TANANA — Unsurprisingly, Shannon Erhart's cellphone started ringing Tuesday afternoon as she drove her Chevrolet truck along the snow-covered road here.
It was a busy day in town, and the phone calls and text messages flooded in.
A relative wanted to know how long until the first Iditarod musher reached the village of about 240.
"We thought 4 p.m., but now they're thinking closer to 6 p.m. — maybe," Erhart, executive director of the Tanana Tribal Council, told the caller as she stopped the truck in front of the home of a local artist. "We'll have to look at the tracker."
According to the thermometer in her truck, it was 23 degrees below zero outside. Erhart went into the small, blue-colored home and came out with an intricately beaded Athabascan chief necklace, a gift for the first musher to town. She put it in her cup holder, and her phone buzzed again — a request by text message to pick up a musher's drop bag, filled with supplies, that for one reason or another arrived later than the rest.
"Are you running the checkpoint here?" the pilot asked her at the airstrip.
"I don't know, I guess I'm the local coordinator," she told the pilot, punctuating her sentences with hearty laughter and offering to give him a ride.
Mushers en route
As Iditarod mushers raced down the Tanana River, Erhart drove her truck on snowy roads devoid of street signs and sidewalks, to the community hall on the Yukon River's bank that serves as the race checkpoint.
She wasn't the only person hurrying through errands and preparing Tanana for the 71 mushers and hundreds of sled dogs due to start arriving Tuesday night.
Outside the community hall, people formed an assembly line to move fire logs from a truck to the entryway. Earlier, Tom Hyslop, a 63-year-old resident, checked on a tall drying rack he had constructed from spruce and chicken wire. It sat over a wood stove and provided a spot where mushers could hang their wet gear. Others had brought moose stroganoff, spaghetti and "tuna surprise" to feed volunteers who flew to Alaska from across the country to help with the race.
Erhart said some in town saw the Iditarod as a competition between checkpoints and Tanana wanted to upstage the Koyukon Athabascan village of Huslia, a community about 250 miles farther down the trail that enthusiastically greeted mushers during the 2015 race, presenting the first team into town with a pair of beaded beaver mitts, a beaded cross and a marten hat.
"It's a competition. We want to be the best checkpoint," said Erhart, who grew up around sled dogs. Her older sister, Roxy Wright, won her fourth Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship Sled Dog Race in Anchorage less than two weeks ago at age 66.
Erhart said the community wanted to make sure everyone felt welcome in their hometown — the mushers, the volunteers, the race officials. They provided visitors with internet and food and helped them travel between the airstrip and wherever they planned to stay. They had the handcrafted drying rack for mushers and used heavy equipment to pack down snow at the lot where dog teams would park if they decided to stay.
‘Part of our history’
"Dog mushing is very important to our Native communities, it's part of our history, so we're excited to see it," Erhart said of the Iditarod. "We want to treat them, welcome them and just have a good time."
Joe Hauhn, a race volunteer from Charleston, South Carolina, said he felt more than welcomed by the village. Hauhn, a 41-year-old financial adviser and father of two, sat warming his feet by the wood stove in the checkpoint late Tuesday afternoon. He followed the race for years over the internet, and finally made the decision to come north to Alaska to volunteer, leaving behind the 85 degree temperatures at home.
Hauhn and other volunteers had earlier set up bales of straw across the nearby lot for each musher's dog team to rest in. Once mushers entered the community, Hauhn said, he would help check the dog teams in and clean up after they left. He said residents told him they would leave their doors open when they went to work, so the volunteers could go inside, warm up and get a cup of coffee.
"That's not something we get back home," Hauhn said. "Back home we lock the door, lock the deadbolt, set the alarm and then double-check to make sure the doors are locked. Here it's if you need to come in and get warm, come on in."
Erhart once kept sled dogs herself but had to stop because of her travel-intensive job. As she drove through her community Tuesday, she pointed out the village's liquor store, run by the city; its two churches; its school; its assisted-living home for elders; and its two stores that sell groceries. In town, you can buy a pound of Folgers ground coffee for $16.69 and a half-gallon of milk for $6.99.
There are no restaurants, she said, but a woman in town will sell you a homemade pizza.
Erhart said several hundred people lived here decades ago, but the population dwindled significantly after the regional hospital closed. School enrollment has fallen from more than 150 students to 42.
While tiny, she also described the community as a "quaint, beautiful town."
"It's close-knit, like most villages, where everybody helps everybody," she said.