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The Iditarod Trail is the closest thing to a road across Alaska
This is bizarre. I really don’t believe that this is happening. I am sitting now in the Nome Airport. I am listening to a radio hoping to get at least one more good Iditarod update before I board my plane. (The plane is late, but they just announced that the plane could not land in Kotzebue because of weather conditions. It will be here soon.)
The first musher may cross the finish line within hours. A chance of a lifetime. I could see it and the winner should be Rick Swenson.
You know what. Somehow it really doesn’t bother me. It would be exciting to see the winner, but I am comfortable this situation.
Actually, in the past 3 days I have been just about “maxed out” with “Iditarod” and I have seen and experienced more of the Iditarod than any ordinary person can expect. Today, I functioned as a de-facto trailbreaker between Nome and the Safety Roadhouse, which is the last Iditarod checkpoint before Nome. Four of us ran from Nome to Safety Roadhouse on snowmachines, spent about an hour waiting for weather to improve… but then we came back to Nome.
(Radio report: -70°F wind chill on the trail)
(More radio: Swenson is still not into Safety Roadhouse. I had heard earlier that he was into Safety. Rumors, forecasts, predictions, and “what ifs” are rampant in Nome).
You might ask, what’s going on; why am I here. Would you believe?… I’m here on business. This is a business trip. I arrived on Tuesday to visit a small fish hatchery project at the High School and to examine several sites as possible locations for streamside incubator projects.
The Radio!... How dramatic a bit of information can be! Mushers are pinned down all along the trail. Most are at check points. At least six are someplace unknown. Wind; ground blizzards, snow--all over. There has been virtually no news; no changes all day. The previous report had said that Susan Butcher led Rick Swenson out of the White Mountain checkpoint by an hour and said “Nothing will stop me now”. Seventy-seven miles to go. Only an eight hour trip and with a one hour head start. That was 7:30 last night. Martin Buser, Lavon Barve, and Joe Runyan also hit the trail as soon as they could. No way could they catch her.
But she returned after one and a half hours! So did Runyan and others. Swenson and Buser were not seen. In an eight hour run, they were unseen for fifteen to eighteen hours. Were they lost? Were they safe? White-out conditions; thirty to fifty mph winds--and this section of the trail was the worst! Where are they? We fear for the worst. (So far, by luck, there has never been a fatality on the trail.) AND – what about all those other mushers further back on the trail?
While we were at Safety Roadhouse, two Trailbreakers left toward White Mountain on snowmachines. Conditions were horrid. They wanted to turn back, so they picked out a trail marker and turned around it to return. Trail markers are about thirty to fifty yards apart. But they got lost! They couldn’t see another marker. Luckily, they were able find their way back to Safety.
Oh! Some news! Now Rick has been spotted! Only about ten miles out of Safety--just on this side of Topcock Rock. The worst part of the trail and the worst weather is behind him. In an hour, he will be into Safety; then, two to three more hours and he will be in Nome.
The pilot just came onto the loudspeaker. Our plane will go back to Kotzebue and try to land; then come back to pick us up--more delay—I hope you won’t mind a long letter. Actually, maybe this plane won’t be able to land here when it returns. I sure wouldn’t mind seeing Rick come across the finish line.
Anyhow, yesterday, I went on my first snowmachine ride ever. Basically, we were looking for open water areas where fish could survive in the winter and sites that could be developed to include large numbers of fish eggs. It was a gorgeous day! Bright and clear, but cold; -6°F when we started. Not much wind, but snowmobiles are fast and create their own wind chill. After ten minutes or so, I started to feel comfortable enough to relax and enjoy the ride but by then, we had gone through the most fun part of the trip--down a gully that felt like a slalom course. Later, it wasn’t fun at all--around a hill with icy conditions. I was hanging out as far to one side as possible so the machine would not side-slip and roll down into the stream bottom 300 feet below. What? Oh no! Then, I learned that we would have to return back over the same route! Some project sites looked promising. Beautiful trip. We saw some ptarmigan and some moose.
Today, we had intended to check out another drainage off the Solomon River--eight miles past the Safety Roadhouse; then, up the drainage six miles. It was a much flatter and much more open trip, along the Norton Sound coast east of Nome. About -5 or 6° again; light snow, but pleasant in Nome. Within minutes, we were at the edge of Norton Sound on the Bering Sea. Winds were probably 15 to 25 mph. We were tightly bundled but it was about an hour trip to Safety. My biggest problem was breathing through my face mask. The moisture in my breath froze in the cold air (we traveled at 20-35 mph) and I got a bit of frostbite on my left cheek before I re-learned how to breathe through that mask without causing condensation. (Finally, I am on the plane and we are on the runway. We are off to Kotzebue.)
You know, of course, that we didn’t make it past the Safety Roadhouse. (A wise decision--and it also gave us an extra two hours back in Nome to review our observations and lay out some plans.) Rick Swenson’s father and about fifteen other people were waiting in Safety. And waiting. No news. Then, a radio report! Missing mushers. No new news. The weather seems to be improving--or maybe it’s getting a worse. We hope, at least, that everyone is safe. We hope Rick can pull it off. Last year at Safety, his dogs mutinied; they just quit. They forced him to a stop. Maybe this will be his year.
This has been a marvelous experience. It could only have been better if a musher had come through, especially Rick or Martin. That would have been more exciting than to see a finish (and a close one) in Nome. Of course, I’d like to see the finishing of an Iditarod. Who wouldn’t? But I’m comfortable. I’ve already seen and experienced more than I could ever hope for.
Oh; and I ran into a co-worker in Nome, Peter Rob, who works at Kotzebue with Kate Persons. Kate has maintained a lead as the top rookie in this race. So I had another special interest in following this race. Peter and I made morning and evening pilgrimages to the Race Headquarters to check on her progress along with the rest of the mushers. He phoned her parents in Iowa City to keep them up to date. The last I heard, she arrived at Koyuk along with ten or twelve other racers. One or two have left and no one knows where they are. She’s been stuck there for a day. How much longer? The trail will be bad when they leave. Deep snow, soft. There will be no trail until the villagers start to move around on their “snow-go’s”. The mushers will have to work together to break trail. Then what?
Right now, it looks as if Rick should take first. Where is Martin Buser? Holed up in a cabin between White Mountain and Safety, we hope. Once they start to move, there should be a hellatious race for the next top five places. And the next five after that. How long will it take for the weather to break? It seems to be improving; then, what will happen?
We are over Kotzebue now, looking for a hole in the weather. I just want to get home. And so do the mushers, I’m sure.
In Nome, it was fun to see the activity. And the people – oh – I didn’t tell you – I actually did meet the first musher who arrived into Nome… Libby Riddles… (That was her joke. She didn’t race this year) and I got her autograph for Donna. Donna wanted me to get DeeDee Jonroe’s autograph when she won this year. DeeDee is pinned down with Kate in Koyuk.
Late Tuesday evening, Nome set up snow fences to mark the finish chute. The big burl arch was already in place when I arrived. They began to spread snow on the main street for the finishers. Every two or three hours, a newly updated printout is posted that lists all the mushers. Pins with name tags are moved on a big map. Few were actually moved while I was in Nome. I attended the press briefing on Wednesday night. That was when Susan had an hour lead on Rick and was expected into Nome as early as eight or nine this morning. They outline the schedule of events for the finish and the big sponsor, of course, had the priority for the interviews. I passed up the wet T-shirt contest on Tuesday evening and the wet buns contest (for men) the next night at the same bar. Lots of tourists. Many people, just waiting. The locals were nonchalant. They had jobs to do and tried to get their work done, but they also were curious to hear each update. We’ve given up on Kotzebue and finally, we are on our way to Anchorage. If I’m lucky, I’ll see a live broadcast on TV of Rick Swenson crossing the finish line in Nome.
Say; have you ever wondered how the mushers were able to keep track of their racing bibs through that 1,100 to 1,200 miles of trail? Simple, they don’t. They were all neatly stacked, clean and white, in Safety Roadhouse. Someone was carefully watching to be sure nothing got stacked on top of them so they would be ready at a moments notice so the musher would waste not time putting it on during the check in and so they would look good when they arrived in Nome.
Well, this was a wonderful trip. I certainly have a new and different appreciation for snowmachines (not so bad, after all, especially as transportation) and dog mushing. I think I had a special, vicarious trail-situation experience. The feel of the wind and the limiting view of a wind-blown trail. And the sense of awareness and concern of so many people along the way. The waiting, the uncertainty, the hazards.
I’m home. Good News! Martin Buser has shown up at Safety. Buser got separated from his team, but he has walked to a checkpoint and later found his dogs. Meanwhile, Rick left Safety before Buser and is expected at Nome in an hour.
I feel very good. My cheek is still sore; so is my right big toe that got cold. My fingers are a little stiff from holding onto the handle bars and my thumb from working the throttle. My thighs are sore from straddling the seat. Shoulders are stiff to. We covered nearly 100 miles in two days.
I chatted with some volunteer veterinarians during the flight. They were from France; they had been at the Rhon Roadhouse and another check point; now, they are heading home, too. I met three Eskimos who reminded me that Nome was named because an early map marked a nearby spot “?Name”… which became “C. Nome” or “Cape Nome” and the town became “Nome”.
Its 1:25a.m. According to the radio, Rick is nearly in. Now it is on the television. I recognize the buildings. He is in! The winner. The beginning of the end. Still sixty-five or so more mushers to go. He is really frosted up. Buser is on the way, maybe an hour out.
It’s been a long day… longer for the mushers. To bed for me. Tomorrow I go back to my office.
Good night. Love.
May 14, 2008
Oh, wait, there is more… the Iditarod race caught my attention from the very first year that I came to Anchorage. Although the first race was held in 1973, various parts of the Iditarod Trail had been used by gold miners since the early 1900’s. Travel by dogsled was the only reliable form of transportation during winters and mail delivery depended on the dogs. When the tundra was frozen and snow covered, dog team drivers could move overland with ease so mail and freight was hauled from the port of Seward inland to the gold fields. The trail took its name from the town of Iditarod which, in its hey day, was the largest town in Alaska with 10,000 members. Eventually, the bust over ran the boom and Iditarod became a ghost town. Snowmachines and airplanes changed how people traveled, which caused dog teams to begin to disappear. By the 1960’s, the Iditarod Trail had become forgotten and overgrown by brush in some areas, but Dorothy Page and Joe Redington evolved the idea of restoring the trail and holding a dog race to revive the sport.
Dog mushing gained a flash of notoriety in 1925 when diphtheria broke out in Nome. Serum was in Anchorage and no pilot was available to fly it to Nome. Instead, it was loaded on a train and sent on the Alaska Railroad to Nenana where it was transferred to a dog sled that took it in relays from village to village down the Tanana and Yukon Rivers to the crossing to Norton Sound and into Nome.
The present day Iditarod Trail begins in Seward and ends in Nome. Officially, the race, which begins in Anchorage, is 1,100 miles long. Actually, the exact distance is somewhat uncertain because there is no one clear-cut path and it is somewhat different each year depending on where the track is actually set and marked. The race includes a ceremonial start in Anchorage followed on the next day by the official restart in Wasilla--the official home of the Iditarod--or Willow, depending on snow conditions. All decisions are based on the well-being of the dogs.
The Iditarod race has changed greatly over the years. The first race was won in just over twenty days. The winning time, today is between nine and twelve days. There were thirty-four mushers in the first race with twenty-two finishers. A total of eighty-three mushers are scheduled to start in 2007; including eight from countries other than the US. Twenty-seven will be on the trail as rookies, but even rookies are required to have prior long-distance sled dog racing experience.
Why is the Iditarod race such a challenge? Because it is so unpredictable. Mushers come from all over the world and each trains with his or her dogs under a particular set of conditions. Very cold or balmy. Heavy snow or sparse. Some will be well trained for the actual trail conditions… but these will different over the length of the trail and they may change during the ten or more days on the trail. Consider the logistical challenge of flying dog and human food and supplies into each of the twenty-six or twenty-seven checkpoints. Frozen rivers are excellent highways… unless they are windswept and glare ice or when ice releases water to form a layer of liquid over the ice. Dog must be fed, watered and rested before the driver eats or rests.
You can imagine the physical and economic cost to maintain a kennel and run the race.
There is more, too. In addition to routine transportation by snowmachines and dog sledders, the Iditarod Trail is used for the first half of the 2000 mile Iron Dog snow machine race from Anchorage to Nome to Fairbanks. (The fastest racers finish in under 40 hours and average over fifty miles an hour.) Portions of the trail are used for the Junior Iditarod and the Alaska Ultra Sport 350 and 1,100 mile midwinter “human-powered” race. The Yukon Quest is another challenging long-distance sled dog race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse in Canada. Other long distance and shorter sprint sled dog races are also staged in many parts of Alaska.
All in all, it is great fun to follow the race and live vicariously with the mushers, but I have been fortunate, over the years, to personally know and cheer individual mushers in the race. That makes it even more fun.
One last tidbit… dog mushing is the official sport of Alaska