November 22, 2017

7am–Downtown Anchorage—The Ceremonial Start by Joe Runyan

7AM—Downtown Anchorage—the Ceremonial Start


In order to get a parking spot within reasonable walking distance for the 10AM starting chute on 4th avenue, we arrive at 7:00 AM.   Check out the photo of the empty street, slathered with hundreds of dump truck loads of snow.   The city of Anchorage dips into their dump piles of accumulated snow to create a trail for the Ceremonial Start, then follows behind the last team with a phalynx of heavy equipmetn to scoop it up again early this afternoon.   A steady snowfall subdues the morning light, a grey day with flat light ready to confound photographers and tv cameras.

Security at every intersection is already on point to check credentials, a press card that I was lucky to remember this morning.   Autograph seekers are already present to lean over the barricade fence and collect signatures when the musher arrive.

An indication of a rising sun we cannot see through the light snow brightens the street by 7:45AM

I notice that our Insider cameramen and interview personalities Bruce Lee and Greg Heister are staking out their real estate near early arrivals, notably Lance Mackey and 2011 Champ John Baker.   John Baker, after 16 Iditarods, has a noticeable orginazational  efficiency, but he’s still joking with passing fans and friends.

Lance Mackey, the guy that never stops moving, is hauling a bucket of picket chains around the truck, clipping into eyebolts.    Moments later, dogs appear from their boxes, while Lance maintains a conversation with people, still moving in that characteristic quick lithe dance amongst the dogs.  Somehow, he carries on a conversation with the dogs in one language, while carrying on another with the entourage of fans and media already gathered near the truck.  His brother Jason Mackey is working on gear, but Lance does all the work with the dogs.

I ask him if he is racing, “I have been racing.   It’s a level playing field this year.  Maybe this team isn’t better, but it can race with any of them.”    His leader Maple bounds out of the dog box on the truck, Lance calls her and sequesters her at the front of the truck between some of his females.  “Lucky she’s my leader,” he says as he informs us that Maple is in the last half of an estrus cycle.   Managing females in the team is always a challenge, but not a problem for a well handled team.  A good leader like Maple to the front of the team is a great way to solve the problem because the team focus will be to the front of  the team.

The Necessary Paperwork

A drug testing crew headed by Dr. A Morrie Craig gathers in the early morning light on 4th Avenue.   Dr. Craig’s facility at Oregon State University will monitor urine samples collected randomly through the race.   I am shown a musher parking lot map which has selected teams circled.  These are scheduled for urine collection..   The best time, logically, is to catch the dogs just as they come out of their boxes to their picket on the side of the truck.   I want to do a special on the drug test team, so I make an appointment to talk it over with Dr. Craig later today.

The important thing about the drug team is to remember that it insures a level playing field for all the mushers.   This is a concept endorsed by all the competitors because it not only insures fair competition, but also protects the health of the dogs.

The Chip Detectors

Also cruising the downstreet is a veterinary team with scanners that detect the chips deposited in the scruff of the neck.   All the dogs have undergone very thorough examinations, including ekgs, blood work, etc and have documentation assuring vaccination and treatment records.

The chips, read by a special scanner, identify each dog and once again guarantee that all the dogs in competition are recognized by the veterinarian.  The chip system assures that competition is fair for all, and the dogs are properly documented.

Jake Berkowitz, in orange on left, team dog checked by the chip crew

Later, I stumble into a perfect situation at the dog truck of Jake Berkowitz.  See the scanner? Which identifies the implanted chip in Jake’s dog.  Incidentally, the scanner technology is a life saver.   If a dog, for whatever reason—a sprained wrist, sick, etc—is left in a checkpoint, the chip provides a sure way to exactly identify the dog.   As a backup, all the dogs wear actual physical identification tags.  This makes it easy for veterinarians to identify a dog in a team.  For example, an entry in the mushers mandatory vet book might refer to a dog with a collar tag 37c.   In this way, that dog is accurately documented by a number of vets, in different checkpoints, throughout the race.

The Ceremonial Start   

For the dedicated fans information, the Ceremonial Start is regarded as a parade.  Realistically, including time to take photos, the run from the 4th avenue start to the parking lot finish takes only 45 minutes.

Still, you have to do it, and don’t want to screw up hurting a dog.   One of the biggest concerns is actually escorting the dogs from the dog truck parked on 4th avenue to the start chute.   Big crews of volunteers are available to grab the towline and help “brake” the team as it moves to the start chute.  Most mushers steadily remind the crew to watch their feet and avoid stomping a dog’s paw.

How powerful is a 12 dog team?   The twelve dog team  allowed at the ceremonial start is a diminutive down size of the allowed 16 dog team, but its still a lot of power, certainly impressing the unitiated.  For starters, multiply 60 lbs x 12 dogs and you have a wild, very exuberant, biological motor weighing 720 pounds.   In the soft snow powder covering the 4th avenue chute, that’s a lot of unrestrained power.  You definitely need some help because the foot drag and brake tines on the sled don’t gain any traction on the loose snow.   On a packed trail, the brakes work well enough, but even then it’s hard to stop a team that is fresh.


Final Thoughts

Back to the action on 4th avenue.  The time is 9:58AM.   One hour to the start.