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The Global Ambassadors – The Iditarod

#2 The Iditarod: March 2017

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, self-proclaimed as the “The Last Great Race on Earth,” is Alaska’s most iconic winter event, with a traditional route from Anchorage to Nome – a distance which varies but is frequently referenced as 1,049 miles.

The festivities begin with a ceremonial start in Anchorage on the first Saturday of March each year. This is typically followed by the official start in Willow. However, due to what were projected to be poor conditions on key parts of the route, the race’s official start was moved to Fairbanks for only the third time in its 45-year history (the race distance from Fairbanks to Nome is about 979 miles).

A reconstruction of the freight route to Nome, the Iditarod commemorates the role played by sled dogs in the settlement of Alaska. The mushers travel from checkpoint to checkpoint (18 in all) much as the freight mushers did nearly a century ago.

As required, this year’s 71 mushers started the race with at least 12 sled dogs, but no more than 16. At the finish, they must have at least six dogs in order to officially complete the race. It’s worth noting that at every turn our sometimes fearless but always exceedingly quirky tour guide delivered a head shaking lack of guidance for novices like us. He coupled this with an unorthodox sense
of unnecessary rigidity and obtrusiveness. His ability to consistently confuse and confound every member of the group was to be marveled at.

Anyway, although we briefly attended both the Mushers Banquet and the Miners Camp; Trappers Ball, as well as several dive bars including Humpy’s, F Street Station, and Darwin’s Theory, among many others, the real highlights while in Anchorage were touring four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavy’s kennel, watching the ceremonial race start, and participating in the 10th annual “Running of the Reindeer.”

At Seavy’s Kennel we enjoyed the rare opportunity to actually take a team of dogs sledding over a course measuring a mile or so. We were, however, slowed by George’s unfortunate yet hilarious fall from the sled as it listed sharply to the left while turning a corner. Falling into a deep pack of snow, he was all but submerged until our handler, himself tossed from the sled and dragged a few yards, was able to assist. Given the bitter cold and need to help settle the dogs, there is no photographic evidence of this legendary tumble as I was otherwise occupied.The Iditarod

The ceremonial start of the race was preceded by over 1,000 barking, howling and yelping dogs – an ongoing serenade of sorts that lasted for a solid hour and could be heard for many city blocks. Locals and tourists alike, numbering a couple of thousand, cheered in between dipping into local bars and taverns seeking liquid warmth.

Following the morning’s ceremonial start, we participated in “The Running of the Reindeer,” the 10th installment of several block race along the snow- and ice-covered 4 th Avenue in downtown Anchorage. A race marked by zany costumes, including our most regrettable ones, and featuring groups of reindeer romping past us simply hoping to navigate the course without incident which, by the way, was our goal as well. This proved not to be anywhere as much of an endurance event as the next day’s bus ride to Fairbanks.

The Iditarod

After piling into a ramshackled back-up bus that lacked a restroom and heaters, the group made the 365 mile, daylong, pilgrimage from Anchorage. Although difficult to feel our toes as the inside windows began to gather ice, we

were able to relate to many of the rugged locals we met for whom central heat and indoor plumbing were unnecessary luxuries. Yes, many of the locals even took pride in their upscale outhouses. Nonetheless, we eventually made it, just in time to realize just how cold the re-start of the race was destined to be.

We thought incurring a wind chill temperature of -18 degrees when visiting the Alaska Conservation Center outside of Anchorage would be about as cold as we would be. Alas, we were wrong as the bone chilling weather at the Race’s official start in Fairbanks was a remarkably uncomfortable -31 degrees as we exited the bus at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge.

By race time it had warmed to an almost tolerable -24; this uptick enabled us to withstand the elements twice for about a thirty-minute increment each. In order to maintain some semblance of warmth, and in addition to perpetually donning our Fudd’s, we deployed a strategy consistent with the region – we relied heavily on animals for support: Greyhounds, Red Snappers and Duck Farts. We were also fortunate enough to have group member, Ann from Mississippi, provide a much-deserved flock, from which I was told to select the bird of my choice.

We realized two things as the mushers departed and made their way toward the Nenanna checkpoint while we navigated our way to the Fairbanks Airport. Remarkably, neither one of us was compelled to make good on a trip-long wager requiring the first to trip and fall on the slickened snowy and frozen streets and sidewalks to pay the other $100. It was also evident to us that we had somehow succeeded in not freezing to death while watching one of the most intriguing sporting events of the modern day, The Last Great Race on Earth.


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