The Real Thing

10511270_10208178202427180_1685517524387744935_n (1)Sunday dawned bright and early at some insanely early hour. I had to haul all of my stuff out of the hotel as I had a plane to catch later that night, load it into Kerry Q’s car, and then hit the road to Willow for the Official Start, or Restart of the 2016 Iditarod. I was on call to handle for Nathan again, but Kerry Q had signed us up to help our friend Sara Lamont who was organizing the ITC handlers for the Restart. The ITC provides volunteer handlers for mushers who need extra help getting their teams to the starting line, and Sara is the one who manages it and figure out who is helping who. It’s a huge job and she does a great job!

We got to Willow Lake nice and early and checked into the community center building were Kerry Q and I were put to work checking in volunteer handlers as they arrived. Pretty quickly though, another volunteer arrived to help Kerry Q out, so I was off to be Sara’s right hand… although, I think I was just company – she could totally have handled it all by herself! We got the volunteer snacks organized, set up the meeting area, and then waited.

2016-03-06 08.03.27But yet again, as seems to always happen, I got to experience new and amazing things. There always seems to be something new and amazing to discover about the race!

The first thing to know is that it was cold!  Very cold. Standing on the frozen lake before the the sun came up? Cold. I actually broke out my huge parka and pulled the hood up!

The second is the sun rising and Denali coming out in all of her glory. I have been really blessed this trip to see her totally clear several times!

2016-03-06 09.50.04 HDR

Trackers and the booties they will be placed in

Emily Krol arrived with the “tracker guy” whom I met 2014 as I got my very own tracker!  Emily and I also met in 2014 at the Junior Iditarod which she has run, but by 2014 she was volunteering with the race marshall. The mushers will all be carrying two trackers so that fans can track them on the trail, but also for their safety.  I sat on the ice and helped her turn every single tracker on. It was actually a little tricky to get them on. There’s a series of buttons that have to be pushed in a particular order to get them ready to receive and give signals. Every single tracker also has a name, which is something I didn’t know before!

Monica arrived, so I hung out with her for a bit. I got to visit with Dweezil in the truck again. He definitely knows something is wrong. Poor baby. He is not a happy pup. I helped Monica organize her dog jackets for the start and gave her lots of hugs from the boys, TJ, and I.

Poor Dweezil!

Poor Dweezil!

2016-03-06 11.57.41Nathan arrived and I was officially on the clock!  Joanne came by to give his bib. The P Team came by to make an appointment to collect samples from the dogs. That is always a tricky thing. The dogs typically go right when they get off the truck, so timing is everything! If the P Team is late, they may be too late!  But this time it worked out perfectly. They actually put the collection devices (ziplock bags on elastic strings) on the dogs as we pulled them off the truck.  It actually worked really well.  Nathan and his dad would get a dog out of the box, I’d hold the dog’s collar and neckline and pull them up on their back legs, the P Team swooped in and the bag on, then I’d walk the dogs to the line and hook them in, they’d do their business and the P Team would take the samples away! It only failed once when one dog peed on my foot before the bag was in place! Oops!

Once all the dogs were off the truck, there was time to kill.  Nathan got the sled off the truck, got things packed and organized, got himself organized, and we all chatted and waited.

But once it was time to go, it was time to go! I helped walk a few dogs to the line to hook them in for their their grand adventure. And at the very last minute, I had to change a dog’s harness because he had the wrong one on!  And then it was time to get them to the line!

Nathan’s Dogs are Ready to Get Going:

There were so many ITC handlers helping that Kerry and I just had to walk and watch and make sure everything was okay with the lines.

We made it to the start line, the countdown was on, Nathan gave me a quick hug and directions that I needed to make sure they had the right info on bio announcement next year (they called him a three time John Beargrease champion instead of a four time champion!) and he was off!

I made it back the the staging area in time to give Monica a shout of good luck before she was off to the chute and off on her own adventure.

I checked in with Sara who said they could use some help, so I offered to go and help Ryan Redington as a handler. Ryan had done a wonderful job Skyping with my class before the race started and I was anxious to help him and his superstar dog Battleship get to the line. Plus his mom, Barbara Redington, is one of my favorite people! Ryan wasn’t going out til #60, so I had lots of time to chat with the whole Redington clan. Barbara had her hands full with Ryan, Ray Jr., and Robert all running, plus the grandkids running around, plus the fact that she is a super start photographer and takes pictures of everyone!  The other plus, he was parked near Matt Failor, so I got give another of my favorite people a hug of luck!

There was a bit of excitement during the long wait. A dog got loose and had to be chased down to get him back to his team.  In retrospect it was kind of funny, but at the time it was a little scary. A few minutes after that got settled, I looked to my left and watched as one of Matt’s dogs got loose. Here’s the difference.  The dog skitted away about 5 feet. Matt crouched down, held out his hand, called the dog’s name, and the dog came right back. Wow.

Things Heat Up In the Back of the U:

Ryan couldn’t have been sweeter. He is so calm and soft spoken. He thanked me several times for coming over to help and he seems to be super excited to be returning to the race. When it was finally time to head out, he put me in specific place on the line and said – “You stand there, I’m putting the chewers by you – don’t let them chew through the line!”  Gosh – these mushers really know how to put the pressure on!

2016-03-06 10.50.28So getting Ryan to the line was a bit more problematic then Nathan. I need to back up for a minute and talk about how the staging area was laid out. Think of it as a big horseshoe on the frozen lake. At the open end of the horseshoe was the chute that let the mushers get into the parking area from the road to the right, and then the chute that got the mushers to the starting line on the left.  Nathan’s truck was parked in the first space to the right of the open end. By the time we stretched out the gang line, to get from the lead dogs to the start of the chute was maybe 25 feet. To get from there start line was about two, maybe three, dog teams in length.

Now, Ryan on the other hand was pretty much at the other end of the universe. Not only was he at the closed end of the U, but he was on the left hand side of it. So it was FAR and there was a wicked turn to actually get him into the chute.

Handling a team to the chute can be tough. Basically you are there to control the team – make sure they don’t go too fast – make sure they stop when they are supposed to stop. There’s a couple of ways to do it – you can lift up on the gangline so they can’t really pull, or you can pull back on the gangline and dig your heels in.  And remember – you are doing this while slogging through the ice and snow on the the frozen lake! It’s pretty unusual for a team to make it to the starting line without at least one handler hitting the ground!

Handling a Team to the Line:

Ryan’s team was awesome – it was just a long way to go!  But we made it there safe and sound… I wished Ryan the best of luck, and he was also off on the trail!

I headed back to Sara, thinking I was done, but no. She had another team for me! Cindy Gallea was heading out #73 and needed a hand. I was happy to do it. I had meet Cindy and her son, race judge Jim, on the trail in 2014. That year, Cindy got super sick in Skwentna, and her son had to accept her scratch. It’s one of the memories that stands out in my mind. Plus, she was TJ’s musher to track in 2015, so she’s one we always keep an eye on!  It was also a long haul to get her to the starting line, but we made it just fine!

A last few mushers headed out, and the 2016 Iditarod was officially underway. This is the part that is so hard. I remember this feeling last year. The feeling that everyone is out on the trail, experiencing the amazingness of Iditarod and Alaska, and I’m heading the opposite direction, back to Baltimore. I’m super lucky to keep coming back year after year… but sometimes I wish I could see it through to the end year after year too!


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