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

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