Sunday, April 17, 2011

Down the Avenue and On Our Way to Yentna Station

       Over night, 4th Avenue relinquishes its familiar habits, and awakes as center stage for what many consider the greatest drama of the modern world, Iditarod.  Adventure, history, sport, challenge, spectacle, excitement, fear, thrill, accomplishment, sacrifice, attainment, controversy, relevance, love and hate.  Iditarod leaves no element of humanity untouched.  It is impossible for me driving to the staging area downtown, not to think of the personal journeys of everyone we encounter on our way, not only the mushers, but their spouses as well, their families and supporters, their handlers, the volunteers, the fans, the media, everyone who participates, imagine the story that could be told if only it were possible to chronicle how we all ended up here.

   Unfortunately, the only story I know is my own.  So, how did I end up here?  Well, I don’t have a very interesting answer to that question, but my mother does.  She has said all along that when I was young I fell off a horse, hit my head and haven’t been right since.  Don’t remember the event, but that might explain my dislike of horses, just can’t trust a prey species.

        For those of you who don’t know me well I’ll confess, I absolutely love the whole downtown thing.  I even love saying downtown, (sounds so Rat Packish. Question to self, why do I love Dean Martin so much?)  Maybe it’s because I live in a village of only a hundred people, (need to get out more.)  Or just maybe, it’s because my little brother is taller then me, was also a better athlete and a better student, or perhaps I’m just a big ham, but I love, love, love the attention, I love meeting new people, I love talking to people, and perhaps most importantly I love seeing people excited about something I’m passionate about, (even if they don’t get it.)  I’m also addicted to the way Caitlin looks at me when I’m about to step on the runners at the beginning of a race, (my baby really, really likes cowboys, but she LOVES me.)

    I’ve been on the Avenue every year since 2006, as a part of Jeff King’s entourage.  And although he never gave me the opportunity to drive the tag sled, (can you believe he actually made me run.) I cannot say that I didn’t get a first class education in regards to how this whole downtown thing works.  I felt right at home now that it was finally my turn, and enjoyed the experience all the more because of my past involvement.  Shades?  Check!  Sharpie? Check!  SHOW TIME!

        I’m a very visual individual, and stuff like dreams, visions, and memories usually come to me in high-definition 3D surround sound clarity, but as we worked our way up to the start line all I was receiving on the old brain wave station were still images.  Nothing but snap shots, glimpses of people I’d known or met over the years, places I had visited, dogs I’d driven, and a plethora of the more ridiculous situations I’d been in with dogs.  (book on that one coming, need another lifetime.)

        What would it take to get to Nome?  I didn’t know and as it turns out I guess I still don’t, but I do know what it has taken me to get here.  I can remember with crystal clarity the many, many sacrifices I’ve made over the years.  But, right here, right now, I wouldn’t change a thing.  Even all the dark cold morning trips to the outhouse seem worth it.     

       3, 2, 1, lift off.  I quickly glanced over my shoulder to verify if Lindsay was up right.  She was, relief.  Her million-dollar smile however wasn’t as fluid as it usually is.  It seemed to have a nervous rigidity to it with a slight twist of excitement.  Problem, she was driving my very new hardly tested Iditarod sled, which she had never driven, and I really wanted her to make it around with my sled remaining very new and untested.  Solution, what she needs is a distraction.  A hot dog?  Perfect!  I grabbed the wiener out of the spectator’s hand as we sped by.  I asked Lindsay if she was ready, she nodded.

      Now passing something, anything, from one sled to a second sled both moving forward at eleven miles an hour attached with an eight foot rope requires a rudimentary understanding of physics, (before you start assuming that I might be more learned then you would’ve thought, I’ll confess that I’ve never taken physics, but I have passed many objects, successfully and otherwise, from one sled to the other.)  All you really gotta do is have a little faith in a well respected phenomena known as gravity.  It’s all really simple, and much like a good golf shot, one must calculate wind speed, mass, force, and trajectory.  Having made my calculations, I lobbed the magic wiener, (bun ketchup and all,) straight up into the air with enough force to propel it’s mass, launching it on a trajectory, which would hopefully give it just enough hang time to allow her to basically, “catch up to it.”  She made a spectacular grab.  
    Whether or not she actually ate the hotdog I do not know, maybe, simply making the catch was all that was required, but her smile was now flowing as easily as the Jack River in July, and more importantly, her knees and elbows suddenly re-realized that they could bend and we were now a seriously cohesive unit.      

    My Iditarider Mike Smith was a lot more knowledgeable about sled dogs and the Iditarod then I would have guessed, I thoroughly enjoyed his company. We talked dogs, while tossing out gloves, ball caps, and ear bands supplied to me for the occasion from my sponsors, Ringer Gloves,  and Grainger Industrial supply to the fans lining the trail.     

    To say that I was having a blast would be an understatement, but I’m confident that if anyone in Anchorage was having more fun then I was it was the twelve dogs I was driving.  The dogs I’m privileged to own all possess a certain, “joie de vie,” which is expressed whenever they encounter something new.  Anything, a loose dog, a dog team in front of us, a car, a pink elephant with it’s tail on fire, everything that is new is exciting.  The number of fans was enough to get them fired up.  When the crowd cheered, the dogs barked, the crowd cheered louder, they barked louder, the barking, (I call it trash talking,) can usually be attributed to a couple of individuals within the team, but it is contagious, and when one dog barks, the others feel like they have no choice but to join in.  The barking itself is now the new thing which needs to be celebrated.  How do a pack of half crazed sled dogs in peak physical condition celebrate?  They go like the devil’s horse hell bent on home.  That’s how.

The eleven mile trip from 4th Avenue over to the Campbell Airstrip provided my crew plenty of reasons to get excited.  A culvert, boom, fourth gear.  A pedestrian overpass, boom boom, fifth gear.  A  Martin Buser banner, kablam, wait a second, where did that gear come from?  I didn’t bother to time our trip, but we must have been really hauling a**, we passed three teams and beat my rig to the staging area by ten minutes.

In Willow on Sunday morning, I was feeling confident (some who were there might even say I was overly confident) however there are two reasons why I felt the way I did.  One,  well I never met a dog musher who ins’t confident, and two, the dogs were in great shape.  I’m positive that we had prepared (or conditioned) this team for the upcoming event remarkably well.  We had worked tirelessly over the past couple of weeks tending to their feet, and we also managed to get an extra pound on them while maintaining their appetites.

One of the absolute highlights of my Iditarod was the short trip from my truck up to the starting chute.  Caitlin had informed me that Brandon Lee, one of my neighbor’s boys, who we rely on throughout the season to cover dog chores and odd jobs around the kennel when we are away, was going to be at the restart.  Brandon is a great kid and an excellent worker, and I was really excited to be able to provide him with an armband that would grant him access to the staging area.  I initially thought that he’d get a kick out of helping us get the team to the start line.

As our time to go nearer I became a little worried about Brandon running up with our team.  He had never done this and he had never even been to a sled dog race.  Also, I had plenty of handlers and friends there who knew how this all worked.  What to do?  I told Brandon that I thought that we had plenty of folks to help with the team, but what I really needed was someone to ride the sled with me to help keep it under control.  His eyes lit up like a Vegas slot machine.  I had him stand on one runner, I on the other.  The wows started the second I pulled the hook and we began moving.  I’d bet that he managed to get in at least a hundred wows during our short trip, perforated with other expressions of excitement like “They’re crazy”  “This is sick”  (I think sick is good) and he even let a holy crap slip (don’t tell his parents please).  We got to the line and I thanked him for his help and off we went.

If there was one thing I was worried about it was getting lost on this first stretch.  There is a spiderweb of trails stemming from the surrounding communities of Big Lake, Wasilla, and Knik that access the river and I have gotten myself turned around on this particular trail system a couple of times over the years.  As it turns out I had nothing to worry about, because the party that started down in Anchorage was apparently just the warm up for today’s festivities.  Practically the entire trail from the start all the way up to Yentna and beyond was lined with people.  The trail was wide and, due to all the traffic, it was well put in which made for really easy going.  A great way to start the race.

We checked into Yentna station, where I turned in my bib, grabbed a bail of straw and off we went.  There were a few teams parked there.  There was anther team who had come in just in front of me also preparing to leave and another team approaching the checkpoint from behind.  I thought I had recognized a couple of teams around me, but it was too early to be concerned about the grand scheme of things.  However, I cannot say that I didn’t secretly wish to have access to my Iditarod Insider account.  Now that would’ve been cool, wouldn’t it?

The sun started to set soon after leaving Yentna, and the glow of the numerous bonfires could be seen for miles making it impossible to get lost.  I passed one bonfire, and a spectator yelled out, “Ten miles to Skwentna.”  I found a quiet spot off the trail a ways and camped.  I had planned all along to stop shy of the Skwentna checkpoint and then blow through it and head straight over to Finger Lake.

I felt that it was imperative not to put a long run on them straight out of the gate.  The dogs devoured their first meal of the race, which reaffirmed my race plan thus far.  The dogs, knowing the drill well, settled down for a nap.  I cooked a second meal that I would feed them just before we were ready to continue.  I prepared snacks for the next leg, then sprawled out on top of my sled for a little rest.  I had a hard time sleeping though, watching the headlamps of the many teams silently slipping up the trail.  Were they the teams I had seen parked earlier, now rested enough to skip Skwentna and camp somewhere shy of Finger?  Or were they the teams that started behind me making their initial run longer, planning to spend some time in Skwentna?  Impossible to know really, and practically impossible not to think about.  Just enough ways to slice this pie to make it interesting.

Until next time, WOOF.

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