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Day March 2, 2013

And Now for Something Completely Different: Crazy Alaska: The Start of the Iditarod

I got back from Sydney and went right into wine events with friends for a few days. Then I realized I was tired and decided it was appropriate to take the week off from posting. I’ll get back to a more regular schedule this coming week with write-ups from Victoria, Australia, Santa Barbara, California, and the world of Orange wine cycling through together. Since we’re in an interlude anyway, here’s a random tidbit.

The Start of the Iditarod

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image courtesy of The Anchorage Daily News: the mushers and the course

In just a few moments… by the time I finish writing this post, Iditarod 2013 will have started.

Iditarod is a sled dog race crossing over 1000 miles of Alaska, traversing some of the biggest mountain ranges in the state, with temperature ranges going from well below zero F to well above freezing. Teams usually start with 12 to 16 dogs, led by a single husky and the musher, all moving a sled packed with several hundred lbs of supplies.

Mushers ride on the sled for portions of the race but during the final crunch when teams are pushing against each other to get or stay in the lead, racers will run behind the sled for hours to keep the dogs’ speed up. On downhill slides the musher must muscle the sled around corners to keep the team on trail. And in stuck spots the sled has to be pushed from behind as well. There are two long lay overs required–one of 24 hours, another at 8. Otherwise, mushers simply must check-in at certain points, make sure their dogs are healthy, and then check-out again. Many run for days on end. Incredibly, the race finishes now at just 10 days. All together it’s a seemingly impossible feat.

I grew up watching the Iditarod with dog mushing as a sort of normal option for people, even if only a few chose it. My dad’s close cousin used to race when I was little. Then my dad’s fishing partner spent a year training with the cousin and ran his dog team that winter, completing the full 1000+ mile course. That year I helped my mom sew a wealth of little booties to protect the dog team’s feet from ice and snow. I took up putting the booties on our dog too when I brought him out for a run. He always chewed the fabric off again.

In junior high, I volunteered at the Iditarod call station where people could phone in, the days before the internet or GPS tracking, to find out when and where a particular musher had last checked in along the trail, or who was in the lead.

By the time I went to graduate school in Montreal, life in French Canada was so foreign (tho loved) to me that following life in Alaska became a deep comfort. I’d grown up commercial fishing for salmon in Bristol Bay, which fascinated people, but when they asked me to tell them what fishing was like few people believed my answers. They’d tell me what I’d done wasn’t possible. (Strangely, my life in Montreal included a lot of hearing that my family’s daily reality wasn’t real.) The truth was too that much of the time getting through graduate school with a five year old also felt impossible. In the midst of that, somehow the Iditarod Sled Dog race became a symbol for me of how righteous people can actually be, of how much is possible simply by our deciding to get it done. It was a reminder too that none of us have to prove our accomplishments. Instead, we can just focus on doing good work, while we also celebrate what we love and what inspires us.

By the time I left Montreal fellow grad students that had entered the program believing dog racing was wrong were rushing into class asking me who was in the lead. The stories of mushers that had survived cancer then gone on to win; or the first woman to race; or the people that helped get the race started were inspiring to us all.

Still today, the idea that these people right this very minute are about to start the first steps of an impossible race… it still makes me emotional. There is such a concentration of intention and attention that goes into those early steps of an almost insurmountable task.

Here’s to all the mushers of Iditarod 2013. Run hard. God be with you and keep you and your dogs safe. I’ll be cheering for you.

***

Here are some great portraits of every musher all cleaned up before the race (you get a glimpse of how fancy Alaskans are actually able to get, though there are mushers here from all over the world): http://www.alaskadispatch.com/slideshow/iditarod-2013-musher-portraits

For regular race updates, including GPS tracking of mushers on the trail, and video interviews of these serious characters: http://iditarod.com/

The best news coverage of the race happens here: http://www.adn.com/iditarod/

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