Carnival frenzy precedes real Iditarod racing

March 7, 2009 

A barking, bouncing maelstrom of organized chaos filled Anchorage's Fourth Avenue on Saturday morning as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicked off the annual madness destined to captivate many an Alaskan -- not to mention a few million global, Internet, sled-dog junkies -- over the course of the next week and a half.

Largely invisible as a sporting event for most of the year, the so-called Last Great Race explodes onto the international stage for a couple weeks each March as mushers leave the bustle of civilization in Alaska's largest city to challenge themselves and their teams against the wildest trail left in North America.

Out there to the north beyond Anchorage, there is almost nothing: A gathering of trappers and fishing guides around an airstrip at Skwentna, a lodge buried deep in snow at Finger Lake 45 miles on, a bigger lodge with some resident horses at Puntilla Lake on the south side of the Alaska Range, a one-room log cabin at Rohn on the north side, and then a string of villages 50 to 100 miles apart with snow and desolation and more snow between.

From downtown Anchorage on Saturday, you could look across Knik Arm and see that cold and silent world on the horizon, but what captured the attention of most was the giant street party that stretched from the heart of the city out along the bike trails that guided the 67 dog teams on a quick jaunt to the Bureau of Land Management's still-wild Campbell Tract enclave in midtown.

The race to the parking lot there was only for show. The competition to be the first to cover the 1,000 miles to Nome doesn't really start until today in Willow.

But it didn't matter.

With the skies clear, the sun warm, the temperature in the 20s and the wind dead calm, mushers, dogs and spectators by the thousands all relished the opening-day pageantry of the Iditarod's ceremonial start.

Crowds packed the snow-fence barricades five- or 10-deep downtown. Tailgaters roasted hot dogs, burgers and more along the trails out to the edge of the city.

Tom Miller and Lorna Cameron from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, took the opportunity to get married along the trail. Past Iditarod champs Libby Riddles, the first woman to win, and Dean Osmar roamed among the dog trucks parked downtown chatting up old friends and making a few new ones. One of the daughters of the late, great, four-time Iditarod champ Susan Butcher helped her dad, Iditarod veteran Dave Monson, guide former Olympic skater Dorothy Hamill into the bag on the dogsled of Eric Rogers.

A 61-year-old physicist from Eagle River, Rogers confessed he was a little nervous hauling a celebrity as freight, and he had good reason. His team cut a corner a little too close at a tunnel near the Alaska Native Medical Center and rolled his drag sled -- a second sled ridden by an assistant -- into a crowd. It appeared, however, that Hamill had already been off-loaded in order to get to nearby Providence Hospital in time for a fundraiser for the Susan Butcher Family Center.

Most of the Idita-riders, however, appeared to enjoy being bounced and jostled "in the basket," as they say, all the way to the Campbell Tract. Some had bid thousands for their seats during a fundraising auction. It was a steep price to pay for a short adventure, but a fraction of the investment made by those overwhelmed by the desire to see the Iditarod from the runners of the sled.

Forty-year-old helicopter pilot Kim Darst from Blairstown, N.J., an Iditarod rookie, was with her team at the starting line hoping to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity because she'll likely never be able to afford the trip again.

"I'm in debt up to my neck," she said.

The Iditarod can cost $50,000 or more to run, and Darst, like most of the competitors, is unlikely to win a dime. She is in it, she said, because she foolishly fell in love with sled dogs, found working with them deeply rewarding, did a few races of increasing distances, and suddenly found herself captivated by the Iditarod dream.

For almost every musher in the race, that story was much the same, from defending two-time champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks to four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park to 31-year-old Heather Siirtola of Talkeetna, the 74th-place finisher last year.

She's guaranteed to do better this year, if she finishes. She won't win.

Only about a dozen teams really have a chance. One of them belongs to four-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser of Big Lake.

He moved to Alaska from Switzerland for the romance of it all, then married, settled, had children, started racing seriously, and eventually became an American citizen.

Now he is an Iditarod celebrity, like Mackey, King, five-time champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers, Riddles and a few others. Spotting Riddles on the street, Darst shyly introduced herself, then asked friends to take a photograph of her with the 1985 winner.

Buser's prerace warm up, meanwhile, consisted of leaning back comfortably in his sled doing interviews. He wore his trademark black- and red-checked cap down over his ears and wrapped his 9 1/2 fingers around a cup of coffee. He lost half of one finger while using a power saw to cut frozen meat into chunks for his dogs a few years back. He taped up the stump and went racing a few days later.

Mackey, a cancer survivor, had one of his fingers hacked off intentionally. The finger never worked right after he suffered nerve damage while having a tumor removed from his neck. It was so much in the way while changing dog booties he figured it was better to be rid of it.

Iditarod mushers are a little different from most folk. Sixty-three-year-old Bill Cotter from Nenana suffered a stroke in 2005 and retired from the Iditarod. To speed his recovery, he started training a dog team. They looked so good in training that the six-time, top-10 finisher decided he had to come back to do the Iditarod again this year.

This is the cast of characters for the story that will unfold over the coming days. Aaron Peck, a 29-year-old veteran musher from Grande Prairie, Alberta, drew the honor of leading them out of town, but King was the musher who stole the show. An Alaska history buff, he rode down the streets and onto the trails of Anchorage on skis tied into the gangline in front of his sled holding under his arm a gee-pole attached to a huge, old, freight sled.

This was the way the dog drivers of old moved the freight in Alaska. The gee-pole was how they steered the heavy, gold-bearing sleds that moved along the trail a century ago. The symbolism was apt.

It was 100 years ago that the Alaska Road Commission first blazed the Iditarod Trail to the gold fields of the Innoko River country. Prospectors John Beaton and W.A. Bill Dikeman had started a rush into the area with a big strike along Otter Creek, a tributary to the Iditarod River, on Christmas Day 1908.

Iditarod grew into a boom town. At its height, automobiles motored along its streets, though there were no roads in or out. Hotels, restaurants, brothels, a bank and newspaper flourished. A courthouse handled the legal matters for miners throughout the Iditarod district.

Then the economy slumped and, finally, failed. Today Iditarod is a ghost town with only a few buildings still standing. But the history hangs on.

Sixty-seven mushers will start chasing that history north today.


Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

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