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Iditarod

The agony of being left behind when loved ones race the Iditarod

  • Author: Joseph Robertia
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published March 13, 2017

Veteran Iditarod musher Colleen Roberta takes some of the dogs from the kennel that she and her husband operate in Kasilof on a beach run along Cook Inlet. (Photo by Joseph Robertia)

Refresh, refresh, refresh. For those watching the Iditarod online, repetitively clicking the keyboard to refresh the standings borders on obsessive-compulsive behavior. This particularly holds true for the loved ones left home while their husbands, wives, sons, daughters, fathers and mothers are out on the bitterly long and often bone-chilling cold trail.

I'm writing from firsthand experience. I've been the one who remained behind several times as my wife, Colleen, raced the Iditarod or Yukon Quest. Our dogs — we're down to 36 — are getting gray muzzles and enjoying the shorter fun runs that come with their golden years. But just a few seasons back, we hated having money around so much that we raced our canine companions competitively.

To be clear, Colleen was the real racer, placing as high as 21st in the Iditarod and 12th in the Quest. She thrived on competition, particularly proving the worth of dogs that someone had given up on — or that never had a chance. For me, mushing was more of a cathartic experience, an escape from deadlines and the other dreary responsibilities of adulthood.

Yet, after slouching on a four-wheeler in the fall, shivering on the runners for many months after and enduring (more than enjoying) mid-distance races, it felt bittersweet to suddenly see the dogs leave without me for two weeks. I knew they were in good hands, since my wife's dog care is exceptional, but her going with them also meant 16 plus one more family members gone.

Cellphones on the trail

This year, a controversial change to Iditarod rules allows mushers to carry cellphones. Critics fear that rather than toughing it out alone, mushers can now call home when hitting the depressive states that come with sleep deprivation or having to drop a number of dogs. Or, worse still, get strategic information on their competitors.

To me, so long as every musher has the same cellular option, it's a zero-sum game, and so far no "cheating" problems have been reported. Also, as someone who has been at home biting fingernails, I can say I would have benefited greatly from talking to my significant while she and the team worked their way to Nome.

Not just to exchange pleasantries or assuage my loneliness. Being married to a musher, I've grown used to short stints of bachelor life, taking my meals standing over the sink and sleeping in a bed that temporarily seems egregiously large.

Nor is it about the security that comes with instantly knowing the location of my wife's team. I handled for her on the Yukon Quest before live-tracking technology was introduced, which taught me enough Zen-like patience to make a monk envious. When she pulled out of the remote checkpoint of Pelly Crossing to make an unsupported 200-mile push to Dawson City, I had only a crude idea of when she might arrive, based on sparse trail reports and my knowledge of the team's typical speed. Not wanting her to pull in at the halfway juncture without seeing a familiar face, I endured mindless hours of standing outdoors, waiting for her to arrive in subzero temperatures that felt like the dark side of the moon.

For me, the importance of the spattering of calls home she could make from villages always involved getting reports on the dogs. It would have been blissful to know if some of our finicky eaters were holding their weight, and how everyone's feet were faring.

A substantial portion of our team was always made up of dogs others let go for various reasons, including a tendency to be extremely skittish. The best way to calm these dogs is to acclimate them to people they don't know, which we did in excess. But unfortunately, there aren't many ways to teach paranoid pooches how to contend with race checkers and fans other than racing them and letting them get handled and petted by people other than us.

However, when I would be neurotically refreshing my wife's checkpoint stats and I'd see her come in with 16 dogs and depart with 15, my first thought was always "Sweet baby Jesus, please don't let her have dropped one of the spooks that's totally convinced anyone besides us wants to murder them."

Dropping a dog was always a gut-wrencher for Colleen, not unlike dropping a child off for the first day of school. Although it's the right thing, it hurts your heart to part ways.

I think having a few more calls home to let me know who was dropped and why — rather than waiting days for them to show up in Anchorage — could have staved off the excessive amount of gray in my hair and beard a few more years.

‘She’s going out to sea!’

I can also think of another sphincter-tightening scenario that occurred during one of Cole's Iditarods, after live-trackers came into use. Not all reroutes get advertised to those watching from afar, and I remember getting an early- morning hysterical call from Cole's mom back in Massachusetts.

"She's going out to sea!" she shouted. She was in a time zone four hours ahead of me, so I wasn't initially clear on what had happened, so I swiftly logged on to the Iditarod site. Sure enough, my wife's tracker had her departing from a course that hugged the shoreline between Shaktoolik and Koyuk, instead heading west for several miles into Norton Sound.

My first thought was she had gotten disoriented in a storm, and in the flat featureless landscape was now wandering hopelessly lost. After a few calls to race central, I was able to get to the bottom of things (mushers had been diverted because of massive jumble ice) and made all the necessary calls to bring the blood pressure of our closest kin down to reasonable levels.

While hair-raising for us, that situation pales in comparison to family members who've had to wait hours to learn the fate of mushers whose live-trackers mysteriously stopped moving because of real trouble — a broken limb descending the Happy River Steps, a sled smashed to splinters in the Farewell Burn, or the worst of all, when a musher pushes the 911 button due to a snowmachiner driving through their team.

Considering what loved ones endure while watching their mushers navigate the never-ending series of problems that are part of mushing a team of dogs across a state this big and remote, people should ruminate longer on the fantastic end-of-race photojournalism that graces the front pages of newspapers or the top of social media feeds.

They are more than pictures. Those photos tell a story, the story of what it was like to wait and worry nearly two weeks. Those finish line embraces and tears of joy trickling down the cold noses of family members are real emotions, as real as any I — and I'd wager many others — have ever felt.

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. 

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