When Cabela’s sponsored musher Jeff King in the Iditarod, our children were given autographed posters of him and his dogs. NEVER in my wildest dreams could I have imagined actually seeing any aspect of an Iditarod front and center; however, our extended-stay in wintry Alaska allowed us to attend the ceremonial start of the 2020 race.
‘Iditarod’ comes from the Ingalik word HaIditarod which means “distant place.” The Iditarod is 1049-mile race that begins in Willow, Alaska and ends in Nome, a very distant place. Each musher has 14 dogs and must finish the race between 8 and 15 days. Mitch Seavey set the record for the fastest time in 2017. I include him specifically because he stayed in the same hotel as we did in Anchorage. Seeing his truck, dogs, and sleds parked next to our car made this event become more real.
Wearing layers of clothing, hats, neck gators, gloves, mittens, down coats, insulated skirts and pants, foot and hand warmers, and boots, three adults and two wittles braved the cold to watch “The Last Great Race on Earth.” We walked down 4th Street, the Anchorage Mushing District, where mushers prepared their dogs for event.
The smell of dog poop, reindeer sausages and coffee wafted through the air filled with snowflakes. Every kind of hat from fur to crocheted had the embellishment of foam Husky ears handed out by the local cell phone company. Our chariot stroller with bicycle wheels pushed easily through snow-slushed road and sidewalks with two grandchildren ready to watch the “wiggle, waggle, woof, woofs.”
We found our perfect spot among the 1000s in front of an art/fur gallery near the start of the race. After about 20 minutes of standing, watching the local news media prepare for their shots, and snow machines cruising up and down race track, the ceremony began. Native Alaskans danced in their traditional coats rimmed with fur and warm hats covered their heads. They beat drums and sang to remind people to use personal flotation devices when they boat (not sure about that in winter). They sang and danced for polar bears. They danced to bless this one-of-a-kind event. The national anthem was sung followed by the Alaska State Song. Everyone cheered as the honorary dog sled passed by signaling the arrival of the first musher at the start.
All 58 participants leave ‘the start’ at 2 minute intervals where they announce each musher and give a little of their history in the race and races around the world. There are men, women, young, old, seasoned, and rookies. Contrary to the PETA signs being held by people wearing husky heads so no one can see their faces, the dogs do not run to their deaths. They run because they love to run. They jump, they pull, they bark, they yelp, they want to run, run, run, run. Mushers don’t use whips, they have snow hooks to hold the sled stable and keep the dogs from running until the countdown ends: 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 – and the dogs hear “Hike!”
The Iditarod is part of the traditional Fur Rondy Winter Carnival that began in the 1930s. It consists of fur auctions, wearing fur, and buying fur. There are furs that are pelts being sold by trappers. There are furs that have been made into coats, hats, gloves, dolls, and even flowers. One of the commentators said the Iditarod is a fun, free event where you can see people wearing full beavers on their heads. We saw people wearing fur coats, fur hats and fur boots. And, we saw what I can only describe as Sasquatch who allowed me to take a photograph only if I would donate to the Purple Heart Foundation in Alaska. My grandson bought a fur snake that when you lightly rub its fur, it inches along the ground. I bought a fur flower though if we’re here next year, I will buy a fur headband. If you’re not into fur and the fur business, this is not the place for you. But then again, it is Alaska – the final frontier.
From the race track we walked down the hill behind the carnival rides – yes carnival rides in winter – to the snow sculptures. My grandson decided to pick up a huge chunk of snow from the side of the road and carried it down multiple stair cases full of slushy slippery snow. Eventually the ice chunk had to be discarded because he wanted to eat it. Nope. Not snow chunks from snow plows! Not yellow snow either!
The Snow Sculpture Competition had many intricate sculptures though the details had started to disappear because of sublimation – the process of ice becoming gas without ever actually melting. Before the competition, an 8 foot by 8 foot square-trash-looking thing is filled with compressed snow. It is dumped on a platform and then sculpted by individuals, groups, or corporate sponsors. Some of our favorite sculptures are pictured below. The Bear Selfie – Selfie Portrait – won third place in the group category and will head to nationals to represent Alaska. Not sure how they do that?! Mr. Potatohead – Potatoezvous – won second in the family category. Of course, kissing an enormous ice block is something every two-year-old should experience and then laugh so hard they nearly fall over!
We climbed back up the hill – a major workout – from the Snow Sculputres to the carnival and finished our excursion with funnel cakes. Sadly, the two wittles missed out on that Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy as well as riding Dumbo as they cuddled in the chariot dreaming of “wiggle waggle woof woofs.”
For us, if we return for next winter, I would love to trailgate along the race trail and enjoy the Iditarod from a very different perspective. Maybe even go to Willow for the actual start. Until then … “Hike!”
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