Thursday, December 21, 2006

How to Enjoy the Iditarod

I own and moderate an email list for Iditarod fans. Just as the list mentored me in 2000 when I was plotting my first trip, it's been my pleasure to do the same for others, a sort of "pass it forward."

Here's an email I/the list recently received and my response.

---- Original Message ----- >
I'm going to Alaska for the Iditarod start!!!!!!!! I am thrilled, this is something I have wanted to do for years and thought I would never get there -- this year everything has come together and I am GOING!!!!!

OMG!!! I am so gassed! And reality is starting to hit....What do I need for clothing? I have lived in south Texas for over 30 years and any cold> weather gear Ihad in Michigan is long gone or grown out of.

Any and all suggestions are welome.
-----END OF EMAIL-----

By the time I got a chance to answer, the clothing issues had been dealt with, mostly a la "layer, layer, layer," so I focused on the experiences she could expect to have. My response is below....

It sounds like you're getting lots of good advice, Bilinda, but don't hesitate to ask questions as they occur to you, even if they might seem silly to you. Trust me, I was the queen of dumb questions back when I was alternately elated that I was coming to my first race and terrified I'd somehow freeze into an ice-cube.

Man, thinking back to my "rookie run" as an Iditarod fan, who'd have ever guessed I'd be living here in Alaska now. Well, okay, Lois. She knew I was hooked on Alaska before I did, as did the likes of Rosemary and Dillingham's, I'm sure, not to mention many still living ini the Lower 48.

You'll have a blast, but, as I said earlier, beware. While the race is addictive, it's Alaska that has called to me and so many others. No lie, I'd give up ever seeing the Iditarod again before I'd give up Alaska.

As far as the usual first gathering of Idita-support folks (members of our list), that seem to tend to be on the Wed. at the vet check out here in Wasilla at Iditarod Headquarters. You've got to be careful not to be a nuisance or get in the way of the vets doing their jobs, but can be fun. We never seem to have a specific spot to meet, but do manage to stumble into each other pretty quickly. Do you think that could have anything to do with the visibility of Betty in her subdued orange outfit? We've done lunch after a few times, tho' I was so sick last year that I pretty much bailed on everything, I'm afraid.

Thursday's the musher banquet, which I swear every year I'm never going to again, but somehow manage to wind up attending. It's a good day for musher viewing, too, as the hotel will be hosting the final pre-race musher meeting. You're likely to find several Idita-supporters hanging out in the Fancy Moose, so keep your eyes open.

There's a book fair with Idita-authors and several presentations on Friday at the hotel, too, that while geared to the teachers are open to the public. I know Paulsen is speaking, but kinda think you'll want to hear Gay Salisbury, who was speaking this year again, too, at least the last time I looked at the schedule. I know, I know, I need to catch up on my Idita-homework. So sue me, Diane (Johnson, ITC's Education Director), I'm woefully behind on all things Iditarod, even the teaching stuff.

Haven't confirmed this yet, so don't quote me, but Jeff King and his artist wife Donna Gates usually can be found at the Aurora Art Gallery late Friday afternoon, too. If you're not familiar with Donna's artwork, you're missing a treat. My walls are adorned with several of her works. Jeff's there with musher cards and the like and willingly poses for pix and signs endless autographs. Wouldn't be too surprised to see one of his girls or a dog or two somewhere in the vicinity, either, tho' am kinda inclined to think Salem's toes might be too vital to risk Salem possibly getting stepped on for it to be him, alas.

Saturday is, of course, the start. Go early (a shuttle runs from the Millennium) cos you can get onto the street in the early hours for some upclose viewing and photos til they herd everyone without the proper credentials thru the gates and off the street. Given how tough walking in the snow on the street has been some years, you may not regret being herded off as much as you might think, trust me. Afterward, lots of places to shop afterward and it's always kinda fun to hang around long enough to watch the snow being removed, too.

Sunday is the restart in, uh, well, out here in the Valley somewhere. Whereas mushers are pretty approachable on Saturday, let's face it, that's not for real, you'll find the mood is much more serious on Sunday and for the most part you shouldn't expect to be getting upclose and personal with even the friendliest at the restart. Saturday's for the fans, but Sunday is where the clock starts ticking, so the mushers' focus tends to be more inward, if that makes sense.

Then...then we all tend to go somewhere and take a nap, marveling at the fact that while we're exhausted, it's just beginning for the mushers and their wonderful, wonderful dogs.And that's it in a nutshell. Okay, I'm already exhausted just typing about it. I think I'll go to bed now. June

Monday, December 18, 2006

Sheep Mountain 150

Karen Ramstead team leaving Eureka for last
leg of the Sheep Mountain 150. Photo by Donna Quante

The Sheep Mountain 150 essentially marks the beginning of race season in Alaska. While few mushers approach it competitively given how early it is in the season, it's a mushers race put on by mushers, so some top teams enter every year. This year Lance Mackey, who'd go on to win the race, was even a late entry. His brother Jason had planned to run the race, but when he was injured in a truck wreck (see story below), Lance replaced him on the musher list. Doing his brother this favor allowed Lance to add not just another victory to his resume, but he won a brand-new Hans Gatt sled in the process. According to Lance, this is his first new, genuinely new sled ever, so this is one favor that paid off!

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Shishmaref Cannonball Passes

Herbie Nayokpuk, known to Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race fans all over the world as "The Shishmaref Cannonball,'' died Saturday afternoon at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, surrounded by family members. He was 77.

Read the full story at:

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Happy Trails Kennels and the Idita-Rookie Meeting

The forty rookies signed up to run Iditarod 2007 gathered at Martin Buser's Big Lake kennel this morning for the second in a series of meetings. They'd spent much of the day before in Anchorage in a meeting at the Millennium Hotel. Today, however, they were getting what was for many their first look at a genuine Iditarod musher's kennel. Even better, of course, a four-time champion Iditarod musher's kennel. Even tho' they'd heard Jeff King speak on Saturday, that was in a bare hotel meeting room, not in the context of mountain vistas, snowflakes falling, and singing dogs.

The day began early, most arriving before the sun was even up, and would continue throughout the day. His living and dining room crammed with chairs for the morning season, Martin fielded questions on everything from booties to health concerns, as well as how best to handle the inevitable impulse to scratch from the race. "Make a list of three people," Martin instructed, "that you HAVE to talk to before you scratch. Make sure I'm on it. Since I won't be returning calls, that pretty well handles that." Everyone laughed, of course, but Martin's caution that feelings of failure, fatigue and frustration could lead to scratching from the race needlessly was just one of the many bits of info he shared.

Before the day was over, he'd even share his packing list, the vital list of items he packed for the race and drop bags. While emphasizing that this list was his and would have to be tinkered with the meet individual needs, it was a start. For many rookies, today was the start of the race becoming very, very real to them, a time when the sheer magnitude of making such a list seems overwhelming, so all the advice they could soak up from Martin and the others that spoke the day before in Anchorage was much appreciated.

More photos at