Iditarod 2018 Willow Restart

Despite living just a half hour away for the past several years, I had never been to the Willow restart of the Iditarod.  But after attending the ceremonial start the day before to work a tent for my full-time employer I was excited to see the action in a more natural setting.  The Hubs and I arrived super early to set up before the crowds arrived and were greeted with single digit temps and freezing fog.  Luckily, the fog burned off and the sun came out to create a wonderful Alaskan winter day!

The restart takes place on a frozen lake, so the area is wide open.  I took a break from working our tent – which you can see off to the right of the start line in the picture above to enjoy the festivities and get some photos.  As you can see it was there was a BIG crowd.  It’s basically an Alaskan tailgate party in the middle of winter.

The view from the hill where the lake’s shoreline is, allowed us to see the mushers as they headed down the beginning of the trail lined with supporters.  The crowds continued across the massive lake and into the trees beyond.  Many also have cabins on the surrounding lakes, which the trail crosses and would go out to cheer on the mushers as they go by in those areas too.  This vantage point also gave us a good look at the musher’s lot where the teams were preparing for their turn at the start line.

I headed down to the corner of the mushers’ lot to watch the behind the scenes action and had the perfect view to see the teams up close as they approached the staging lane for the start line.  One by one, the teams lined up as the event staff directed them through the process.

Then the next stop was the start line, where the teams would leave every two minutes.  This time they no longer had an Iditarider or drag sled like they did at the ceremonial start so the sleds are lighter  and it takes all of the handlers to keep the teams from heading straight out onto the trail as they approach the starting line.

I was able to get several great shots of the mushers too.  Their smiles show just how much they love this sport and their teams.  Some led their teams in and others managed the sled while their handlers directed the dogs, but they were all excited.

Once they were in the shoot it was time to focus on the final preparations, check their dogs and enjoy last moments with family before they begin the 1,049 mile trek to Nome over the next several days.

The dogs were just as excited to head out as they had been the day before.  We all swore they knew how to count as they bolted off the line each time the countdown ended for the next team heading out.

Although the crowd on the other side of the starting line was wall-to-wall I was able to squeeze in toward the end to get a few shots of the final mushers as they headed out.

Several stopped to give their dogs a final motivation for the race ahead and thank them for their part on the team.

Many had final hugs and handshakes from family and supporters, while others gave quick interviews or posed for a photo with fans before the final countdown began.

And of course there were several high fives with their handlers as they headed out on this epic journey.

Then it was down to the last musher, who wore a ‘cat in the hat’ hat in celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday.  He paused to honor his team getting down on their level and bowing to them.

Then he was off on the “Last Great Race” with a big thumbs up and snow already gathering around his feet.

It will take the teams approximately 8-9 days to complete the entire route.  You can check out each musher’s current standings and location on the Iditarod’s website.  I wish them all a safe and successful race!

Iditarod 2018 Ceremonial Start

The 2018 Iditarod began this past weekend and I got to be right in the midst of it!  Known as “The Last Great Race” it celebrates the teams who organized during the 1925 diphtheria epidemic to rush serum to Nome to save lives.

The company I work for is a sponsor and had a tent near the starting line where we were doing give aways.  The area we were in required an access badge and when I was able to take breaks from working at the tent I could go into the ‘chute’ where the teams were staged right behind the start line.   The teams would line up on the street to await their turn to begin the race.

Several of the mushers led their teams in from the front, rather than riding in on the sled.

Then they’d check over their team and equipment to ensure everything was as it should be.

And a few would stop to have conversations with their dogs, pose for photos for fans and enjoy the moment with their family members who were nearby to cheer them on.

Each team had a group of handlers to help guide the dogs into position.  Sled dogs are born and trained to run, so they are VERY high energy and once they are in the harness they have a single mind focus.  It takes several people to keep them in position as they move up through the staging lanes.  It’s also helpful to signal down the line in all the celebration so the mushers or helpers on the sled know when to set the brake and release it as the line moves.

Many of these handlers have worked with the mushers for months prior to the race and know the dogs personally.  That familiarity can be a calming aspect for the dogs as they anticipate the start of the race.

And of course a few rubs while they wait are always welcome too!

And some just want a hug before they hit the course. 🙂  One of the mushers is a correctional officer when not running the trail and several of his handlers had a fun message on the back of their gear that said “You think your job is tough?  Correctional officers run the Iditarod to relax.”

The anticipation gets heavy and the dogs get louder with excitement as the iconic start line comes into view.  At this point of the race every musher has an Iditarider on their sled.  Usually this person has won the opportunity to ride the ceremonial start in a contest or charity auction.  The money raised is used to offset expenses of the race and provides each musher who finishes the race after the top 20 – who receive cash prize winnings – with $1,049 to help get their teams home.

There is also a secondary sled, or “drag sled” behind each team’s main sled.  This extra sled is meant to slow down the dogs because they are so excited to run and the course is lined with spectators and this helps keep everyone safe.  Each sled is configured differently based on how that musher likes to carry on the trail.  The dogs are so ready to run that they literally jump up and down while waiting for their turn at the starting line.

And often look back at the sled as if to say “Why aren’t we going?!”

While the dogs may not enjoy the waiting it does provide a perfect opportunity to get some closeup shots of them and their expressions.  Each has their own unique coloring and personalities.  Some are young and just waiting on the signal to go, while others are veterans and have a calm but alert stance.

Some were so eager to get going that they were jumping over each other to trade sides because they couldn’t move forward!

And some were providing a touch of reassurance to their team mate.

And then the announcer would say it’s time and they would be off!  The musher waves to the fans, with their Iditarider aboard for a once in a lifetime experience and the dogs do what they love to do.

The teams run 11 miles through Anchorage for the ceremonial start with fans along many stretches of those trails to cheer them on.  The next day, they restart the race in Willow, about an hour and a half away.  This is when they begin the full trek to Nome and their race times officially start.  I got to go to that portion of the race as well and will share that tomorrow!  In the meantime, visit the Iditarod website to learn more about the race and the mushers competing this year.

A Fur Rendezvous Birthday

The Hub’s birthday was this past Saturday and although we hadn’t planned to celebrate since we bought concert tickets for later in the year as our joint birthday/Christmas/anniversary gifts I had a last minute work obligation come up that required I help with an event at the annual Fur Rendezvous the same day so we made a mini celebration of it.  Locally known as Fur Rondy, this 2-week long festival centers around everything winter and Alaskan with dogsled races, snow sculptures and other unique activities.  The ceremonial start of the world famous Iditarod is also held during this time and we were able to catch several of the mushers starting the course as we arrived and made our way to lunch before my work event.

Although I’ve here for 4 years now, this is the first time I’ve been able to attend the ceremonial start so it was a fun experience for me to watch the teams go by and cheer them on.  The first musher we saw was #61, Michael Baker. Each musher has an Iditarider on their sled during this portion of the race.  These passengers bid in an auction to win these unique perspectives which come with traditions of their own.

The ceremonial course is 11 miles on Anchorage streets and park trails – and most of it is lined with crowds.  It’s a very different scene than the rest of the race.  The second musher we saw was #62, Nathan Schroeder.  As you can see the trail on the city streets is well prepared and maintained during the event with trail workers along the entire route ready to remove debris and other hazards.

We walked down along the course and eventually had to cross over to the other side of the street.  Here’s how the trail looks to those going down it.

Jason Mackey, #64 was the next musher to come down the trail after we crossed over to this side.  He was a good example of how the musher also has to be athletic and use his body to control the sled.

2011 Champion John Baker, #65 came by next.  Although I had a good vantage point from the sidewalk I was sure jealous of the guy crouched down along the snow berm with his camera.  He was part of the official Iditarod crew which is why he was allowed to be so close to the action.  I’m going to have to research how I might join that crew!

The last musher we saw was Anna Berrington – one of a handful of female mushers in the male dominated field.

We couldn’t stick around to watch the remaining seven mushers because we had a lunch reservation at Club Paris around the corner.  This was another first for me, although the Hubs has been here many times during his Alaskan tours.  I chose the Alaskan Cordon Blue sandwich which was a Cordon Blue made with halibut instead of chicken.  It was prepared just right, keeping the halibut moist and flaky.  The Hubs had teriyaki Tri-Tips, which I sampled and deemed to be even better than my choice.  We ended the meal with creme brulee for desert.  I added strawberry puree to mine while the Hubs enjoyed his plain.

After lunch I headed over to my work event while the Hubs went to the fur auction.  I don’t have any photos from the fur auction, but you can probably imagine how the scene looked – auctioneers, bidders yelling and furs being shown off.  Although not the same kind of fur, I spotted this beautiful bear statue with amazing painted on northern light colored fur as I made my way to my event.

The event I was assisting with was called Running with the Critters.  It’s a new event this year and gives children a chance to experience something similar to the Running of the Reindeer.  Mascots from all over Alaska came out to play the ‘critters’ and while some ran with the crowd, most lined up down the street to cheer on the runners and give them high-fives as they ran past.  There were several really cute critters, including an otter and our own Peri Winkle the purple moose!

After the run Peri met part of the Fur Rondy Royalty just out side of the new Hard Rock Cafe.  He was a big hit with tourists and locals and had to pause numerous times to oblige the photo requests.

Once Peri was done with his event I stuck around to watch the Running of the Reindeer.  Similar to Spain’s running with the bulls – but with an Alaskan twist – the event raises money for Toys for Tots.  The reindeer were led from their holding pen at the end of the track up to the starting line.

Several stayed behind in the pen, both to encourage the other reindeer to come back to the herd and to wait their turn for the second heat.

Several of the reindeer sported sponsors coats.  I think a few of the reindeer got their sizes mixed up because a few were more snug than the others. 🙂

This reindeer had apparently already been pretty rowdy and was missing one of it’s antlers, which gave it a lopsided appearance.

And some just wanted to show off for the crowd even while waiting in the pen.  Isn’t he just beautiful?!

As you can see there was quite a large crowd, so I wasn’t able to get up close to the barricade when the race started but I did spot the runners as they made their way down the street.

The reindeer tend to run in small groups so the runners have to be on the lookout for them to make sure they stay out of the way of their antlers, which are sharp and pointed this time of year.

It was a bit of a scramble when they did get back to the pen as the handlers had to get their lead ropes back on and most of the reindeer were not much interested in that.

It’s become tradition to create funny costumes for the event and some get a bit outlandish.  I’m pretty sure the reindeer don’t much care about what the runners wear and are more interested in getting back to their herd mates.  This year someone ran as T-Rex, which was pretty hysterical to watch because apparently he’s not used to that much action and had to take a breather at the end of the course!

Another runner decided the finish line was a good spot for a snow angel.  Mario and the nearby clown didn’t seem much impressed.

About that time one of the reindeer went rogue and decided to make a break for freedom.  He seemed more interested in searching for something to nibble on, which is good for him because one of the runners turned back to catch a close up of the reindeer in a fur-speedo.  Thank goodness there were additional layers along with that choice of attire!

The rebel reindeer eluded capture for several minutes as the handlers tried to herd him back to the pen, so finally one decided to follow the old adage of grabbing him by the horns and wrestling him down until they could get him back on a lead.  The reindeer wasn’t hurt, just a bit disgruntled at no longer being free to roam the street.

It had been a long day and we still had a long drive home so we called it quits and headed for the truck.  On the way we saw the carnival area which was in full swing on this clear and chilly day.

It was a fun day with lots of fun things to see.  The Hubs enjoyed celebrating his birthday with a bit of Alaskan flair, so we might just have to consider doing something similar again next year!