As all other Teachers on the Trail, I find it impossible to hone the experiences down to one most memorable, but I have relayed this particular moment many times since my time on the trail in 2008, and it still stands out to me as an incredible opportunity.
It happened in the checkpoint of McGrath. I was sitting in the checkpoint eating one evening, looking at the race standings printouts that were scattered over the tables. 2008 was the first year any mushers carried the GPS, and it was a test year for just about a dozen mushers, so printed race standings were still reviewed by mushers passing through checkpoints. Soon, Rick Swenson brought his dinner over to the same table and sat a few seats down and across from me. Realizing that he needed them more than me, I offered the printed standings to him asking, “Do you want to see these, Rick?” He looked up, took the papers, and said, “Thank you.” Moments later, he got up, refilled his plate with food and returned to the table but this time he sat directly across from me! My Iditarod fan heart rate went straight through the roof! Rick Swenson – at the time the only 5 time champion – sat across the table from me. He said, “How do you know who I am?”
I proceeded to tell him that every Iditarod fan knows who he is, the only 5 time champion. After I explained who I was and what I was doing there, the conversation continued for an hour. Rick told me all about his childhood, his family, how he got to Alaska, some of his racing history and his reasons for continuing to race year after year. Awed and amazed, I soaked it all in, thankful for the gift of his time, conversation, and openness. He told me he wasn’t a fan of speaking with the media, but boy he sure did speak to me! I will never forget those moments chatting with Rick Swenson over dinner in McGrath in 2008.