Winter fun in Alaska comes in two forms: drinking indoors, or intense physical activity outdoors. Somehow finding an energy reserve in spite of plentiful skiing and bathroom remodeling, we elected to volunteer for the Iditarod. We’ve always appreciated the sport from afar, but got to Alaska at just the right time for a full immersion.
The first days were spent heaving and schlepping sacks loaded with musher supplies around a warehouse. Each team (usually the musher him or herself) would pull up in a beater truck, shocks fully compressed under the load, and the process of sorting, weighing, tagging, then distributing would begin. I am literally staggered at the sheer volume and weight of supplies needed to travel 1049 miles via dogsled. The mushers calculate what supplies they will need at each of 22 checkpoints, everything from booties and food for the dogs (when a giant crate started bleeding, we learned that a favorite dog snack is fish-wrapped beaver, frozen, then sliced on a bandsaw) to fresh sled runners or even clean clothes for themselves. If you don’t pack it, you naturally don’t have it, but shipping all of it costs heaps of money, so one can’t get carried away with the “what if’s”.
A fleet of small aircraft outfitted with snowskis transfer all of these mountains of stuff to the tiny villages along the trail, and then must fly all of the used stuff back, including dogs who get dropped from the team along the way. It is a logistical nightmare and, strangely, mostly executed by volunteers.
The gear and food for a single musher, about to be weighed and sorted for checkpoints.
Still possessing energy, we enroll to be “dog handlers” for the Anchorage ceremonial start and the real Willow restart. Dog handling is not the walk in the park the name implies; sled dogs, small as they are, are wily, hyperactive, and shockingly strong. Getting them harnessed and clipped into the rig, then escorted to the start line with decorum and without tangles is a feat nearly impossible. These dogs live to run, and patiently waiting for their turn to depart is not their style. A wannabe handler must take a class, where he and she are pelted with lists of things not to wear (jewelry, nice clothes, crampons . . .) and what not to do (get in the way, get trampled, or treat the dogs like pets), and then a team is harnessed up in the parking lot and we get to see who among us is fit and sure-footed enough to run in the snow between jumping, lurching dogs while steering them in circles.
The eve of the ceremonial start, the main drag thru downtown is barricaded, cars are towed, fences erected, and snow brought in by the truckload, converting dozens of city blocks into a makeshift trail (strangely, nobody I’ve met actually knows where the snow comes from). The Anchorage start is little more than a parade, so mushers are jovial and eager to chat. Many of them bring an entourage (friends, family, sponsors) who handle the team, but less-famous and rookie mushers often need a hand.
The assignment method for handlers seems chaotic at best, sort of a stock market trading floor mentality of shouting and pushing. A request for 6 strapping, hunky rugby players has been put in by musher Jodi Bailey and I, being neither hunky nor strapping, am the only one of a hundred volunteers who has ever played rugby. I find myself assigned, with Kurt, to handle what we can only assume to be an excessively energetic team that will need to be run 5 city blocks. They turn out to be the calmest team in the bunch, and Jodi encourages petting and hugging and treating them exactly like the pets they aren’t supposed to be. The request for hunky rugby players is a purely selfish one for her, a self-described basket-case with Turret’s. She has a background in theatre and finds the performance of this charade and the masks put on by colleagues quite amusing. When I inquire if she’s wearing such a mask, Jodi is eager to admit that underneath her calm and collected exterior she is a wreck.
Jodi Bailey’s team eager to approach the starting line.
Everything that seems haphazard about the Anchorage start is ship-shape in Willow. The staging area is situated atop a lake, and the densely packed snow is far easier to navigate than the dirty, loose snow from the day before. We have all morning after check-in to wander the staging area observing the teams (these volunteer badges really are the golden ticket).
Even with the hours upon hours of planning that have gone into gear and supplies, the mushers are still deciding, somewhat hilariously, what makes the final cut into the sled (the parallels to our recent packing experience are undeniable). The variety of sled styles is another surprising observation; they use everything from classic wooden frames to aluminum, some with built-in seats and coolers, and one new design by Jeff King, always the inventor, that has him sit atop an insulated cook stove so he can melt snow for drinking while still moving. Some mushers have huge corporate sponsors, most get by on small, local businesses and friends. It’s not a life of luxury, even at the top. Jodi Bailey, whom we connive to assist again, describes it as a hard drug. It’s expensive as hell, addictive, all-consuming, and excruciatingly hard to make a living at. But the bliss of hauling ass across an unforgiving wilderness with a dozen dogs pulling the barest essentials for survival is worth giving up all comforts for.
And we got a taste of it. By sheer luck of timing, we are invited to mush “veteran Iditarod dogs on a veteran sled on the actual historic trail.” GB Jones, three-time Iditarod musher, told us to brag about it exactly as such. It is obvious this man has given up every comfort for this passion, living a simple life in a modest shack surrounded by an enormous yard of happy dogs. The dogs need to run, so naïve rookies like us can take a turn along the trail trying to keep the sled upright and the team from running off into oblivion.
Mushing is unexpectedly the most natural sensation of movement I or Kurt have ever experienced. What joy and wicked freedom it is to glide over snow behind undulating fur, a part of a team of animals who clearly would rather do this than anything else in the world. GB sings to his dogs on the trail and, if it weren’t for the effort and uncertainty of balancing the sled around turns, I can hardly help but do the same.
Kurt tries his hand at mushing.
What a bizarre sport competition mushing is. It is a flurry of machines and bodies and barricades: helicopters, spectators, cameras, snow machines, burning fossil fuels . . . neighborhood cook-outs erected on the lake, literally surrounding the trail, complete with burgers and beer and fireworks and the opportunity to high-five the mushers on their way by (if the dogs weren’t so eager to sprint they would never make it past the distraction) . . . and then they’re off, into the empty wilderness. It is, of course, a game of endurance, strategy, luck and love, but one where the moments that really count are spent alone with your dogs and everything you need is right there in your sled. At least until the next checkpoint, where you can only hope the army of volunteers properly distributed that bag of melting, bloody meat.