Blog updates

Even though I’ve been back from Alaska for a few weeks, I still have so many more pictures, videos and adventures to share!  It was challenging to find Internet access while in Alaska, and since I’ve been back at school I’ve had plenty of Interent access but very little time to upload!  With Spring Break this week I am hoping to finally get the rest of the Adventure documented!

Thanks!!

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Sunday, March 4th – the Official Start!

After experiencing the Ceremonial Start on Saturday, I was more excited than ever to go to the restart in Wasilla, which is the official start of the race.  I left Anchorage early Sunday morning, headed north to Wasilla.  The restart for the Iditarod takes place on Willow Lake, but because of all the snow, the parking was extremely limited at Willow.  Volunteers and fans were asked to ride shuttle buses from various locations, and the earliest bus was from a sports complex in Wasilla.  On the bus ride over there was some spectacular scenery, including a view of Mt. Denali.  Since Mt. Denali is SO big, it actually creates its own weather.  It is only visible 20% of the time, so it was really an unexpected treat to be able to see it!

Mt. Denali on the way to Wasilla

The shuttle bus arrived at Willow right at 10:00.  I had already signed up to volunteer at the Volunteer Cabin from 10:00-12:00 and was able to find the cabin pretty easily.  Everyone there was so friendly!  I met a lady from Kotzebue, Alaska who was one of John Baker’s teachers; she was sooo proud of him 🙂

The volunteering was easy:  as volunteers checked in, we would look them up and let them know where they were to report.  Everyone got armbands identifying their assignments.  In addition, dog handlers had a meeting to attend, trail guards were stationed at multiple locations, and security had a variety of assignments.  The time passed quickly, and soon I was off with my own security armband to photograph some of the mushers and their dogs. I walked out of the Volunteer Cabin and followed the growing crowd down a fairly steep slope towards the starting line.  I couldn’t help but think about how different the weather was.  It had snowed all day the day before at the Ceremonial Start, and now at the re-start, the sky could not have been any clearer.  It was an absolutely gorgeous day!

The musher parking lot area was on the left, with the starting line and crowd on the right.  My security armband allowed me access into the musher parking lot and the mushers were parked pretty much in a large oval, with the inside area open.  There was a completely different vibe than at the Ceremonial start.  Yesterday was more of a relaxed environment – mushers were chatting with fans, posing for pictures and seemed fairly at ease.  Today, it’s the real deal.  When the mushers pull out of the starting chute the clock is ticking and they are on their way to Nome.  As I walked around the parking area you could see mushers taking inventory of equipment, packing sleds, talking to the dogs, getting ready.  Here’s a video that will give you a feel for what the area is like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6-p1dMeubk.

The mushers were primarily parked in numerical order going around the outside of the oval.  I was able to get some great pictures of the mushers and their pre-race preparations.  Below are some pictures of Mitch Seavey, going through his sled and double checking his list of required items.

Mitch’s father, Dan Seavey, is also racing in this year’s Iditarod.  Dan and Sebastian Schnuelle are in the middle picture below.  Dan is 74; he raced in the first two Iditarods (coming in 3rd place in the first one).  Mitch won the Iditarod in 2004, and Dan’s grandson Dallas is also racing this year’s race, making three generations of Seaveys running the Iditarod this year.  Dan is talking to fan favorite Sebastian Schnuelle.  Sebastian came in second in the Iditarod in 2009 and won the Yukon Quest a few years ago.  He followed the Yukon Quest this year on a snowmobile and wrote a column for the Anchorage Daily News, and will be doing the same for the Iditarod this year.  You can read Sebastian’s column here:  http://community.adn.com/adn/blog/127576

Dan Seavey & Sebastian Schnuelle

I really enjoyed talked to Dan Seavey – he was so friendly both at the banquet and also at the re-start.  He and his family lived in Virginia for awhile, and Dan was a history teacher when he first moved to Alaska.  Another of Dan’s grandsons, Conway, won the Junior Iditarod this year, and he was kind enough to take the picture on the right of me and Dan.

Like his father and grandfather, Dallas Seavey was also at work, getting ready for the race.  I am still just so disappointed the weather was so extreme earlier in the trip and I wasn’t able to drive to Seward to meet the Seavey’s and do the Exit Glacier Tour (part of their Iditaride business).  I am glad I finally introduced myself to Dallas and got to talk to him  for a bit at the restart.  Wish the picture was a bit clearer!

Below are some pictures of Paul Gebhart, Anna Berington and Kristy Berington’s teams.  The Berington’s are identical twins.  This is Kristy’s third Iditarod and her sister Anna’s first.  The twins were very happy to have drawn starting position numbers so close to each other.  Kristy said at the musher banquet that she hopes to finish ahead of Anna so she can be at the finish line when Anna arrives, just like Anna was for her.

Here are some pictures of John Baker’s team.  I had the pleasure of hearing him speak a few nights earlier, and he is honestly one of the most humble men I have ever met.  Some of his dogs were enjoying the sun and napping while he walked around, checking all of their paws, hips and general well-being.  While on the trip I learned that John is a Native Alaskan and has done a lot for the youth in his community, speaking at many schools.  You can read more about Team Baker here:  http://www.teamjohnbaker.com/

It was interesting to see all the different types of dog teams.  While there were many huskies, there were also some that were not.  I love this picture on the right that shows one dog resting his head on another dog’s back 🙂

There were over 60 mushers in the parking area, and it was really exciting to see them as they were making their preparations.  Some of those at the end of the line still had dogs in their boxes, and were still talking to fans and the media.

Josh Cadzow (left), Jodi Bailey (center), Rohn Buser (right)

Mushers in the middle of the pack put booties on dogs and double check their gear.

Putting on booties (left) Zoya Denure's sled (right)

And then, finally, those mushers starting at the front of the pack began their final preparations.  They put out the ganglines, hooked up their sleds and slowly hooked the dogs to the line.

Putting out the gangline!

At this point I left the parking area and walked down to the starting line.  After watching the start and restart on the Iditarod Insider for years, it was pretty amazing to hear the commentator over the loud speaker.  I could not believe I was really there!

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Saturday, March 3rd – the Ceremonial Start!

The Iditarod race has two actual starts:  a Ceremonial one on Saturday morning in Anchorage, and a re-start, which is the actual start of the race, on Sunday in Willow.  The Ceremonial start is more relaxed than the restart.  Here the mushers are quick to speak to fans, happy to pose for pictures and grant interviews with the media. Mushers park on side streets, take the dogs out of their boxes and check all of their equipment.

 

   

The Ceremonial start provides mushers with a “dry run” to make sure all will run smoothly at the real start.  Also, during the Ceremonial start Mushers carry an “Iditarider,” a person who has won an auction to ride in a musher’s sled from the Ceremonial start in Anchorage for 11 miles to Campbell Air Strip. 

On Saturday morning I went down to the starting line early for a dog handling meeting.  Here’s a video clip of the starting area very early Saturday morning:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPTiD23aczo

Rae, the Dog Handling coordinator for the Ceremonial start, met with the Dog Handler volunteers early.  She verified our training cards and then handed out “ITC Handler” armbands.  We had a brief meeting running through instructions.  The mushers would go in the order of their “bib” numbers (the starting position numbers they had drawn at the banquet).  The earlier mushers are parked the furthest away, and those starting at the end of the pack will be parked closest.  Handlers are responsible for meeting with the musher to get specific requirements (like where to hold the dog).  She asked for the strongest runners to go in the first sweep since those folks would have to run the longest distances.  She chose about 10 handlers and told the rest to meet her a bit later.  During each break Rae would meet with the mushers and determine how many handlers they would need.  Many mushers bring their own handlers (often their sponsors serve as handlers), so many mushers do not need volunteer handlers.  Rae said she was set for the time being and come back in a half hour, so I went out to take some photos of mushers.

Aliy Zirkle is always a contender – she is one of the strongest female mushers in the race:

 

Four time winner Lance Mackey!

After taking some pictures I went back to meet Rae and she told me and a few others to report to musher #48, Hank DeBruin.  DeBruin is a rookie from Ontario, Canada.  He and his family run Winterdance Dogsled Tours, which I thought was pretty neat since Gary Paulson’s book, Winterdance, has been such an inspiration for so many to get into dogsledding.  We took off running towards DeBruin, and found that he was parked on a side street, waaaaay at the very end.  DeBruin’s team was already hooked to the outside of his truck, and he was in the process of putting on their booties. 

After the dogs were all bootied, the musher pulled his sled and gangline out front.  The dogs were so excited! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZsoau4Lnqg&feature=channel

He put on his mushing bib and started hooking the dogs to the sled.  It was incredibly thrilling to be part of the action.  The energy level of the dogs escalated as he continued hooking them to the gangline.  I was working with Jester, a sweet husky!  Finally it was time to go.  The lead handler gave the signal (arm swooshing down) and we took off running down the side street.  DeBruin asked us to hold directly onto the gangline (and not to the dog harnesses) so this made it a bit easier as you did not have to bend as deeply or match your gait as carefully to the dog’s.

Once we got to the beginning of the side street we turned left and trudged through the snow.  It was like running in sand!  Typically the snow is trucked in from outlying areas, but we heard they had plenty of snow in Anchorage this year without moving it from other areas into the city.  Still, it had been treated with chemicals and it made it feel more like sand than snow.  The mushers leave in two minute intervals, so when we finally made it close to the starting line we had a two minute break while the musher in front was cleared to go.  Those in line advanced up a short run and so it continued until it was our turn. 

By this time the dogs were yelping and barking and jumping completely off the ground.  The announcer began DeBruin’s countdown, “Five, Four, Three (musher gave us the signal to step back), Two and ONE!”  With that, the team took off! 

It was such an experience!  The excitement running through the dog team and everyone involved was just so intense.  It was physically demanding (indeed I think my chest has still not recovered!) and truly the experience of a lifetime.

After DeBruin’s team left I stood for a bit to catch my breath and took some video of Rohn Buser’s departure.  We met Rohn when we toured Martin Buser’s kennel and all of the Buser boys were fantastic! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Y7OeKYPE-0&feature=channel

Also in the crowd taking pictures were fan favorites Sebastian Schnuelle and Jessie Royer! 

What a day!  After the last musher had departed for Campbell Air Strip, I had dinner with some of the teachers from the conference.  Tomorrow, Willow Lake, where the mushers and the dog teams would truly be on their way to Nome!

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Friday, March 2nd

 

Our day started with a delicious breakfast hosted by Exxon Mobile, who sponsors the Iditarod Winter Conference for Educators.  Exxon Mobile is very much vested in supporting programs that are rich in Science, Technology, Engineering  and Math (STEM) to generate interest in these career fields.    

After breakfast, we moved to the Millenium Hotel, the official headquarters of the Iditarod race.  Several speakers were scheduled to present, and I had also signed up for a Dog Handler’s class so I could help handle dogs at the start of the race.  It was another chilly morning as you can tell by the ice!

One of the best speakers we had was Dr. Stu Nelson, the chief veterinarian for the Iditarod.  Dr. Nelson spoke about how the dogs are the true athletes in this race, and described the thorough care the dogs receive before and during the race.  As mentioned in an earlier post, all dogs participating in the race are seen by an Iditarod vet within two weeks of the race.  All of the dogs have diagnostic blood work done and an electocardiogram (ECG) test.  They are also all microchipped (if not already) so that number can be used to identify dogs during the race.  During the exam, the vets check for HAWL:  H for heart and hydration, A for appetite and attitude, W for weight and L for lungs.  The vets also check their gums, paws, legs and their temperature.  During the race the vets record any concerns in the vet book (a mandatory item that must be carried by each musher in their sled bag).  Dr. Nelson explained that the dogs also have urine tests to make sure they have not been given any meds to enhance performance.  It was quite interesting to note that while there are veterinarians constantly checking on the dogs, there are no physicians checking on the health of the mushers!

After Dr. Nelson’s section I headed to Dog Handling 101 to learn how to handle dogs.  This was a fairly intense class!  Rae DeLey was our instructor, and she I remember her saying, “Dog Handling is a lot of fun; Dog Handling is a lot of work!”  and boy was she right!  If you do handle during the Iditarod race, your primary responsibilities are to run with the musher from their parking spot to the starting chute while holding on to a dog.  Different mushers have different requirements – some mushers prefer for you to hold on to a dog’s harness, some will attach a short leash to the dog, and still others want you to hold on to the gangline, which is the big, heavy line that runs down the middle of the entire length of dogs connecting them to the sled.  You need to match your gait to that of the dog, and be extremely careful not to get anywhere near the dogs’ feet.  Just think – if you step on a dog’s paw you could totally ruin a musher’s chance of doing well in the race or making it to Nome!  After listening to the presentation, we went outside to the parking lot and took turns practicing running with the dogs.  One handler (usually a musher’s personal handler) is the lead handler at the front of the line.  This handler will watch the musher (back on the sled) and make hand signals for the other mushers to follow.  A hand up in the air means stop, while a hand dropping down quickly means go.  We followed the lead handler’s signals as we mushed around the marking lot!

After completing the training I received my “official” Dog Handler’s card 🙂  Rae told us to meet her early Saturday morning at 7:15 for instructions and assignments to various mushers.  Woohoo!

Back at the conference, mushers Pat Moon and Ed Stielstra came by to share stories of their adventures on the Iditarod Trail in previous years.  We also heard from several volunteers who help with communications and a woman who works with the “Iditarod Air Force.”  Over 1500 people volunteer each year to help make the Iditarod happen.  You  can read more about the various Iditarod volunteer positions here.

With the conference finished a few other teachers and I decided to walk around Anchorage a bit and check out the preparations for the race in the morning.  The race begins right in the middle of the street in downtown Anchorage.  Typically they have to ship in snow from other parts of Alaska, but this year snow was definitely plentiful!  Below is a picture of a bench – in the second picture I’m standing on the bench to reach the street sign.  Finally, the third picture shows a roll of fencing which would later be unrolled and assembled to keep the fans out of the way when the mushers race down the street!

After dinner, we went back to 4th street to see what progress had been made in preparation for the race, and the banner was now up!  Of all the photos I’ve taken so far, I think I like this one best.  It captures the statue of Balto in the front, with the banner behind commemorating the race Balto, Togo and many mushers ran to deliver the much-needed Diptheria serum to Nome, saving the lives of so many children.

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Thursday, March 1st – Musher Banquet

John Baker won last year’s Iditarod, and one of his sponsors held a reception Wednesday night at the Millenium hotel.  Teachers were invited, and what an honor to hear John speak.  John is an Inupiat, the first Eskimo to win the Iditarod (and only the second Native Alaskan to win).  He is a quiet, humble man, and has a gentle presence about him.  John was gracious after the reception, signing autographs and posing for photos.

I have integrated the Iditarod into my curriculum for about the past 7 or 8 years.  Students have chosen mushers to follow during the race, and they’ve researched various information about their mushers, including their background, their achievements, family life, and what they do when they are not mushing.  Over the years students have created scrapbooks, videos, on-line posters (Glogsters) and various other projects to showcase their knowledge.  I have read so much about the mushers that at times I’ve felt like I know them.  At the Musher banquet, I had the opportunity to actually meet many of them.

The banquet room was HUGE!  Tables were set up for each of the mushers with name tags on the tables.  For those of us *not* mushing, there were tables with our reserved number on them.  I ran around the room snapping pictures of mushers’ names, still not quite believing they would all be in one room before long. 

This picture gives you an idea of how large the room is:

Mushers started arriving, and Jeff Schultz was also there to take photographs.  Jeff is the official Iditarod photographer and does some fantastic work.  I was excited to get his autograph.  DeeDee Jonrowe was also there early, signing autographs for her many fans.

The room started to buzz as more mushers came into the banquet hall.  Jeff King (left) has won the Iditarod four times, and Rick Swenson (right) is the only five-time winner.  King retired after the 2010 Iditarod, but said he found retirement “boring.” Many speculate he will be a huge contender this year. 

Jeff King (left), Rick Swenson (right)

After dinner, the mushers began to draw for their bib numbers.  When they first sign up to run the Iditarod they are given a number, and that number is the order in which they draw (this is the number on the tables).  At the banquet, each musher comes up onto the stage, thanks his sponsors, and then draws a number.  That number will be the order in which they will start both the Ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday, and the official re-start in Willow on Sunday.  The comments were fun to listen to – seemed like no one wanted to be way up in the front, but nor did they want to be in the back of the pack.  Rohn Buser drew number 62 and said, “Well, I guess I’ll just have a lot of people to pass.” 

After the mushers drew for their numbers, they exited off of the stage and signed 1000 autographs.  They were all patient, friendly, and seemed to really appreciate their fans.  We were near the photographer so I was able to get a few pics although the lighting was odd making it challenging to get a good picture!

 

I was truly amazed at how friendly almost all of the mushers were.  Most were happy to pose for a picture and make conversation.  The two Berington twins (Anna and Christy) were excited to have drawn numbers close to each other.  Lance Mackey was hilarious, cracking jokes all the way down the line as he happily signed autographs.  Dan Seavey was one of my favorites as he was one of the last to come through.  He was quiet but friendly, asking where I was from.  I told him and he smiled and congratulated me on the award.  He is the only musher here who ran in the very first Iditarod (and second).  His son, Mitch, and grandson, Dallas, are also racing this year.  Another grandson, Conway, just won the Junior Iditarod last week, so perhaps there will be a fourth Seavey on the Iditarod trail soon.

Ed Sielstra was the last musher to come through and he gratefully thanked us for waiting until the end.  We were some of the last folks to leave, and Lance Mackey was still there, signing autographs. 

After we left the banquet, we walked through the park to see the lights on the trees.  Tonight we learned that people are asked to turn on their lights, and leave them burning until the last musher crossed the Burled Arch at the finish line in Nome.

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