KASILOF — Can a building be more than just a building?
In terms of the Clam Shell Lodge — which on Jan. 6 was consumed by an inferno that took 24 responders and six tanker trucks of water to get under control — I would say the answer is categorically "yes," and at no time will I be more sure of this than during this season's running of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, scheduled to start Saturday here.
That's not to say this was the only event the lodge put on annually.
During the summer, it hosted the Clam Jam and Deadfish music festival, and the wholly unique Hippy Olympics with numerous hilarious activities, such as longest arm hair event.
In winter the lodge served as the start/finish line for the Way Out Women snowmachining charity event and the Clam Gulch Classic sled dog race.
Of all the events hosted at the Clam Shell Lodge, though, the T200 is the one that resonates most. Regardless of the Clam Shell's various owners over the years or the ever-changing volunteers who annually make up T200 organizer's, the establishment served for many years as a checkpoint for the Iditarod qualifying race dubbed — and rightly so — "the toughest 200 miles in Alaska."
I know this moniker holds true from personal experience. I've not only covered the race for various media outlets for more than 15 years, but my wife Colleen and I have both raced in the T200/T100 races. My better half has placed as high as fourth in the full-length race and won the 100-mile version, and several times the Clam Shell Lodge was an oasis of warmth and respite for her and others.
Unlike Interior Alaska, which more frequently tends to get and stay frozen each winter, the Kenai Peninsula has manic weather tendencies. I have seen my wife leave higher elevations at just above freezing and mush down into rain and open creeks enroute to the lodge. In one memorable race, Colleen unlaced her arctic boots and poured out enough water to fill a pint glass. Had it not been for the lodge's hospitality, and the use of the dryers, many mushers would have had to dangerously saddle back up in their soggy gear and climb back into freezing temperatures, knowing their garments couldn't insulate them properly.
I've also seen the mercury fall the other direction during the race, and witnessed my wife and dogs arrive in minus-30 temperatures, their eyelashes coated in delicate white hoar frost while giant ice beards of frozen condensation formed around her fur ruff and neck gaiter and the dogs muzzles.
After giving the dogs a warm brothy meal and some dry straw to snuggle up in, Colleen found similar amenities inside the lodge —provided free of charge. They always had a hearty stew or chili, and gallons of hot coffee to warm mushers' cold bones.
The lodge owners also graciously made available a few rooms and beds with the thermostat turned way up for mushers to thaw and get a few hours of sleep. My wife described the atmosphere of up to 20 trail weary mushers per room, all piled together, snoring and farting, with their stinky gear covering every square inch of floor space. It sounded about as charming as an airplane bathroom. Yet, in that moment — after feeling like a human popsicle from the hours of standing on the runners — there were few places she would rather have been.
The lodge's offerings were deeply meaningful to every musher. It's tough to quantify how much such simple deeds can mean until you've faced the alternative of not having a lodge for a checkpoint, when after hours of mushing in inhospitable weather your only option is to sleep crammed and cramped in your sledbag until your whole body gets so numb you have to get back on the trail to warm up again.
Beyond what the Clam Shell Lodge offered mushers, it also provided a sense of community to those living nearby during a time of year when things can be so dark and cold.
Long before the mushers began to trickle in, volunteers and race spectators would spend days preparing for the racers' arrivals. Then, when it was go time, they'd help to park dog teams, photographing them, and joke with mushers to lift their spirits. After racers and their dogs returned to the trail, the same volunteers helped clean up straw and other materials.
There was camaraderie to it all.
I've witnessed young Boy Scouts working side-by-side with senior sourdoughs, still young at heart. From hauling in bales of straw, to cooking the food, to building an enormous bonfire — a quintessential signal of hospitality in the north — for which the orange glow could be seen and savored with anticipation by racers still shivering miles away on the trail, and spectators driving in from tiny towns in all directions.
All of this is why, if a building can be more than a building, the Clam Shell Lodge was more than four walls and a roof. It was a piece of this community, a piece of all of us. That's not easy to replace, but it is possible to rebuild, and I hope someone does.
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof, where he and his wife operate Rogues Gallery Kennel. Joseph's first book, "Life with Forty Dogs," published by Alaska Northwest Publishing, is due out in April.
*Start and Finish: Mile 112 of the Sterling Highway in Kasilof.
*Mushers: 24 entrants including Iditarod champions Mitch Seavey and Dean Osmar. Other top entrants include Paul Gebhardt, Ray Redington Jr., Nicolas Petit and Wade Mars.
*Course: A 200-mile race through the Caribou Hills of the Kenai Peninsula.
*Purse: $30,010, with $6,000 to the winner.