Saturday, February 28, 2009

Alaska Day 9, March 3, 2007

The Ceremonial Start

About 9 pm last night dump trucks brought in load after load of snow to the streets of downtown Anchorage. The evening was spent watching the trucks and road graders make a race track. Hey, I am easy to please – just anything to do with this race is fascinating. However, even I was ready for some sleep to the beep beep of heavy equipment in reverse. I needed to be ready for this special day.

The day dawned wind free!!!!!!!!!!!! A very good omen. It was also about ZERO degrees. Hummmmmm. Roland was already gone, he was handling dogs today, I was being a spectator. No way was I kidding myself I could run 6 to 8 blocks, holding back a dog team in a foot of loose snow the texture of beach sand. Sometimes I surprise myself with my smarts.

I bundled up in about 800 layers of clothes and ventured down 4th St to see the musher’s and their teams lined up by their trucks awaiting the kickoff.

They were set up 10 trucks per block, using both sides of the street. This is the Photo Op/Publicity Start. The time does not count for the 11 mile run to Campbell Airstrip but they pull a tag sled and carry an Iditarider, members of the public who bid to win a place in a sled of a musher during the Start. All the Mushers have Iditariders, but there is always one special rider. Four time champ, Jeff King is sponsored by Cabela’s and every year, they pay top dollar to insure they win the Idiatrider auction for Jeff King’s sled. Ego trip for some employee of Cabela’s? Nope, every year they donate the seat to Make a Wish Foundation and a kid gets to ride in the Start. This year the Cabela’s/Jeff King Iditarider was 14 year old Tim Rau of Granby, CO. Tim and his family are guests of Cabela’s and of Jeff King for the days leading up to the Start and are in the “pits” for the Re-start.

I did the walk up 4th St and back and then decided I was going to head back to the hotel and watch from the window. At the head of the start line was a truck and a family. The sight of it brought tears to my eyes. The truck said SUSAN BUTCHER, IDITAROD CHAMPION. Around it were David Monson, Susan’s husband and their two girls. As I walked past, another lady on the sidewalk called “Tekla” and Susan’s 11 year old daughter ran across the street to hug her. It was like a young Susan standing there…Tekla looks so much like her mother it’s spooky. For the Start Tekla, wearing Bib #1 in honor of her mother Susan, and David rode on one of Susan’s sleds, with her sister Chisana in the sled, led by Susan’s dogs. The crowd’s reaction as the sled went past, was first a gasp….It looked like a short Susan on the runners, then loud applause and cheers. Alaska declared March 4th Susan Butcher day. It was so emotional I am tearing up just writing this. What a perfect start to the race.

David and Tekla are going to take a sled ride during the race down the trail, stopping at the native villages and visiting old friends of Susan. He said they will be staying a while at Old Woman Cabin. This is a cabin, not an official checkpoint, where the interior Athabaskan Region ends and the land of the seaside dwelling Inuit begins and where most Mushers stop for a rest. It is said the cabin is haunted by the ghost of the woman who lived there for years. David said at the Banquet, that some of Susan would be left there and that in the future, if Mushers sensed a presence, it would be Susan checking on the condition of the dogs.

I stayed at the side of the trail as several Mushers with their tag sleds and riders went by and then decided to go up to the room and watch from a different perspective. I had the best of both worlds. As a musher went past, I opened the window and cheered. Then closed the window and watched the events at the start line on the TV. The timing was great. The Mushers were leaving at two minute intervals. As I would watch one Musher leave the start line, I would open the window as the prior Musher got to my location. As they made the turn onto Cordova Street and passed out of view, I would close the window, check the TV for the promo on the next team and watch them leave the start line. Open the window and cheer. This is the way to watch a race. Several Mushers were surprised and looked up towards my window as they went by. I guess they were not expecting a cheer from above. As one of the great websites for following the race, , says on it’s slogan -----All of the fun, none of the frostbite.

There were some rather interesting happenings. One musher, on 4th St., in front of the Cameras, fell off the runners of his sled. He passed Musher Rule 1: Never let go of the sled or the team. He was dragged a few feet then was able to scramble and get his feet under him, begin running and catch up to where he could hop back on the runners. I have the feeling this was not the first time this has happened to him (or anyone else out there on the back of a sled). When he got back on the sled, he let out a whoop and the crowd cheered.

One tag sled flipped as they turned the corner. The tag sled driver (Always an experienced Musher) was able to right the sled and get back on without the main sled even slowing down. The skill of the tag sled driver is very important as the two sleds are hooked together by a 4 to 6 foot rope and is the front sled slows or stops, it is the driver of the tag sled’s duty to keep it from crashing into the front sled and Musher. (I have gotten permission to reprint the report of the tag sled driver for Karen Ramstead – and will attach it to the end of this entry).

However, the highlight, or maybe the comic relief of the day came as one of the last sleds was leaving. One of the cameramen for the local TV station covering the race got permission to ride on the runners of the tag led along with the driver to video the entire course. The Station was really promoting this unique experience and had all of their cameras on this cameraman as he got on the sled. Camera angle changed to on board of the sled. You heard the countdown to start and saw the sled take off. About 2 seconds the TV was showing sky, buildings and went to black. Instant replay showed what happened…..the intrepid cameraman forgot one small detail…. to switch the camera to battery power, and when the still attached power cable came to the end of it’s length……One camera jerked off the sled. I must admit that the camera man was well trained, or well strapped to his camera as he also went flying off the back of the sled. Fortunately the snow was quite soft and no one, camera or man, were injured.

As they say, no race is the same. Someone always finds new ways to screw up.

Several city streets which were not closed to traffic crossed Cordova. As a Musher was spotted the Trail Guards would call ahead, “DOG TEAM COMING”, traffic would be stopped on the cross street and the Trail Guards would shovel and rake snow across the street where the cars had pushed it aside to make the trail. After the Team had passed, that intersection was again opened to traffic until the next team was spotted. This was done about 85 times for all the Mushers, the Honorary Musher and the Winner of the Jr. Iditarod who led them off.

This is a very special day – one of extreme emotions, humor, and a sense of awe and the need to pinch myself to make sure I really was watching the Start of the Iditarod.

Some very interesting sites for pictures of the start may be found at:
The maple leaf Dog door is on Karen’s Truck and the dog sporting the Maple leaf bandana is one of Karen’s. The ‘sled dog’ is Sporty, GB Jones’ ( ) very spoiled lead dog.

Off to bed for a very early wake up time to be in Willow by 0930 am for the Official Start.

Janet Mattos’ Report of the Start – from the back of a tag sled:

Part 1
SundayI thought I'd get online and post last night after the ceremonial start. I was so tired I was in bed by 6pm.Saturday was beautiful. Cold, -30 at 5am at my house. But only -3 F in Anchorage at 7am. Probably up into the teens by the time we left shortly after 11am. And we were in the sunshine soon as we got out from between the buildings.I had walked around looking at other mushers setups that morning. I was sure glad I had experience double sledding. Riding second sled is a bit like playing crack the whip, with me as the tail end of the whip. I saw lots of sleds with 10 feet or more between the two sleds. Talk about crack the whip...more like a ping pong ball bouncing off the sides of the trail.There were lots of people there to help hook up. One guy was holding a dog and didn't know where to put it. He said it was an extra dog. By that time there was some confusion at the front of the line. I think at least one of the leaders had been placed back in a team spot. I told Mark there was an extra dog. LOL Mark's response "There are NO extra dogs!" He went up towards the front, then called Karen up. She got it straightened out and soon all the dogs were where they were supposed to be.I was a bit nervous standing on the back of my sled. All I could see was Karen's back and the crowds lining the street on either side. I had a death grip on the handlebar as the time keeper counted down 5 4 3 2 1! We took off, a second later. One of the leaders got caught in an embarrassing moment....middle of going pee at the last second. The drive down 4th avenue, crowds yelling Karen's name on either side, Karen waving at everyone. She turned around just before we got to the 90 degree right turn onto Cordova and said "Bit of a hairy turn". "Gee", I thought "Cool.Don't dump it don’t dump it don’t dump it". I didn't. A year to two later I remembered Donna Q had said she would be on that corner and to smile. Sorry Donna. I was just making sure I didn't eat snow.Well, more later. The run was awesome but it's 6:30 and I'm due over at Karen's in a bit for breakfast before the Restart here in Willow. Time to shower and get on with today's events...The Restart. The real start of the Iditarod.
Janet Mattos

Part 2
The time keeper counted down and off we went. Through the 6 inch deep sugar like snow trucked in to cover the streets of Anchorage. Once around the 90degree turn onto Cordova St. we went on in a straight line. At each intersection cops were holding back traffic wanting to cross Cordova. Handlers were shoveling snow onto the street crossing right up till we were just a few feet away. I guess when the traffic crosses in between mushers they pull snow out of the intersection and
the handlers jump in trying to get it back before the next musher comes.

Karen turns around again, “Cordova Hill" she says. I know what that means. That's where lots of photographers stand. It's great fun watching mushers crash there. Fortunately they put A LOT of snow on Cordova hill. You're standing on the drag so hard trying to keep the team to a reasonable speed, the groove in the snow if over a foot deep. Karen is musher #36. I can't imagine what it's like or that there is any snow left by the time the 70's something mushers are there.

Just a little farther, round a corner, and we're off the road system. I can't recall exactly, so much was a blur. Just focusing on the sled, the trail, not crashing into Karen just 3 feet in front of me. Then into the woods. The trail system in Anchorage for mushers, skiiers, summer hikers and bikers is really quite lovely. There you are in the middle of a big city, and you're mushing down a lovely wooded trail crossing creeks on little bridges. Just beautiful.

Still lots of people but now they are in little clusters, not spread out lining the traill like on the city streets. They all cheer as we come up, yelling things like "Go Karen" "Good luck Karen". At first I
was thinking sheesh, I knew she had a pretty good size fan base but this is crazy. They all know her. *laugh* then I remember, the newspaper has published the names and numbers of the mushers. And I see the paper everywhere. And Karen is wearing bib #36. They are cheering every musher on by name. But they do it so well, they sound like personal friends wishing you well on the beginning of your journey.

Things stand out in my mind. I have always admired the pedestrian overpass over Tudor Road. It's designed so dog teams can cross on it. Before I knew it, we were crossing it. I was still so focused on driving the sled I didn't even realize it till we were leaving it. I was disappointed I didn't look up and take in the scene from up there. We'd be in the woods, sunlight streaming thru the trees, you could forget you were in a city. Then all of a sudden you'd be going along behind an apartment building complex parking lot and someone's car alarm would go off. I laughed for the sheer surprise. It didn't seem to faze the dogs one bit. Then around some more turns, through more trees, and out we popped in front of a tunnel. Snickers in lead hadn't run this day last year. She balked a moment, but the rest of the dogs said none of that and pushed her on through. She ran the rest of the tunnels like a pro. When we came out near the Hospital, I realized we hadn't crossed the Tudor Road pedestrian crossing yet, it was up ahead. I really have always thought it was way cool. So it was neat to see it coming and be able to look around at the 4 lanes of city
traffic crossing underneath us as we sped along pulled by 12 magnificent sled dogs.

Karen looks back again "Hairy turn" she says. By now I'm feeling confident again. No problem. LOL Karen nearly cracks in to a tree but I manage to swing out and miss it by inches. Small clusters of people spread far apart now. A little child standing with 2 adult men. The child has a little stuffed Siberian Husky sitting beside him, right next to the trail. About the size of a cat. Dasher dives to the side of the trail as we go by and misses grabbing the toy by bare inches. We laugh, so did the people. A sign coming up, shows a tight circle with an arrow on it. Karen looks at me and I look at her and we're both thinking "hmm, might be a hairy turn" *laugh laugh* it wasn't too bad, but it was nearly a u-turn.

Karen stops the sled in front of the usual group of cheering fans. They all grow silent. I laugh. "We're not supposed to stop are we?" I ask them. "We're just supposed to glide on by, you're supposed to cheer and then watch for the next musher." Nobody knows what to say when one of those teams of superb athletes and sleds stops 2 feet in front of them. They all laugh and we move on.

We are on the outskirts of Anchorage, out in the woods and swamps. It is absolutely gorgeous this sunny day. Trail is wonderful, hard packed deep snow. Several bridge crossings go just fine. Oops ‘cept for that one. It's right on a bit of a turn. Someone ahead of us missed it and went down to the creek. Half the team is going that way, next to the bridge before Karen gets stopped. I move up there to try and bring them back. A tangle ensues. I'm unsnapping lines to keep dogs from getting injured. Karen realizes she needs to come up and I go back to keep the sleds under control. Karen is tossing dogs up onto the bridge, a couple feet above where the dogs are trying there hardest to turn into one big knot. She can't reach the last dog, it's a few feet away. She finally does the only thing possible and grabs hold of the lines and yanks the dog backwards up onto the bridge. By now another musher has shown up and is waiting for us to get out of the way. Several of our dogs have their necklines or their tug lines unsnapped. I see one that has no lines to it. She calls that one over and snaps it in. Dogs are still a bit tangled but we can move across the bridge and get out of the way of the musher behind us where Karen can finish untangling the dogs. The musher doesn't make it. His dogs do the same thing ours do. We finally get started down the trail and I look back to see him and his handler in the same position we were just in...trying to throw dogs up on the bridge and untangle the knots that result. As Karen comes back to the sled, she says something to her idita-rider. He laughs and reminds her it is all caught on film. He's carrying a small camera and has been filming his ride.

We climb to circle a lake with open water. We're about 25 feet above it and can see hay bales alongside the trail drop off to the lake. An Iditarod official near the start of this section says "Might have to tip your sled to make it around..." I look at him, I'm thinking "WHAT???" *Laugh* Tip my ass, we had to jump off and pull the sleds over to keep from tumbling off the side!

People are passing out muffins and hot dogs. Two different groups wave the Canadian flag. A guy plays the Canadian national anthem on his tuba or horn. He doesn't play very well but his hearts in the right place.

AS we move along the trail there are paper plate signs along the way, painted orange and with arrows to point the trail or say "Bridge". Beautiful out here, sun washed forest. Family with a whole tent set up and small kids. Then I see a sign, it's in bright red, laminated. I'm thinking hmm, this must be a really official sign. Then I am close enough to read it. "SLOW DOWN. DROP OFF"
What the hell? What kind of drop off is it to require that kind of sign rather than the usual orange painted paper plates that have been all along the trail? I'm thinking we're about to go down some steep ass 50 foot drop to a river or something. "Karen?" I'm asking “What’s coming??" We pass some people and they say the same thing "slow down, drop off coming" Karen asks them, I'm thinking more for my benefit. She's been here before. Slow down, you're coming to the passenger drop off" I about fall off the sled in relief. The passenger gets out, there are tears in his voice and his eyes. "Thank you Karen." he says. "It was wonderful. Worth every penny." She hugs him, I wave, and we're off.

Past a sign that says "NO ENTRY. ACTIVE LANDING STRIP". Hmm. We turn onto Campbell airstrip and I notice the snow is unbroken. It might be an active landing strip, but not this week.

I know from past years that Karen is usually passed by a dozen or so mushers before she comes in to the end of the trail at Campbell airstrip. We kept looking behind us for those speedy mushers to show up. Only one did. A second one passed us after our tangle at the bridge, but that was it.
Karen is right. This year, this team...they are awesome!


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