And They’re Off

*** Better late than never right? ***

Sunday

Willow, Alaska

30 degrees – but what a beautiful day!

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IMG_2002My day started super early as we had to drive to Willow from Anchorage which is about a 90 minute drive and we needed to be “at work” at about 8am! The first job of the day was helping to check in the volunteers who would be acting as ITC Handlers for the official start. At the start, handlers are needed to help the teams move from their parking space to the start line. Today, this would prove to be an extra challenge. The parking area on Willow Lake is quite a bit smaller than it is typically due to overflow on the lake that needed to be avoided. Since the parking area is smaller, the dog trucks are parked much closer together. This means that maneuvering teams of sixteen strong, pumped up dogs, around other teams of strong, pumped up dogs would be more important then ever! Once the handlers got the teams past the other teams and into the starting chute, they had to help hold the teams back so that then didn’t jump the gun and take off too soon! Most musher have a few of their own handlers to help, but most requested additional help in the form of ITC (Iditarod Trail Committee) handlers. Some of these folks will help multiple teams to the start line. How cool is that?

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Once everyone was checked in, I headed down to the lake by about noon to check in with everyone and take some photos for the ITC Facebook page. Monica was in great shape! She seemed calm and collected. She was making some last minute adjustments to her load. In fact, she pulled out a large rectangular metal container with holes it that I had never seen before.

“Are you literally taking the kitchen sink with you this year?” I teased.

It turns out that it was her dog food cooker! The University of Oregon made it for her and she used it last year and loved it. It fits really well in the seat part of her sled, which let me get some clarification on the rule about where you can and can not carry things which has really been confusing me. So apparently, you can not carry any dogs or mandatory gear on a drag sled, but if it is on your main sled (like the seat part), even if it is behind your body, it’s okay. I noticed that there were just a couple of people who were pulling those drag sleds behind them this year, much less than usual.

Since Nathan isn’t running this year, I didn’t really have a definite job for the start. In the past, I’ve handled for his team at the start, so this was a different feeling. So, after checking in with the other mushers and wishing everyone good luck, Kerry and I decided to head out an find a good spot to watch the parade of mushers and teams head off for Nome.

We decided to walk across the lake, through the woods, and then out onto the road where we could see the mushers without the orange fencing that marks the official starting chute. It was a great spot! We could just hear the loudspeaker announcing the mushers leave the starting line, and then about four minutes  later they’d pop out of the woods behind us, run down the road for a bit, and mush off into the woods in front of us. I literally sat on the edge of the berm (a snow wall built up to mark the trail) and was able to cheer and wish good luck to each musher as they passed by. It was pretty funny to see their reactions when they realized it was me sitting on the edge of the trail calling their names! Monica said, “See you next year! Thanks to you and the boys for everything!” Matthew Failor said, “See you around somewhere soon!” It’s so hard to imagine they will all be together again in a week or so in Nome while I’ll be watching from home on my computer!

Once everyone was safe on the trail, we headed back across the lake, checked in with the staff in the Community Center, and wished everyone good luck as they head off down the trail. Kerry and I gave Julien Schroder a lift back to Anchorage. He’s serving as a photographer on the trail this year. Watch for his work…. it’s amazing!

At 10pm I headed to the airport for my 1am flight. I flew to Seattle, where I had a five hour layover, then finally to Baltimore, where I arrived at 6pm on Monday. It was a long trip – but well worth it! Now I’ll be glued to the tracker along with the rest of the Iditarod fans!

Ceremonial Start – check

Saturday

Anchorage

16 degrees and snowing

While the snow fell most of the day, the 67 teams in this year’s Iditarod got to stretch their legs on the first eleven miles of the Ceremonial Start. The day officially began at 5:30am when the dog trucks started arriving and parking along Fourth Avenue and several of its side streets. I headed down around 8:00am to get our official Teacher on the Trail photo taken and then wandered off to check in with the mushers. My official duty today was “Social Media Team.” So I took pictures and pushed them out to the Iditarod Facebook page all morning.

unnamedEveryone seemed to be in great spirits – the energy on this day is always so high! The fans crowded the streets to meet their favorite teams, the mushers have fun greeting friends they haven’t seen since last year, and the volunteers were all busy trying to keep everything under control. As for the dogs, the emotions ranged from stoic calm, to shaking nerves, to jumping excitement, to cowering under the truck shyness. But one thing they all had in common? As soon as they were hooked to the gangline they were in game mode – some peered intently down the trail ahead others jumped in their harnesses to go – but as soon as the command was given, all the focus was on what was on the trail ahead of them. As a team they were ready to meet whatever challenges lay ahead.

In class we have been talking about how the Iditarod is the perfect example of all the different forms of conflict wrapped up into one. You have the man vs. man conflict in terms of the competition between mushers. You have man vs. self as the mushers must make decisions that are the best for the team. And you have man vs. nature as Mother Nature has played a significant role in more than one race. This year seems to be no exception. It’s currently snowing. It’s been snowing since yesterday and according to the forecast, except for a brief respite tomorrow, it’s going to keep right on snowing until next Saturday. Now, while snow is probably great for the mushers, it’s causing a bit of a stress for the logistics of the race, because if it’s snowing, no one can fly. And if no one can fly, no volunteers can get to the checkpoints. So plans are changing here right and left. Volunteers are being sent our earlier than they anticipated, reporters are skipping the first checkpoints so that they can stay out ahead of the race and not get stuck in a checkpoint too early. The snow is also apparently causing problems for the teams who are currently making their way seventy miles north to Willow. There have been reports of road closures. Cross your fingers that everyone makes it safe and sound.

I did manage to break out my big camera and get some pretty decent shots – so here’s what things looked like on Fourth Avenue today!

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Starting Line – Check

Friday Night

Anchorage

19 degrees and snowing!

It’s beginning to look a bit like Iditarod…

The banner has been placed at the start line with care,

In hopes that the mushers soon would be there….

The Teacher’s Conference officially wrapped up today with the speakers series. There were three main themes for the speakers today, the history of the race, the checkpoint of Shaktoolik, and what’s happening behind the scenes in preparation for the start tomorrow. Author Katie Mangelsdorf spoke about Joe Redington’s life and the reasoning behind his creation of the race. The Old Iditarod Gang spoke about their book, The First Ten Years, which talks about the early days of the race. Two teachers and fifth grader Ray told us a bit about life in Shaktoolik, especially around race time. Chief Vet Stu Nelson told us about how the canine athletes would be cared for during the race. And then a few volunteers stopped in to teach us about their volunteer duties.

When the conference was over, I had some time to explore. I checked out the snow sculptures and the carnival before wandering up to check on the race start progress.

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They have closed the streets, have started putting the fences up, and will start dumping snow soon! Mother Nature is helping a bit… it’s now snowing like crazy and shouldn’t stop until after 8:00 pm tomorrow!

The excitement level is rising!

 

Field Trip Mania!

Wednesday

Anchorage, Wasilla, and Willow

3 degrees

 

If it’s Wednesday of Race Week, it must be teacher field trip day! It was a beautiful day to soak in the sunshine as we hit the road heading north. The scenery of course was breathtaking as we took in the view of the snow covered mountains on our journey.

Stop #1 –

Iditarod Headquarters was hopping today as mushers were coming in to get their vet checks completed and turn in their paperwork prior to starting this weekend’s race! As soon as a dog truck pulled up, a team of vets would jump into action, giving each dog a full examination. They would check the microchip, listen to the heart and lungs, give a physical examination and speak to the mushers about each dog individually. We got a chance to see Charley Benja, Rick Casillo, Tara Cicatello, Alan Eischens, Marcelle Fressineau, Matt Hall, and Mats Pettersson as they brought their teams in. The teachers had a wonderful time taking pictures and chatting with the mushers.

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Stop #2 –

Our second stop was Settler’s Bay for a delicious lunch. The highlight was that  Monica Zappa and Tim Osmar stopped by for a chat! They drove up today from their home in Kasilof. They stopped in Anchorage first to take Spurr (one of the Volcano litter – Dweezil’s puppies) to the cardiologist to get him cleared to race! The news is super – Spurr seems to not have the same heart issues that Dweezil has, so it looks like he’s made the team! They brought 19 dogs with them, so she hasn’t totally finalized her team yet, but she’s pretty close. There are three of Dweezil’s pups in the running. She also let me know that there is an author following her on the trail this year… so maybe we’ll be able to read a book about Monica in the near future! How cool would that be?  Another intriguing thing that was mentioned today is that Tim said “maybe next year” when we asked him when he was going to run Iditarod again! And the icing on the cake? King Dweezil himself was in the cab of the truck, so I got a chance to say hi to him right before we headed out!

Stop #3 –

After a somewhat harrowing trip up some very snowy and very steep hills, we arrived at Matthew Failor’s kennel, 17th Dog Kennel. Matthew’s kennel is home to three mushers this season and several of the dogs that will be on his Iditarod team just finished the Yukon Quest in 6th place with Tim Pappas. Matthew’s kennel is a true family affair. His mom and dad followed him from Ohio to Alaska and now live with him on his property, and his sister is the team manager.

Matthew introduced the teachers to his fifty dogs and gave them some time to wander the yard and meet and greet the canine athletes. There were lots of licks and belly rubs all around!

Tim talked to us a bit about this year’s Yukon Quest…. the hardest part? The cold. He said it was 50 below zero for most of the beginning of the race and then 30 degrees above zero by the end of the race. Imagine, an 80 degree temperature swing! By the end of the race the trail was getting soft, so the team had to break trail for several hundred miles. He said, in his opinion, there are two big differences between the Quest and the Iditarod. First of all, handlers are allowed on the Quest. Their primary focus is to clean up after the team leaves the checkpoint. In fact, the handlers are not allowed to actually help with the team when the musher is there. The exception is during the mandatory layover when the handlers are allowed to be totally hands on with the team while the musher gets some rest! The other big difference he noticed was that he was totally alone on the trail much more then he was when he ran Iditarod. In the Quest there were fewer teams and the race legs are longer, so the teams don’t see each other as much.

At that point, the teachers totally got distracted from what Tim was talking about. Why?  Twenty-two day old sled dog puppies were brought in!! There are five adorable puppies in the litter. Their names aren’t finalized yet, but Matthew said they are thinking “things that are big, loud, and fast” like Sonic Boom and Typhoon.

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For our final treat, we watched Matthew hook up 19 dogs and head out of the kennel on a training run. Probably the last one before the race. Right before he headed out, he popped over to where I was standing to let me know he downloaded a ton of Spanish – language lessons. He’s wondering if he can learn some Spanish as he heads down the trail this year! We’ll have to catch up with him after the race to see if he was successful!

 

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!

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!