Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The part of my job that is magic...

The social media aspect, and other parts of the job that I will be doing, are nice, don't get me wrong, but the part I will enjoy most is the photography. This is what I love doing, we all know that, but to have it be a big part of this "side job" is fantastic!

Last night I went out and snapped a few pictures of the potential A-team... here are a few of my favorites!

Blogger won't let me post another picture for some reason, so... I guess that's it for tonight.

Working through the Iditarod

It's official. I am working for mushers during the Iditarod (and beyond). Started Monday and it's been a whirlwind. So that's why the blog went silent this week. It was not my intention, but that's how it goes sometimes.

Tomorrow I am going to pack for the Iditarod. We will travel up to Anchorage Friday evening. Trail Guarding for the Ceremonial Start on Saturday, and then we'll head over to the HQ to see what's going on there. Then Sunday we'll head out to Willow for the ReStart. I will meet up with "my" mushers and take pictures, hopefully posting via my mobile phone on their facebook, and then I'll hike out to whereever my family and friends are to watch the teams take off for Nome!

I'm debating whether I want to stay in Anchorage for a while or head back home with the gang after that. I'm tempted to stay up there, but may not have a vehicle, which would make my stay up there rather pointless... decisions, decisions...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Seavey wins Jr. Iditarod after moose attack

Conway Seavey at the finish of the JrT in January.
Seavey just won his first Junior Iditarod title.
Conway Seavey can breathe easy now that the monkey of last year is off his back. Last year Seavey lost what many believed would be his first Jr. Iditarod win when he and another prominent Jr. Musher took the wrong trail just miles from the finish line. This year, Seavey came charging into the Willow Lake finish line with Ben Lyons on his heels in what is being called one of the closest finishes in history of the race.

It almost didn't happen, however, as both Seavey and Lyons - who were nearly neck and neck for the entire race - had a run in with a moose while on the trail this afternoon. Seavey's brother shared the information over facebook, making sure to share that they were shaken up but that teams and mushers were ok. There was concern that Seavey may be disqualified for his contacting his family and not the race marshal - Seavey wanted to let race officials know that the moose was still on the trail and to warn other teams. Mushers are to report to the race officials first, however Seavey reportedly tried to contact officials but no one answered his calls, so he called his father to try to get in touch that way.

Lyons was just twenty feet behind Seavey when the boys crossed the finishline. Lyons also runs with a team of Seavey dogs.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Junior Iditarod sits at the halfway point.

Ben Lyons at the finish of the JrT - Jan 2012
Lyons holds a small lead at the halfway point
of the Junior Iditarod this weekend.
Nine of the ten mushers who started the race this morning have made it into the halfway checkpoint at Yentna Station. Rookie Ben Lyons - who is sponsored, in part, by the Seavey family and is running their dogs - came into Yentna first at 5:51pm AKST. Ben does not have a cusion, however, as Conway Seavey was right on his heels coming in just two minutes later and Bailey Vitello checked in one minute after Conway. Benjamin Harper came in just five minutes after the leader. 

This is not the first time Conway and Ben have been neck and neck from the half way point. In January they were one and two in the JuniorT, with Conway coming into the finish just minutes before Ben. Their banter in the checkpoints then was entertaining to the volunteers, their friendship is evident, but both proved they were equally competitive.

Conway was poised to have a close finish last year with Merissa Osmar, but a wrong turn found both mushers finishing near the back of the pack. Conway told the Junior Iditarod organizers that one of the reasons he wanted to run this year was so that he could redeem himself for the mistake, that there were members of his family making sure he didn't forget it.

Only one team is out on the trail this evening trying to make his way to Yentna. As of 8:40pm Brayson Bruton - a rookie from Willow, Alaska - was at mile 52.75 of the trail, Yentna is mile 75.

Building anticipation for Iditarod 40

As if it wasn't already noticable, as the countdown comes closer to the start of the Iditarod, anticipation grows to an overwhelming high. To keep from going absolutely crazy there are a few ways to keep the excitement up, without the insanity of the upcoming race overtaking you! is a fantastic resource to get up-to-date with the race, as well as relive past races. Rereading their blog posts - and this year they're doing a 40 year retrospective - rewatching Insider videos also keeps one excited. And this weekend we get to get our Jr. Iditarod on with free access to the GPS trackers! Oh, and don't forget Jeff Shultz awesome pics of the day/week. His facebook is also a FANTASTIC way to see the race.

Speaking of Iditarod Insider - every fan of the race should get themselves a copy of their Iditarod Documentary: "Purely Alaskan." With this being the 40th Iditarod, it's the perfect DVD to watch gearing up for the historic event. This goes through most of the history of the founding of the race up to present day (2010). It's a FANTASTIC way to get into the Iditarod mood. After that, watch the DVDs of previous races.

Tweeting with friends and mushers is another great way of getting the anxiousness under control. We chat about what we plan to see, who we're cheering for, who we predict will do well, remembering past races. It's a small fandom, but it's a knowledgeable and FUN and FRIENDLY fandom. How many sports can say that the fans generally get along?!

Reading the blogs, sites, and facebooks from the mushers this time of year is also exciting. Most are good about at least pretending to know what they're doing on the internet, other's have completely embraced it. There are some coming into the digital age kicking and screaming (but that's why they hire no lifers like me who love social media applications).

The easiest way for me, however, after teh Insider videos and DVDs is definitely a few of the great books on the Iditarod and their participants. You can see my top picks here, but there are many others that are just as good.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Junior Iditarod begins tomorrow!

Saturday's race boasts 11 junior mushers on the roster, including three veterans. Last year's surprise winner, Jesse Klejka, is back but will face some fierce competition from Conway Seavey who has some unfinished business after last year's mistake cost him a possible win. Seavey took a wrong turn with another musher last year and ended up coming in farther back in the standings than he was supposed to. Conway's bio on the Jr. Iditarod website about his goal for this year proves he's not taking this race lightly, "This year, if nothing else, I plan to finish the Race without getting lost so the jokers in my family will give me some peace!"
The boys better look out, however, because the other veteran in the mix is Jenny Gregor a musher out of Montana. Jenny came in fifth last year as a rookie, and won rookie of the year. By the looks of things she is a seasoned competitor, and could pose to be quite a challenge this year.

Here's hoping everyone has a great race this weekend! Be sure to follow along on, the GPS tracker is free to all for the Junior Race!

Good luck Peninsula Mushers! Ben Lyons (l), Conway Seavey (r),
and Mattie Cobb (not pictured)!! Bring home a win!

Bring on the Men!

It's true, the Iditarod is dominated by men, aside from a very powerful run by Susan Butcher where she won four titles in the course of five years, the Iditarod has been a "man's game." They're a cast of characters, all of whom have great fanbases spanning the entire globe. Some are grandfather status, others are barely out of college age. There's no standard size or build when it comes to these mushers, it comes down to strategy's and levels of insanity, and 2012 hosts a ton of ready to win competitors.

A short-lived retirement for Jeff King means the "most winningest musher in history" is once again in the hunt for a fifth win. King took last year off, and is running a somewhat smaller kennel this year, but has shown that he is every bit as competitive as ever. He won the Sheep Mountain race earlier this season, and gave the Tustumena 200 champion - Cym Smith - a run for his money (literally). It seems whatever drive was missing at the end of Jeff's career in 2010 is back. If he's not first, he'll be top ten.

2011 was a rough go for Lance Mackey. His team seemed to tire out - due partially to illness - and they just couldn't get into their magic groove that propelled them to four consecutive wins (he placed a dismal - for him - 16th). Mackey will, no doubt, be back with a vengence - especially since King is back. The two have a fierce rivalry, and it makes long time fans excited to see a possible head to head battle again this year. Mackey is a cancer survivor, which propels him to be the very best he can be. If he could beat a disease that was supposed to cancer, -40* temperatures ain't nothin! Of the fourtimers racing in the 40th race, Mackey seems to have the best shot at reclaiming his title and tying Rick Swenson for most wins.

Current Iditarod Champion John Baker had that magic run last year, breaking down barriers and setting records. His quiet confidence, and get the job done attitude makes him one of the most admirable mushers ever to win. Baker has been a fan favorite for decades, and his win was as exciting as any win in history. Baker could very well repeat his win, but it will all have to come together. He's no longer just one of the teams "in the hunt." So many mushers never repeat, but if Baker were to do so he'd break even more barriers and records.

Hugh Neff just won himself a Yukon Quest and is looking to match Lance Mackey in becoming Iditarod Champion in the same year. Neff's energy exceeds his team, and his care for his dogs is exceptional. "The Cat in the Hat" brings some much needed new life into the race, with his enthusiasm. He prefers the Quest, but the Iditarod continues to call. Neff is a mushing rock star.

The youth vote definitely goes to Dallas Seavey. The 2011 Yukon Quest Champion has steadily climbed the rankings in the Iditarod finishing 4th after a seemingly slow start. The youngest musher to ever finish, Seavey's new goal is now to be the youngest musher to win - a record currently held by Rick Swenson, who won his first Iditarod at the age of 26. Seavey has two years left to claim the record, and looks to be ready to do so. Seavey is a third generation Iditarod musher, his grandfather - Dan Seavey - came in third in the very first Iditarod, and his father - Mitch Seavey - won the Iditarod in 2004. Dallas is competitive and very goal minded, a win is completely possible.

Mitch Seavey was having a solid race last year until a freak accident - with a knife severing his finger (nearly cutting it off!) - sidelined his chance for a win. Seavey is back, hoping to finsih what he started last year. Mitch works his strategy religiously, and rarely veers off his plan. He has his race planned down to the minutes, it worked in 2004, it could very well work again. The real question is how his finger will hold up while fighting the cold and other elements during the 10 days on the trail. He's had decent standings all season long, but nothing will put his recovery to the test like the Iditarod.

Ramey Smyth nearly had his dream become reality last year when he came second in the Iditarod. It's said that no one can get a team to kick into a whole other gear at the end of a race like the Smyth boys. Smyth holds records for fastest time from White Mountain to Nome. He's really set the pace for a first win for his team, and this could just be the year. The other guys know to watch out for him.

Martin Buser is another four time Iditarod Champion looking to claim another title. He was well on his way to doing just that last year, but many believe that he set the pace far too early and his team reached burn out before the final stretch. Buser is one of the many characters on the trail, he often sings to his trail as they run down the trail and believes his dogs happiness is more important than where he finishes. He's an adopted Alaskan we're all very proud of. Chances are Buser will be in the thick of things, but has a very outside chance of actually nailing his fifth win down.

Paul Gebhardt has been a mainstay on the Iditarod for years. He hails from Kasilof, Alaska, and he's a fan favorite. Gebhardt has been "so close" many times, and could pull one out of his hat finally. Last season he had to scratch due to illness within the team. They just didn't want to run. Gebhardt is in tune with his team, and knows what it takes.

Cim Smyth beat Jeff King in the Tustumena 200 by just minutes with his team kicking into that magic Smyth Team gear this past January. His team looks strong, and it could be "that other Smyth" that comes out on top. He's just a nice guy that you want to see have that magic moment, ya know?

A very outside chance, but he needs to be on this list, is Rick Swenson. He holds the most wins at #5, and chances are he's feeling the heat with Mackey, Buser, and King all coming up and trying to tie for number of wins. Swenson is one of the oldest competitors out on this year's trail. He's a bit larger than most of the mushers, and he comes from the old school, but he could have one more win in him. Anything is possible!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Watch out, men, the ladies are coming through!

One thing that makes the sport of mushing so fantastic is that it breaks down the gender barrier. There's no "mens" division or "women's" division. It's everyone for themeselves. In the 1980s the women dominated much of the Iditarod with five wins between two women. With nine days to go until the Start of Iditarod 40, it's time to get a preview of what and who to watch for. What better way than "ladies first," right?

The last time a woman won the Iditarod was Susan Butcher's fourth win in 1990. It's been close for a few ladies over the last 22 years, but no one has been first under that burled arch. That could change soon - possibly even this year - with the rise of the latest generation of lady mushers. Each brings new, and sometimes fresh, perspective to training and dog care. This season we've seen them all be incredibly competitive in their middistance races.

Probably most recognisable is DeeDee Jonrowe. She's one of the emotional favorites of the race, being almost always "the bridesmaid". When Butcher retired in the early 90s, the torch was passed to Jonrowe to be the next woman to win. DeeDee has come close many times in her long career, but the win has always eluded her. In 2002, DeeDee's training and racing schedule was sidelined when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She returned to the Iditarod in 2003, just weeks after surgery, and finished an impressive 18th. At age 58, she is one of the most seasoned mushers running in the 2012 race. DeeDee remains the darling of the race, and an inspiration to many. This marks her 30th Iditarod.

If DeeDee isn't the top lady finisher this year, then look for Aliy Zirkle to take that spot. Aliy has been a mainstay on Alaska trails and races for years, and her work is paying off. The family kennel looks to be as strong as it has ever been, and with the help of her husband Allen Moore it's an incredibly maintained and trained team set to take the trail to Nome next week. Zirkle won the Yukon Quest in 2000 - the only woman to do so - and is seemingly everyone's best bet to be an Iditarod Champion someday soon.

Buzz surrounds many ladies, but after her 9th place finish in her rookie year against a very competitive field in the 2012 Yukon Quest, Kristy Berrington is one of the top lady mushers coming into the Iditarod. Kristy and her identical twin sister, Anna, has lived and trained on the Kenai Peninsula for the last four years. 1984 Iditarod Champion Dean Osmar convinced Kristy and Anna to move to Alaska and run dogs. Kristy partnered with Paul Gebhardt the following year and between the two they have over 80 dogs and both are quite competitive on the trail. Anna still runs Osmar's teams, and will be running her rookie Iditarod this year, she will no doubt be one of the race's top rookies this season.

The Kenai Peninsula is beginning to churn out many great lady mushers. Colleen Robertia is a local favorite, but has shown time and again that she can and will be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. Mushing enthusiasts have predicted her rise to the top in the next few years, and her work ethic has proven that drive time and again. Robertia runs both the Quest and the Iditarod most years, as well as a few middistance races. In a very competitive field for this year's Tustumena 200 she came fourth with a very strong and healthy team (the trail is well groomed, but all up-hill, both ways, in the snow, and the sun, and the cold... you get the picture). Colleen is, no doubt, on the edge of creating Iditarod magic. Could it be this year? We'll see!

Jodi Bailey is probably one of the happiest, sweetest mushers alive, but she is competitive. She makes up half of the Dew Claw Kennel out of Interior Alaska, and no doubt the dogs feed off her energy when running. She is the first rookie [of both races] to ever complete the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in a single season, which she did last year. It was a huge goal on her part, and she did a fantastic job. The Dew Claw Kennel took a year off from the Yukon Quest this year, but will be running the Iditarod hoping to improve in their standings, and no doubt they will.

Team Norway will once again be represented in the Iditarod, after being MIA last season. Due to high costs of travel with enough gear and dogs to compete, it's understandable that with the smaller reward for doing well hinders teams from coming such a long distance. Sigrid is one of the most recognizable musher from Norway, with her huge smile and enthusiasm. She's also incredibly competitive. Unlike most of the Norweigan mushing teams that come over to Alaska to run, Sigrid learned and trained and ran her first few Iditarods while living in Alaska and going to school at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. It will be exciting to see her run again after her haitus!

Anjannete Steer caused a big stir in the community this year when she won the inaugural Northern Lights 300. Wife of Iditarod Veteran Zack Steer, she's running the A-team in her rookie Iditarod as Zack is taking the year off. Zack has broken the top fifteen in the past, and it looks like the team is in good shape to give Anjannete a great race.

Probably not competitive, but always a joy to see in the race would be the beautiful siberian team led by Karen Ramsted. Siberians make for beautiful postcards, but are hard pressed to be winners of long distance races that take just over a week to complete. Siberians are a little larger than Alaskan huskies, and have thicker fur, they overheat faster and so are a slower team. Still, Karen's enthusiasm for the sport and her dogs make her a fan favorite world-wide. She took a hiatus from the race last year, but is back with her happy Sibes. She's our favorite Canuck!

After a disappointing scrach in last year's Iditarod, Zoya Denure was unsure that she would run the Iditarod, but she couldn't stay away. She has something to prove with a lot of talk going around that she doesn't have what it takes. Zoya and her husband devote time to training and rehabilitating rescued dogs for a life not just in mushing, but an active healthy life not matter where and what they're doing. When she's not racing dogs, speaking or taking folks on sled dog tours, Zoya is a devoted mom to young Jona who is as adorable as all get out. Whether or not she is ever a top competitor Zoya just makes you smile with her updates about her team.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

We interrupt this program to bring you real life...

The last few days have been a road map of mixed emotions. Sunday I was contacted by a friend and former employer of a job opportunity he wanted to fit me into. I loved working for this family a few years ago, and have tried to keep in contact, but it was still a daunting offer. It would require me to be in another part of the state for part of the year, and willing to travel. It's involved with the sled dog and mushing community, and I was a "perfect choice" because he considers me a "fanatic. (Okay, I am, but still!)
After having a brief chat through emails, we decided to meet up today (Wednesday) while he was in town to really nail down some of what the job would be and why I was the choice. But from Sunday to now I was panicing. I wanted to give the right answer not only for them but for myself, but I am such an overplanner and overthinker that I was focussing on the unknowns.

It's a job I already do, basically, for free. It's blogging, tweeting and facebooking. I'll also be photographing and taking reservations in the summer (ok and winter too!). So this is not a stretch of the imagination for me to do this job well. It all really settled down to, do I want to have two addresses each summer. And that answer was really know.

However, the meeting today went really well. All of my concerns were addressed, and let's just say I really am not as persuasive but I can definitely be persuaded. We discussed a possible two weeks on two weeks off schedule for the summer, giving me a little more freedom from what I originally thought it would have. Ultimately, it's looking more like two small business partnering together - though I would answer to them as far as their job goes. It's been a long while since I've worked online for an athlete, and this is a whole family of mushers!

There's more to the job than just that, but that's the bulk of it. A lot of working from home most of the year which is FANTASTIC! God really openned a huge door with this one, and I am feeling extremely guilty for not just TRUSTING HIM! (you'd think I'd learn after all these years, but, nope!)

I've sent the email off saying I'll take it. Now it's just to see how it all comes together! I have butterflies of happiness in my tummy tonight! WHEW!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Iditarod FAQ - 2012 Edition - Part 2

To read part 1, click here.

The race has come a long way since Dick Wilmarth won the first Iditarod in 1973 in twenty days (just shy of THREE WEEKS). The race now takes, on average, nine days before the winner is declared. Wilmarth in the inaugural year ran the unknown trail to win his one and only Iditarod, due to controversy (rumors still fly that he cheated somehow) and a lack of desire, Wilmarth never ran another race. Third in that race was Dan Seavey, who will be the only musher from the first race to run in the 40th anniversary race. Dan is the first of a three generation Iditarod racing family, his son Mitch won the Iditarod in 2004, and three out of four of Mitch's sons have run the Iditarod and hold their own records.

Dallas Seavey at the start of Iditard 37.
In 2000, Dan ran in the same race as Mitch and Mitch's oldest, Danny. They made the record for the first 3 generation family to run in the same race. In 2005, Dallas Seavey became the youngest musher to finish the Iditarod, he turned 18 the day before the race (in other words it'll come down to minutes and seconds in order for someone to take that record away from him). In 2011, Dallas won the other long-distance race in Alaska - the Yukon Quest and went on to place fourth in that year's Iditarod. Dallas hopes to beat Rick Swenson's record of youngest musher to win the Iditarod in the next two years.

Rick Swenson became the youngest musher to win the Iditarod at age 26 and would go on to win four more. Swenson is the only five time champion in the forty year history of the race, and continues to run the race and participate in the Iditarod Trail Committee board meetings. He has not given up on winning the all elusive sixth win. Swenson also played a part in Dick Mackey's one second win. In 1978, Mackey and Swenson went head to head into Nome. Both men went all out to get their team to the finishline. Mackey collapsed as his team crossed under the Burled Arch, while Swenson ran his sled under. It was determined by the Race Marshall that Mackey had won because the "nose of the first dog" determined the win. It was not a sled race, it was a dog race.

Dick Mackey also hosts a family with three generations of mushers. Along with Dick two of his sons are also Iditarod Champions. Rick Mackey won in 1983, and younger son Lance Mackey has won an impressive four consecutive wins. Lance is the only musher in history to win four in a row. Lance started his winnings on the Yukon Quest before doing both races in a single year. In 2007, it all came together. Interestingly enough each Mackey won their first Iditarod with the lucky number thirteen for their bib number. Lance Mackey's step-son Cain Carter ran the Iditarod in 2011.

It's not an easy feat, winning the Iditarod (or even running it!), only 19 mushers have ever won. To repeat the feat is even more difficult. It's said there are more people who have successfully climbed mount everest or gone into outer space than there are mushers who were able to finish the race. The Iditarod is the great equilizer. There are no handicaps, there are no "easier courses" for the ladies. Men and Women compete together - one of the few sports that allows this. During the height of the feminist movement in the USA in the 80s, this was especially interesting to those outside of the race. For those running? It was just another day in Alaska.

Susan Butcher with lead dog Granite.
Photo by Jeff Shultz?
The first lady to finish the race was in 1974 when Mary Shields completed her race. It wouldn't be until 1985 until a woman would win. Libby Riddles defied snow storms and nay-sayers when she, surprisingly, was the first to cross the finishline in Nome. However, the next year's winner, Susan Butcher would be the face of mushing women for the sport well into the 90s and 2000s. Butcher is the only woman to win four Iditarods. She changed the sport of mushing by the way she trained and the care of her dogs. She was a fierce rival for Rick Swenson - who was frustrated with the low blows being directed at him for "letting a woman beat him." Through most of Susan Butcher's career the slogan around Alaska was "Alaska: Where men are men, and women win the Iditarod."

Susan Butcher took a break from racing at the height of her career in order to raise her family. In the early 2000s Alaska was rocked hard with the news of Susan's dianosis of Leukemia. Susan fought and beat it the first round, but on another check up it was discovered the disease had come back with a vengence. Susan succumed to the illness on August 5, 2006. The next year, she was declared the Iditarod's honorary musher. The first Saturday in March was declared Susan Butcher day in 2008, and Figure Skating Icon and Olympic Champion Dorothy Hamill - long time friend of Butcher's - was on hand to help dedicate the day.
Only a handful of mushers have won the race more than once, with only six teams winning four times or more. Along with Swenson, Butcher and Mackey, are also Jeff King (the world's "winningest musher"), Martin Buser and Doug Swingley. Swingley is the only American from another state to have won the Iditarod. Swingley's popularity dwindled while he was still at his peak due to the fact that he was very unsportsmanlike towards his competitors and even the state of Alaska. He retired after two disappointing races - one where he froze his corneas, and another where his team became ill and did not finish well. He raises horses in his Montana ranch.

The only other "outsider" to win was part of Team Norway. Robert Sorlie is a two time champion, and is much beloved by the Mushing and Alaskan community. Unlike Swingly, Sorlie was gracious to all, and it was a huge effort on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific to help Team Norway travel to Alaska each year. With the economy the way it is, and the purse for the Iditarod much smaller (and the entry fee higher), Team Norway has been missing the last few years. Sorlie has not run a team in several years, but in 2012 Sigrid Ekran will be back to run the dogs.

Interestingly enough, even though the Iditarod is Alaskan in most every sense of the word, only three Native Alaskans have ever won the Iditarod. Two in the early days of the race, and finally in 2011 John Baker became the third to be crowned champion. Baker is also the first Inupiat to win. Baker came in and broke the fastet time record (held by Martin Buser from his win in 2002), the new record to beat is 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes, and 39seconds.

Check back for more Iditarod posts soon! Have questions? submit them in a comment on any blogpost or email me!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Iditarod FAQ - 2012 edition - Part 1

It's been a couple years since the last one of these. I still get asked a lot of the basics, but I want to try and make it more concise. To see the original, go here. This is a replay of some of those, but also some new tidbits.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (the official full title of "The Iditarod") began when a group of mushers - led by Joe Reddington, Sr. - decided to "save the sled dog." With the introduction of airplanes and snowmachines/four wheelers to the state of Alaska, the jobs that were originally given to dog teams were going to the newer technologies. Reddington and his band of buddies were concerned that the lifestyle they loved would disappear forever. Reddington worked tirelessly to begin the world's first long distance sled dog race into existance.

DeeDee Jonrowe's dog "Crush" at
the start of the 2012 Tustumena 200.
The Alaskan Sled Dog is a hearty, but small, breed of dog. There are no strict guidelines into what goes into the breed, nor is there a breeding standard. What makes a sled dog a sled dog is their desire and willingness to pull and run with a team. The Alaskan Malamute is the closest we have to a "standard breed" of sled dog. They are related to the Native Sled Dogs that are basically the starting point for all sled dogs. The best way to describe the racing dog today is: mutt. They are typically 50lbs to 60lbs, are incredibly hyper and high strung, and come in all colors. You will never see an Alaskan Husky in the dog shows like Westminster, they aren't always the prettiest of dog, and - again - there is no standard to the breed. People are typically surprised at the smallness of the dogs - hollywood typically uses Malamutes or Siberian Huskies to portray these amazing athletes in film, because they look better. The dogs look like your typical running athlete, they are thin (but incredibly healthy and well fed), and have thinner/shorter coats than their ancestors. Because they are running hard, the extra fur is not desirable - and mushers have to be sure to care for their team with the proper gear (dogs wear dog coats so that when they aren't running in the sub-zero temperatures they retain their heat). They are bred to keep the pack mentality instinct, and they are loyal and trusting of their mushers.

In 1973, Reddington's dream became a reality when the first Iditarod Sled Dog Race was held. It began the first weekend of March, and followed part of the historic Iditarod Trail and had long ago been used by trappers, goldminers and later the mail route (run by sled dogs). The race runs, mainly, along the same trail as the historic teams ran, but does not complete the entire trail. While Anchorage is the start of the race, Mile 0 of the Iditarod trail is actually in Seward, Alaska. To this day, the only Iditarod team to have traveled from Seward to Nome is 2004 Iditarod Champion Mitch Seavey's team when he ran his team from Seward the days before the start of the race in 2001.

In the early years, the race began in Anchorage's Tozier Track and travelled all the way to Nome. However, with the ever growing city's expantion in the late 70s and 80s, the race holds two starts; the Ceremonial Start in Anchorage (from 4th Avenue downtown to the Campbell Airstrip), and the restart at the Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla. With Wasilla's growth and expansion, however, in the late 90s the restart was relocated to Willow where it starts from currently. Safety of the teams is first priority and with the growing vehicle traffic in the former cities, Willow was the best solution.
In 2003, due to a lack of snow in the South Central region, the race took a drasticly different route. It was the only year that Fairbanks hosted the start of the race. The teams took another historic route before connecting back to the Iditarod Trail. The race followed, basically, for the first and only time the famed Serum Run route to Nome. The Serum Run happened in 1925 when there was a Diptheria epedemic in Nome and the surrounding villages. Due to extreme weather, the newer technologies of transportation were unable to get the medicine the town so desperately needed. Teams of sled dogs planned a relay to get the medicine to Nome. A train transported the medication as far as Nenana where it was taken by dog sled. It took about six days to get to Nome, and the weather was horrendous. The average temperature was forty below zero, and the wind was so strong it was able to knock over dogs and sleds alike!

Leonhard Seppala & his lead dog Togo.
Togo is the official mascot of the Iditarod Race.
Most famous of the Serum Run was Balto and his musher Gunner. They were the ones that led the medicine into Nome. A little less known - but most heroic - of the story was Togo and Leonhard Seppala. Seppala was the most well known musher of his day - think of him as the Jeff King (considered the "Most winningest musher in history") of his day. He understood the urgency and need for the medication when several others thought more of their lives and their dogs. Seppala and his team, led by Togo, made most of the journey when several mushers backed out. About 80 miles out from Nome, Seppala could go no further. He and his team were exhausted. He had Gunner take a second string of dogs into the city with the medicine. Balto and Gunner weren't exactly rookies to the job, but they were virtual unknowns until their historic finish. They would overshadow Togo and Seppala in the history books, but Togo - not Balto - is the official mascot of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Togo and Balto were both stuffed after death. Balto resides at the Smithsonian, while Togo stands proudly at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters in Wasilla. (By the way, Togo and Seppala not only ran the medicine towards Nome, they ran the trail to go meet up and get the medicine from the previous musher. Over 200 miles over some of the most difficult terrain.)

The Iditarod Sled Dog Race has two trails along the Yukon River, and alternates each year between the two. The Northern Route is run in the even years, and the Southern Route in the odd years. It's said that of the two, the Southern is more difficult because the wind generally comes at your face. The decision to have seperate courses was to allow more of the interior villages the chance to be featured and celebrate the race. The addition of the Southern route also allowed the race to go through the old gold rush town of Iditarod (now a "ghosttown" where only one structure somewhat remains). Iditarod is an Alaska Native word that means "A Great Distance." Iditarod (and Cripple for the Northern route) marks the halfway point of the race, and the first musher to make it into the checkpoint is rewarded with a plaque and $3000 in gold nuggets.

Because of the nature of the trail, and the fact that most of it is only put in for the purpose of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race (as well as the Iron Dog Snowmachine Race and the Iditarod Bike & Run), mileage differs slightly from race to race. The official mileage is 1,049miles (the 49 is a nod to Alaska's being the 49th state) but is normally closer to 1,200 miles when all is said and done. In 2012 it was decided that a major change to the race will occur. For only the second time, the Happy River Steps - feared by Rookies and intimidating to even the most seasoned veterans - will not be part of the race. A new trail was forged for a project in the area, and since its abandonment earlier this year the Iditarod Race Officials have glomped onto it. The reason cited is for the safety of the mushers and their dogs, which is the races' top priority. This change could be permanent.

Check back soon for part two of the series.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Countdown continues to Iditarod 40!

With just twenty four days until the Iditarod runs down fourth avenue for the start of the 40th annual "Last Great Race on Earth" attention turned earlier this week to the official website and the new and improved look and feel. Iditarod Insider has completely taken over the website and the sleek new style promotes what they have to offer.

Iditarod Insider began a few years ago when the Iditarod began to truly embrace the Internet as a way to keep fans connected world wide. It started out with a members only blog and videos - with expert commentary - and later added in the GPS Tracking system that just about every race in Alaska and Canada now uses to promote their race to the masses. Fans can sit at their computer and watch, almost in real time, the action on the trail GPS trackers update every 5 to 20 minutes with the current position and speed of each team, videos are uploaded with interviews of volunteers, mushers and experts talking about the trail they just ran on and what's up ahead. Northern lights, sled dogs, and wildlife are all featured. It brings the race to life in ways that couldn't have been imagined when Joe Reddington Sr. started the race forty years ago.

It was just fifteen years ago that Alaskans were still going to their phones or newspapers for the news on the race. Growing up, I didn't watch the Iditarod on a computer screen. We waited for the newspaper and TV reporters to tell us of the day's events, and if we wanted to know who was at what checkpoint we went to the post office (where they kept an updated checkpoint list) or we could call to race central to find out the latest on our favorite teams. Schools also listed the current stats at the beginning and end of every school day. The race still took close to two weeks, the average of ten days wouldn't happen until I was well into my teen years.

Now they're offering several levels of insider. For free you can log in and play around with many features - but a lot of the stuff is still locked. You can purchase just the GPS for 19.95, or just videos (same price). You can buy both for 33.95. There are other options, but I haven't gone through everything yet.

If you do go to keep in mind that while the new design is live, they're still fixing some bugs (the biggest one, that I find anyway, is that you can no longer access the volunteer form online). You can always contact the Iditarod through the website or their facebook page .

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Movie Review: Big Miracle

It only took twenty five years for Hollywood to tell the story that brought Alaska to the forefront - well before Sarah Palin even dreamed of becoming the Vice President. The story is all Alaskan - three tourists get themselves lost and stuck out in the frigid ice of the Northern most part of the state. Instead of leaving the outsiders to their own fate, Alaskans and outsiders alike come together to save them. The most interesting part of the story? They're three whales that are in need of saving.

The movie is very loosely based on the true story of a young family of three California Grey Whales that, for reasons unknown to this day, found themselves a little further north than they should have been and later than they should have been. Grey Whales spend their summer in Alaska feeding in the northerner seas, before returning back to California in the winter to hang ten. When Inupiat whalers found the three fighting for air in the closing ice, they were surprised as they weren't the whales they expected. The Inupiat leaders wanted to do the humane thing of killing the animals - their people could eat for the winter, and the animals wouldn't slowly die. The greenpeacers and outsiders wouldn't hear of it.

The movie takes a few different turns, instead of the whalers it's a local television reporter (played by John Krasinski) spots the whales while filming a segment on snowmachine "stunts" (which is one of the first "jokes" of the film). But all in all, it's a good hollywood retelling of the story. Ted Danson plays a convincing oil tycoon J.W. McGraw who only helps the whales as a PR Stunt, but finds the bigger picture. Drew Barrymore is greenpeace advocate Rachel Kramer - and it's not a stretch of a role for her fighting for "animal rights" and skewing the other side. Most enjoyable are Ahmaogak Sweeney who plays Nathan - the boy who wants to see the world, but comes to realize he has so much more in his little home of Barrow - and John Pingayak playing Malik, Nathan's grandfather and an elder of the Inupiat tribe in Barrow.

Pingayak, a native to Rural Alaska - though not Barrow - seems to be made to play his role. Malik is all about teaching his grandson the ways of Alaskan life, and like many elders is frustrated that all Nathan wants is to move away from tradition and rural life for the "adventure" that the outside boasts. Malik sees Adam Carlson (Krasinski) as a representation of the bastardization of his people. The white man who comes in with his fancy gadgets and woos the youth away from tradition for something "better." Krasinski and Sweeney's chemestry on screen was believable and fun. Carlson is Nathan's mentor of sorts, his key to the outside world. As much as Nathan learns from Carlson, however, Carlson equally learns from Nathan and Malik. Carlson contends heavily for their way of life to the other big wigs surrounding the whale debate, all the while playing a voice of reason to all.

Alaskans will love the jabs to the outsiders - film crews come illprepared for the temperatures, and the natives take advantage. There are many "Where's Waldo" moments where you find local celebrities as extras/small roles. Pretty sure, too, that most - if not all - Alaskans have at least one person in the movie that they know personally. The Alaskan extras are featured mightily. (I saw a former coworker and she was the ONLY ONE in the shot!) To see the Alaskan life featured in such a positive - non stereotypical way - is refreshing in film.

The film is not Oscar material - though I would contend that the CGI whales are some of the best graphics out there - it's your typical February fare, but it's feel good. The audience clapped for the whales, and I'll admit I choked up. My movie buddy of the day - no, not my dad - teared up. Chances are it's a kleenex worthy movie. Be warned. It's not War Horse rip your heart out, but it still has the emotional impact one gets when animals are in trouble and "need our help."

This film will definitely make it into the collection - if for no other reason that it was filmed entirely in Alaska, or that I just love John Krasinski. Is it a must see in theaters? Probably not, but what else are you going to do this month? I'd watch it for no other reason than the end when they show the actual footage next to the movie footage to show you the "real people" of the story. You'll see just how OFF hollywood can be, and then how spot on they are. And, there's a "cameo" by Sarah [would be later in life] Palin. That got the entire audience going!