Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Frosty -34 degrees Fahrenheit at the Fairbank's Re-Start Mushers'  Lot

If I can believe the weather app, the temperature at the Fairbanks race re-start records -34 Fahrenheit.  Dale snaps a screen shot, a new record for us both.  Stepping outside, my breath puffs out in a “whisper of stars” which crystalize on my eyelashes and hat.  I’ve lost count of how many clothing layers barricade the blast of air that gusts into the hotel vestibule as I push open the door.  Kerry, my Fairbanks guide, velcros a dog handler permit around my arm
just in case the mass of credentials suspended on my neck lanyard don’t past muster at the security.  We trundle off down the road to the race staging area, the crunch of snow beneath our feet. Breezing through security, I take in the mobile kennels and pickup up trucks skirting the musher lot. What a contrast between the sprawling and boisterous celebration of the Ceremonial start compared to the Re-start today.  We pass mushers intensely examining sled bags, checking runners, stretching out gang lines and examining their canine athletes.   A quiet determination blows through the whole lot.  I catch that Dallas Seavey’s unconventional new sled design is turning heads.  Although a number of dogs are secured to the trucks, I perceive more are happily ensconced in their snug kennel crates avoiding the bite of wind. 

John Baker and crew prepare for the Re-Start in the musher lot

I learn that “safe journeys to you” is the preferred greeting, and extend those words to a number of mushers who warmly receive the well wishes with handshakes and hugs.  I offer up a silent prayer as well as they prepare to embark on their adventure.  I almost missed Aliy Zirkle huddled with her team by the porta potties.  Wearing a blue down inner jacket and her trademark hat, she turns to walk arm-in-arm with an older woman, clearly on her team.  “Hi, Aliy, I’m your coffee lady,” I say approaching her. She recognizes me immediately, and pulling me into her stride, introduces me to her mom as a kennel sponsor. We continue walking across the lot together to her truck…small talk really…but what a special moment and gracious gesture.  Here’s this woman, clearly prepping for the race, who takes the time to include me in a few of her pre-race moments.   I look for Jeff King to wish him well, but miss the opportunity as he hops in his truck, clearly a substitute “man-cave.”  It’s bitter cold and I can’t blame him. I veer off and decide to head to the start line for a good viewing position.

A special walk across the musher lot

A lot of hands required to  hold the sled until launch

Aliy Zirkle gives her dogs a pep talk at the start line
Jeff King gives his dogs a greeting before hopping on sled

By 10:45 the start line is a clamor of straining and barking dogs, anxious to be out the chute and flying down the trail.  Handlers grip dog collars leaning back for more purchase, and several strong looking folks hold down the sled.  The pattern of starts kicks into rhythm, with two minute intervals between teams. At the countdown’s one-minute mark, mushers walk from the front of the team down the gang line of exuberant dogs, giving encouraging pats and thanking handlers. To a person, they all hop on their sled as the last seconds tick by. “Five, four, three, two, one, GO!” Handlers release, step back, and the musher whips by to a roar of cheers. I manage to soldier through #41 (Aliy) cheering and clapping, and then give in to the cold.  The warmth of the hotel lobby restores feeling to my hands again. Gaining perspective, as I rub sensation back into my fingers, I once again admire these folks who embrace this winter odyssey from the runners of a sled. These are tough, tough people. 

Allen Moore of SP Kennel propels out of the start with raw canine power

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Iditarod Fan Journey, Day 6: March 4th Ceremonial Start

Carpe Diem!

Former Art Teacher demonstrates how to hold lethal scissors

Sled Dogs, trucks, dog handlers and mushers line Fourth Street, Anchorage as far as my eye can see.  The event spills on to side streets, with more canines, mushers, and sleds than I ever imagined.  People are everywhere.  News cameras, the size of carry-on luggage, are hauled about looking for the right story and angle to shoot.  The place is a who’s who on the Alaskan political circuit.  Senator Lisa Murkowski and Governor Walker warmly greet us.  The Mayor of Anchorage, Ethan Berkowitz, offers me one of his puppies. And, the Mayor of Nome, who appears to begin his conversations with, “Hello Central,” glad hands us with energy. 

My part in the pageantry involves wielding a giant pair of scissors to “cut the ribbon.”  Two little kids hold the ribbon at opposite ends with serious purpose, their little backs ramrod straight, their eyes looking forward.  The countdown to “cut” comes over the loud speakers, and I line up the scissors to find purchase.  “Clip," the ribbon sheers in two.  
"Let the Games Begin"

Along with my guide, Jan, I hustle back several blocks to find Martin Buser (#15), the musher with whom I’ll be riding to the air field located outside of town.  Every musher has an “Iditarider” passenger pulled by 10 – 12 dogs, and we’re all headed to the same spot.  Leaving at two minute intervals, that gives me about 30 minutes to get to the sled, and gear up. 

When I get to Martin’s dog truck, he questions whether my “fashion hat” and boots will keep me sufficiently warm for the 11-mile ride.  I show him my discreetly concealed ear warmers, fur-ruffed jacket hood as well as boot liners.  He nods with approval.  Holding a pair of goggles, he asks if I have a plan to shield my eyes and face as the dogs tend to eliminate waste on the run.  My head might as well be a target, as the wheel dogs’ little behinds are in my direct line of sight.  I stretch my neckie up high and tug my hat low, slipping my glasses in between.  Martin nods again, but indicates that he’ll carry the goggles just in case.  I try not to think about it.

Gear Approved

 Pat, Martin’s longtime friend and dog handler, gets me comfortably situated in a cushion-lined sled complete with blanket and zip up sled cover.  Jan, basically tucks the rest of me in, my hands encased in lobster mittens.  This must be what an astronaut feels like buckled into the space shuttle.   One thing’s for certain, the only way I can get out of this sled is with an ejector button, or an extra set of strong arms.

Bundled in and ready to roll!

Before I realize it, Martin hops on the sled, the dogs are all tied in and pulling forward, with several handlers holding the gang line to restrain excess speed. We’re loping around the corner to queue up at the start line.  The handlers step away right before launch, and we’re off.  The dogs pull silently, intently leaning forward as Martin surges down the trail.  People line either side, high fiving him.  Greetings and well wishes shower down from both sides as he quietly responds with a “thank you.”   Exuberant fans hold out treats of hot dogs, chips, and muffins for the taking.  Someone lobs a lunch bag on my lap.

I quickly learn to dodge when the dogs are going to do their business, pull my neckie down and just grin and wave.  Surprisingly, when the main crush of people is behind us, we converse at a normal volume.  I discover that Martin listens to Cat Stevens and Neal Diamond when he’s on the trail.  When I mention that my first purchased album was “Tea for the Tillerman” by Cat Stevens, he chuckles and tells me we’re showing our age.  I tell him they’re classics.

 We swoosh over hills, around corners and through fir lined paths.  Martin passes teams on the left with practiced ease, we’ll be making it back in under an hour at this pace.  I find the sound of the runners shushing over the snow soothing, the trees streaming by.  I catch a sense of why mushers do this thing – the sublime landscape opening before one in “the great alone.”   I can’t stop smiling, even though my eyes well up.  I love this experience – it expands my sense of joy in the moment.  Of course, I can only imagine the “great alone”, as there are people dotted throughout the 11 miles cheering us on.  I spot Dale and Jan at the halfway mark waving madly.  I echo the gesture, surprised and delighted to see them. They had arrived just in time to see one musher’s team rush on before us.  I find out later, their “luck” was due to the navigational skill on a practiced route by my guide’s niece. Perfect planning.
The long view

 Martin tells me that we’re almost there, and I spot the air field ahead. As we pull next to the truck, a volunteer approaches and announces that she’s there to help me out of the sled.   I’m grateful, as my exit wasn’t going to be pretty if left to my own devices.  My lips and mouth are bone dry because I think I was grinning the entire time.  Dale and Jan join me, and I thank Martin for the amazing experience. I hope to briefly see him at the re-start on Monday to wish he and the team a safe journey up the trail.

On the way out, I stop and say hi to Aliy Zirkle.  She embraces me in recognition from the pizza lunch as her dog, “Barista’s” sponsor.  She’s amazed that a moose just crashed across the trail ahead of them.  I get to have a private moment with one of my heroes, DeeDee Jonrowe, and even get a picture with the elusive and impressive Lance Mackey.
Aliy exclaims, "We saw a moose!"

I still can’t stop smiling.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Mushing and Mentoring

Martin Buser and Me at the Mandatory Musher Meeting
Iditarod Fan Journey – Day 4 & 5

Martin Buser, elite four time Iditarod champion smiles with his eyes as he extends a firm handshake greeting me before the Mandatory Musher Meeting.  I look around, and spot mushers I’ve read about and studied – Aliy Zirkle, Alan Moore, DeeDee Jonrowe, Jeff King, John Baker, Dallas and Mitch Seavey.  I’m standing in a room of giants, in my estimation, whose sheer grit, determination and skill can’t help but inspire.  My experience will involve riding in Buser’s sled for the ceremonial start on Saturday: he’s “my musher”, and I’m his “Iditarider”.  As this day unfolds, I’ll have a pizza lunch with him, and sit at his table for the Musher’s Banquet in the evening.  These next few days I’m breathing in rarefied air.

Buser strikes me as a forward thinker – innovative, professional and looking to give back to the sport by investing in the future.  He takes the young bucks with big dreams of sled dog racing, and in exchange for their labor as apprentices (“handlers”), he mentors them over the course of two years with the goal of having them run the Iditarod with his “B” team.  This model makes sense and is practiced by the larger kennels.  There are no degrees in dog mushing, nor college classes in sled dog racing to my knowledge.  This is the old fashion apprentice system which births the next generation of mushers efficiently and effectively.  Ohio Buckeye and Iditarod racer, Matt Failor, graduated from Martin’s mentorship program working over several years as one of Buser’s handlers.  Failor now runs his own Kennel, 17th Dog, and currently trains his two apprentices, one of whom is running the “B” team to Nome. 

At the Musher’s Banquet, I got to converse with Pat, a long-time faithful friend of Buser’s as well as some of his staff.  It’s clear that they’re devoted to him.  At the end of the Musher Banquet, Char, one of staff members, gave me a hug and whispered, “You’re going to have a wonderful ride, Martin is the best”.  I suspect she’s a good judge.