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Ruins... and races

Iditarod fever grips Alaska and lures a Boston lawyer onto a sled

By Peter Elikann, Globe Correspondents

IF YOU GO . . .
Places to visit

ANCHORAGE -- To get an idea of the overwhelming grip Alaska's annual Iditarod dog sled race has on that state imagine the Boston Marathon with only about 50 entrants, rather than thousands. That makes it easy for virtually every school kid from Fairbanks to the Kenai to be familiar with the stats and profile of every musher. Names such as Doug Swingley and DeeDee Jonrowe are as familiar to Alaskans as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

The state practically shuts down the first week of March as spectators flock to the early accessible sections of the almost 1,100-mile trail, rent airplanes and helicopters for aerial views or watch television coverage. This, before the ``Last Great Race'' crosses into dense alpine forests, steep ravines coated with ice and wind chills dropping to 130 degrees below zero across the desolate tundra and sea ice.

The Iditarod dog sled race began in 1973 as some veteran mushers realized that dog teams across the state were disappearing fast. Remote villages, once solely dependent on dogs for transportation, were rapidly replacing them with snow machines (never call them snowmobiles in Alaska). As a way to revive interest in what looked like a dying sport, they set out to create a race over impossibly rough terrain that would take several weeks.

It would commemorate and roughly follow the route of the legendary 1925 run to Nome when only a network of dog sledders acting like the Pony Express was able to race the diphtheria antitoxin more than a thousand miles to save that outpost on the Bering Sea. This is the run on which the now famous dog Balto helped deliver the 300,000 units of serum through his remarkable instinct and is now immortalized both in a bronze statue in New York's Central Park and the recent animated Disney film named for him.

The 1973 race was known only to a few dogsledding aficionados Now, it is high-tech and mainstream with remarkably engineered fiberglass sleds, clothing like something out of science fiction and endlessly bred dogs raised on space age mixtures of nutrients. It has a world wide following.

Nevertheless, in these days of high-tech sports, there's something compelling about athletes still competing primitively, not only against each other, but against nature as well. Yet, muscles are less important than the making of an endless series of intelligent calculations. Joe Redington, the founder of the Iditarod, raced again last year at age 80 and completed it.

Here, men have no advantage over women, and about one fifth of the entrants are women. In 1985, Libby Riddles was the first female winner , garnering an unprecedented amount of publicity. During the next five years, Cambridge native Susan Butcher came in first an astonishing four times and became an Iditarod icon. That era brought out some proudly defiant T-shirts that sold briskly with slogans such as ``Alaska: Where Men Are Men and Women Win the Iditarod'' and ``A Woman's Place Is First to Nome.''

Last spring, for the second year in a row, I drove in the Iditarod a second sled called a whip sled, which is dragged behind a main sled. Each musher pulls a second sled for the first two days of the race. This is to slow and counter the surge of energy from the adrenaline-pumped dog teams. The fresh dogs are almost crazed in their love of starting a race and will get overheated if they aren't somewhat held back initially.

Standing on the rear runners of the whip sled while braking and steering it up and down mountain passes and around icy hairpin corners can be tricky maneuvering. A simple miscalculation can easily flip both lightweight sleds in a heartbeat.

Still, mushing for just two days through the Chugach Mountains and into the Alaska Range and then bailing out just as the numbing exhaustion is met by harsher conditions, is almost like doing a dude ranch version of the Iditarod. A whip sled driver gets most of the fun and few of the hardships.

The race across the state to Nome begins, almost bizarrely, amid the stores and bars and McDonalds of downtown Anchorage, the largest city in the state with a population of 250,000. Snow is trucked in and dumped on the streets the night before.

Early in the morning, the sleds and almost a thousand dogs assemble up and down the urban side streets waiting for their turn to pass through the starting gate. Mushers, dog handlers, spectators and reporters move rapidly between the dogs who are so supercharged with excitement that they bark endlessly in a cacophony. There are helicopters overhead, light planes giving bird's-eye tours and dozens of volunteer veterinarians using portable electrocardiogram machines to monitor the hearts of the dogs. The scene has the visual richness of a painting by Breugel.

This is a great place for tourists to watch the beginning of the race, which, this next year, will be on March 7. After you see the racers off at the start, you can also easily get to a variety of points during the first two days where the sleds pass. Despite a real frontier spirit in this town, there are a number of modern places to stay in Anchorage -- the Regal Alaskan Hotel is supposed to be among the best -- and a variety of things to do once you've had your fill of the race. You can go sightseeing by boat or small plane, fish, ski, see the museums, examine the rich native cultural heritage or arrange a dog sled ride. There's the pre-race banquet and the mandatory musher's meeting, both of which are open to the public. Fewer tourists travel to the more remote finish line at Nome (population 3,430), but there are also events there.

Tourists can also get involved in the race itself. The Iditarod Trail Committee recruits hundreds of volunteer dog handlers, veterinarians and just people to do things such as staff booths and control the crowd. If you want to rough it, you can even help run remote checkpoints in the wilderness.

Also, if you participate in a mail-in auction prior to the race, you can ride the first five miles of the race. You sit in the sack of a competitor's sled and become known as an Idita-rider. The 50 or so coverted Idita-rider spots usually go for a minimum of $500. This past year, we had as our passenger 10-year-old Allison Turkington, a recent cancer survivor, who arranged to be an Idita-rider through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Compared to this, she said, Disneyland just didn't excite her.

In 2 minute intervals, the sleds charge one at a time across the metropolitan starting line. They whiz between the stores and packed sidewalks of Fourth Avenue, twist and turn through the crowded streets, down the infamous Cordova Hill and into the foothills east of the city.

Anchorage is remarkable in that one minute you're in the center of an city and within minutes you're virtually in a primeval forest. The mountains ringing the city hinder further urban expansion and even the roads come to abrupt ends as they butt against the slopes in most directions. That's why there's almost no suburban sprawl. The expression ``you can't get there from here'' comes to mind as almost all of Alaska is accessible only by plane, boat, dog sled and snow machine.

Only minutes free of the city, we already begin keeping an eye out for the greatest fear of the dog sledders -- moose. In one horrific incident, Susan Butcher had her team attacked in 1984. Before another musher showed up 20 minutes later with a gun, two of her dogs were killed and 11 others were slowly and methodically injured by the deadly hooves of the moose. This ran counter to my own experiences mountain climbing in New England where I'd come to believe that all moose are skittish and will bolt away when they see a human. It's just not so in Alaska.

After that, almost every musher is armed. Not me, though. If I want to intimidate a moose, I'll show him my lawyer ID card. During the first two hours of the race, the Iditarod trail frequently crosses or runs alongside roads or snowmobile paths. Cheering spectators set up barbecue grills in the snow and try to hand us food as we pass.

Then, once again, we turn into a remote area where the air is so clear, we can see Mount Denali 300 miles away. The mesmerizing blues, greens and whites of the arctic forests, the smell of spruce and the rhythm and cadence of the dogs in front are almost hypnotic in their crisp elegance.

There are no reins. The dogs are directed by voice command such as ``gee'' for right and ``haw'' for left. I got so used to these words, I made a mental note when I got back not to say something like ``Take a gee on Boylston Street.''

There's also a definite hierarchy among the Alaskan huskies. The lead dog will definitely feel the embarrassment if he's demoted to one of the lesser positions. The dogs seem to know their place in the structure. For example, a younger dog may get into a tiff with his peers, but not with the boss dog.

As someone who grew up in one of the few families in the United States without a dog, it took me a while to learn the sometimes subtle personalities of the dogs.

By the end of the first day, we stopped past Chugiak at the spectator-filled Eagle River checkpoint near Cook Inlet where everyone dined on moose stew washed down by the first Tang I drank since around 1966.

The next day, we assembled at Wasilla for what's known as the ``restart.'' The first start from Anchorage is merely ceremonial and the entire first day doesn't count. So here's a second opportunity for spectators to assemble at a raucous scene. If you don't want to drive, there's the Alaska Railroad Iditarod Restart Train for the short hop from Anchorage to Wasilla.

By that afternoon, most of the competitors make it through Willow to the remote lodge of Yentna Station and then to the series of additional checkpoints across the river overflows, frozen bogs and waist-deep snowy gorges in areas with names like Shaktoolik, Safety and Cripple. Many of the checkpoints are merely isolated shacks, ghost towns from the gold rush era and even just tents. They're used as food and supply drop-offs serviced by an increasingly sophisticated volunteer Iditarod Air Force. Other checkpoints are at Yup'ik or Inupiat culture settlements, which offer real hospitality.

Still, the mushers sleep little. They become detached from real time. Sleep deprivation can result in hallucinations as the mushers ride with headlamps on barely marked trails alone through the night blizzards. Yet the dogs love running at night because it is cooler.

Sometimes the competitors even nap while having dangerously tied themselves to their moving sleds. It's a leap of faith that the dogs' instincts will keep them on the trail. Iditarod competitors have been known to lose the trail and become lost for days. Just as bad was the musher who nodded off and fell from her sled only to have her dog team continue to run for another two hours before they stopped to nap.

Depending on the brutality of the conditions and luck, superhuman efforts by the competitors are needed. Racers have been known to crash through the ice as they cross rivers or tumble dangerously off ridges. In such life-and-death situations the mushers will always sacrifice their own race to help a sick or injured competitor.

There's an almost mystical bond between the drivers and the dogs. A musher will sometimes make individual mixtures of food for each of his 16 dogs depending on their needs. As their dogs go over rough ice and terrain, the driver lovingly rubs lotion or medicine on the dogs' paws and painstakingly replaces worn out padded booties attached by Velcro to the dogs' paws.

``We're one unit,'' says three-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser. ``The oneness that you have with the team is called the spirit of the Iditarod. That high is why we do it.''

The term Iditarod comes from the Ingalik Indian word ``Haiditarod'' or ``a far distant place.''

In our often impersonal world, it's impressive to see achievements based on resourcefulness and heart rather than mere muscle power or money. The Iditarod brings this far distant generosity of spirit closer.

This story ran on page N1 of the Boston Globe on Sunday, December 7, 1997.

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