Restart – Check

Seven am – Fairbanks – -31 Degrees F

Restart day found me where I left off yesterday – checking in volunteer dog handlers!  But not for long…. I was due to meet Nathan at is truck at 9:00 and wanted to get a quick walk around the musher parking lot to check in with everyone well before that….

And guess who was pulling in right as I arrived at the lot?

I checked in with Nathan, but he and the team were huddled up in the truck trying to stay warm, so I kept wandering and checking in with the teams.

2017-03-06 09.08.00In walking around, it quickly became apparent that the mushers interpreted the rule change about carrying dogs and mandatory gear very differently than I did! The rule states that dogs and mandatory gear must be carried “in the front sled”. When I originally heard the change, I heard it as “in front of the musher”, so I was surprised to see that most mushers still had storage behind where they themselves would stand. I guess technically, if it is on the front set of runners it’s still considered the front sled. It will be interesting to see if the rule is reworded again next year!

2017-03-06 09.10.22The thing everyone was dying to see? Dallas’ new sled!  There have been rumors about this sled all week – rumors like: it’s 20 feet long, it’s made of space age materials, it has a dog food cooker built in, it cost $10,000….  So of course I made a bee-line for his parking spot to check it out.

It’s definitely different. To start with, it’s hard. It’s carbon fiber and Kevlar. It’s not like your typical soft sled bag. And it opens like a coffin at the top. I don’t know… we’ll have to see how it works out! Here’s an article about Dallas’ sled as well as a few others: Sled Article

Things were starting to get hopping, so I headed back to Nathan’s truck to begin my “Musher Handler” duties! First up? Dropping the dogs so that they could stretch their legs and pee for the P-Team. The P-Team is a group of volunteers that collects urine from all of the teams to be drug tested. They collect samples at the start of the race, at an undisclosed location on the trail, and from the top twenty teams in Nome. Nathan and Nick worked on making sure the sled was all packed correctly. Nick changed the runner plastics. I petted dogs and tried to keep them calm. Or maybe I just petted them because it kept me calm!

Just like on Saturday, we watched the parade go by! Team after team headed for the chute.

Now, I’ve been telling everyone who would listen that the distance from the back of the musher lot to the start line is five miles long! I may have exaggerated a bit… but just a bit!  Literally, from the front of the musher lot to the start line is a full mile. And the musher lot is massive – more than 70 dog trucks are parked in it in a huge circle!  Luckily, Nathan wasn’t quite at the back this time like he was in 2015 – but still the haul to the start line was going to be a challenge. We had to swing the team right out of the parking spot, make our way to the front of the lot, make a sharp left to get into the chute and then plod a mile to the start line. While the parade was going by, we got word that we needed to head to the start line SLOWLY. Apparently teams were hitting the turn into the chute way to fast and handlers were wiping out right and left. Remember all those ITC Handlers we checked in? Apparently lots of them decided one team and one wipe out were enough and they were leaving without handling multiple teams. There was going to be a crunch for handlers by the end!

Finally it was go time for team 62! Booties and harnesses on – dogs led to the gangline to be hooked up and off we went! We got Nathan successfully to the start line, heard the countdown, and he was off towards Nome!

I hung out at the start line to watch the rest of the teams start their race and then went inside to warm up a bit… where I was give a bit of surprising news…. I was headed off to the first checkpoint!

The first checkpoint this year, Nenana, is about a five hour trip by dogsled, but only an hour by road. It’s the only handler assisted checkpoint in the race. Handler assisted is a bit of a misnomer – the handlers drive the trucks to the checkpoint and restock the mushers, but they aren’t actually able to assist the mushers in any way.

Nenana is a great little town at the confluence of the Nenana River and the Tanana River with a population of about 386. We walked to the community center, where the checkpoint was being staged and where the checkpoint banner was hung. The mushers come off the river under a bridge, follow the trail under the banner and in front of the community center, then return to the river where they will be officially checked. At check in the decide if they are going through or staying. Their answer to that question determines where they go next – to the parking area or under the next bridge and back onto the trail!

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We got to see about 30 teams come in during the 75 minutes or so we were there. Some restocked their supplies and rolled through and others stayed for a bit. Because it’s so early in the race teams are still stacked up and everyone was in and out of Nenana in about ten hours.

By the time all of the teams were on their way to the second checkpoint, I was on a plane had headed home to Baltimore!

ANC-FAI

Sunday was left as a travel day. The teams had to load up the trucks and drive everyone and everything to Fairbanks for Monday’s Official Restart. It’s about a six hour drive for the teams. I had it easy, I hopped on a plane at 7am for an hour long flight!

Pike’s Landing Lodge and Restaurant is the Iditarod Headquarters for the Fairbanks portion of the race. By the time I arrived, things were in full swing: the store was set up and there were planning meetings happening.

There has been lots of talk about how the Fairbanks Restart would be in comparison to the 2015 start; the last time the race was run out of Fairbanks. One thing predicted to be the same? The cold. It’s COLD in Fairbanks. Really cold. Like Alaska in the winter cold! What is different is that they are going to take a different route out of town… they are going to go right between the hotel and restaurant, taking a sharp right hand turn then a sharp left hand turn to head down on to the river.

2017-03-05 11.23.02My main job for today was to help my good friend Sara check in volunteer dog handlers for the restart. Sara’s official Iditarod job is the Restart Dog Handler Coordinator. In addition to the Musher Handlers (handlers who help out specific mushers and are arranged by the mushers themselves), the Iditarod arranges for ITC Handlers. These are volunteers who will help several teams get to the starting line. There are ITC Handlers who helped out at the Anchorage Start, but with the move to Fairbanks, we needed a whole new crop of handlers. And Fairbanks delivered about a hundred people or so volunteered to be ITC Handlers. As they checked in I gave them the list of rules:

  1. no tennis shoes, cleats, or spikes
  2. no things dangling around necks or from their ears
  3. meet at at the truck in the musher parking lot at 8:30 the next morning

Sara and I wrapped things up for that day at about 6:00, had some dinner, and then tried to get some sleep so we would be all ready for the next day!

 

 

Ceremonial Start – Check

The sky was bright and clear. The temperature rested around zero. Excitement filled the air.

It was Ceremonial Start Day!

Today the teams headed off for an eleven mile warm-up run through downtown Anchorage. It’s a wonderful way for the fans to see their favorite teams and wish them well before they disappear in to the backcountry of Alaska, away from roads and tourists.

Today was sensory overload…. the colors, the sights, the sounds, the smells – it was just awe inspiring.

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Monica and Dweezil talk strategy!

I headed up to Fourth Avenue about 8am and teams were already lining the streets on both sides and down most of the side streets. I said hello to friends old and new, and headed straight to Team Zappa! There was only one dog out of the truck…. yep. Dweezil. He’s going! He was so excited he was shaking! He can definitely sense something major is about to happen. Monica seems to be focused and ready to go. She’s a little worried about Dweezil’s anxiousness. She’s not going to run him in lead heading out, to try to give him a chance to adjust to the crowds and energy. Once she got her Posh House gear on, you couldn’t miss her coming in her neon yellow!

Since I was handling for Nathan, I headed to his truck next to pick up my handler armband. The race started at 10 am. Teams leave every two minutes. Nathan was bib number 62. So as you can imagine, there was A LOT of time to wait until we needed to get ready to head to the line. There was a lot of petting dogs, visiting with friends, and just hanging out. That’s the nature of the Ceremonial Start…. just a lot of fun excitement!

Once the race started, I discovered that Nathan had both the best and the worst parking space! Being right on Fourth Avenue, about two blocks off the start line…. we had front row seats to the parade of teams as they made their way to the start line. The dogs were resting back in the truck, away from the hustle and bustle, so all there was to do was watch the parade go by!

As it got closer to time for Nathan to head to the line it became apparent that hooking up was going to be interesting. Hooking up a dog team with other teams passing by in an endless parade seemed a little daunting at first. But honestly, his dogs were so calm and chill, they could have cared less. Booties on. Calm. Harnesses on. Hooked up to the gangline… that’s when the excitement started!

When we got the signal, we started to move the team up to the start line. And I remembered how good a parking spot he had again as we only had to go about two blocks! Usually getting a team to the starting line is a little tricky. You have to jog through the snow and we saw quite a few handlers fall and roll out earlier in the day! But, we made it to the line, heard the count down, and then the team was off on their eleven mile run!

Tomorrow is a travel day, as the teams and the race staff heads to Fairbanks to get ready for the Restart. This is when the race really gets started…. so it will have a totally different atmosphere.

Snow Dump!

Tonight Fourth Avenue goes through a major transformation.

It needs to shift from a plowed street traveled on by cars to a snow filled trail for dog teams to use as they head out of town.

I headed downtown about 9:30pm and the yearly Iditarod Snow Dump had begun. I discovered that over the course of the night, they will be bringing in about 145 dump trucks full of snow. The trail that will be created down Fourth Avenue will be about four inches deep and will be framed by 16 inch tall berms.

The Starting Line is up….

Now all we have to do is wait!

We Have A Start Order

Thursday is always a busy day for the mushers. They begin the morning super early with their Musher Meeting. This is when they are given all the information and details they need to know about the race. The meeting is followed by the official group musher photo and a toast to a safe race.

My morning started very early too… I gave my third presentation of the conference and finally got to actually Skype with the boys; then I headed over to the Lakefront Hotel Race Headquarters to meet up with the mushers as their meeting wrapped up.

Once the mushers were finished with the seriousness of the meeting, they got to have a bit of relaxation as they enjoyed a pizza lunch with their IditaRiders. The IditaRider is a program where fans get to bid in an auction to try to win a ride in the Ceremonial Start. The IditaRiders will ride the 11 mile trail sitting in the sled of mushers.  It’s important for a few reasons. First, it’s a powerful fundraiser for the race. Secondly, it adds needed weight to the sleds to help slow the teams down while they are traveling through the city streets. Imagine – the mushers usually take less then their full team, have themselves on sled along with the IditaRider, AND have a second sled and rider (tag sled) attached behind them. All that weight, and the teams STILL have to be held back at the starting line by six or seven people! The power these dogs have is just amazing!

The next big event of the day was the Musher Banquet! This is the big social gathering where fans, mushers, families, and friends all gather together to learn the starting order from the race. Hobo Jim performed before the delicious dinner was served. Once everyone had been entertained, fed, and had time to visit and meet and greet, the draw started. One at a time the mushers were called to the stage where they reached into a mukluk and drew a number. The number drawn becomes their official start number. The mushers would then step to the microphone, thank their sponsors, announce their number and then head off through the autograph chute. Once they have their number, they also pick up packets that include the correct tags for their dogs. It’s always a very long night…. but it’s always fun to see everyone! It seems appropriate that a Redington – Ryan this time – will be leading the pack out with bib number 2 (number one is always reserved for an honorary musher). Monica will be going out 58th and Nathan 62nd.

Friday is the calm before the storm. Mushers will be making their final preparations, volunteers are busy making sure everything is in place, and the excitement is building!

Vet Checks – Check!

It’s been a few days since I’ve checked in…

Monday was filled with meetings and making plans to make sure that the teachers who were arriving in town for the conference would be well cared for! Monday evening kicked off the conference with an opening reception. Tuesday was filled with presentations (I did two!) that filled teachers ideas about how to integrate Iditarod into their classrooms.

Tuesday evening I got to catch up with Nathan Schroeder. He came into town with his handler Nick, and we spent a few hours talking. He has really been enjoying his time here in Anchorage. He and Nick have been running the trails around Willow. He’s falling more and more in love with the land and the area, he kept talking about how beautiful it is. He’s having a great time running and being with his dogs. He seems calm, focused, and ready to go. I have a feeling he’s in for a great race.

Wednesday was a big day for the Teacher Conference – it was Field Trip Day!

We started off at Headquarters where lots of mushers were in for their vet checks. All of the dogs have to go through an extensive pre-race battery of tests: ekgs, blood work, and physical examination. During the physical exam, the dogs have their microchips checked and then get a hands on exam that follows the acronym HAW-L – heart, attitude and appetite, weight, and lungs. All of the vets are volunteers! They do an amazing job and sign off that each dog is ready and able to hit the trail.

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It was sooooooo cold at Vet Checks! With the wind chill it was about -11 I heard. It was so windy the wind was howling and shaking the trees. There was so much snow. It was really something! It’s definitely a change from the last few years. It brought back memories of standing in Nome in 2014 with the wind whipping off the Bering Sea Coast!

After a stop for lunch at the beautiful Settler’s Bay, we headed to Matthew Failor’s home and kennel. We actually beat Matt home as he was at Vet Checks first… but we were greeted by his family and Michael Baker who is running a team from his kennel. After waiting a few minutes and taking a peek at Denali, which was a clear and stunning look from Matt’s deck, the dog truck pulled up.

Matt’s dog truck is a tad different than most trucks. The dog boxes are internal. It’s like a big trailer that you open the doors and walk into. So when the truck pulled up into the yard, Matt opened the back door and then let a few dogs out. They ran around the yard and checked in with their buddies and then headed over to their house and waited to get hooked up. A few got off track and distracted by the bus load of teachers standing around watching, but they all managed to find their way home. Then the whole process started over again with a few more dogs. It was pretty amazing to see how happy and excited the dogs were.

Matt gave us a quick talk about the dogs and how they are trained and socialized. Matt and his dogs work year round. In the summer they go to a glacier near Juneau to run tours and then in the winter they come home to Willow and train and run races. Matt told me that he doesn’t mind the move to Fairbanks for the start. He’d rather do the regular route because he likes the challenge of the Gorge and the Steps, but he’s okay with the move. He does, however, feel badly for his partner, Michael Baker, who is running a team from his kennel this year. He’s disappointed because this may be Michael’s one and only chance to run the race and it’s not going to be the traditional run. But Matthew assures me they are both ready to hit the trail!

We went into the garage, and Michael showed us their sleds and gear that is getting ready to be packed up. The two of them make all their own gear: they built their sleds, make their gang lines, etc. They are each pulling a sled behind them. With the new rules, they can not carry dogs or mandatory gear behind them, but they can carry straw etc.

One of the highlights of the trip was that as we were ready to leave, Matthew hooked up a team and we got a chance to see just how excited the dogs are to get the chance to run. When the team headed out down the trail the rest of the dogs in the kennel gave a howl to send them off. It made my heart skip a beat!

 

 

2017 Rondy Wraps Up!

img_8361Day Three of the Rondy Races was a moment to remember for sure! 66 year old Roxy Wright won the race for the fourth time, and the first time in 24 years. She’s still the only woman to have won the Rondy! What an amazing accomplishment to witness!

For me, today was the easiest of the three days. No painting involved! Just count the dogs as they went out and count them as the came back in! It did get a little fast paced as the teams really piled up coming in at the end… but it all worked out!

After the races I headed of to the Lakefront Hotel which serves as the headquarters for the Iditarod at race time. The hotel is well on the way to becoming the hot spot for Iditarod activity… offices are being set up, volunteers are arriving to start signing in, and lots of last minute preparations and decisions are being made! I had a few meetings about the Teacher Conference which starts Monday evening and about my “job” as Social Media reporter during the week…. so watch for me to be reporting from the Iditarod Faceboook Page! 🙂

I got to meet the finalists for next year’s Teacher on the Trail. They are in for quite an experience this week as they work harder then they have ever worked to earn the coveted position for next year.

We headed over to Zoo Lights at the Anchorage Zoo which was pretty neat. We saw quite a few animals still milling about which kind of surprised me. The Siberian tigers were prowling about, as was the porcupine, the coyotes, and the reindeer. The wolves were curled up in tight balls, just like sleeping sled dogs. The most awake critters were the seals. One seal put on  quite a show… splashing the water with is fin and tail, blowing bubbles, making sounds… it was a lot of fun to see!

I also got a chance to talk with Nathan – seems like training is going well! He has twenty dogs here in Alaska with him from which he’ll pick his final team. I posted about his runs over on his blog if you want to check it out:  https://schroedermushing.com/news/

Today is filled with more meetings and then tonight we get the ball rolling by welcoming the teachers in for the opening reception and then we are off and running!