I packed my four layers of clothing and new sub-zero rated snow boots—all from the San Francisco REI sale—and headed to Alaska. I have been to Alaska four times now, but this was the first in winter. I was told that to volunteer for the Iditarod I would need to bring a base layer, a second insulating layer, a third extra-insulating layer and a fourth wind- protection layer. Then there were indoor boots and buffs and hand warmers and toe warmers and a skinny layer of socks and heavy socks and hats and inner gloves and outer gloves and…Yep, it fit in my big yellow suitcase. Barely.
I met my friend Susan in Seattle. It had been her idea to volunteer for the “Last Great Race on Earth” as a 60th birthday venture. And she included me in the plan. I’ll be forever grateful.
The first morning at the Lakefront Hotel, headquarters for the Iditarod, I awoke to yelping noises below my window. I looked down on top of what I was to learn was a musher’s truck, with double decker crates on the long bed to house the sled dogs. A woman in a pink cap was systematically lifting dogs from each crate opening and hooking him or her to rings on the base of the truck. Sixteen of them to be precise. They were glad to be out of their sleeping quarters, and awaited food—large slabs of chicken for each.
Down in the parking lot, we met Sandra, the pink cap woman, who was happy to introduce her dogs and let us pet them. She is from Norway and is the longtime significant other of Norwegian dog sled racer Tore Albregtsen. Right off the bat, we had someone to cheer for.
The girl dogs were kept on one side of the truck, the boys on the other. All equally loveable, but Sandra said the females were the smart ones and the males had the muscles. No comment. (One of their top females did not compete because she was in heat, which is a whole other complication at the race.)
The couple was readying for the ceremonial opening of the Iditarod in two days and the real start the next. That night they attended a banquet and drew Bib #52, meaning they would be 52nd to begin the race, out of 85 teams. Teams are released every two minutes. The mandatory rests along the almost 1,000-mile course are two eight-hour and one 24-hour. Mushers who begin the race early will have a longer layover at a checkpoint to compensate for their starting position. The timing is precise and strict at the 20 checkpoints along the route. Teams can rest and eat at checkpoints but mushers often elect to just pull off the course to sleep and see to their dogs’ comfort.
Susan and I worked in the phone room for our first volunteer job, answering questions from anyone in the world who needed information about the race, from the order of the mushers to past races and stats. Some callers were children who were getting ready to follow the race from their classrooms. Some were older people who didn’t have computers and couldn’t get on Iditarod.com.
The next day we were given arm bands from Iditarod security, and we opened and closed roadways in downtown Anchorage so people could cross in between mushers. All 85 teams paraded for Alaskans and visitors, and honored their sponsors by letting them ride their sleds. The dogs were so excited they were jumping straight up and down in their harnesses. And yelping. And howling. It’s a hullabaloo. But these pups, who love to run, only had 3 miles to complete that day. Because Anchorage had very little snow, the city brought snow from Fairbanks by train to dump on the streets.
The real deal was Sunday, March 6, about 80 miles north of Anchorage. The official start (referred to as the restart) was at 1 p.m. on frozen Willow Lake. Families brought backpacks with food and drink and leaned on the orange crowd-control fencing, while the more macho drove snowmobiles around the lake in dizzying patterns.
All 85 mushers and enthusiastic, if panting, dogs took off without a hitch. The pups were eager for the sun to go down because the day was unseasonably warm at 40 degrees and that is hot weather for a husky type pooch. The sun was getting low as they headed through the woods and across Long Lake bound for Nome, and we took down fences from our security post.
Back in the Anchorage phone room we kept track of the race for callers and recorded fans’ musher-gram messages that would be delivered to checkpoints. Our largest duty was ahead: Dog Drop.
In front of the hotel, vets and dog handlers attached dogs who had been dropped from the race to fence posts. The dogs are flown by floatplane from the checkpoint where the mushers drop them off. There are various reasons a musher sends a dog back to home base. Dogs develop sore shoulders or paws. Some overheat because the weather in the daytime is too warm these days. (Mushers prefer to run at night anyway). Dogs who sustain a serious injury are flown to Anchorage Airport where they are taken to a clinic immediately.
The vets we helped looked over each dog carefully, took their temperatures, diagnosed their problems, made sure there was no blood in their urine or stools and handed them over to us. We bedded them down in the straw they are accustomed to, and gave them food and water. We put blankets over them and got to love them up. Oh yeah, and pick up poop.
The air was filled with the cry: “Dogs Coming” and a floatplane would crunch to a stop on the icy lake. Inside the plane you could see perked ears, bobbing heads and wagging tails of the dogs coming in. Once they settled down, however, they seemed pretty despondent to be away from their fellows and musher. As though they had failed somehow. We got to sit with them and reassure them they had done well and were good dogs. That wasn’t hard. They are all good dogs!
If their handlers don’t arrive in trucks to pick them up by 8 p.m., the dogs are taken to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, the women’s prison in town. Women at the facility who have been on best behavior and trained to handle the dogs take them under their wings until they are retrieved.
This year, veteran mushers whooshed into Nome in first and second places, both from the same family. Just as I was cozying up at home with The First Great Race, the book that I had bought at headquarters from author Dan Seavey, his grandson was streaking from Safety Checkpoint to Nome with seven dogs in his team. Dallas Seavey arrived 45 minutes before his father, Mitch. It took him 8 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes to get to Nome.
Grandfather Dan ran in the Iditarod its first year in 1973 and won third place. He completed four other races. Mitch Seavey has run teams in 13 of the last Iditarods except one, and placed first in 2004 and 2013. His son, Dallas, 27, has won the last three consecutive Iditarods and a fourth in 2012.
Aliy Zirkel came into Nome about six and a half hours behind the Seaveys, placing third. Aliy had been in first and second places and was giving the guys a run for their money but was attacked by a snowmachiner between Galena and Nulato checkpoints, about 560 miles from Anchorage. Since the mushers do not carry radios, she was unable to alert anyone that she had fended off an attacker until she got to Nulato and the same man came at veteran musher Jeff King who was next behind her. The snowmachine killed his lead dog, Nash. King had to pick up the dead dog and two more who were severely wounded and carry them in the sled with him to the checkpoint. King managed to come in ninth in the race, but both mushers were handicapped, both physically and emotionally.
Alaskans, so proud of their race, are crying foul. The drunk man has been apprehended and said he was in a blackout state but Alaska people, both Native and non-Native, feel sorrow that the race was tainted by this crime. It is certainly not in the spirit of the race, which honors the 1925 serum run—dubbed the Great Race of Mercy. When a diphtheria epidemic threatened remote Nome, 20 mushers and about 150 dogs blasted to Nome in five and a half days carrying antitoxin.
Here at home, it’s spring. But I am dreaming of next March. I have the bug. No, I am not moving to Alaska to become a musher, although 2016 Iditarod musher Jim Lanier is 75. But just to be around those joyful, energized dogs and their musher owners is revivifying. And it’s great to feel that you are contributing to a splendid event.
Next year I’m trying for a volunteer position with communications at a checkpoint. I’ve heard I’m signing up for sleep deprivation, frigid outhouses and no running water. But what the heck? Then on to Nome. Gotta see those doggies in.
Here is a gallery / slide show of some photos I took during our adventure:
Until the next…mush on.