My first Idita-Rider adventure in Alaska
This badge got me in everywhere!
I've always loved dogs and recently, going to Utah every winter for
the Sundance Film Festival I've made my peace with snow and cold weather.
But I surprise even myself with my new-found passion for Alaska and
the Iditarod sled dog race. I used to say "dog sled", but
now I know better, it's a "sled dog" race. What a five days!
It started with the musher luncheon on my first day, where I got to
eat with Cindy Gallea from Montana, the woman I would ride with, and
then later that night the Iditarod banquet was held in a huge hall.
That's where the mushers learn their starting position (Cindy got 41)
and Hobo Jim (Alaska's Ramblin' Jack) sang " I did
did the Iditarod trail".
The next day all the Idita-Riders got their instructions about what
the safety rules are about the dogs, sitting in the sled and how to
find our positions in downtown Anchorage the next day. They gave us
a special patch to sew on our clothes and a special badge to wear
identifying us as riders. They took us out back of the hotel and we
saw a sled with its dog team up close. I got to take a 5-minute ride
in it. I had brought all this cold weather gear up with me, but the
next morning the sun was shining and it was warm by Alaska standards,
about 35 degrees. However, just in case, I put on layers and layers,
starting with silk long underwear, figuring I could always take things
off. A friend has loaned me a warm down lined red parka from his Antarctica
trip. When I reached 4th street in downtown Anchorage, the mushers
with their sleds, trucks, dogs, handlers, friends lined both side
of the street and on many of the side streets too. Being a warm winter
with not much snow, tons of it were manufactured or brought in to
fill up 4th Street.
It was warm for the ceremonial start on 4th Street in downtown
Anchorage and I walked around without my parka.
A team heads off down 4th Street.
All that snow was brought in.
I found Cindy easily and she seemed calm amidst all the preparations
and noise of hundreds of dogs barking. I watched her take the dogs
out of the truck and tie them to it. She introduced me to Orion and
Willow, her two lead dogs. She put on their dog booties, which are
held in place with velcro. While waiting for our turn to leave, I
walked up and down the street looking at all the other participants.
I admired the pure bred Siberian Huskies that Karen, a musher from
Canada, used as her team. They are larger and thus a bit slower, so
most people no longer use them, preferring the lighter, smaller mixed-breeds,
but Karen's dogs were certainly beautiful. She told me she didn't
care if she came in last; she just wanted to honor the breed. Well
she did come in last to Nome, and was given the honorary red lantern
and she proudly finished with 15 dogs!
The street monitor advised Cindy is was time to get ready and I was
put into the sled while the dogs were stretched out on a long lead
in front of me, 2 on either side of a central line. I had done quite
a bit of horseback riding when I was kid, so I naively thought the
somehow the dogs were controlled by a sort of "dog reins".
No, they are just attached to the sled and completely controlled by
the voice of the musher.
After we left we quickly left
town and went through beautiful trails.
Finally, it was our turn, and we went down 4th Street and waited
just near to the start banner until someone gave us the sign to go.
Over the crowds cheers I heard the loudspeaker announce Cindy's name
and to my surprise that her Idita-Rider was June Shelley from California.
And then we were off, picking up speed, the dogs could hardly contain
their eagerness to go. Suddenly we had reached the end of 4th street
and turned right and suddenly like a roller coaster on snow, we were
flying down Cordova Hill. Hundreds of people lined the trail and cheered
and clapped for Cindy, wishing her good luck. Very soon we were out
of the city and going through country trails, the snow on the trees
making it look like a dream world. Cindy spoke quietly to the dogs,
" Good dog, Orion, good girl, Willow". She hardly needed
to say "gee'" or "haw" which means right or left.
It was a thrill when four times winner Rick Swenson needed to pass
us on the narrow trail and Cindy slowed down the dogs and got them
to hang in left while Rick passed to our right. The 12 miles passed
all too soon and in about an hour we reached our destination.
Cindy gave me a set of dog booties with dog poop on them. I still
have them, but I've put them outside on my balcony because the smell
is still pungent.
The following day I got up early to go to Willow, which is 70 miles
out of Anchorage for the real start, or the "re-start" as
they call in. I still had my Idita-Rider badge and it got me in everywhere;
to where the mushers were with their dogs and to the very start itself.
Again, it took awhile for Cindy to go as her number 41 was still in
effect. I ran down to the start after wishing her luck and took pictures
as she actually left, with 1059 miles ahead of her.
All too soon I had to leave Alaska and return to Los Angeles and
work at RKO. But my mind and heart were still on the trails, still
with the dogs, still in Alaska. I read many books about the race.
I watched the video from last year. I logged on to the official web-site
every hour or so to get the latest updates, as to who was where, how
long it took them to get there, how many dogs did they arrive with
at that check point and how many dogs did they leave with. I wanted
to be there, to wave at Cindy as she passed through, determined to
make it all the way to Nome. She did, in 38th place, down to 8 dogs.
You must arrive with at least 5 dogs or you do not qualify. Doug Swingley,
a fellow musher from Montana came in first, for the third consecutive
Next year, I will go back. Only this time I intend to stay longer,
fly to one of the checkpoints and be in Nome when the mushers come
in, one by one.
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