Oh, the Iditarod! That last great race that is so good at evoking such a mixed bag of emotions from me.
There is so much to love about following the last great race, yet there’s also enough logistical challenges and inconveniences that it makes me cringe to think of following the race again. I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts about the trip since the day we set out on our adventure, but already spring has come and gone and now I’m finally sitting down to share some of my thoughts about it with you! 🙂
Enjoying a beautiful day on Puntilla Lake near Rainy Pass.
This was our third year following the race, in an airplane, to Nome. It was Atlee’s 2nd year on the trail, and my first time following the trail while 5 months pregnant.
On our first Iditarod trip, back in 2013, we were newlyweds, traveling with a group of friends along the Southern route. It was a trip filled with adventure, time spent with friends, skiing, laughing and exploring hot springs.
In 2016 we followed the trail to Rohn, but only on short day trips since I was 9 months pregnant and didn’t want to risk delivering on the trail (our friend Donna Claus saw this as an opportunity, she couldn’t imagine too many other babies that would have the bragging rights of being born in Rohn). I guess if you count 2016, this is my 2nd time following the Iditarod while pregnant.
We hit the trail again in 2017, this time with our 12-month-old daughter and the added excitement (and logistics) of a Fairbanks start due to poor snow conditions on the traditional route.
This year, 2018, the trail followed the southern route, and again we followed along as a family, now with an almost 2-year-old (which, by the way, is much easier than a breastfeeding 1-year-old)
We have great memories and stories from all three years, but 2017 was hard. I think we could go ahead and classify it as type 2 fun. The kind of fun you don’t appreciate till you’re looking back. Usually, my blog posts consist of pictures, a little synopsis of what we did and that’s a wrap, but with the Iditarod, its not that simple and it deserves more than a little blurb and the appearance of a blissful and easy trip.
Lets start with all the positive things.
Following the Iditarod is a great adventure, especially in an airplane.
Unless weather dictates otherwise, we closely follow the trail to the next checkpoint. We see dog teams along the way and even have the option of stopping randomly on the trail to watch mushers go by. At the checkpoints you get to see mushers interacting with their dogs, talking to other mushers about trail conditions and challenges, and you also get to see them interact with the media, communities, and spectators along the way.
Checking out the “doggies” in Nicholai
Being on the trail has given me the opportunity to see more of what the mushers have to do to maintain a healthy dog team. For example, when a dog team pulls into a checkpoint a lot has to happen before a musher can rest. First, they have to check in, a race official makes sure they have all the required equipment, then they have to direct a pack of up to 16 dogs through the checkpoint to their allotted rest spot, which often is much easier said than done. The dogs arrangement on the gangline needs to be changed so all the dogs have their own space to sleep, booties must be removed, straw and hot water retrieved from the check points, straw beds layed out, food warmed and dispensed, sore feet or other health concerns tended too, and the musher also must be available during vet checks. After that, then maybe they can start thinking about themselves and getting a few moments of sleep before heading back out on the trail.
While the Iditarod itself is a beautiful picture of stamina, endurance and synergy between man and dog; to me, following the race is not just about the dogs or the race, it’s about the opportunities the race provides. Race aside, the Iditarod opens up rural Alaska and the ability to explore it with a small group of people moving in the same direction at mostly the same time. The communities that the Iditarod travels through are usually excited to host the race, community centers become checkpoints, schools become makeshift hotels, and the communities gather to great the mushers and the volunteers that support each checkpoint.
Of course, memories from the Iditarod contain thoughts of dog teams, airplanes, and fun encounters, but some of my favorite memories are from the journey and the people you share it with. Memories of, Atlee befriending a pilot named Rob and repeatedly calling for him by name whenever he was out of sight. An impromptu play date with a few local kids my daughter’s age, hot sauna’s with the Ivanoff’s in Unalakleet, eating way too many of our host Karls kanelbullar (Swedish cinnamon rolls), visions of APRN’s radio star Zachariah Hughes toting around a sleeping Atlee and reading her bedtime stories in Koyuk, and being invited to share lunch at a cabin in Eagle Island with someone we met the year before in Huslia.
Having a kid on the Iditarod also provides a connection to people in the community. One year we befriended a local school teacher and she ended up taking Atlee for a few hours to play with her grandson, which was such a needed break for me (growing up in Bethel, this didn’t seem abnormal to me). It’s a bit early to say, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if some of the connections made on the Iditarod trail grow and turn into lasting friendships.
Another great thing about being on the trail is that it gets you outside! We wake up, get dressed for the weather, then go outside and stay there a large majority of the day.
The Iditarod is a huge undertaking for the mushers that choose to head out on the trail. It’s so much more than anyone attending the ceremonial start can really wrap their head around. I know I don’t understand everything it involves, and I’m sure a lot of mushers who sign up for it find themselves overwhelmed in the midst of it. It’s a crazy adventure and from talking to a few of mushers, many of them wonder why they do it year after year, despite swearing they won’t during the race.
Well, our experience is a muted version of what they are going through, but I can honestly say I feel the same way.
Most of the things that make it unique and exciting also make it a challenge.
The mushers are putting themselves through one of the most grueling things they will ever experience and most times they are sleep deprived and less than sociable. You want to hang around and interact, but mostly they are busy taking care of their dogs, being interviewed by media groups or resting.
Most the people you see consistently along the race have a role: vets, volunteers, pilots, media & race officials. Then there are the spectators; a contingency of snow-machiner’s following the trail to Nome (who we see quite a bit), and an even smaller group of people that take charters with small aviation operations to various checkpoints along the trail. Then there’s the smallest group of spectators, people like us, flying their own planes for no other reason than the adventure. Most years there are a few planes, but this year we didn’t meet any others.
Aside from the ceremonial start, the Iditarod isn’t set up for spectator convenience. Most communities that host checkpoints aren’t prepared to cater to large groups of people, but since most people have a purpose and the amount of spectators is relatively small, checkpoints usually welcome you and don’t distinguish between the two types of visitors. In a way we piggyback on hospitality that isn’t necessarily meant for us but is extended to us since we are there.
It turns out Atlee gets airsick and prefers to vomit anywhere except into the bag.
The majority of communities hosting checkpoints are very small, 50-700 people and space is limited, for me its easy to feel in the way or like an inconvenience. Most checkpoints don’t have hotels, some have “B&B’s” basically family homes that they open up to the community. Some are nice, others have a reputation for overbooking themselves and charging $150.00 person per night, and it isn’t unheard of for your accommodation to be a couch. Most the times we end up sleeping in an school gym for around $70 dollars per person with a large group of people, which is especially a challenge when you have a baby that you are trying to keep quiet during the night.
Every community has its own feel, some are amazing hosts; Tokotna, Unalakleet, and Huslia come to mind. Community members make amazing food for everyone (we make sure to leave a nice donation when we leave) and people are friendly and excited to see you. Other villages join in the festivities, but the hospitality is the bare minimum for the volunteers. Then, there is the rare community that would rather not have spectators in their community. At one community were we landed we were met by a gentleman that, after he found out we weren’t directly connected to the Iditarod, asked us to not come into his community.
As a tourist I think the hardest challenge for me is feeling in the way and that I’m an inconvenience to others, whether it’s accidentally getting in the way of a news story, our child screaming in the middle of the night, getting an annoyed glance from a musher who really doesn’t want to be bothered, or feeling like you are taking up precious space in a packed checkpoint. Mostly this is my own people-pleasing-personality rearing its head, but in many ways, the Iditarod isn’t set up as a spectator sport.
When people along the trail ask what we are doing, I tell them we are on a family vacation. It’s definitely not your typical family vacation, but I think doing something that stretches you and challenges you as a family brings you closer. It also gives you perspective. Outings that might have previously seemed overwhelming suddenly seem possible and I’m hoping it makes me relish truly relaxing vacations that much more.
The reactions we get from people who know what we are doing reaches both ends of the adventurous/crazy spectrum. We’ve been called insane and we’ve also been applauded for getting out on the trail with our toddler.
I think there’s a little truth to both, and while the experiences are unforgettable, I’m definitely looking forward to visiting Hawaii in March one of these years and sipping a mai tai while I follow the progress of the Iditarod on the tracker. 🙂