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2002 Iditarod Race Weekend

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AMDS Outdoor Adventures - 03/03/02
by Chuck Maas

This is the time of year that Alaskan’s thoughts turn to dog racing – specifically the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. This trek from Anchorage to Nome has become synonymous with the spirit of the last frontier, pitting dog teams and drivers against time and the elements in a test of stamina, strength, and cunning. The “last great race,” Alaska’s best-known sporting event, has become an international phenomenon, drawing coverage, sponsorship, and participation from near and far.

Spectating the Iditarod is a great way to break the boredom of winter and get a taste of the outdoors. Being at the start is fun, but even better is getting out along the trail to watch the dogs and mushers in action once they get beyond the city limits. Three of us decided to make a weekend of it and do a little winter camping in the bargain.

Preparing for Departure

Preparing for Departure

Neil Moomey has done a good bit of winter camping, often by snowmobile, and following the start of the Iditarod has become an annual ritual for him. This year he invited my brother-in-law Ken Baehr and I along for the ride. Both Ken and I have been very involved with snowmachines for several years, but neither of us had actually camped out in the winter (unless you count arctic survival training while with the Air Force), but we already had most of the gear, so we eagerly accepted.

Our plan was to rendezvous at the Deshka Landing on the day of the official start out of Wasilla, and ride out to various spots along the trail to take pictures and just enjoy the race. Out timing was good; Neil pulled up to the check-in station right behind Ken and I. And the weather was cooperating too – not a cloud in the sky, and no wind.

After unloading the machines and packing the cargo sleds with the equipment for our overnight stay, off we went down the frozen Susitna River. With the amount of traffic this route gets, we had no trouble finding our way. Frozen rivers act as winter thoroughfares here in Alaska, providing mostly unobstructed paths to numerous destinations. In our case, we made our way south past the Deshka River to the Yentna, then turned upstream to join the Iditarod trail.

Setting Up to Watch the Teams

Setting Up to Watch the Teams

That’s where the party began. Along the trail were clusters of people, half a dozen here, a score there, fifty or more in other locations. Some had barbeques set up and were preparing feasts. At one spot, an adventurous sort landed in an ultralight airplane and joined the group beside the trail. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Miles from the nearest “civilization,” folks have gathered for the sheer fun of it and to see and encourage the Iditarod mushers and their dogs. Now that’s Alaska!

After spending a few hours at different locations, we rode on up the river, occasionally passing a musher and team. At the Yentna Station checkpoint we stopped to see a number of the teams that had pulled up to feed the dogs. A little straw on the snow was invitation enough for many of the dogs to curl up and get a quick rest. Several vets were making the rounds to ensure the animals were in good health.

The dogs seem to love it. If you’ve never watched a team getting ready to go, it’s hard to imagine their enthusiasm. Yapping loudly, some leap in place against the harness just begging to be underway. On the trial, they act like they’re having the time of their lives. Hard work I’m sure, but work they seem to enjoy very much doing.

Race Winner Martin Buser    Crowd Cheering Sled Dog Team
Race Winner Martin Buser, and Crowd Cheering Sled Dog Team

By this time the sun was getting low, and we needed to find a good place to make camp, so we moved on up the river again. A few miles later, Neil pulled over at the same location he had used before, off to the side of the trail, but in an area sufficiently packed to make pitching a tent a reasonable prospect. Before long we had the tents up and water boiling for freeze-dried dinners. Food tastes good after a long day’s ride, even if it does come from a plastic pouch.

As it got really dark, we finished off with hot chocolate while watching the stars come out. I haven’t seen a sky like that in years…if ever. Crystal clear and cold, it was as though the heavens were filled with bright points of light. Neil had a set of binoculars along, and even the modest 8-power lenses brought out exquisite detail of the Orion nebula, one of Jupiter’s moons, and the Seven Sisters – which on closer inspection consists of a whole lot more than seven stars. Through the binoculars, the Milky Way was transformed from a pale band of diffused light to thousands of sparkling dots so thick they looked like a carpet of diamonds. If you’ve ever enjoyed looking up at night, you owe it to yourself to get out and away from the lights of the city and experience the spectacular display awaiting you.

Dogs Get Ready to Rest    Humans Get Ready to Rest
Dogs and Humans Get Ready to Rest

While we were marveling at the stellar sights, mushers began moving by again after their short rest stop. With a single headlamp to light the way, they slipped quietly by, headed into the dark, cold night. I stand in awe of their ability to keep to the trail with so few prominent markings and so little light. I’m sure the dogs do a great deal of the navigating, looking for an obvious trail, but their vision must be vastly better than mine to make anything out in the pitch black.

After a while we called it a night and slipped into our heavy sleeping bags. It didn’t take long to be quite comfortable and feel a bit spoiled in comparison to the teams out on the trail pressing ahead right on through the night. From inside the tent we could hear the teams pass just feet away…the “shush” of the sled runners, the soft patter of many canine feet, and the syncopated panting of the dogs as they moved purposefully down the trail.

Monday morning broke cold and clear. It took a little courage to unzip the sleeping bag and don cold-soaked boots, bibs, and jacket. But once up and around, with a cup of coffee warming the hands and gullet, it was very tolerable. Up the river Denali was out, standing majestically above the shallow tree line with only a small layer of cloud capping the top. Time to get going. Neil was headed on up the trail in quest of more photo opportunities, while Ken and I were headed back, satisfied to make this a good shake-down cruise.

Mat-Su Sun

Mat-Su Sun

Striking camp took less time than putting it up, and in short order we were ready to go. Neil headed north, and we headed back down the river for a very pleasant hour and three quarter saunter back to the Deshka Landing parking lot. Another clear blue day, warming up as we drove, with the sights of rural Alaska all around us: ravens pecking at bits of food left by the dogs or human observers, magpies moving from tree to tree, chickadees vocalizing a delightful early spring song (audible during our occasional stops), and a magnificent bald eagle soaring just above the tree line.

Would we do it again? You bet. It’s hard for many to believe it’s not that difficult to stay comfortable outdoors in the winter. Granted, we didn’t have to face extreme cold, high winds, or heavy snow. There are conditions I wouldn’t want to be out in. But this weekend was by any measure near perfect weather-wise, and the days are long enough this time of year to be able to enjoy it. I’m busy on that checklist now for making the next outing even better. See ya out there!

~ Chuck Maas

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