Saturday, February 28, 2009


I have now been home a week. It has been a week of getting back in the routines of living with my seven couch potato Malamutes, going back to work and of course following the Iditarod on the Internet, and very occasionally on the TV. As for the race, it has been part nail biting drama, some incredible highs, and gut wrenching lows. A couple Mushers got on the wrong trail, were found and reached the checkpoint safely. A dog, Aafes, slipped her harness while in a blizzard and is still being searched for. One Musher is racing on with a possible fractured fibula. Eric was over thirty hours between checkpoints, found with his dogs, a broken sled, badly injured foot and leg and unable to continue; but alive and with his dogs all healthy. The Race leader was changing almost every time I checked.

I also was witness to one 11 year old girl, her father and a couple of friends, traveling the Iditarod Trail by dogsled to honor her mother and thank those residents of the remote villages who had befriended her – and to leave a piece of Susan on the trail to watch over all the dogs and Mushers yet to come.

Then disaster struck.

Snickers, one of Karen Ramstead’s main lead dogs, developed a bleeding ulcer and, after several hours of intensive vet care at the Grayling checkpoint, died. The loss of Snickers, to whom a week earlier I had been giving ear scratches, hit me as hard as the loss of one of my own dogs. The Iditarod/North Wapiti family, real and Internet, came together to share our grief, and give support to Karen and Mark. Godspeed, sweet little Snickers, may you wear your silver harness with pride as you run North of the Rainbow Bridge.

Then, at the other end of the trail, the leaders were starting to sort themselves out….. And Lance Mackey, who camped out in a parking lot to be able to wear bib 13; and after beating throat cancer, surgery, radiation treatments, and as he states, ‘a lot of wrong turns in my youth’; and having, the month before won the 1000 mile Yukon Quest, running with 13 of the same dogs, crossed under the Burled Arch in Nome to win the Iditarod. The first time anyone has won both endurance races in the same year. Winning in his sixth attempt, wearing bib 13, just as his father and bother had done before him.

That is the magic for the world to share, but I have lived my own magic.

I have seen 17 team members, of two species, achieve feats of which legends are told…

I have walked with heroes…

I have gotten to know some of the most ‘real’ humans on this earth…

I have learned what the term ‘an honest dog’ can really mean...

I have traveled roads blazed by true pioneers and founders of this country, and of this continent…

I have gazed on a land which exemplifies the majesty of God.

I shall never be quite the same…

I am humbled.

I have been blessed.


Eric’s Iditarod

The Anchorage Daily News carried the story of Eric's end of the race......

Sometimes, winning does not include getting to Nome, just getting the dogs home.

Eric references a poem, The Cremation of Sam MacGee, in this article. It is THE mushing poem and many mushers have referenced it and claim to quote it while on the trail.

The Creamation of Sam MacGee
by Robert Service

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee,
Where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam
'Round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold
Seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he'd often say in his homely wayThat he'd "sooner live in hell".

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way
Over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka's fold
It stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we'd close, then the lashes froze
Till sometimes we couldn't see;
It wasn't much fun, but the only one
To whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight
In our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o'erhead
Were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and "Cap," says he,
"I'll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I'm asking that you
Won't refuse my last request."

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn't say no;
Then he says with a sort of moan:
"It's the cursed cold, and it's got right hold
Till I'm chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet 'tain't being dead -- it's my awful dread
Of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair,
You'll cremate my last remains."

A pal's last need is a thing to heed,
So I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn;
But God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day
Of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all
That was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn't a breath in that land of death,
And I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn't get rid,
Because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say:
"You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it's up to you
To cremate those last remains."

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid,
And the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb,
In my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight,
While the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows --
O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay
Seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent
And the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad,
But I swore I would not give in;
And I'd often sing to the hateful thing,
And it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge,
And a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice
It was called the "Alice May".
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit,
And I looked at my frozen chum;
Then "Here," said I, with a sudden cry,
"Is my cre-ma-tor-eum."

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor,
And I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around,
And I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared --
Such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal,
And I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn't like
To hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled,
And the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled
Down my cheeks, and I don't know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak
Went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow
I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about
Ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said:
"I'll just take a peep inside.
I guess he's cooked, and it's time I looked"; . . .
Then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm,
In the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile,
And he said: "Please close that door.
It's fine in here, but I greatly fear
You'll let in the cold and storm --
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee,
It's the first time I've been warm."

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Alaska Days 13–14, Wednesday and Thursday March 7-8, 2007

Day 13 : Wednesday, March 7
This was the last day to go souvenir and gift shopping. Found the best place to get reasonably priced Alaska goodies -- Wal-Mart. Now, anyone who knows me will understand I HAD to make a stop at my second favorite store. It seems as if my travel stories when in the RV consist of which Wal-Mart I stopped at today, so why would anyone be surprised that I had to make at least one stop at an Anchorage store?

Actually, there was a legitimate reason to go there – it seems that the collection of ‘’stuff” I have purchased far exceeds the volume of suitcases I bought with me. I either had to leave behind everything I brought up here OR buy shipping boxes and make a trip to the post office to mail home the goodies which won’t fit on the plane. Note to self – next time I make a trip like this, forget return tickets on an airline, just charter a Fed-Ex plane home.

I then went back to the hotel to start the packing process. I think someone could succeed very well with a cottage industry packing for visitors’ return trips home.

That night was dinner at the Mexican Restaurant which was just outside my window. Yup, two Texans, in Anchorage, eating Mexican food. However, La Cabana has some of the best Mexican food I have eaten anywhere. The only problem I found is that ‘HOT’ to the Alaskans comes out ‘very mild’ to Texans.

From what I have heard, Native Alaskan food is an acquired taste and Anchorage is primarily a city settled by flatlanders from all over the US and the world. Restaurants in Anchorage are a mix of any type cuisine you can imagine. Much to my surprise, Mexican, Chinese and Pizza seem to predominate. The one food I discovered and will be attempting to import to Texas is Reindeer Sausage. I have no idea if it is just sold to cheechacos (newcomers) or if is eaten by real sourdoughs (those who have seen the ice on the rivers freeze AND thaw) but it is delicious! Bambi and the Claus Team are in trouble!!!!!!

There is a nice video about the dropped dogs at the prison. Check it out.

Day 14 - Thursday
This was the last day of sight seeing. We went north up the other leg of the Mat-Su Valley towards Glenallen to see the Matanuska Glacier. This is a active valley glacier 27 miles long and four miles wide a the terminus It flows much as a river would at a speed of about a foot a day and it takes 250 years for an ice crystal to travel from the beginning to the terminus. This is the largest glacier accessible by car in Alaska. Unfortunately, the park was closed when we got there and we had to be content ‘just’ taking photos from the Glenn Highway.

To save time trying to describe the scenery, refer to Journal entry for Day 12 and just change the locations to Matanuska Glacier ;^) Yes, another OOOHHHH AHHHHH Day!

On the way back to Anchorage, I stopped at the Iditarod Trail Committee Headquarters in Willow. This was a pilgrimage for me. Having been an ITC member for years, I have seen pictures of the HQ, talked on the phone to people who work there, and consider this the home for the Keepers of the Dream. I did not genuflect at the entrance, but I was close!

I am not one who, takes lots of pictures to be labeled ‘me in front of the world’s largest XXXX’. But, in front of the HQ building is a bronze statue of Joe Redington, Sr., the Father of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. I now have a picture, “Me, next to the Redington Bronze.” THIS is the one photo which will be printed out, framed and hung on my wall.

Remember, “fan” is short for “Fanatic” and this Fan has lived a dream and had the trip of a life time. Tomorrow at 0600am, my plane leaves Anchorage and I return to life as a Texan….with a piece of my heart left in Alaska.

Alaska Days 11 – 12, Monday and Tuesday March 5 - 6, 2007

Day 11
Monday was a day of rest….. and a day to feel my age. That is if I am about 100 years old. My everything hurt. However, it did give me a chance to catch up reading, if not responding to emails and following the race. I finally got to moving at a near human speed in time to go to an early dinner and then over to the Millennium.

I stuck my nose into the Dog Drop room and got to see the working of the care of the dogs after they are out of the race. Things were rather hectic. It seems there had been a rash of dogs dropped and sent back to Anchorage. About 5 teams scratched each with 16 dogs, in addition to the usual number of one or two dropped from teams by some of the their Mushers. Peg said they had already received about 90 dogs today and another plane landed while we were there.

I actually got to see the process when a dog is dropped. As soon as the dog is gotten out of the plane bringing it back to Anchorage, it is taken to the tie out area where it is given an exam by a Vet and a Tech. Any urgent medical issues are addressed, medications, if needed, are administered and then the paperwork is bought inside. Since many of the dogs this day were team members of Mushers who had scratched and there were few medical issues, the dogs were able to be vetted quickly.

Each dog is tracked by a tag placed on its collar before the race with the musher’s bib number and a number for that dog; it also has its microchip number verified. Each dog has at least 2 methods of ID, and often the dog’s name is written on the collar. Each of the dogs are called by name and all efforts are made to make the dog feel safe, secure and comfortable. Each dog is given a fresh straw bed to lie on, a coat if the weather is particularly cold, and a fleece blanket to cover up with.

Prior to the start of the race each Musher must have designated a handler to pick up any dropped dogs, and two back up handlers. As soon as the paper work gets to the dog drop room, a volunteer contacts that handler and lets them know that a dog needs picked up. The dog is identified by name and the decision is made if the dog will be picked up at the Millennium or will be taken to the prison for later pick up by the handler. Vet and/or Techs are outside with the dogs as long as they are at the Millennium.

The dogs are fed and watered and the vets are very concerned and watch to make sure the dogs are eating and drinking. If they aren’t, there could be something more serious going on with the dog and it will get a more through exam. If a dog comes in with a known medical condition, be it injury or illness, the vets recheck its condition and note any changes since the vets at the checkpoint where it was flown out of had seen it.

Zuma has posted pictures of the Dog Drop area:

For pictures of the process of sending dogs out of the checkpoints take a look at the pictures Zuma has attached to her column.

The dogs are placed mostly loose in the back of the small bush pilot planes and I have heard that should any problems with the dogs develop, like a fight; the pilots will give an attitude adjustment by a sudden change in altitude. It seems that a sudden drop of several hundred feet and a little Zero G will straighten out any problem with the dogs. This seldom happens as most of these dogs have flown like this before, especially the veteran dogs.

The only way to get the dogs back from any point on the trail, including Nome is by air.

If you look at the picture on Zuma’s report where it shows the dogs in the plane you can see they are not very stressed. One of the dogs has a grin and another is sitting there looking out the window. It seems dogs want the window seats, too. I bet they are wondering if this is a meal flight or if they just get a bag of peanuts.

Day 12

Tuesday was a day to tour north of Anchorage. Heading anywhere, is an OHH AWWW WOW experience. The scenery is breathtaking. It is hard to put in to words the beautiful vistas revealed at every turn in the road or over every hill. This is where every cliché about Alaska comes true.

It is as if someone called up the special effects department of a Hollywood studio and asked them to make a backdrop which looks like Alaska. The mountains are everywhere. And you can easily see for hundreds of miles.

We went up to Talkeetna, about 100 miles north of Anchorage. It is the gateway for those who are trying to climb Mt McKinley about 80 miles away.

As you approach Talkeetna, there is a bluff with a scenic overlook where in front of you are the three highest peaks in Alaska and three of the four highest in the US. From left to right, lined up are Mount Foraker (native name Menlale, Denali’s Wife) at 17,400 feet, Mt Hunter (native name Begguya, Child of Denali) at 14,537 ft and Mt McKinley (native name Denali, the Tall One) at 20,320 feet standing 18,000 feet above the neighboring lowlands.

The view is breathtaking! I just stood there in awe, almost forgetting to take pictures. A truly spiritual experience. Neither words nor photos can capture the view and emotions of actually seeing these mountains. This was worth the price of the entire trip.

Talkeetna was founded in the mid-1920’s and many of the buildings date from that period. It is a small town in the winter but in summer is the host for most of the 36,000 visitors to Denali Park. The slogan for the town made me laugh: A quaint little drinking town with a climbing problem. And, yes, I did get a bumper sticker with that on it. Can’t wait until I am traveling in the RV with the assortment of Alaska bumper stickers on it. Should get me some ‘looks’.

With Denali having a vertical climb higher than Mt Everest, mountain climbing is very popular during the summer. Only about 350 permits are issued each year to climb the Denali/Foraker/Hunter, and all requests must be made 60 days prior to the date of the climb. I was surprised to find out there is one man currently making a winter assent of Mt. Foraker, and another man camping on one of the glaciers photographing the Aurora Borealis. No Good Old Boy, ‘hold my beer and watch this!’ type of climbing. But even with trying to make sure the climbers are properly prepared and sufficiently experienced, there are still several rescues each year. One of the shop owners told tales about the rescues of climbers who were candidates for Darwin Awards on the mountains.

Denali is ‘growing’ approximately a millimeter a year and the entire Alaska Range is a very active seismic area. Denali and Foraker are granite, whereas the surrounding mountains are made of sedimentary rock. That means there is both tectonic plate over thrust, a fancy term for ‘you ARE gonna feel an earthquake’, and volcanic activity present. Fortunately, THIS earthquake phobic did not feel any movement. Had I, this flatlander would have broken all land speed records getting out of there.

I can make one guarantee – I will never be on the list to climb any of these mountains! I may be plumb crazy but I am not suicidal. Looking is good – climbing is best left to those much younger and fitter than me.

Just let me back in the car to sit and enjoy the scenery on the drive back to Anchorage.

I am continuing to follow the race closely, on radio, television and on the web. The best quick updates for the race are and and, of course, Zuma’s Paw Prints.

More pictures of the Race Start/Re-start and on the trail by amateurs. Great pics!
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.”
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!

Alaska Day 8, Friday, March 2, 2007

There's not a word yet for old friends who've just met.
(I’m Going to Go Back There Some Day, from the Muppet Movie)

Friday is a ‘down’ day for the Mushers, the musher’s meeting and the banquet is over, the Ceremonial Start is tomorrow. The fans and sponsors are in town. And no big official events are planned. So, instead of last minute preparations, many of the Mushers are so gracious as to open their homes and kennels for open houses. Ya know, if I was about to take off behind a bunch of dogs on a sled to go 1100 miles through the Alaska wilderness, the last thing I, think I would want to do was play nicey-nicey with a bunch of strangers, who are wandering through my home and wanting to pet my dogs.

I had invitations to several open houses and choosing which ones to go to was difficult. I was hoping to make 3 of them. Two in the Mat-Su valley and one in Anchorage, but because of transportation issues was only able to make 2 official and one un-official ones all out in the valley.

First I went to Karen Ramstead’s ( ) . Karen comes up from Perryvale, Alberta, Canada to stay with a friend, Jamie West in Willow, about 2 hours from Anchorage and near where the Restart will be.

Karen has a Yahoo group which I have been a member of for about 5 years and have gotten to know, in an internet way, many of the members of the group. Plus, Karen runs a team of CKC registered Siberian Huskies and is the one Musher I follow closely each year. Karen is never going to win the race, Sibes are just not fast enough, but embodies the essence of the race to me. One person and 16 dogs vs. the worst and best the Alaska bush can throw at them, just to dream a dream and do the near impossible – get to Nome.

The group at Karen’s was like meeting old friends. Many of the people there I had known for years, at least by their Internet personas. I am happy to report every one of them is as nice as they are on the net. The first indication of this was in response to my transportation problem. Roland wanted to go to the ITC Handler’s class in Anchorage about 2.5 hours after we arrived at North Wapiti Kennels, North. I asked the group who were there early, if anyone was going to be going back to Anchorage and if so, could I have a ride back. Karen and company looked around and told me that no one there now was going back, but of course someone would get me back, and to let Roland go. With the faith of a child, I sent my ride back to Anchorage trusting that there really would be someone going south, with room for one extra person.

I then proceeded to thoroughly enjoy myself, getting to know the people there. First I got to meet Donna Quante, three time Emmy winner (Camera Operation), writer and producer of the Video, “Pretty Sled Dogs” ( ), Donna had obviously not ‘gone Hollywood’ since we met her while she was out feeding dogs and scooping poop. The love of dogs is such an equalizer; it really does not matter if you are an Emmy winner, a PhD, or just average Joe or Jane. If you love the dogs, nothing is too demeaning even cleaning up a pile of dog poo.

When I went inside, I then met Karen in person…………I was (and am) in awe…nearly speechless. I could not have been more impressed and star struck if I had been meeting the Queen of England.

June Price, list owner of the Idita-Support Yahoo group and intrepid photographer ( and writer is as beautiful a person as her photos are. Jamie, who laughed when I said “y’all” made me feel totally at home. Jamie is originally from Tennessee and said hearing ‘y’all’ again made her feel like she was at home again. It was at the initial introductions, I get tagged as “BilindaFromTexas”.

I met many, many other wonderful people and ended up exchanging email addresses with several people who do rescue, including Malamute and Sled dog rescue in the San Francisco and Pennsylvania, and a gal who dose Fila rescue up here. The dog world is really small; most of the people I met knew someone who I knew, either from the rescue or the show world. It almost felt like the game which is played figuring out how many degrees of separation we were from one another. It seems that Charlene LaBelle showed up in most of the connections with the west coast.

Charlene, you have to get out more – there was at least one person at Karen’s who did not know you.

The highlight of the open house at Karen’s was the tour of the dog lot. The 23 dogs are staked out beside their houses and the chains are long enough that each dog can interact with at least 3 other dogs. Walking through the lot means you are walking in the circle of a dog almost every step. This is really cool as each dog looked at me with the ‘Here comes an ear rub’ look. They all got one!

These are amazing dogs. Tough sled dogs who are also soft little love puppies. The weather was perfect, about 3 below when I got there and it warmed up little during the day. The nice part was, while Anchorage was experiencing gale force winds, there were none in Willow and the sun was shining. I am either getting acclimated to the weather or I am just plain nuts, but I was out most of the day with no hat and thin gloves. But then dog fur is a great heat source.

We were able to spend as much time as we wanted with the dogs and do what ever we wanted. This was NOT a guided tour. Need I tell you what I was doing most of the afternoon? I fell in love with one of her males, Junior, and one of her bitches, Tess. Then there is Kara. Kara is Karen’s main leader who also is her house dog for all but the racing season. Kara is not going to be in the Start nor go to Nome due to some minor injuries. To make up for it, Kara is in a kennel, not on a chain and has the option when Karen is there of having free run of the dog lot. Every time I would sit down on a doghouse to get some Fur Therapy from the resident dog, Kara would jump on the house with me and usually put her head on my shoulder. Pictures of the Open house are here including one of me and Jr:

One thing I noticed about the dogs is when I first rubbed them is how thin they felt, and then I ran my hands down the legs and sides – SOLID muscle. I realized how accustomed to handling our couch potato dogs, who, yes I must admit, are FAT! It is like comparing a Marathon Racer to a Sunday jogger!

Karen was so gracious and was answering questions and letting us all get a feel for the prep necessary for this race. This was like getting to go over to one of the Spur’s homes the day before the NBA Championship and hang out.

I was star struck and very humbled.

After the open house was over, I hitched a ride with Donna Quante to her home on the way to a second open house. Donna is caring for several of Perry Solmonson’s dogs who did not make his race team. I got to feed them. Kibble and hot water. They scarfed up the food like they were Mals. A couple of the puppies (yearlings) were a little shy but again they all wanted ear rubs and pats - AFTER they ate, that is. Donna was thrilled that another gal and I volunteered – gee, if she had thought about it, I most likely would have paid her to feed and scoop poop.

She has 2 Sibes and one Alaskan with a visiting Lab/Sharpi X as house dogs. They were thrilled to have visitors and I was thrilled to snuggle. Donna came into the dining room, where we all were and commented she DID have chairs. Almost all were sitting on the floor, where we could have free access to the dogs. I had not even thought about sitting in a chair – I needed a dog fix by that time.

We then went over to River’s house. You see, River’s is a blind, retired Iditarod team dog. He had run at least two races while blind from glaucoma. Eventually, the glaucoma had advanced to where he was in pain and needed the surgery to remove his eyes. Mike and Mary Dillingham adopted Rivers getting him the required surgery. Rivers has since become a well known author and has his own blog.

Rivers is a real sweet dog who lives up to his literary persona….but how could he not. His parents are such nice folks.

We headed back to Anchorage, with me riding with new old friends. Rescue people who work with Karen in PA.

The wind had lessened, and tonight is a two dog night, but I have the memories of snuggling with dozens of sled dogs to keep me warm tonight.
Alaska Day 7, Thursday, Mar 1, 2007

Day 7 was spent grazing downtown Anchorage – again - and resting up for the Musher’s Banquet.

The Musher’s Banquet is where the starting numbers for the race are drawn or in the case of this year, chosen. Apparently, there is a whole lot of woo-woo and ju-ju and some strategy in choosing a number showing the order of starting the race. In year’s past, the preferred slots have been influenced by strategy, since the Official Start on Sunday was in the morning and that would cause the early teams to have to run in the ‘heat’ of the day. Higher numbers were preferred so that the initial run of the race was done in the late afternoon and night. The teams leave at two minute intervals and with 82 teams running this year there is about a two hour spread from team #2 to team #83. That time is made up when the teams take a mandatory 24 hour rest at a checkpoint of their choosing around the Yukon River. The last team out will have a 24 hour hold the next to last will have a 24 hour 2 minute mandatory rest, etc. That way, once all teams have had their 24 hour, the rest is an even race as far as time on the trail and the first team into Nome wins the race.

Anchorage is now getting about 12 hours of visible light from 7:10 to 7:12. However the sun at ‘high’ noon is at most 45 degrees above the horizon, so to us southerners, the sun seems to be either early morning or late afternoon light. This is what I find hard to get used to. I cannot tell time and my circadian rhythms are all messed up! It would not seem that that low sun would make much difference but it actually warms up maybe 20 degrees during the day. The dogs like running in COLD weather, anything above -30 is fine with them. This year’s race begins at 2:00pm so the start time is not that much of a factor.

The Musher’s Banquet is a gathering of the 82 Mushers and about 1800 of their nearest and dearest friends. Need I say it is a mob scene? We were next to the table Karen Ramstead and her hubby were at and got to chat with them.

The first order of business is naming the Honorary Musher. If you noticed, I have been referring to Bib # 2 as the first musher out. Bib #1 is worn by the Honorary Musher, often someone of historical importance to Alaska or the Iditarod. Last year, the Honorary Musher was Jirdes Winther Baxter, the last known survivor of the children who were saved from a diphtheria epidemic by the historic 1925 serum run to Nome. This year, the Honorary Musher is Susan Butcher, four time Iditarod winner, and all around hero. Susan was the driving force for improving the care and conditions of the dogs used in the race and in mushing. Susan died after a valiant fight against leukemia this last August. Her husband, David Monson, accepted the award for her. When the crowd at the banquet gave an over five minute standing ovation tears were in the eyes of many, including me. Susan was my first introduction to the race, and by winning the race 4 out of 5 years, inspired what I think is the ultimate T-shirt: Alaska, where men are men and women win the Iditarod. I still want that shirt!!!!!

Then the selecting of the bib numbers began. Lance Mackey, this year’s winner of the Yukon Quest earned first choice of numbers by being the first Musher to sign up for this year’s race. He camped out in the parking lot of Iditarod HQ for almost 2 weeks. His choice was bib 13 – so much for the bad luck thing – seems his dad and his brother each won the race wearing bib 13.
I was sitting there watching musher after musher pick their bib numbers and just looked at them in awe – these are people who I have followed for years in their quest for the simple prize of a belt buckle given to those who finish the Iditarod. Most of the mushers in the race are not even trying to win. Making it all the way to Nome is winning in their world. The difficulty of even finishing, let alone wining the race is demonstrated by the factoid that more people have climbed Mt. Everest than have completed the Iditarod.

Back to the Hotel after braving the winds of Anchorage – gusts were up to 40 mph, and the wind chill in the –teens. The wind was so strong it actually slid me across the ice in the parking lot. Even the natives are grousing about the weather being brutal.

This is a FOUR dog night with no dogs, but tomorrow I get my dog fix with some fur therapy at Karen’s open house.
Alaska Day 6 Wednesday, Feb 28, 2007

The Millennium Hotel is the hub of the Iditarod in Anchorage. Today I went over there with Peg M, who does a Malamute/Sibe rescue in MO and is a Vet Tech. Up here she works the intake for the dropped dogs as they are returned to Anchorage from the trail.

The first thing we did was to check out the Dropped Dog area. It is on the shore of Lake Hood/Lake Spenard which in the summer is the largest float plane anchorage in the nation. Now, of course it is frozen solid and is a Ski Plane lading area. On the shoreline, for the summer, is a decorative split rail fence which this time of year becomes the tie out area for the dogs. This is where the initial vetting of all dropped and returned dogs is done. Each dog comes with a vet form listing why it was dropped, and any health issues noted on the trail.

Dog trucks are already parked and waiting in the parking lot to take the dogs home. Any dogs not picked up from the Hotel are then sent to prison. REALLY! The holding area for the dogs is at the State Prison here in Anchorage. I have heard that the Trustee job of caring for the dogs is a highly sought position.

Mushers are allowed to start with up to 16 dogs in the team. Dogs may be dropped but no dogs may be added or exchanged with other dogs.

Dogs are dropped for many reasons. Some teams will take some slower, but stronger dogs on the team to help them get across the Brooks Mountain Range, the first major natural challenge in the race. Aside from the weather, that is. The teams will climb from sea level in Anchorage to 3,160 feet at Rainy Pass. Here strong dogs are needed to help pull the sled and Musher over the Mountains. For the front of the pack racers (those 30 or so teams which really do have a chance of winning or at least finishing in the top 20) will often drop the bigger dogs at Nikolai since the hardest part of the trail, as far as physical challenges are concerned, is behind them. From Nik on, the race becomes more of a speed and endurance race.

Other dogs are dropped because of injury or illness. Each checkpoint on the trail has a vet and every dog gets a vet check. Also, the Mushers keep a close watch on their dogs. There is no advantage to running an injured or sick dog…even if the musher was a troll and didn’t care about the dogs…a dog not in top condition will slow the team. And a team is no faster than the slowest dog. One Musher, Karen Ramstead, has been known for dropping dogs for, as she wrote on her Drop Dog Form, “not having fun”.

At the Hotel, Peg checked on the Dog Drop Room. No, the dogs don’t get a room in the hotel, it is where the staff and equipment are stored, making sure the Vet equipment was there and then we hung out for a while with the volunteers who were making the last minute arrangements for the Musher’s Banquet which will be held on Day 7, Thursday night.

Also, I was in the phone room, where volunteers were already fielding emails and phone calls from the public. (Race Headquarters Phone Room
(907) 248-MUSH (6874) ) Sitting in the background was the intrepid Canine Reporter, and Honorary MRM member, Snowtalker Zuma who is busy supervising her helpers answer her emails and gathering intel on the race preps.

I got to meet several people who I know through the Internet but since I am such a Irod geek, for most of you it would just make your eyes glaze over and wonder WHO????

The one ‘celebrity’ I did meet was Jeff Schultz, the official photographer for the Race. His work is noted throughout AK and the racing world. Most of the photos you see on both the Iditarod and the Cabela’s site are taken by him.
Jeff actually goes out on the trail and is in the trenches shooting some of the most amazing pictures.

Well, having given all of you your surfing assignments I will head to dinner and then to bed. It is scheduled to be a bitter cold night with wind chill temps in the negative teens. Sounds like a good test for the heater in the room.

A three dog night with no dogs…………….
Alaska Day 5 Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007
Today was a day of intellectual and cultural enlightenment.

OK, so really what we did was go to the Anchorage Art and History Museum. The art was just about what you would expect at most museums, modern but in many cases with a Native influence. The display of the history of Alaska and it's natives and culture were fantastic. However, not much on dogs or sledding. The one thing they did have was a display with Tapis (Tuppis) and Standing Irons.

Tapis??? Tuppis??? Standing Irons???

Back in the days of the fur-traders with trappers who were out in the bush most of the year, there were very few opportunities to display their wealth and the skills of the women of the house. Human nature being what it is once again came up with a very unique way to show off and make sure every one at the Fur Trader's Rendezvous knew about 'keeping up with the Joneses'. It was not enough to show up with the biggest cache of pelts but you had to show up in style. Now to do this when you are coming in to civilization with just your dogsled and team, was to make the team look as sharp as could be afforded.

Unlike the modern dog show, there just were not the facilities to wash, line comb, brush, chalk and pixie-dust your team in the bush so the trappers began using Tapis and Standing Irons. Tapis or Tuppis, depending where you were from are decorative dog blankets placed over the back of each dog in the team. Standing Irons are a post coming off the top of the collar with a pom pom of wool yarn and trailing ribbons. Many times bells were attached to the Tapis. If you can, imagine many Trappers at the Trading Post each with their dog team decked out in Ribbons and Bells. What a scene that must have been.

Standing irons:

Picture of team with tapis and standing irons. It is down the page as cover art for The Beaver magazine.

The Tapis/Tuppis in the museum were made of red velvet lined with wool cloth. Embroidery was of the Athabaskan style of flowers done in silk ribbon or beading. They were held on the dog's back by tying them with leather thongs to the harness.

One of the lists I am on had a discussion this winter about Tapis and Standing Irons and the only references we were finding were old historical photos. Naturally, I am thrilled that I have had the opportunity to see the real thing.

My guys had better watch out -- they may end up being the best outfitted sled dogs in Texas. We ain't the Texas Dust Mushers for nothin'!

We then walked downtown to see the ice sculptures. The city park, about a block square, in the heart of Anchorage is transformed into a Children's ice rink and surrounded by 5 foot ice sculptures. Unfortunately quite a few of the sculptures showed the ravages of being out in the public and the sun too long. There was one which was in beautiful condition, two Inuits in a kayak. Hopefully Roland was able to get a good picture of it and he will post it to his blog.

Also I did my WAY TOO EXPENSIVE souvenir purchase. I bought a scarf. Not just any scarf but one made of the under wool of the Musk Ox called Qiviut, pronounced KIV-EE-UTE. It is collected in the spring, with each animal shedding less than 6 ounces of wool. Spun into lace fine yarn it is then sent to the native villages where the members of the co-op knit items using traditional patterns. The scarf I have is in the Harpoon Pattern, inspired by a 1200 year old ivory harpoon head and was knitted by Hannah J. Morris who lives in the village of Mekoryuk. The full story of the Oomingmak Co-op and the knitting of the Qiviut yarn can be found at:

I first found this co-op and their wonderful product surfing the web about 8 years ago. No way was cheap old me going to spend that much money on anything; but have continued to come back to their website and drool over the history, the skill and the whole idea. Well, I told myself I would buy something of theirs when I went to Alaska -- like THAT would ever happen!

Well here I am, and I now have a scarf which is warmer than anything I brought with me, as light as smoke and carries the history of the ages.

As for the Iditarod, tomorrow starts the final count down to Saturday's Start in Anchorage and the official timed restart Sunday in Willow. I will be going over to the Millennium Hotel tomorrow and start the Total Iditarod Immersion Sequence.

Now, for the lighter side of the race. Crazy race brings crazier ideas:

Jeff King, five time winner of the race has come up with several innovative ideas to improve his sled, first the sit-down sled, then heated handle bars. This year, Jeff, pictured here, is seen with the results of his innovative breeding program for this year's race.

More later. Meanwhile, hug the pups and tell them they are glad they are not outside here. It is now 0 and dropping.

Alaska Days 3 and 4 Sunday and Monday, Feb 25, 26 2007
Sorry for the delay in reporting on day 3.......I was tired. How can anyone get tired sitting in a sled bag for an hour and half? Well, when you are me and the sled bag is on a sled being pulled by 10 dogs fresh off the Yukon 300 race it is surprisingly easy. That much excitement for an old lady can be exhausting. Of course, this mushing rookie got to help hitch and unhitch the team.

Mike Suprenaut had been scheduled to run the Iditarod as a rookie this year and I was going to be a handler for him at the Start/Re-Start. However, to run each musher must finish 2 races with an accumulated total of at least 500 miles, finishing in the top 75% of the field or in an elapsed time of not more than twice the elapsed time of the race winner. Like most of us, at times the best laid plans go astray. His second qualifier was canceled due to weather (this time too much snow) and in order to complete his qualifiers he had to go to Whitehorse, Canada to run the Yukon 300. The main problem with using this as a qualifier is the food drops for the Iditarod occur while the Yukon is still running. Mike did not make the food drops and withdrew from this year's Iditarod. The good news is he is ready to go for next years race without having to worry about anything but that race. Mike's website is at

I got to meet many of the dogs on his website. Boy, are they different from Mals! These are self driven athletes; Focused on running in team like our dogs focus on dinner. The first difference is it is standard procedure to take the dogs out of the dog box (many of the times the dogs are put in 2 to a box, especially when there is not a far distance to travel) and while one dog is being harnessed and hitched to the gangline, the other dog is wandering around loose. The dogs stay pretty close, but do wander over to other teams and up to people standing around begging scrtiches. I just kept thinking -- not with Mals -- and later a recreational musher showed up with a Mal, an Alaskan and a Sibe. She did not let her dogs wander. Mike and Eric both said all you need are 3 dogs to run a sled. Hummmm, I have seven at home……………..

When we got to the dog training area (lots of groomed runs) which is a sledding club, Mike had just finished running his puppy team. Most of them are litter mates he bred and are 9 months old. They had just been on their first 6 mile run and were tired. I helped Mike snack them, and then he put them up and started pulling out his race team.

While we were hitching the team, another dog truck showed up and Mike said "That is Eric Rogers (Iditarod veteran and entered this year) and he will be coming over to give me a ragging because I withdrew." Sure enough, Eric came over, and first congratulated Mike on finishing his qualifiers and then asking him why he couldn't have come back in the middle of the race of make the food drops. Mike introduced me to Eric, who I knew about through one of the mail lists I am on. When he heard my name, he said "Bilinda from Texas?" WOW, he knows who I am!!!!! And then he very 'seriously' warned me that I was taking a very big risk going out with Mike as he often gets lost since he forgets all the trails where we were running go in a circle and he needs someone out in front of him dragging a hunk of meat behind their sled so his lead dogs can find a trail, any trail. Mike thought this was hilarious. They then stood there for a while talking about the trail conditions for the Iditarod and strategies for drops and the need for extra plastic sled runners for Eric's sled since there are long stretches which right now do not have any snow.

I am standing there listening and pinching myself.....Am I really standing in 10 degrees, surrounded by some of the most beautiful snow covered mountains, listening to REAL Mushers discuss THE RACE?????

Then I got in the sled. The only coaching I got was if the sled tipped over, stay in the sled. Oh boy, what an auspicious start.

Then he started the team, and it was like sitting in a drag car. The dogs LAUNCHED! And we were off. The area we ran in is beautiful! It is run mostly through the forest, up hills, around corners, around corners going down hill, corners at the bottom of hills, though culvert tunnels, and then the super bonus -- we went out on the inlet and ran on sea ice. I do not have words to describe the experience, though I am sure in the following months y'all will be sick and tired of hearing about it. Mike said we did about 20 miles.

About half way through the run, every now and then one of the dogs would bark. I asked Mike what was going on, since they had been running quietly. He said one of is bitches, Munich, hated when the dog in front of her started to slow down, and she would bark at that dog to pick up the pace, even if that dog was going the same speed as the rest of the team -- just not fast enough for Munich. He also said that if the dog would get close enough to her she would bite its tail to move it up and speed it up.

When we got back to the dog truck, he just told me where the snacks were and told me to snack the dogs. The warning I got was to be sure to throw the snacks on the ground and not feed them by hand -- some of the dogs were not gentle. And yes, I had a couple of them jump up and grab the meat before I could get it out of the bucket and drop it. They are sharks!

When they had eaten, he started unharnessing them and I was in charge of stowing the harnesses. Not exactly brain surgery but hey, I am a total flat rookie when it comes to working around a team -- real racing or recreational.

Came back to the hotel, peeled off several layers of clothes and then went to dinner and then to sleep!

Today, we went down the Kenai Peninsula to Portage Glacier. Most of the story is on Roland's blog with pictures. When he says cold he means COLD, and the wind was brutal. Driving was interesting....when a truck would meet us the car lurched from the wind being blocked and then hitting us again. Additional notes to Roland's photos....the buffalo on his blog are very special. They are Woods Buffalo or Wood Bison ((Bison bison athabascae). The ones we all are familiar with are Plains Buffalo. The Woods Buffalo is indigenous to the interior of Alaska and Canada. They are larger and darker than the Plains Buffalo (bison bison bison) with a squarer hump and are lacking the 'cape' of heavy fur over the shoulders. This herd is a breeding herd for reintroduction of the Woods Buffalo to Alaska. Two years ago the first Woods Buffalo was born in Alaska in 100 years....the breeding stock was brought from a refuge in Alberta.

The Portage Glacier. OK, YOU find the glacier in snow covered mountains. I know it is there and we did see another area where there was blue glacier ice coming over the top of a mountain. Note to self, if you want to go OHHH AHHH at glaciers, look at them in the summer when they are surrounded by something other than snow.

Tonight was a lazy night, stayed in and watched TV.............and warmed up!

Tomorrow, Museums and off to the Millennium Hotel, the Race HQ.
Alaska Days 1 and 2 Friday and Saturday, Feb 23, 24 , 2007

The best news is THE AIRLINE FOUND MY SUITCASE!!!! I was beginning to get an ulcer, the suitcase which had all of my cold weather gear decided to take an extended vacation in Phoenix. It came this afternoon. What that meant was the last (actually my first) two days here was COLD. I did have minimum clothing so I would not freeze and had one pair of boots so I was able to get out and about, but not as comfortably as I wanted.

Yesterday we were pleasantly surprised to find the window on our hotel room looks out on the first turn of the race course. For those of you who know Anchorage, the Races start at 4th and C and we are at 4th and Cordova where the race trail takes the turn to leave the downtown area. Yesterday was the first day of the 3 days/3heats of the World Sprint Race Championship. Teams of 13 to 20 dogs run a 25 mile course. Most of the dogs running sprints at this level are definitely Alaskan Huskies, mostly crossed with hounds and German Short Hair Pointers. They are really leggy houndy looking dogs, but there was one team of Sibes running.

Today was Heat #2 of the sprints and also was the World Championship Weight Pull, sponsored by the St. Bernard Club of AK. That is where we went today. Lots of Mals there. David Britz had 3 of his kennel there. Two dogs in the 85 to 120 lb class, and a young bitch in the 65-85 class. There was one HUGE Wakon dog at 165lbs and a love. You have not had a Malamute Lean until you have received one from a 165 pounder!!! Nor have you lived until you have had to clean frozen dog spit from your glasses where the dog gave you a big Mally kiss across the face. The TV news tonight covered the Weight Pull and all but one of the dogs shown were Mals!

Tomorrow --now I have clothes I will not freeze in -- I am going for a sled ride offered by one of the Rookies who had to withdraw from the Iditarod because he was in Canada running the Yukon 300 when the food drops were to have been done for the Iditarod. I will be sitting behind his racing team! YEEEEHAAAAAW.

Photos and further info on the trip are being posted to Roland's Blog pictures are being posted there.

Off to dinner, and further adventures which may not include anything more than WATER, Carmex for my lips, and sleep!


Flash from the past - The Alaska trip to the Iditarod

The next few posts will be from my journal written during my Trip of a Lifetime to Alaska.

Alaska Day 0 Thursday, Feb 22, 2007

We made it. Got into Anchorage at 0412 am Central Standard time and spent about 45 minutes in the airport looking for missing luggage. Both of us have one bag that did not make it here! Luckily I split my clothes and stuff so if this happened, I still had enough to be able to get out of the hotel. Hopefully, the bags will show up today. My COOL BOOTS, the ones with the snowflake treads are in the missing bag, along with my down jacket. I guess I will really find out how well dressing in layers works. We got to the hotel (Days Inn at 5th and Cordova/and Denali) at 0500 our time. I love those 24 hour days.

The temp when we landed was 7 degrees with a 10 MPH wind. When we left San Antonio Airport the temp was 82 ---- you do the math!

Our room overlooks 4th Street and we are watching the dump trucks bring in snow to make the starting shoot for both the Irod and the Fur Rondy.

Link to the Fur Rondy is: Today the sprint races begin and tomorrow there is a weight pull. I want to get to that, I have heard that Nancy Russell is in AK for the run to Nome after the Irod is over....hopefully she and her Malamutes will be at the Rondy to show them the Mals still have it!

My cell phone has a great signal, at least as long as I am in Anchorage. No guarantees when we leave the big city.

Now I am awake and somewhat coherent i.e. had my first coke, I will sign off to go do stuff. The Rondy and the Irod make the first turn right outside the hotel window....sometimes, dumb luck works.

Yes, I am still bouncing around and leaving puddles.