March 26, 2017

Eye on the Trail: Off to Fairbanks

Don’t know what time last night the dump truck brigade deposited the last load of snow for the eleven mile Ceremonial trail but the beep-Beep-Beep of backhoe’s and graders running in reverse could be heard all night for blocks on either side of 4th Avenue.  When the skies lightened in Anchorage this morning it was dismal. Not a single snowflake had fallen overnight.  Rain that required steady action of the windshield wipers greeted mushers as they found their assigned parking spot and volunteers as they assumed they duty posts.

Thankfully, at the appointed hour of sunrise, which we couldn’t see due to heavily overcast skies, the rain tapered off and soon a few patches of blue were visible between some very dark clouds. I was quite warm and dry wearing the same rain gear I use for fall fishing in Canada.

The street, 4th Avenue, prior to the Ceremonial start is a magical place to be.  There are veteran mushers who know pretty much what to expect and are happily visiting with friends and fans.  There are rookies who are wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into.  One thing for sure, at 10:00 the musher who drew bib number two will leave from under the start banner suspended over 4th Avenue near the corner of 4th and D Street.  This morning, 78 teams followed.

I started at about G Street and chatted with many mushers as I made my way toward the start banner. By the time the race actually began, I was standing on the famous corner at Cordova where the ceremonial route makes a ninety-degree turn heads south on Cordova to the city trails of Anchorage. Lots can happen at that corner. More than one Idita-rider has been dumped while making the turn. Many years back, Gary Paulson’s dogs refused to turn and carried Paulson on a wild trip through Anchorage before he got them stopped and back on the trail.

Cindy Abbott from Irvine, California and Chuck Schaffer from Kotzebue, Alaska are both rookies in the 2015 race. Both Cindy and Chuck have attempted Nome on two previous occasions. When Cindy gets to Nome, she’ll be the first woman to have summited Mt. Everest and finished the Iditarod. BTW, Rookie Mark Selland has also climbed Everest.

Jodi Bailey is really looking forward to sleeping in her own bed tonight. That’s a luxury she’s afforded because the restart is in Fairbanks. In 2011, Jodi made long distance mushing history when she became the first rookie to complete the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. Bailey says she’s very happy the race is taking a northern route. The City of Fairbanks and the villagers of Nenana, Manley Hot Springs, Tanana, Huslia and Koyukuk are going all out to welcome and accommodate the Iditarod. It’s very exciting for them.

There was a fellow who looked very much like Nathan Schroeder bent over working on a sled. I asked the question, “How are you going to get the Skidoo you won at the Musher Banquet back to Minnesota/” It wasn’t Nathan who looked up at me, it was his Dad. A second later, Nathan stepped out of the trainer laughing at my mistake. They said they’d ship the new snow machine home and hope for lots of snow next year for using it.

Yvonne Debakk earned her veteran status after completing the Iditarod in 2014. She was born in Germany but lists her residence as Oslo, Norway. She’s her with her husband and Siberian huskies while doing post Doctoral research at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Yvonne will also have the luxury of sleeping in her own bed tonight. Our conversation turned to Huslia and George Attla, the master of Sprint Mushing who resided in Huslia before his death in February 2015. Attla was one of the first mushers to sign up for the inaugural Iditarod in 1973. Yvonne thought it was more than a coincidence, perhaps Devine intervention that Iditarod would for the first time ever would pass through Huslia in 2015.

Rookie Gwenn Bogart grew up in Vermont. When she went back home to visit, she did many sled dog related presentations in the area schools. Kids from one of the schools gave her Manny the Mouse. Manny had a prominent place with a good view for the ceremonial star and will be tucked more securely into the sled bag for the entire trip to Nome.

Lev Shvarts with his Siberian Huskies

Even with the absence of Karen Ramstead and Mike Ellis, there are MANY Siberian Huskies in Iditarod 43. Yvonne Dabakk, Rob Cooke, Lev Shvarts, Lisbet Norris, Jan Steves and Isabelle Travadon. When Rob Cooke reaches Nome, he’ll be the first musher running Siberians to complete both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. Apologies if I’ve missed anybody here.  The villagers visit the checkpoints for many reasons and one is to see the handsome Siberians that pass through during the race. It’ll be a great year for Sibe watching.

Philip Esai was named Honorary Musher for the2015 Iditarod.  Dora Esai and her late husband have volunteered at the Nikolai checkpoint since the beginning of the race,  Wearing Bib #1 for her late husband, Dora rode the Ceremonial trail with 2015 Junior Iditarod Champion Kevin Harper.

I saw a lot of huge smiles on the faces of mushers and Idita-riders as they made the corner at Cordova. There were a few worried looks too when the wheel dogs didn’t make a wide enough turn to pull the sled out and around the berm of snow on the inside of the corner. Iditarod’s™ 2015 Teacher on the Trail, Erin Montgomery is riding with Wade Marrs. From the look on Erin’s face, Wade and his tag-sled driver must have the corner under control. Marrs has completed the run to Nome three times since 2009.

Yukon Quest Champion, Brent Sass, was wearing a helmet today as he guided his team and Idita-rider down 4th Avenue and around the corner at Cordova. Brent suffered a concussion last year during the Yukon Quest that caused him to scratch from that race and subsequently withdraw from Iditarod. Head injuries are serious business and sustaining a second concussion could have significant life-changing effects. Sass has wisely chosen to wear a helmet whenever he’s on the runners.

Mushers are required to carry a packet of trail mail to Nome as part of their mandatory gear. The trail mail is in rememberance of the mushers who carried the mail along the Historic Iditarod Trial. Iditarod veteran, Urtha Lanharr, was passing out the packets of mail the mushers are required to carry to Nome. Rookie, Laura Allaway from Fairbanks was accepting the precious cargo as I walked past.

We know that snow is falling north of Anchorage and the forecast calls for falling temperatures. Monday marks the second time in the history of Iditarod that the race will begin in Fairbanks. Safe travels to all mushers, volunteers and fans as they make their way to the Re-Start.