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

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Happy-Sad Memories

While browsing through some old photos today, I came across this one. It's a reproduction of the wedding announcment for the wedding of Susan Butcher and Dave Monson. I'd won it in an Ebay auction and took it to Alaska with me with the sole purpose of getting Susan to sign it for me.

You have to understand. I'm the world's worst autograph seeker, so this was rare for me. Sadly, I never once pondered that it might become simply a memory and that Susan would leave us only a few years later. No, I won't even go there. I want to focus on the memory of that moment, a moment that Susan shared a side of herself to which few fans had access.

Susan was at Anchorage's Millennium Alaska Hotel to give a presentation to the teachers there attending the Iditarod's annual teacher workshop. She was relaxed and funny, then at moments reflective, but open and approachable to one and all. After her presentation, after the room was cleared and I was helping organizers clean up, I sat down with Susan and Lois Harter, then the race's Education Director and simply talked. Susan and Lois go way back. In fact, it was Lois who coined the "Alaska, where men and men and women win the Iditarod" saying that adorned so many tee shirts during Susan's reign as champion.

I finally pulled out the ol' copy of the Iditarod Runner shown here. Susan burst out in laughter. "Now this is a blast from the past!" she laughed. She laughed again and began to name off the dogs shown.

"Wait!" I pleaded, digging for a Sharpie. "Write them down for me!" Oh, jeez, I was giving orders to Susan Butcher?

Susan just laughed again, giving quick tidbits about each and every one of the dogs pictured as she wrote their name for me. As she finally signed her own name, she hesitated next to the puppy in her arms. As it turned out, this one went to a then up and coming musher named Jeff King . Susan hesitated to put a name to it since she wasn't sure what Jeff had called it. Thus, the puppy in her arms remains a mystery to me, at least until I remember to ask Jeff King someday.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Jason Mackey-Bruce Linton Dog Truck Wreck


All I could think when I saw this photo, provided by rookie musher Bruce Linton, was how lucky not only Jason Mackey and he were to walk away from this wreck relatively injury free, but that the dogs also emerged in good shape.

Bruce will be a rookie in Idiarod 2007, so he already had a tough trail to travel, so this is just one more hurdle, made easier by the offer of a dog trailer by Georgia musher Bill Borden. Bill ( ) hasn't been able to swing a run since '02, so he's just happy to see his Cool Dreams rig being useful to someone else sharing his Iditarod dreams.

Check out Bruce's website at:

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Silent Waiting

I have a friend who lives in Willow, Alaska, a mecca for mushers. She's become used to and even enjoys the constant songs of the dogs, but she noted something unusual the night of the first significant snowfall.

Silence. It was as if these dogs, finely tuned athletes that they are, were also somehow tuned into Mother Nature's whims and knew that soon, tantalizingly soon, it would be time to don their harnesses and run once again with sleds. They slept silently, awaiting the next morning and the glistening snow that awaited them.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Happy Anniversary, Hazy

I wish sled dogs could talk. Two years ago, Hazel, shown front left in a photo taken by Brenda Borden of Hazy in her husband Bill's Iditarod team, came to live with me. I'd love to hear her stories, hear what it was like to race across the snow and ice in Alaska. Looking at her here, so focused, tug line tight, eyes straight ahead, I'll glance at her sprawled out on the floor here and try to somehow mesh the dog I see with the one in the photos.

Now, two years later, she's a not quite sedate, but more restrained retiree, living out her life here with me in Wasilla, not all that far from where she began her trips to Nome. Yes, trips. While Hazy didn't make it to Nome with Bill, coming into heat at the wrong time, she has crossed under the burled arch in Nome. She was a member of Trisha Kolegar's 2000 team. Ironically, that was my first Iditarod, tho' I have to admit, I haven't gone thru the photo stash yet to see if I have photos of Hazy on her way to Nome for the first time. Trish was running Lynda Plettner's puppy team, of which Hazel was a member.

What fun it was to talk to both Lynda and Trish about "my" sled dog. Hey, I may never go to Nome via the runners, but it's a kick to have this living part of the Iditarod as a part of the family. At last, I can claim a tough family member, even if that family member happens to be a tough sled dog. Lynda remembers Hazy as the runt of her litter, a surprise given her solid build and incredible strength. Both recall this shy puppy being picked on by litter mates, so they moved her into another pen with some slightly younger puppies. That's when the sweetness in her eyes began to shine forth as she immediately began to mother the youngsters. From those uncertain beginnings came an Iditarod finisher. I wish she could talk.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

RIP, Susan Butcher, on the Trail with Joe Redington, Sr

This is how I prefer to remember Susan, with a smile that could light up the world. RIP, Susan, and don't forget to call "Trail!" when you, with Granite in lead, pass Joe Sr. on the trail.

Susan Butcher
Dec. 26, 1956 - August 5, 2006

1999 Photo Coutesy of Bonnie Lundberg