Imagine, walking into the frozen tundra, onto an ice covered lake, as the sun is rising, watching snow frost glitter, your hair freezing, and it being 8 degrees Fahrenheit. Imagine the quiet, the stillness, and the peace that brings. And then that peace and silence is broken as over 1,000 dogs begin to bark and howl as the excitement starts setting in. 67 mushers, over 1,000 dogs, 100’s of snowmobiles, and thousands of spectators start converging onto that same lake getting ready for the worlds longest tailgate party. Fires are set, music is playing, snow mobiles are revving, and helicopters are flying overhead. Everyone is arriving to be a part of something that is bigger, something that is more important than any one single individual. Everyone is here for the same reason. To cheer on the Last Great Race in the Last Frontier. And a Great Race it is.
Dogs are amazing creatures. When you throw your dog a ball it chases it. These dogs, the Alaskan Husky, when hooked up to a sled they pull. They are born to do this. These dogs are a huge part of Alaskan history. These dogs can pull pound for pound more than a horse. They are survival in its most primal form. When our Native Alaskan Culture was nomadic and had to follow their food for survival they used these dogs to pull their sleds. When the gold rush happened these dogs pulled sleds, when the mail was delivered before our current road system existed these dogs pulled sleds, today Denali National Park is monitored by dogs that pull sleds, today 82% of Alaskan Communities are not connected by a road system and these dogs still pull sleds (at 40 below your snow machine won’t start; however, your dogs will still pull your sled). What a better way to honor the history and importance of these dogs by watching them do what they do best. These dogs are chipped, blood and urine tested, get hooked up to EKG’s and are better taken care of on the Iditarod Trail than anywhere else in this world. Over 1700 hundred volunteers from around the world come to Alaska to be a part of this. Because this is bigger than just you or I. These dogs are amazing athletes and are the reason that Alaskans have survived as long as they have.
Words cannot accurately describe what it is like to be a part of such an event. You could feel the electric excitement amongst the dogs, mushers, and spectators. I’ve spent 5 years wanting and waiting to be a part of this event. I’ve been blown away.
I was not only a spectator, I was also a part of it all. When I made the decision to move to Alaska in the wintertime one of the first things I did was look up how to volunteer for this event. I wasn’t sure I would get selected; however, that didn’t stop me from signing up. I spent three days at the volunteer registration desk meeting people from all over the world. Peter a veterinarian from Australia, Julien a photographer from France, Douglas a Dog Handler from Montana, Libby an Iditarider/Volunteer/Sponsor from New Zealand, Jeanette who has volunteered for the past 20 years from Wyoming. We had 1700 volunteers and about half were not Alaskan. I got to meet many of them as they came in to fill out paperwork and receive their volunteer badge. I enjoyed every moment of volunteering. Everyone has a story to tell if only you are willing to listen. I was constantly amazed by the stories of the volunteers of the Iditarod.
The Wednesday before the Iditarod started I was at work when I walked around the corner and was greeted by a dog. Not just any dog…it was 6 year old Zig who has raced in several Ididtarods as the lead dog and is the mom to several of the dogs on Jeff King’s team. Best day ever. I mean really…does work get better than this. After some good ear scratching I had to go back to work and she had to continue getting ready for her big race.
On Thursday I decided to take in the Musher’s Banquet. I am so happy that I did. It started with a Musher’s Meet & Greet. I could have stood in line to speak with Martin Buser, Jeff King, DeeDee Jonrowe, or Aliy Zirkle. However, I have met them all so I decided to find some new faces and learn about them. I met Allen Moore who just won the Yukon Quest, Jessie Royer a woman from Montana, Joar who is sponsored by Libby (the New Zealand Lavender Farmer volunteer). I didn’t get autographs instead I got photographs. The Banquet itself was Alaskan’s version of the Oscars. I was lucky enough to sit at the same table as Scott White. I just had to know how and why this man from Washington got into Dog Mushing. As I learned his story, I was once again blown away. He would probably tell you that he was never really into mushing when he was younger. He was an avid hiker when an accident caused him to blow a disc in his back. The doctors told him he could never carry a hiking pack again. So he bought a dog to carry his pack so he could continue to hike. One thing led to another and the next thing you know he has a dog sledding team. He’s been in two Iditarod’s. This will be his third. I will be cheering for him as well as Joar, Aliy, Jeff, Martin, DeeDee and Allen.
The Ceremonial Start is in Anchorage every year. The mushers were probably pretty thrilled to have snow this year and not have the restart moved to Fairbanks. A group of friends and coworkers throw what they loving call a Trailgate party. We literally were standing on the sides of the trail that the dogs and mushers would be running on. It’s themed every year, involves lots of food, music, and a megaphone. This years theme was “Out of this World.” Many mushers slowed or stopped when they got to our group as we cheered them on and wished them good luck.
I’m glad I went as it was a lot of fun and a major energy booster. It was fun watching the experienced mushers that just kind of shake their head and think “There they are, once again.” Then seeing the 16 rookies come thru with shocked looks on their faces as they wondered “What in the world is going on.” After the Ceremonial start I headed downtown to take in the Reindeer Races which was the only event of Fur Rhondy I took in this year. Maybe next year I will be able to take in more.
On Sunday we headed to Willow for the Re-Start. This is the official start of the race. You can see the determination in the faces of the mushers. Even the dogs know that it’s go time. Most of them are about to run 1,000 miles in less than 10 days. It’s what each dog and musher have been preparing for. It was once again amazing.
Though the race isn’t over yet, I’m ready to sign up again for next year. Who knows, maybe I’ll be on the trail as security or at a Checkpoint. Or maybe I’ll stick with the registration desk and parking the Mushers.
This has been a super exciting two weeks in Anchorage. As I look over my schedule for the next few weeks it seems that even though the Mushers and Dogs have left Anchorage that there are some exciting events on their way.