December 18, 2018

Eye on the Trail: Teams Take the Trail From Fairbanks


Fairbanks to Nome for Iditarod XLV

It’s one thing when a community organizes the start of Iditarod year after year. For Fairbanks it’s only been three years – 2003, 2015 and 2017. Different weather conditions dictate different routes and the city of Fairbanks, its businesses and residents welcomed Iditarod and organized the restart that went off like clock work.

Ice Bridge on the Tanana River

Teams left the starting line at one end of Pike’s Lodge, traveled in front of the Lodge then turned to run down the boat ramp and out on the river. Locals call it the ice bridge. They explain that even with global warming and climate change, Alaska’s rivers still freeze hard and thick. In some places, cars and trucks use the river as an extensive crossing, like a frozen bridge. Today the dog teams used the Ice Bridge. 

Leaving Fairbanks for Nenana on the Tanana River

The race was staged about a half mile from the start banner. An intricate system of volunteer operated stop and go signs directed the teams to the start in a timely orderly manor. Roughly 100 volunteers helped with dog handling. Many teams provide their own handlers but for those who needed ITC handlers, these people were Johnny on the spot. It takes a great deal of effort to hold these canine racers back for their count down.

Sara Lamont Helps to Bring a Team to the Starting Line

There were huge numbers of other volunteers for setting up the chute, erecting fencing, security guards, crossing guards, etc. The list goes on and on. It’s no small operation to put on a big event like the Iditarod start. The people of Fairbanks did the job and deserve many thanks and hearty congratulations on a job well done.

It was a joy to watch all the mushers make their final preparations. Once they began their slow controlled journey to the starting line, the relief shown on their faces was very evident. They all say the planning, preparation and practice are hard. The race and the perseverance required is the easy part.

Otto Balogh of Budapest, Hungary was the first musher to scratch from the 2017 race. Otto scratched this morning prior to the restart. He cited personal health concerns as his reason. Seventy-one mushers are currently on the trail.

I was most anxious to ask Paige Drobny how many of her Quest dogs were on kennel partner and husband Cody Strathe’s team. The answer was eleven. I had the same question for Katherine Keith. She also has 11 quest dogs on her current Iditarod team. She said she traded John Baker another of her Quest dogs for a trusted leader. Soon enough I’ll get to ask Aliy how many of her dogs ran the Quest with her husband Allan. Hugh Neff undoubtedly has several of his Quest dogs on his current Iditarod team. Laura Neese scratched from Quest and right now is very happy with how her whole team is performing.

For those of you who are wondering how to tell the Berington twins apart when they aren’t wearing bibs, it is possible as long as they are standing close to their sleds. Anna has a red and black sled bag while Kristi as a blue and black sled bag.  

The route to Nanana some sixty miles away ran along the Tanana River.  We could see dog teams from the air as we flew over the trail out to Nenana.  From 800 feet, a dog team looks like a skinny caterpillar moving along the ground.  Some teams were spread apart and others seemed to be drafting off each other.  Some teams were even stopped along the trail, most likely for snacking.

Nearly the entire field of mushers has arrived at Nenana.  Some went right on through while others took a short rest and others are staying for what appears to be six hours. Those who went through are undoubtedly camping a couple miles up river. By the time the sun rises on Tuesday, everyone will be on their way to Manley, a distance of 90 miles. It will be a cold but windless night for a run and with a little luck the aurora will dance across the sky.