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Another Look at the Iditarod

The Iditarod begins this weekend in Anchorage. This article about volunteering for the race from The Anchorage Press was in my Great Danes Online newsletter this morning. It's a really interesting read.


Gee! Haw! Holy crap!

Volunteering on the Iditarod Trail

By Lisa Frederic

Matt Hage photoThis story is excerpted from Running with Champions: A Midlife Journey on the Iditarod Trail, Alaska Northwest Books, 2006. The book is scheduled for publication in April.

I had been warned. I had been lectured. Never, ever step on a dog's toes.

One of my jobs as an Iditarod race volunteer was to help park the dog teams at the Rohn checkpoint. I would be helping lead them into the woods where they would rest. I was told, no matter what, do not step on the dogs.

When a musher pulled into the checkpoint one volunteer leapt in front of the dog team to show them to their designated parking spot. The rest of us grabbed the rope that tethered them to the sled and would attempt to help slow and direct the dogs into the right direction. Each step I took with my borrowed boots plunged me into the deep snow, while the dogs seemed to dance along the surface. Their feet were everywhere. How many times had I been warned? Do not step on the feet.

I clung to the towline as long as I could, but after falling several times I rolled out of the way. I stood up almost angry - how in the hell could I not tread on their damned precious little feet? Why did they have to go so fast? Were they kidding? All I could think about was my own two feet!

I had only a moment to gripe to myself though. Almost immediately a call pierced the cold night air; another musher had arrived, all hands on deck.

“Good thing I have a sense of humor? - seeing the scrawled words made me tremble. In my hands was a letter I had been waiting for since I had gone to Nome as a tourist. I had applied to work as a volunteer for the 1998 Iditarod Sled Dog Race, and while I fished for salmon off Kodiak, I dreamed of villages, sled dogs and snow.

More than 1,500 volunteers make the Iditarod possible. Many of them spend their precious vacation time each year working for a sled dog race they have no desire to run. Answering telephones, working computers, hauling straw or bags of musher supplies - the variety of jobs is almost endless and most of them are far from romantic.

Since I lived in bush Alaska, I felt like I would contribute most at a remote checkpoint. But a lot of people want to fly into the heart of Alaska to work these isolated spots, so I knew the competition would be tough. I carefully crafted a long letter on a manual typewriter detailing my qualifications - the ability to eat anything, to bathe in a saucepan of water, the need for nothing more than a floor to sleep on - and I promised the race manager, Jack Niggemyer, my undying faithfulness.

Niggemyer received hundreds of such letters each year and I worried mine would get lost in the crowd. A friend had once glued a faulty flashlight to a piece of plywood and mailed it back to the company. Another had filled a letter full of confetti that tumbled onto the floor in an unforgettable mess. In my Iditarod letter I decided to include a picture of myself taken in Nome with the famous musher Herbie Nayokpuk.

I had no desire for Niggemyer to get the wrong impression. The legendary Eskimo didn't know me from nobody; I just wanted Jack to look twice at the letter. At the last second, I added moustaches, goatees and thick glasses on all of us - Nayokpuk, his wife, his daughter and me. I slipped it into the package with shaking hands.

I had gone to Nome on a whim the previous year to see the end of the Iditarod. It was in the years of cheap PFD tickets; we went everywhere MarkAir would take us - Barrow, Kotzebue, San Diego, Atlanta. We knew it wouldn't last, and we flew almost constantly.

But seeing the first team of sled dogs pull in under Nome's burled arch blindsided me. I stared at the family members, the volunteers, the race officials that gathered in the chute of this Alaska Champs Elysee. What was going on here? Who were these people? Where had these mushers been? The Iditarod, not as a competition, but the thing as a whole - suddenly made my head spin. Over the next months I became obsessed. It was obviously so much more than a dog race.

Luckily the race manager did indeed have a sense of humor. The following March I helped load a Cessna 180, heading off into the deep folds of the Alaska Range to work one of the most remote checkpoints on the Iditarod trail. For nearly three hours we flew in the tiny plane, gradually climbing higher, slipping through the blue skies of Rainy Pass at 3,200 feet. I could not have been higher on any drugs.

The pilot pointed out a narrow, twisting canyon that cut into the mountains. It was the Dalzell Gorge, the route the mushers would take out of the mountains, the gateway into Interior Alaska. I strained against my seatbelt but could only make out twisted rock and the tops of mountains. How could anyone possibly find the way through such country?

Rohn consisted of a single cabin tucked into a spruce forest between the Tatina and Kuskokwim rivers. Two hundred and seventy-two miles from Anchorage, 93 from the closest village, and ringed by 5,000-foot peaks, it did indeed feel remote.

The small cabin, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, replaced another that had been a roadhouse at the turn of the century. Moose antlers hung above the heavy door and mountains filled the space between the treetops. The cold air kept numbing my teeth because I couldn't stop smiling. I had left Kentucky 20 years earlier in search of this exact setting.

The permanent population of Rohn was 0, but Terry and Jasper had been volunteers at the checkpoint for so long they were known as the Sheriff and Mayor. In real life Jasper was a potter and Terry guided big game hunters. Terry chewed tobacco and spoke with a village cadence. Jasper had a long bushy beard and cooked with one hand on his hip. For nearly a month each year they were often the sole inhabitants of one of the most secluded checkpoints on the Iditarod Trail.

A handful of other volunteers were flown in during the heat of the race, but otherwise the cabin generally remained empty. Following Northern tradition, a fire was always set and ready in the wood stove. The door was never locked. After sweeping the cabin free of the debris left by the winter rodent population, we re-chinked some logs with aluminum foil and officially moved in.

Over the next few days small planes on skis dropped off several thousand pounds of gear. The runway was just a tiny cut in the forest, frighteningly short and fringed by dark spruce trees. It was rarely used except during these weeks surrounding the Iditarod, and I held my breath each time a plane came bouncing in. Terry and I took hand saws and trimmed what branches we could from the runway's edges, but the wilderness crowded tight, looming to the heavens around us.

Each musher ships nearly 2,000 pounds of supplies to checkpoints along the Iditarod trail. They couldn't physically carry enough food and gear in their sled for such a long trip, so they re-supply at each of the checkpoints. Dog food, booties for dog feet, spare parts for the sled, food for the mushers - the gear came in burlap bags we hauled back to the cabin and organized alphabetically.

The food drop bags had been sent by the postal system to McGrath and then ferried out by the private planes, known as the Iditarod Air Force. Every year a handful of bush pilots volunteered their time and planes to haul the gear and volunteers along the trail.

I drilled them about where they had come from, where they were going next. They spoke of landing on frozen sloughs where the winds swept the ice clear and it mirrored the skies above, of places where they didn't dare turn off their machines because the cold struck so quickly. The names they mentioned were so exotic to me - Ruby, the jewel of the Yukon, the tent checkpoint of Cripple on a bend of some frozen river, the remaining cabin in the gold rush town of Ophir.

We spent a day in the woods clearing places for the dog teams to park. Terry assured me we would have 30 or 40 teams in this very small area at one time. Generally each team had 16 dogs, which would mean possibly 600 dogs during the peak of the race. Six hundred dogs? In this little bit of woods? Holy crap.

As a last treat before the race, we took a long snow machine ride, through a dark, twisty part of the trail the mushers called the Buffalo Tunnels. The trail ricocheted through spruce forests and skated across rivers domed with the eruptions of now-frozen overflow. My back ached from the bouncing, but I would have to bleed before I complained. Over a hundred miles away Mount McKinley flirted with the heavens, so clear and close I was shocked to realize whole valleys, forests, worlds lay between us.

The Iditarod always begins the first weekend in March with a ceremonial start on Saturday in downtown Anchorage. The mushers were expected to make it to Rohn by Tuesday evening, so more volunteers flew in that morning. Veterinarians, a race judge and radio hams cluttered the small cabin with their gear. Terry, Jasper and I moved into tents. I was told we wouldn't be sleeping anyway, and soon mushers would have priority for the cabin bunks. The vets lined up ointments for the dog's feet. The judge made sure every musher's drop bags was present. The radio hams, in charge of communication between the checkpoint and headquarters in Anchorage, spoke in tongues and attached wires to the trees.

My primary job would be taking care of dropped dogs - those left behind by mushers. Dogs were dropped for lots of reasons, both physical and emotional. You can't make a sled dog want to run. The Iditarod Air Force flew dropped dogs back to Anchorage where they stayed in the municipal prison until they were reunited with someone from their kennel.

Jasper, the unofficial camp cook, had just set out a feast of moose, ptarmigan and caribou when the call came that the first musher was arriving. We piled out the door just as the team pulled to a halt. Several of us grabbed the tug line to hold the dogs while Jasper hurried over to the sled. The only part of the musher's face showing was his eyes, and these never left his team as Jasper explained where the water was, where straw could be found, where the guy could find his drop bags.

Checkers must make sure that the musher is carrying the gear required by the Iditarod Trail Committee. Jasper quickly nodded as each item was pointed out: snowshoes, a sleeping bag, ax and cooker, booties for the dogs, an honorary mail cache and a notebook detailing the health of each dog along the trail. Finally the clipboard was passed over and the musher officially signed in. I had a moment to wonder how he could write with such huge mittens on his hands before I heard the word “Hike!? I desperately tried to keep up with the dog I was trying to slow down and chanted to myself: Feet. Feet. Feet.

The next musher in was Deedee Jonrowe. She was a favorite to win so we stood back respectfully and watched as she worked. Her movements were fluid as a dancer's as she sliced open the burlap bags, her powder-blue kamleika draping over her small frame like fine taffeta. Knowing the chaos that would soon descend upon Rohn, she chose not to stay and rest with us. As soon as the paperwork was signed, gear checked and a few extra bags loaded into her sled, she was gone, off to sleep further down trail. I had to remind myself she had even been there.

Teams started coming in so fast that as soon as one was parked, we immediately raced back to the cabin to catch the next. Jasper's long beard frosted white and steam glazed his down parka, but he didn't miss a single arrival, calling out the greeting that rang again and again through the frozen forest. “Whoa - whoa! Welcome to Rohn! Bib number??

Most of the teams stayed in Rohn five to seven hours. The dogs almost immediately went to sleep, but the mushers spent hours working - organizing and repairing their gear, cooking hot meals for dogs. They checked every foot and rubbed them with ointments. Nearly every musher showed signs of abuse from traveling down the Dalzell Gorge. Parkas were torn, sleds were broken, and bits of evergreens were jammed into unnatural places. It was 20 below zero and it all seemed like back-breaking work to me. Only after dog chores were done did the exhausted mushers look after their own needs.

They crowded into the cabin, hanging their wet clothes from every conceivable perch. They arrived at the checkpoint in frosty marshmallow suits, but without them they were a scrawny group with ruddy cheeks and unruly hair. The air became thick with the smell of human sweat and wet dog, a funky sauna. I was glad my chores kept me escaping outside, the cold air recharging me like shots of espresso.

There were four plank bunks. These and even the floor soon became crowded with mushers trying to rest. They didn't bring their arctic sleeping bags into the cabin - but instead dozed on the bare wood, oblivious to the lack of bedding. Before laying down they usually told one of the volunteers what time they wanted to get up and we'd make careful note. I carried an alarm clock in the pocket of my parka and kept resetting it. Oversleeping could be devastating, especially for one of the frontrunners, and I was nervous with the responsibility. Jasper explained that every moment on the trail was part of a carefully crafted schedule for getting to Nome. Even this early in the race a few minutes made a difference.

At 2 a.m. I went to find Rick Swenson, who had asked for a wake-up call. Stepping into the warm air of the cabin felt like entering an Alaskan opium den. The kerosene lanterns gave off a dim light, there were strong unidentifiable odors and scruffy men sprawled helter-skelter around the room. Suddenly I felt shy. Everyone seemed vaguely familiar. Though I had never met these people, I had studied their photos over the past months and knew their biographies by heart. Many now were sitting in their long underwear; these were the movie stars of Alaska: John Barron, Martin Buser, Vern Halter, Tim Osmar. They spoke like old friends and yet everyone kept an eye on the door. They casually checked their watches each time it opened.

I had to reach over a sleeping Doug Swingley to reach Swenson, who was wedged into the narrow bunk that had been mine. His face was so memorable it struck me as funny, like coming home to find Jack Nicholson asleep on your couch. I had to hide my giggle. Swenson was the five-time winner of the Iditarod, a living legend, asleep on that shelf of a bed. I wondered if he also thought it too narrow, too close to the eaves where all the suffocating heat pooled.

I started to shake his arm, but then heard one of the mushers snicker, “I certainly wouldn't want to be in her shoes.? I quickly pulled back my hand. Swenson had a reputation as a hard ass on the trail. I held my breath but reached out again to gingerly touch his arm. His eyes opened and he barely glanced at me before looking over at the other mushers in the room. Then in one movement he was up and putting on his boots.

Later Swenson was in front of the cabin trying to decide if he should drop a little pup named Carrot. A veterinarian and I were waiting for his decision, ready to take the dog if he chose to leave her. The care he took of his dogs was as renowned as his championships. There was a silky edge to his voice as he talked about the little girl. She was good, really good and he hated leaving her behind. He wanted her to go, to make it all the way to Nome, but something wasn't quite right. She wasn't moving with the same ease she had in the months of training.

Carrot anxiously absorbed every inflection in his voice, never once looking away from Swenson's face. She didn't wag her tail, but I could tell she was dying to communicate with him. Finally, and it seemed almost out of frustration, she expressed herself in the only way possible. Staring intently into his eyes she sat up on her back haunches, paws folded in front of her exactly the way my dog at home did, begging for a treat.

There was a difference though, this dog had just run more than 270 miles and wanted to stay with the team.

For a moment Swenson didn't move. Then he laid his hand gently on her head. It seemed like this show of devotion, of complete trust, helped make his decision. He sighed, then walked away. He didn't acknowledge her soulful whimper upon seeing him go.

Throughout the night I kept careful vigil over the dropped dogs. I fed and watered them, made sure there was plenty of straw to rest comfortably. I was surprised at how gentle each was. They seemed more like pets than working dogs. I fell in love with many: Arnold, who would not stop howling; Mercury, who wanted to play no matter what the hour; shy little Blackie, the sweetie owned by Ted English. I mixed them hot soups of salmon, lamb, and beef. When it froze in their bowls I put in fresh pieces.

Terry was adamant about how each team was parked in the tight woods and true to his word we had hundreds of dogs in neat rows between the spruce trees. Since sled dogs won't do reverse, it was important to place them so they were pointing down the outgoing trail. As the numbers grew I finally began to respect Terry's obsessive care. If one team was given the wrong place to bed down, then it could affect the departure of several other teams - and a team was not just a single musher, but 16 other independent wills. A problem could easily turn into riot control.

When a musher indicated they were ready to leave, several of us volunteers spaced ourselves along the length of the team grasping the tug line. I soon realized this was actually much easier when they first came in and were tired from the run down the Dalzell Gorge. After the dogs had rested, my job resembled being a tourist at a rodeo, grabbing hold of the strap around a bronco bull just as the gate was opened.

When the musher pulled the snow hook, the team surged forward and I had time only for two thoughts as they dragged us back through the forest onto the main trail. Feet! Feet! Feet! And for my own safety: Tree! Tree! Tree! Knocked down by the power of the team, I kept tumbling into the deep snow, but wasn't alone. Often I felt guilty when the musher was the only one left standing. It surprised me when still they quietly called out “thank you? as they rode their private missiles out of the checkpoint.

It was almost 3 a.m. on the second night when we finally escorted the final team out of Rohn. Being last out of 63 racers seemed overwhelming to me, but the musher cheerfully whispered to his dogs and headed off into what remained of the night. The race judge and I hesitated in the sudden darkness of the woods, breathing in the scents of Christmas, feeling a vague loss. A few moments later, we heard the echo of gentle commands as the musher steered the team down across the frozen Kuskokwim River. Nikolai was 93 hard miles away.

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Becka's cousin Jen was an Iditarod volunteer in 1999 when she was in school at Alaska Pacific University. Had a great time. We can send you her email address if you'd like to ask her about it.