Preparing for Iditarod
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is the biggest single event in dog mushing. The 1100 mile race from Anchorage to Nome begins each year on the first Saturday in March, and for two solid weeks will keep dog mushing fans worldwide supplied with thrills, chills, spills, and excitement. This year marks the 35th running of The Last Great Race.
I could write pages on how the race is set up, the trail, the checkpoints, the history, the mushers, the weather…or you could simply check out the two websites that will give you all of that, plus photos, videos and more.
The official Iditarod website is www.iditarod.com. It has some helpful information and interesting facts, but saves the really good stuff for those willing to fork over $20 to be an “Iditarod Insider.” I find myself somewhat resentful of this, and so far have not anted up the bucks. Instead I follow the race more faithfully on www.cabelasiditarod.com, which is more overall informative, though it does plaster you with Cabela’s ads. I love Cabela’s, so I’m willing to overlook that part. The site also emphasizes Jeff King over all other mushers, as he is their paid spokesperson who lends his name to some of their winter gear. I like Jeff, so I’m willing to overlook that too. I just wish Cabela’s would develop a line of severe winter gear for women and pay Aliy Zirkle to put her name on it!
The field for this year’s Iditarod includes 83 mushers and dog teams. Twelve of the mushers are women. Twenty-seven of the mushers are rookies. Fifty-eight mushers are from Alaska, with 17 from other states and 8 from other countries, including one from Argentina. Six mushers are former Iditarod champions. Of all of those, Dutch and I will be following most closely the races of the two mushers we are honored to call our friends. Aliy Zirkle and Mike Williams.
Mike Williams is a man in motion. It seems like he never slows down. He is a 53-year-old Yupik Eskimo from the upriver village of Akiak who has mushed dogs for most of his life. He and his brothers won many local races over the last thirty years with their line of red-furred huskies known as the Red Dogs of Akiak. Both Mike and his 21-year-old son Mike Jr. ran the K300 this year; Mike Jr. was the winner of last year’s Bogus 150.
Mike is known far and wide as “the sobriety musher.” As with many Alaska Natives, there is a huge amount of alcoholism in his family. He lost all six of his brothers to alcohol-related death. He subsequently made it the thrust of his life’s work to bring the issue of alcoholism among Alaska Natives to the forefront. He speaks on sobriety at every opportunity, encouraging those with alcohol problems to recognize them, get help, and make different choices. Each year when he runs the Iditarod, Mike carries in his sled the names of all those individuals willing to commit themselves to a year of sobriety. He has inspired many people to make the life-saving decision to quit drinking alcohol.
This year will be Mike’s thirteenth running of the Iditarod. His best finish ever is 18th place, and he is hoping for Top Twenty this year.
Last weekend, Dutch and I spent most of Sunday over at Henry’s house, helping pack Mike’s Iditarod food drops along with Henry, Sean, Mike’s wife Maggie, and several family members. It is a huge job. There are 25 checkpoints between Anchorage and Nome, and each musher is allowed to ship three large bags of gear and dog food to each checkpoint. The bags are color-coded and stamped with the checkpoint name in large block letters; the musher’s name is writ large below that.
Mushers can put whatever they want in the bags, and this is one place that experience pays. You don’t need the same supplies at McGrath that you will need at Shaktoolik. Some checkpoints get new plastic sled runners, some don’t. More frozen fish snacks at the checkpoints before the longest legs of the race. Extra gloves and neck gaiters where the weather is expected to be coldest. Many mushers send out a whole new sled for the last part of the race—smaller, lighter, faster than the one they have to cross the Alaska Range on.
Mike’s bags contain frozen lamb, caribou, beef, whitefish and whale blubber, in addition to rice and kibble. The musher’s sled will always have an aluminum cooker fueled with white gas or ethanol to make hot soup for the dogs. Mike also has frozen and vacuum-packed gourmet food for himself (prepared by an Anchorage chef and sealed in heavy plastic boiling bags) that he can throw in with the dog’s food for heating up with no extra effort.
Once the bags were all packed, Mike estimated he had about 2300 pounds of gear. He and Henry took it to the cargo shipper for transport to Anchorage on Monday. An article I saw in Friday’s Anchorage Daily News said the race had received 86 tons of gear from the 83 mushers for shipment to the checkpoints, so all the others must have had about the same. In addition to the food drops, there will be separate drops for fuel (for all those dog food cookers) and for straw. Each musher gets two bales of straw at each checkpoint for the dogs—and the musher, if necessary—to sleep on.
The logistics of coordinating all this are daunting, to say the least. Most of it is accomplished by volunteers. The transportation of supplies out to the checkpoints and dropped dogs back from the checkpoints is the job of the Iditarod Air Force, a cadre of private pilots flying their own small planes who donate thousands of hours each year to make the race happen.
If you are interested in an up-close-and-personal view of the Iditarod, find a copy of Gary Paulsen’s book Winterdance (Amazon has it if your local library doesn’t). It is not just a well-told tale; it is also one of the funniest stories I’ve ever read. Literally tear-rolling, thigh-slapping, side-holding hilarity. And breathless suspense at the life-threatening situations he and his dogs get into. I highly recommend it.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a huge event in Alaska, where dog mushing is the state sport. The start of the race is eleven days away. I’ll have lots more to say about it.
First photo by Jeff Schultz: Susan Butcher running the 1993 Iditarod. Other photos (except book cover) by The Tundra PA: Mike Williams in packing mode; dog food drops being prepared; Maggie Williams cutting whale blubber with a very large uluk.
Labels: Dog Mushing