An Iditarod adventure – In March, Nome Alaska goes to the dogs
My life was going to the dogs. Not that this was such a bad thing mind you. After all, I was one of only a handful of journalists who had managed to obtain coveted VIP press credentials for the finish of the 1994 Iditarod in Nome, Alaska. The Iditarod is an epic sled dog race held in March that begins in Anchorage and ends nearly 1,000 miles later in Nome. It has been an annual sporting event in Alaska since 1973, attracting spectators and the best dog sled mushers from around the world. And now I had a golden ticket to an Iditarod adventure with backstage access.
Our flight from Anchorage touched down in Nome as the sun traced its golden fingers across a snow-covered expanse, creating a deceptive image of warmth in a region landlocked by ice. I stepped out of the plane just as the flight attendant called after me to “be careful, it’s slippery.” The word “slippery” began to register in my brain about the same time my feet headed in different directions and my arms churned in the air grabbing for handholds that didn’t exist. Within seconds, I lay face-up on the frozen ground, gazing at a beautiful Alaska evening sky and thinking, that’s going to hurt. As I struggled to stand, my press pass now dangled from one ear, proclaiming to all that VIP stood for Very Inept Person.
I made it to my hotel room without further incident, quite possibly because everyone seemed to be going out of their way to help me stay on my feet. At least I knew that the city of Nome was a friendly place. Not wanting to waste a minute of time, I began quickly dressing in the official musher’s gear that the event sponsor, Timberland, had so graciously offered me. As I disappeared into the folds of fabric that belonged to an anorak parka big enough to keep the city of Anchorage warm, I began to get a very bad feeling. Getting lost in one’s own clothing is not considered good form even in the most tolerant of circles, but there I was, wriggling and cursing while trying to figure out where my hands and head should go. You would think that something this big would come with a map and perhaps a night light for guidance purposes.
I heard a knock at my door. “Come in,” I gasped as I wrestled with the parka.
“Umm, Martin Buser is just over an hour out and it looks like he’s gonna win his second Iditarod. If you hurry I can get you in with the press at the finish line.” The voice was muffled, but I figured it had to be my press escort.
“Yeah, be ready in a second,” I grunted.
I wriggled a bit more and with some effort, managed to push my head through an opening I hoped was the right one. As I turned to look at who had just entered my room, I discovered I had managed to put the damn parka on backward. I was left with no alternative but to grin sheepishly and comment, “We don’t usually have to wear anoraks like this in California.”
“Yeah, if you’re not used to it, I’m sure putting on one of those can be challenging,” he said, clearly fighting hard to keep a straight face.
Standing at the Iditarod finish line
With my anorak now facing in the correct direction and feeling a bit like a cross between the Michelin Man and the Pillsbury Dough Boy, I clutched my camera and notebook and waddled after my press escort. We quickly headed out of the hotel and down the street to a burled wood arch that marked the finish line. Flags and sponsorship banners flapped in the wind as hundreds of spectators, some dressed only in short sleeves and baseball caps, already thronged the restraining fence. I stood in the middle of the chute staring at a few overly exuberant, half-dressed people, likely fueled by high-octane alcohol, wondering how soon it would be until body parts began breaking off in the sub-zero cold. Now that would be a story. Apparently, the level of warmth a few of these Iditarod fans felt was directly proportional to the quantity, though not the quality, of 9 billion proof antifreeze coursing through their veins.
The warning siren went off, the traditional announcement that a musher had reached the edge of town and was minutes away from the chute. Like a stream of lemmings, spectators flooded out of the restaurants and bars lining Front Street. This routine repeated itself almost hourly, day or night, for the next three days. Apparently, no one sleeps in Nome during the Iditarod.
Not to belittle the race excitement, but once you’ve seen the winning musher cross the finish, and then stood in the chute to take photos as several other dog teams panted their way into town, you’ve pretty much seen all there is to see at the finish line. I needed something much more to get the full flavor of an Iditarod experience. Fortunately, the race officials and the town dignitaries did their level best to keep me fed with story material. They even offered me the use of the mayor’s official vehicle, complete with a personal driver, to check out life at a remote race checkpoint.
While en route, the vehicle’s police scanner crackled, “Uhh, Bob, … Have you seen Bert’s truck while you were out on patrol?”
“That’s negative Marty. … You mean Bert’s lost it again?”
“10-4. We’ve checked his house and his neighbors but didn’t find the truck. Apparently he parked it outside the Bering Sea Bar & Grill and when he came out later it wasn’t there.”
“I copy. Are you sure no one borrowed it?”
“Affirmative. … It looks as if someone might have stolen the truck.”
“10-4. … I’ll keep my eyes open.”
After a few minutes, the radio crackled again. “Bob?…”
“Copy Marty…. What you got?”
“Bert found his truck…. It was parked outside the Polar Bar.”
My driver rolled his eyes and muttered, probably for my benefit, “Only in Nome.” By that, I took it to mean only in Nome, during the Iditarod, could a local guy park his car in front of one bar and then forget that the bar he was now in was not the bar where he started drinking hours ago, only a few doors down. I took a few more notes, wondering how to work Bert into my story. As for the checkpoint, there were dogs, sleds, mushers, it was cold, and the night was dark. I needed more.
Surviving a visit to White Mountain on my Iditarod adventure
The next morning, as a hazy sun wormed its way above the horizon casting a pinkish glow over the frozen ground, I found myself sitting in the front seat of an observation plane. The pilot had instructions to fly me along the race route to the White Mountain checkpoint – 27 miles away — and then back. Hopefully, we would see dog teams on the trail and get some good photos. The air was cold and crisp as we skidded to a stop on the White Mountain airport runway. In short order, the White Mountain “limo service” arrived — a snowmobile pulling an open and very rickety toboggan.
I got in, and my elderly Inupiaq driver gunned the throttle. Over every little bump in the road I was launched skyward. And then the toboggan would slam back to earth leaving me just enough time to relocate my teeth and other miscellaneous body parts before the next bump sent the toboggan and me flying again. Somehow my primordial instincts willed my buttocks to clench with all their might on the single rib running the length of the toboggan. It was skill I never imagined I would need, but now used gratefully to anchor my rear end firmly. If I had a tail, I would have wrapped it around something too, probably my driver’s neck. Snow spray settled finely over me as the craft side-swiped to a power-slide stop in front of the race checkpoint.
An hour later, having survived the return toboggan trip with the “maniac driver from hell” I again sat gratefully in the observation plane’s padded seat, nursing a rather bruised backside. The wind on the ground had picked up and was whipping the surface snow into a mini-blizzard as we took off. The theme to Gilligan’s Island came to mind as our tiny plane was tossed up, down and sideways in the turbulent air.
The pilot pointed off to the right to draw my attention to several dog teams racing down the track into a wooded area.
“That would make a great photo. Want me to bank the plane?”
I nodded, not entirely sure that I did. The plane banked, the wind blew and suddenly we were flying in a manner that seemed to defy all known laws of aerodynamics and gravity – rather like a leaf tumbling through the air after leaving the safety of its tree.
“Did you get the shot you wanted?” the pilot casually asked as we banked back toward Nome. Apparently, being tossed about in the sky like a piece of lint in a laundromat dryer was all in a day’s work for him.
“Ummm, no but that’s okay!”
“I can circle back and try to get closer.”
“Really, it’s no problem. I need to get back to Nome.”
The pilot seemed disappointed. Actually, I would have loved to have had the shot, but there was no way I was going to be able to physically pry my fingers off the plane’s instrument panel long enough to steady my camera for another shot until sometime after we landed, of that I was certain.
To understand the Iditarod, one must mush
Back on terra firma, my thoughts drifted to dogs. I felt the urge to try mushing. How hard could it be, right? No sooner had I vocalized my wish than there I was, standing on the back of a sled’s runners with an eager team of three dogs yipping and prancing in front of me. Following a 30-second “how to drive a dog-team” tutorial and safety talk (which consisted of “don’t fall off”), I yelled “Mush” and we rocketed onto the one-mile-long training track at what felt like a bajillion miles-per-hour. I was free solo in command of the team while a snowmobile shadowed nearby for safety and to pick up the pieces if needed.
The first corner zoomed closer as the team jetted downhill. My eyes were tearing from the cold wind and my mind raced as I tried to remember if it was “Gee” for a right turn or “Haw.” Crossing my fingers I screamed “Gee” and the team swept right around the turn. Whooyaa! I was a musher, lord of the snow and master of adventure. That is until the team whipped the sled through a couple of short snake turns and a riotous whoop-de-doo.
Somewhere in the middle of a “whoop” and a “doo”, and as I began to think perhaps I should apply the claw break (essentially a steel claw that bites into the snow when stepped on to keep from going too fast), my feet became detached from the foot boards on the runners. I desperately clung to the handlebar as the sled tipped and the lead dog looked over his shoulder as if to say to his buddies, “Guys, a few more of those and we can dust this VIP.” Not that I’m overly sensitive, but I took exception to that dog sneering at me.
Miraculously, I managed to get my feet back under me and with a lunge and an acrobatic move, I hurled the sled upright and began to do the only thing I could – run while maintaining a death grip on the sled. My only goal now was to somehow tap dance my feet back onto the bouncing and swerving sled runners. My mother will be glad to know that all of those dance classes she forced me to take when I was little finally came in handy because I Texas Two-Stepped, Rhumbaed, Charlestoned, Waltzed, Tangoed, and even soft-shoed all around until I managed to get the runners back underfoot and began to apply the brakes, much to my lead dog’s chagrin.
Arriving at the finish line I collapsed, exhausted and drenched in sweat, but happy I was still attached to my sled. My new-found friends who’d arranged this “mushing opportunity” for me were doubled up on the snow with laughter. There is little doubt that the dogs in my team were snickering all the way back to the kennel – bless their furry little butts.
After only three days and nights I had made such an impression in Nome that it was rumored the race officials were thinking of headlining me as next year’s entertainment. One thing is for certain: Anyone who visits here needs to pack a good sense of humor and watch where they step because Nome goes to the dogs in March.