Saturday, February 28, 2009

Alaska Day 10, Sunday, March 4, 2007


The Official Start of the Iditarod -- The Last Great Race!

Eighty two Mushers are gathered on a frozen lake just north of Willow, Alaska. Along with them are family and friends, race volunteers, and about a thousand fans who have come to this lake by most every mode of transportation you can think of…. Dogsled, snow machine, car, bus, train, and airplanes landing on the lake…..all to witness the culmination of as many dreams as there are people here.

The only ones who aren’t affected by the hoopla are the 1312 dogs waiting in their boxes on the trucks to do what they were bred to do --- pull a dogsled.

The common dream of every one of the Mushers is to arrive in Nome, 1049 miles from here, safely and with all the dogs in good health. Some hope to win the race by getting to Nome first….but to most, winning the race is just getting matter the time. This is one race which is not finished when the ‘winner’ arrives but continues with as much interest by the fans until the last Musher crosses the finish line under the Burled Arch, the Red Lantern is awarded and the Widow’s Lantern extinguished.

I can only guess at what most of the dreams here are but looking into the eyes of the people here, you can see there are dreams. There is a far off gaze in many eyes, perhaps, even now, seeing the lights of Nome across the frozen wilderness, much as Gunnar Kaasan and Balto did on that day in 1925 delivering the lifesaving Diphtheria Serum.

I can, however, tell you of one person’s dreams of this day……mine.

For 6 years I have followed the race on the internet, and if available, with sketchy reports on the TV. Subscribed to several Yahoo groups dealing with the race. And sat in Texas, dreaming…if ONLY I were there…..

We went very early to Willow as Roland was working as a volunteer. Yesterday he had handled a dog team, taking it to the Start line and managed to sprain an ankle, so today he will be working security for the staging area. I had nothing to do but be a tourist.

While I was at the Community Center, I ran into Morna, Karen’s mother.

Friday I met her with my usual foot in mouth method. At Karen’s open house a group of 5 or 6 of us were talking, and introductions had not been made. Karen walked up to the group and I asked her if either of the Mother’s (hers or Mark’s) had made it up. Karen smiled. Put her arm around the lady I had just been talking to and said “Yes, my mother is HERE”. Cool move, Marshall! Introductions were finally made.

Morna asked if I was working with any of the Mushers and I said, no, so she invited me to come down to Karen’s set up and join them, at least until the security sweep to remove everyone without credentials. I was very pleased to join them.

The rules state that each musher must carry certain items at all times while on the trail. They are: Cold weather sleeping bag, weighing a minimum of 5 lbs; Axe, head to weigh at least 1-3/4 lbs, handle at least 22 inches long; Pair of snowshoes, each to be at least 252 sq in.; Promotional Material provided by the ITC (Usually mail caches); Eight booties for each dog, in the sled or on dogs; Cooker and pot to boil at least 3 gallons of water; Veterinarian notebook; Adequate fuel to boil 3 gal of water (alcohol is the usual fuel); Cable tie out capable of securing entire dog team; Adequate emergency dog food in addition to regular feeding amounts. This is in addition to other items the Musher decides to take, like, maybe FOOD for the musher.

Karen was packing her sled. And I was watching the process. This is amazing. I wish I could pack my RV as efficiently, I would only need a 20 footer instead of 36. Karen was busy getting ready and I could see in her mind she was already on the trail.

I then decided I was going to look up Eric Rogers, who I had met the day Mike Suprenant took me for a dog sled ride. Eric was half a dozen trucks from Karen and he also was in the process of packing his sled. In contrast to Karen, who had about 10 people around her truck, Eric had about four. Being my shy retiring self, I asked Eric if he needed any help, he introduced me to Lexie, his ‘crew chief’ and said I would have to get her permission since she was in charge of the team, at least until he hit the trail. Lexie said I could help. Thus, I joined Team Rogers.

Being the rookie, unknown, non-musher I helped out where I could….I packed the first aid box, put spare gear in stuff sacks, attached the sponsor placards to the sled and was the go-for. And in general did the non technical jobs, leaving those who knew what they were doing to do what they were more suited for. I sort of felt like a fish on a frozen lake but hoped I was really helping—I tried my best.

For those who know me, being the omega dog is not my normal place in the pack – but that is what I was – the omega. I was thrilled. I was gassed. I was living a dream. I was working with a REAL Iditarod Musher!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I had a REAL armband which said MUSHER HANDLER!!!!!!!!!!! I was the happiest omega in all of Willow!

At one point, Bonnie, one of the team, who is another of the ‘Old friends’ just met, and is on the Idita-Support list, pointed out Libby Riddle to me. Libby was wearing the most beautiful seal parka which she had made. Bonnie encouraged me to go over and introduce myself. I finally got the courage to do so. Libby is as nice in real life as I hoped she would be. She was gracious and has the ability to make me feel she really was happy to meet me. We chatted for a few minutes, and I got the courage to tell her, that I admired her so much that I named my first rescue bitch after her. She laughed and thanked me, and said she had had a dog named Belinda. Only true dog people could understand . . .

About 1:00, and hour before the start, the mood in the staging area subtly changed. The intensity increased. Dogs were starting to be taken from their boxes, picketed out on the trucks and given broth to drink. Hydration is more important at this point than feeding since all of the dogs were fed last night and this morning. The Mushers are giving what is called baited water, water with meat or fish broth in it to give flavor. A close eye is kept on the dogs to see who is or is not drinking.

The dogs are beginning to feel the excitement, too. The handler’s job at this point is to go up and down the picket line and keep the dogs calm. These dogs know it is getting close to the time to go out and work. Right now they are calm but as start time approaches, they become more and more anxious.
THIS was a job which I felt I not only could do, but might even be good at. I spent most of the next hour, at the picket line scratching and talking to dogs. One of Eric’s dogs, Mocha, decided she was going to be the designated hyper dog of the day and was barking, and carrying on. I spent most of my time sitting on the ground, talking to her and the 5 dogs around her. I was using all the techniques of calming a dog I have learned through doing rescue. It seemed to work, as long as I was focused on her. However, there were 5 other dogs who would decide that Mocha had gotten enough one on one and it was their turn, so I would give each of them some pets and talk to them. Mocha would start barking and pulling on her picket line and in general, cranking herself and the others up. Most of the dogs, however, were intently watching the other teams.

Eric had bib #21 and so his start time was 2:40. About 2:15 the Iditarod handlers showed up, to get acquainted with the dogs and each other and to get last minute instructions. Handling mainly consists of hitching a lead to the tugline of a dog and holding on for dear life, try to keep that dog to a walk as we go from the truck to the start line, and if you fall, roll away from the line of travel. Now is the time to make sure the sled is securely tied to the truck with the snub line, and to stretch out the gang line.

It is not just the dogs who are getting emotional at this point of the day….Mushers are beginning to get that far on the trail look in their eyes, crew chiefs are beginning to harness and bootie the dogs, handlers (at least this one) is starting to ask WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MY SELF INTO?
The real crew is now putting harnesses and booties on the dogs, and the dogs all are starting to gear up into race mode. Even the calmest ones are showing the tension. By the time the dogs are harnessed, most of them are shaking in anticipation.

The start line which a few hours ago was a short walk, is now beginning to look like a full length marathon run as I watch the first teams stage and then leave. It is time to give the last of the good luck wishes to the Musher, Eric gives me a big hug as I wish him “Via con Dios”.

Recheck the dogs and hook all 16 up to the gangline.

Handlers hook the leads to the tug line.

Check the dogs, always check the dogs.

Recheck booties, a dog has already thrown one. Replace it.

Repeat several times. All the dogs need their booties on.

Eric gets on the sled.

Back the team up a couple of inches so Eric can release the snub line.

The musher and helper (it takes 2 of them to stand on the drag brake) and the handlers are controlling the dogs.

We are on our way.

Lexie has the lead dogs, and starts to lead us out – I look down and behind me an empty collar…….. Mocha has slipped her collar! The handler has hold of her, keeping her from backing out of her harness. He pulls her up to her collar and I slip it back on. One of the other handlers, walking beside the team tightens it.

Another dog slips the collar. New collars and they are slippery. Lexie lets Eric know what the problem is and to keep an eye out. This should not be a problem after the start line when we stop pulling back on the dogs, giving them the leverage they need to slip collars.

The starter is beside us, letting us know we have three minutes to Eric’s start.

The team, now all bootied and hitched, and 10 handlers begin our way to the Start Line. There should be two stops where we wait for our team to move up, but because of the problems with the collars, we did not get these rests.

I am holding my dog, and moving at a fast trot. The best method I found was to plant my heels and let the momentum of the dogs actually pull me foreword. If I were able to stay coordinated, I would not have to do any running, just lift a leg for the next step then plant my heels to help slow the dogs. This is much the technique you would use running down a steep sand hill. The trick is to keep my feet in front of me. If my feet get under my body OR behind me, I am down.

Then we turned the corner to the starting shoot….Sigh of relief, I have not fallen yet and I still can breathe. Just a few more feet to go.

OMG!!!!! It is not the lead dogs at the start line, but the SLED!!!! I have to make it another 50 feet in ankle deep loose snow!

About then, the handler on the other side of the gangline from me falls. We continue. She rolls out of the way of the sled.

Lexie stops the lead dogs and the team stops.

I lean over to unhook the two leashes from tug lines…

I made it! I can’t catch my breath, every muscle in my body is screaming at me. I wonder if I am going to make Iditarod history by being the first handler to die at the Start Line. I stagger over to the side of the starting shoot and lean on the fence to catch my breath as Eric and the Team goes by – MY team is on its way to NOME!

I walk, well, I stagger over to the exit. I must have looked bad, because one of the Vets comes over and asks if I am OK. I gasp, “Yes, just need to rest a minute”. And yes, after a couple of minutes my heart rate is under 200 and respiratory rate under 60.

Back in the staging area I am standing, looking at the banner which says Start Iditarod XXXV 2007. I have just helped get a team off on the trail. I am HERE! Tears start rolling down my face. One of the other handlers – I don’t even know who – all I could see was a red Musher Handler arm band – came over to me, put her arm around me and said “Its special, isn’t it.”

“Yes”, I respond, “A day of dreams.”

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