Ruins... and races
Iditarod fever grips Alaska and lures a Boston lawyer onto a sled
By Peter Elikann, Globe Correspondents
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
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
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
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
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.