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Iditarod mushers hit the trail

Lew Freedman

They love the dogs. They love Alaska. Most of all they love both combined. But probing deeper about why mushers push their sleep-deprived, weary bodies across the tundra for 1,000 miles, you begin going places in their heads that are normally only visited on wilderness trails in biting cold when the hiss of the sled runners is the dominant sound.

The 41st annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began on Fourth Avenue on a mild Saturday morning tinged with fog, and that is almost the last predictable aspect of the event known as The Last Great Race on Earth for the duration.

There are 66 mushers setting sail for Nome and that means 66 different adventures are under way. There is a personal adventure on the trail that is never the same two times in a row or two times ever.

Sure those checkpoints are as familiar to the veterans of the trail as the sound of barking heralding the dawn, the magic of sled runners whooshing over the snow. There is a pleasing sweetness of memory tapped when those things are relived.

But what brings the men and women back to the Iditarod each March is internal, the motivation from the heart and soul that embraces the unknown. It's the adventure gene that sends a man up a 26,000-foot mountain or after gold in a faraway land.

"You know you're going to be exhausted," Fairbanks musher Ken Anderson said. "You know you're going to get frostbite. My cheeks and my fingertips get it. It's kind of a given. There are some threads that are the same. Yeah, yeah, it's an adventure. It's our way to go primal for nine or 10 days."

The Iditarod has much in common with other sporting events in the sense that there are winners and losers and rewards paid out. However, unlike baseball, football, basketball and hockey it does not unfold in a controlled environment. Nor is it scripted like a Broadway play. It more resembles improv.

"Something is going to go wrong," said four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey. If it didn't? "How boring that would be."

There are rookies in the race who only think they know what to expect and to some extent they are the envy of others because they are going to experience the wild beauty of Alaska via sled-dog travel for the first time. There are veterans who have covered this historic trail so many times that they believe there is nothing new that can surprise them and then find out that infinity is a large number to deal with.

"I do look at it as the next great adventure," said Willow musher DeeDee Jonrowe, in the field of the intrepid for the 31st time. "You may have the same team, the same sled, but if you think it will be the same race it's an illusion."

Arctic explorer Vilhjalmer Stefansson famously said that an expedition is not an adventure until something goes wrong. The musher in the wilderness must be savvy enough to cope if the blizzard blows in from the north with hurricane ferocity, if the temperature drops to 30 degrees below your imagination, or the team runs off and abandons you like the date that stood you up for the prom.

You adapt. You recover. You go on. You may come out of it bruised and battered, but with a story to tell.

"The adventure never ends," said Bob Chulpach, 63, of Willow. "It's part of life."

It is for Mike Williams Sr. of Akiak, who is 62 and been trying to let go of his Iditarod dream, even as son Mike Williams Jr. has joined him on the trail, but can't, or won't.

"The last 10 years I've been telling my wife Maggie 'I'm retiring after this one,' Mike Sr. said. "She just laughs at me."

It is a knowing laugh. She knows her husband well and wouldn't be the least bit surprised to hear his words uttered Saturday morning as he readied his dogs for the long-distance trek amidst the pageantry of downtown Anchorage. "It's what I live for," he said.

The rush. The challenge. Mushers are from everywhere. From Alaska, from the Bush, from Brazil, New Zealand, Jamaica, Russia and Canada, from California, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Montana. They are men and women, in their 20s and in their 70s. They have nothing in common and one gigantic, motivating, compelling desire in common.

Give them the mystery of the wild over the predictability of the city every day. Give them the adventure over the armchair.

Lew Freedman is the former Daily News sports editor and the author of several Iditarod books.


By LEW FREEDMAN
Special to the Daily News