entry had expected to have Quest ties, too, but a serious injury to her husband-handler lead to a late entry into the Iditarod. As a result, Karen Ramstead and her Siberian Husky team will be on 4th Avenue, too. She’ll be joining fellow Canadian Hans Gatt and others, such as multiple champions Martin Buser and Doug Swingley, both of whom have suffered what might have been crippling injuries over the last few years but returned to race again. Rookie Kim Kittredge has climbed Denali, but faces an entirely different challenge “climbing” the Iditarod. Bottom line, everyone has a story, which is part of the fun of following the race. One surprise to those expecting to see the first musher out parked closest to the starting line is that it’s just the reverse. The first musher out will be parked up the street, way up the street, perhaps even on a side street. Instead, in order to allow the handlers and drivers of those whose musher has started an easy exit, the lower bib numbers are actually parked the furthest away. That means, the last musher out has watched every other musher entered pass before they begin their short trek to the starting line. Just one of the ways the Iditarod organizes for efficiency.Efficiency also demands that reluctantly, you’ll be forced to leave the street as race time draws nigh. Even today, when most mushers are relaxed, routines dominate. Ganglines must be stretched out; dogs dropped and fed, even given random vet checks, equipment checked, decisions made. The media is usually hovering, too, perhaps hoping for a view of Jeff King’s latest sled innovation. If so, they’ll be disappointed. That’ll have to wait until tomorrow, when it’s all for real. Teams leave the starting line at two minute intervals. The mushers have been told their starting time and plan accordingly. Then, after the dogs are harnessed and the Idita-Rider tucked safely in their sled, the team must be moved up the street in an orderly, safe fashion. This requires teamwork between musher, handlers, and race officials. They’re charged with moving teams up the street, past fans, dog trucks, and other dog teams whose enthusiasm only adds to the mania that seems to grip teams as they move up the street. Nor is this a swift or steady trip to the start line. Remember, teams are going off at two minute intervals. The first teams to depart are the furthest from the starting line, so they’ve had to work their way through punchy snow, stopping and starting frequently. By the time they reach the line, the dogs are often wildly barking and leaping into the air, vocalizing their need to get moving. Keep your eyes open, however, because this trend is changing. The success of Team Norway has created a move from the wildly careening dogs to a more orderly, controlled move, with dogs trained not to waste their energy needlessly. From an organizational standpoint, it makes sense, just as it does to the musher involved. Try telling that to a run crazy husky, however. It’s difficult for most to resist the excitement of the crowd. The crowds thin on the street as the teams reach the line, with only designated handlers or associates of the musher actually going to the line with them. There, many mushers make one last trip up the line of dogs, stopping to scratch a few ears or whisper a word of encouragement to a nervous rookie. Then, the countdown begins…Watch carefully. As the countdown nears blast-off, handlers step back, although all eyes are still trained on the dogs to forestall any tangles. Mushers might grab one last hugfrom family members or, if they’ve dallied visiting the team, even be sprinting back to grab the runners as the countdown reaches….…2….1….And they’re off!With that, the teams are away. The route will vary, depending upon conditions. Fans still line the streets, many offering tasty treats like donuts, hot rolls, or even hot dogs to passing mushers, their cameras snapping away. One has to wonder what the dogs think of all this. Surely nothing in their training has prepared them for this rush of people, but most handle the pressure well. At the end of the run, teams come into a central point. The last few years, the ride has ended at Campbell Air Field. After Idita-Riders are helped out of the sleds, volunteers guide teams to their dog trucks, each of which departed 4th Avenue right after their musher left in order to rendezvous in a timely fashion. Once at the trucks, mushers fall into their routine. Most of them will offer what might best be described as a kind of doggie soup to their teams, particularly if the weather is warm. They’ll also check over the dogs that ran carefully. For the most part, fans won’t view this operation, but it’s an important one. An injury to a key dog during the start, which does not count for overall time, could create unforeseen problems. This is one reason many mushers don’t run key leaders during the start. They’re too valuable to risk. Of course, the Anchorage Start was just for fun. Tomorrow it begins for real. Sunday is the Restart, the real start of the race.Despite the 2 PM restart time, most fans begin arriving at the restart early, no matter where it is. Traditionally the restart has been in Wasilla, but weather woes have forced it to move in recent years. In fact, Iditarod 2003 was dubbed the “Idita-Detour” for a Fairbanks start and other route changes that year. Willow has been the most frequent alternative, however. No matter. Wherever the Restart takes place, you’ll notice a dramatic change in mood -- Mushers who were open and receptive to fans the day before are now in race mode. The Start was for fans. The Restart is the real thing. The clock starts today. The scene at the restart mirrors that of yesterday, only with the new intensity. As teams approach the line, family and friends, knowing this will be the last time they’ll see their musher for some time, say their good-byes. You’ll often see quick hugs for the youngest family members, those not quite sure what is happening, just that Mommy or Daddy seems to be leaving. Direct fan access to the mushers is limited. Most take this in stride and simply head out to find a good viewing spot. In Wasilla, the hoped for restart location, this can stretch from the restart line itself at the Sports Complex, through wooded areas, some housing developments, trails, and finally alongside Knik Goose Bay Road to Knik, where mushers will leave the road system, and even places on out the trail. Homes line the main road to Knik and the scene can only be described as one giant party, one stretching for miles. Fans in lawn chairs, atop trucks and snow machines line the route, eager to cheer on favorites and snap photos. There’s a steady stream of vehicles passing, most heading to Knik to watch teams come in there. Others will stop along the road, or visibly slow to watch teams pass. On your way to Knik Lake, the site of the last checkpoint before teams are off the road system, you’ll pass the home of Joe Redington Sr., the races’ founder, but few will stop as the dog teams will be arriving quickly. In Knik, if drag sleds have been used, they’re quickly shed as teams check in and are examined by the veterinarian team, and then it’s off to the races. Upon leaving the first checkpoint at Knik Lake, mushers will travel the Historic Iditarod Trail for some miles. They’ll pass the Knik Musher Museum, then turn right and climb a rise before emerging onto another road briefly, then move onto the Trail itself. Even here there will be spectators, but they will thin as the teams progress on down the trail. If all goes well, most teams will have passed through the checkpoints of Skwentna and Finger Lake by mid-day on Monday. The route they’ll follow alternates each year, the northern route for even numbered years, the southern route for odd numbered years. The most common question asked about the trail is, “Why?”According the Iditarod Trail Committee’s website, both sections of trail are a part of the Iditarod National Historical Trail, part of the array of trails to the gold fields, but also used for day to day travel to visit, bring in supplies, and deliver mail. Originally, however, only the northern trail was used for the race. The result was that the smaller villages along that section of trail were heavily impacted by the race each year, putting both a financial and personal burden on villagers. In order to lessen the burden, the Iditarod Board of Directors decided to use both sections of trail, alternating annually. “This decision had a three fold effect,” says the ITC’s website. “The northern villages of Ruby, Galena and Nulato only had to deal with the large group of mushers, press and volunteers every other year. The second effect was that the race was able to pass through the actual ghost town of Iditarod. Lastly, the villages of Shageluk, Anvik and Grayling were able to participate in the race.”In reality, few fans see the checkpoints in person. Travel to and from them is expensive and done at the whim of Mother Nature. Even the wife of a four time race champion, Kathy Chapoton, wife of Martin Buser, wound up stranded in White Mountain last year due to weather woes, so those yearning to fly the trail, beware. The checkpoints closest to Anchorage, of course, see the highest fan traffic, but the race is so quick now that visitors to, say, Finger Lake on a Monday afternoon are likely to miss all but the back of the pack. Volunteers at Skwentna Checkpoint will be cleaning up to await next year, while volunteers assigned to checkpoints further up the trail may not have even flown out yet. Most of us watch this portion of the race, the largest part of it, in reality, nowadays via cyberspace. The Iditarod web site updates race standings frequently, occasionally offering up photos and stories from the trail, as do a host of other sites. Internet email lists share the fun, emails flying through space as fans share their enthusiasm and any info they’ve been able to glean from other fans or race sites. It’s a fun time for connected fans, one that allows those in faraway Norway, following their teams, to be just as connected as those in Alaska following local teams. The Iditarod truly has become an international event.As the race winds down, of course, all eyes turn to Nome. Nome is an interesting place on its own. Built in an unlikely spot, buffeted by winds and cold, even occasionally devastated by weather, its ties to the original serum run, when twenty brave mushers risked their lives to bring life-saving serum to Nome, remain strong. In many ways, little has changed in Nome since those days. Close your eyes on the streets of Nome and you can almost feel the ghosts of the past. Leonhard Seppala lived here. Togo, Balto, and Fritz ran along these streets. Today, just as Togo stands proudly at Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla, reminding visitors of the role of the dogs in the history of this race and state, Fritz now waits in Nome for those who continue to live the dream. Just as the dream began in Nome with the courage of a few, so to it ends in Nome for those daring to embrace and challenge themselves. It’s the Iditarod.A retired teacher, June Price moved to Alaska in 2004. She coordinates a 500+ member e-mail support list for the Iditarod. She currently has three dogs, one a recently retired sled dog.