On the Trail… Fairbanks to Nome

Monday, Fairbanks

The morning started early for the pups, mushers, handler, volunteers, and fans who were on hand to witness the 2015 Iditarod restart. As we know, it’s a pretty historical start… only the second time in 43 years that the race has departed from Fairbanks… but here’s a few other things that make it a unique race:

  • There are five returning champs – Lance Mackey, Jeff King, Dallas Seavey, Mitch Seavey, and John Baker
  • There are also five returning red lantern winners (the first time in the history of the race there has been more than three) – Ellen Halverson (who has two), Tim Hunt, Jan Steves, Christine Roalfs, and Marcelle Fressineau
  • The mushers who completed the Yukon Quest this year – Jason Campeau, Hugh Neff, Rob Cooke, and Bryan Wilmhust – are literally mushing 2,000 miles on the same trail this year – Whitehorse to Nome
  • As the trail winds down the Chena River, it passes the home of Iditarod icon Susan Butcher
  • The race will visit the Huslia, the home of world-famous sprint musher George Attla, who recently passed away

For someone like me, who is attracted to the stories, this race is going to be filled with them….

But, first of course, the mushers and their faithful sidekicks needed to get out onto the trail… which they did today.

I started the day be heading out with the Pee Team.  You may remember that last year I became an honorary member of the Pee Team in Galena, where they taught me the fine art of collecting urine samples from the dogs.  Today I was given a slightly neater job, making appointments for the collection team to come by with individual mushers. This is pretty important for a few reasons.  First, the team was given a list of mushers who were to be collected from before the start.  Secondly, timing is everything.  If you arrive at the truck after the musher has dropped the dogs from their boxes you are out of luck.  Once the pups leave their warm straw filled dog boxes, they are not likely to hold it for too long! Making the appointment enables the mushers to either keep the dogs in their boxes until the appointment or to drop, feed, rebox, and then redrop the dogs for the team.

Once that task was over, I was free to roam the musher parking area and check in as I worked on my Social Media reporting job.  Keeping the phone charged in the negative temperatures proved to be challenging… but I kept several hand warmers in my pocket and had an extra battery, so I just hoped for the best.

I checked in with the mushers my class has been working with.  Monica Zappa was fired up today!  She was a blur of bright colors.  She has a new and improved sled bag that essentially has an extra sled bag attached to the top.  She says it is heavy, but she feels like she is better organized this year in her packing.  She was eager, animated, and enthusiastic!  Philip was quiet and a bit emotional again today.  What an adventure he is going to have.  You could just sense that he really gets what a big deal this is.  I am anxious for him to get out on the trail and just experience it.  He is going to be one who takes it all in and really lives in the moment.  Both promised to Skype with us when the race is over.  I can’t wait to hear their tales from the trail!  Nathan Schroeder was all business.  He was so intense and so focused; quite different in demeanor than last year.  Last year he seemed to be enjoying the celebration of the starts. This year he is all business.

One thing that struck me this year as I wandered the parking area was all the differences in sled construction.  Holy buckets there were some crazy looking sleds this year!  Last year there were maybe two or three sleds with the second sled on the back toting a dog box. This year there were lots of them!  In fact, there were a few three part sleds – the front that looked like a long narrow sled, the mid-section that was the cooker/seat, and the rear that was the dog box.  Kelly Maxiner even pulled two storage sections behind him.  From the reports later on, several mushers mushed out of town, stopped, and boxed up some dogs right away.  I guess the theory is to rest different members of the team at different points during the race.  I think the fact that they are going to be running on rivers instead of navigating the Gorge and Steps factored into the sled design decisions.  It will be interesting to see how they all hold up.

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Around 9:15 I started wandering up the chute towards the starting line.  This part of the course was VERY different than when the race restarted in Willow.  In Willow, the sleds pull out of the parking area and have just a short distance to the start line.  In Fairbanks, the distance from the front of the parking area to the start line was four tenths of a mile!  The teams at the back of the lot – had maybe a full football field length further to travel! I found a great spot by the fence before the starting line.  It was like a musher parade going by!  They “stacked” the chute, so there were always three or four teams in the chute. They’d move up and stop, move up and stop, move up and stop.  Frequently they stopped right in front of me – so I got to give them some good luck wishes right before they headed out on the trail.  The handlers were having a heck of a time keeping the teams stopped. They were slipping and sliding in the chute. Several mushers had the tug lines unhooked so that the dogs wouldn’t have to much power. They rehooked right under the arch. I had an interesting conversation with Seth Barnes.  After saying he recognized me and me reminding him that we had met and that I was the Teacher on the Trail last year, he let me know that I’m now addicted and will have to come back every year and that I should probably just come to Alaska to teach.  “It’s their new recruiting trick. They get you up here and then you want to stay and teach for them!”

At about that point I had my first Iditarod moment of the day.  Someone stepped into the fence next to me.  I turned and saw a flash of yellow. It was none other than Monica!  She had walked up to check out the chute.  But watching some of the teams go by with her and chatting about how the teams looked was pretty cool.

2015-03-09 10.58.48I had my second Iditarod moment a bit later when Ray Redington, Jr. was in the chute.  I was wishing him good luck when to my right someone stepped up and threw an arm around me.  I jumped a bit and turned to see that it was Barbara and Raymie Redington.  Ray is the son of Iditarod finisher Raymie and the grandson of race founder Joe.  To watch them send their son off on the race was quite a moment.  Raymie teased Ray about towing a dog box on his fancy new sled.  Ray responded, “The guy who should have won last year towed one the whole way to Nome!”

Lev Shvarts is a really friendly and kind guy.  I have had a few meetings with him this year and have really enjoyed talking with him. I’ll be keeping an eye on him for sure this year.  Bryan Bearss, who is running Karin Hendrickson’s team, joked that his stomach was flipping but at least he didn’t throw up this time!  Rick Casillo came to the line with a full military escort.  Wade Marrs came to the line riding on the top of his sled bag.  Some mushers lead their teams to the line, some stood on the runners.  Some looked nervous, some looked scared, some looked elated.

I had a great time posting on Facebook as each musher passed.  Between my phone and the extra battery I made it to number 74 out of 79 before the frigid temperatures finally took their toll.

It’s going to be a great race!  I wish all the teams safe and happy trails!

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