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!

 

 

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!

 

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!