Tuesday, May 26, 2009

3-2-1... Snow Explodes

No one notices the tears welling up in my eyes. In the breezy, ten-degree morning air of Anchorage, I figure it’s probably not unusual for a man to have watery eyes. Crouching in the snow on Cordova Street at Fifth Avenue, I press the shutter release on my ancient film camera and stand up just as an exuberant team of 12 dogs races past. I smile and extend my hand to the musher standing on the back of his sled. He returns my smile and slaps my hand with his mitten as he passes. Before him lie 1,000 miles and up to 15 days of snow-covered Alaskan wilderness. Something in me longs to join him on his Odyssey.

I swallow hard.

Exuberant inadequately describes the dogs, lovingly trained from puppies to run the Iditarod. As they run by my camera, their keen eyes shining, muscles undulating, tongues lolling from their mouths, their enthusiasm is palpable. They are smiling, almost laughing, with joy. One of Deborah Molberg-Bicknell’s dogs veers toward me, trying to lick my face as he passes. Deborah, laughing, calls out, “Sorry. He just wants his picture taken.”

Later, as another team approaches, I kneel only inches from their path, failing to notice the spectator with the German shepherd who has approached the racecourse from behind me. As the lead dogs fill my viewfinder, they suddenly veer off course to the wrong side of my frame. The other dogs, attempting to turn and follow as they've been trained, leap over me as I scramble across the snow berms to avoid being struck by the sled. One woman is struck and thrown to the ground, and the sled and musher nearly topple. Race attendants and spectators scramble to control the dogs and set them back on course while a policeman orders the man with the interloper to get back 100 feet from the course. Moments later, the dogs and their musher are back on their way.

For the first time ever, it seems entirely appropriate for a bubba from Georgia to stand dumbfounded in a crowd of people and mutter that University of Georgia slogan, “How ‘bout them dogs!” For me, the incantation will never have the same meaning.

I can’t compare the Iditarod to any other competitive event I’ve witnessed. A 1,000-mile course over the most rugged, yet most beautiful terrain nature has to offer. Combine jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra, storm-swept coastline, temperatures far below zero, winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility or frozen corneas, long hours of darkness, treacherous inclines and larger, more dangerous animals than the dogs, and you have the Iditarod... a race commemorating the 20 relay teams of dogs that, in 1925, raced from Nenana to Nome delivering diphtheria vaccine to quell an epidemic... a race that embodies the spirit of Alaska.

The next morning, Sunday, I drive north to Wasilla through some of the most breathtaking scenery imaginable — the towering, snow-covered Chugach mountains, the frozen waters of Knik Arm, valleys covered in spruce and birch, and more mountains—the Talkeetnas and the Alaska Range—in the distance. I want to stop and take pictures, but I can’t be late for the official restart of the Iditarod in the village of Willow. The ceremonial start held in Anchorage allows as many people as possible to see the dogs and mushers, but the actual race begins at the edge of the wilderness.
As I turn into the parking area, I catch my first, brief glimpse of Denali. Although 75 miles away, its massive granite face commands the horizon. From base to peak, 6,000 feet taller than Everest, Denali lives up to its Native Alaskan name: The Great One.

In the race staging area, the mood is one of camaraderie and especially affection for the dogs. Everywhere in the Willow staging area, support team members are caring for the dogs, giving them snacks, holding and patting them, talking to them, adjusting their booties and harnesses. More than household pets, more than members of the family, these dogs and their mushers are inextricably bonded to one another, a symbiosis of sinew and spirit.

The dogs are also a mixture of breeds. Many obviously husky-malamute mixes, but some with reddish coats. Others almost entirely black. One entire team is composed of 16 pure white dogs. Some with eyes so blue they shine like fire.
The dogs are also a mixture of breeds. Many obviously husky-malamute mixes, but some with reddish coats. Others almost entirely black. One entire team is composed of 16 pure white dogs. Some with eyes so blue they shine like fire.

The first mile of the course stretches across the snow-covered, frozen surface of Knik Lake. The 20-ft. wide raceway is delineated on either side by four-foot-high, orange plastic construction fence stretching like a ribbon across the lake and over the hill on the western shore. Several thousand spectators line the fence on either side.

The commentator welcomes the crowd. Two little girls sing the national anthem. Then, the first team of dogs approaches the starting line, but today, rather than 12 dogs per sled, most teams are composed of 16 dogs, an indication of the power and endurance needed to cross 1,200 miles of wilderness.

Handlers restrain the dogs to keep them from becoming entangled in their leads.

Each pair of the eight pairs of dogs has special talents and tasks. The lead dogs, leaner than the others, are bred for their agility, sensory perception and fearlessness. The pairs that follow are progressively stockier with massive shoulders and hind legs. Known as wheel dogs, the two strongest and most obedient dogs run immediately in front of the sled. It’s their job to turn both the sled and the other dogs at the musher’s command of “gee” or “haw.”

The commentator delivers a bio of each musher as they approach the starting line ... fishing guide, anthropologist, carpenter, FBI agent, physician, biologist, psychiatrist. Most from Alaska, but some from Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Michigan, France, Germany, Norway. The majority are men, but a number of them women, one highly favored to win. The youngest musher only 21... today. The oldest in their 60s. Rookies, veterans, several four-time winners and one five-time winner.

As the commentator speaks, he is periodically interrupted by the starter. “You have one minute.” The mushers check their dogs and their harnesses, embracing the lead dogs, whispering in their ears, patting other dogs, ignoring some, presumably to instill jealousy of the lead dogs, to make the team chase them.

“You have 30 seconds.” The mushers kiss their spouses and children, embrace and shake hands with the dog handlers and scurry back to their sleds. “Fifteen seconds.” The dogs are a mixture of emotions and activity. Some howling with their heads in the air. Others leaping against their harnesses, pawing at the snow with their bootie-protected paws. Some look back at the musher as if to ask, “When are we leaving, already?” A few quietly stand at the ready and an occasional dog nonchalantly reclines in the snow, oblivious to the excitement.

The starter begins her countdown. “Ten, nine, eight, seven...” and the dogs become charged with excitement. All barking and straining against their harnesses. The handlers struggle to restrain them. “Six, five, four...” The crowd begins to applaud and cheer. “Three, two, one...” The handlers step clear. “Go.” A pause, then the musher calmly, almost inaudibly calls “Hike.”

Snow explodes into the air from the booties of the dogs as they lurch forward, instantly accelerating
from the chute. The mushers exchange high fives with handlers and well-wishers as they race away across the frozen lake. Camera shutters fire, motion picture cameras pan the action, and in moments the dogs and their musher are across the lake and over the hill on the other side where there are no spectators, no high fives ... only wilderness. But as one team departs, another approaches the starting line. Three minutes later, the riotous flurry of paws and flying snow and cheers repeat, and every three minutes thereafter until all 82 teams are on their way to Nome. Almost every spectator remains until all teams have departed ... the final musher receiving the same enthusiastic send-off as the first.

By the time the last team has departed, the wind is picking up and the temperature has dropped back near zero. I pull my knit cap down over my ears, and my fur-ruffed hood over my head. I screw the lens cap onto my camera and, with my exposed fingers aching and on fire from the bitter cold, I struggle to don my down-insulated gloves.

And as I walk away from the silent, frozen lake, I turn my gaze to the north. Denali, set against a deepening blue sky, looms on the horizon, glowing a pale rose hue in the late afternoon... the Great One watching over Alaska and the men and women of the Iditarod.

No one notices the tears welling up in my eyes.

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The view from the sled.

In 2008, my son John and I went dog sledding with Sam Deltour, a Belgian musher with Mitch Seavey's Iditarod dog sled team. After a few minutes of instruction, Sam turned the sled over to me and, with my son seated in the sled with a small camera, we went dog sledding for two hours through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Sterling, Alaska.

In the second video, the peak that can be seen in the distance is Mt. Augustine, an active volcano on the Alaska Peninsula that erupted in 2009.

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