Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Iditarod Fan Journey, Day 6: March 4th Ceremonial Start

Carpe Diem!

Former Art Teacher demonstrates how to hold lethal scissors

Sled Dogs, trucks, dog handlers and mushers line Fourth Street, Anchorage as far as my eye can see.  The event spills on to side streets, with more canines, mushers, and sleds than I ever imagined.  People are everywhere.  News cameras, the size of carry-on luggage, are hauled about looking for the right story and angle to shoot.  The place is a who’s who on the Alaskan political circuit.  Senator Lisa Murkowski and Governor Walker warmly greet us.  The Mayor of Anchorage, Ethan Berkowitz, offers me one of his puppies. And, the Mayor of Nome, who appears to begin his conversations with, “Hello Central,” glad hands us with energy. 

My part in the pageantry involves wielding a giant pair of scissors to “cut the ribbon.”  Two little kids hold the ribbon at opposite ends with serious purpose, their little backs ramrod straight, their eyes looking forward.  The countdown to “cut” comes over the loud speakers, and I line up the scissors to find purchase.  “Clip," the ribbon sheers in two.  
"Let the Games Begin"

Along with my guide, Jan, I hustle back several blocks to find Martin Buser (#15), the musher with whom I’ll be riding to the air field located outside of town.  Every musher has an “Iditarider” passenger pulled by 10 – 12 dogs, and we’re all headed to the same spot.  Leaving at two minute intervals, that gives me about 30 minutes to get to the sled, and gear up. 

When I get to Martin’s dog truck, he questions whether my “fashion hat” and boots will keep me sufficiently warm for the 11-mile ride.  I show him my discreetly concealed ear warmers, fur-ruffed jacket hood as well as boot liners.  He nods with approval.  Holding a pair of goggles, he asks if I have a plan to shield my eyes and face as the dogs tend to eliminate waste on the run.  My head might as well be a target, as the wheel dogs’ little behinds are in my direct line of sight.  I stretch my neckie up high and tug my hat low, slipping my glasses in between.  Martin nods again, but indicates that he’ll carry the goggles just in case.  I try not to think about it.

Gear Approved

 Pat, Martin’s longtime friend and dog handler, gets me comfortably situated in a cushion-lined sled complete with blanket and zip up sled cover.  Jan, basically tucks the rest of me in, my hands encased in lobster mittens.  This must be what an astronaut feels like buckled into the space shuttle.   One thing’s for certain, the only way I can get out of this sled is with an ejector button, or an extra set of strong arms.

Bundled in and ready to roll!

Before I realize it, Martin hops on the sled, the dogs are all tied in and pulling forward, with several handlers holding the gang line to restrain excess speed. We’re loping around the corner to queue up at the start line.  The handlers step away right before launch, and we’re off.  The dogs pull silently, intently leaning forward as Martin surges down the trail.  People line either side, high fiving him.  Greetings and well wishes shower down from both sides as he quietly responds with a “thank you.”   Exuberant fans hold out treats of hot dogs, chips, and muffins for the taking.  Someone lobs a lunch bag on my lap.

I quickly learn to dodge when the dogs are going to do their business, pull my neckie down and just grin and wave.  Surprisingly, when the main crush of people is behind us, we converse at a normal volume.  I discover that Martin listens to Cat Stevens and Neal Diamond when he’s on the trail.  When I mention that my first purchased album was “Tea for the Tillerman” by Cat Stevens, he chuckles and tells me we’re showing our age.  I tell him they’re classics.

 We swoosh over hills, around corners and through fir lined paths.  Martin passes teams on the left with practiced ease, we’ll be making it back in under an hour at this pace.  I find the sound of the runners shushing over the snow soothing, the trees streaming by.  I catch a sense of why mushers do this thing – the sublime landscape opening before one in “the great alone.”   I can’t stop smiling, even though my eyes well up.  I love this experience – it expands my sense of joy in the moment.  Of course, I can only imagine the “great alone”, as there are people dotted throughout the 11 miles cheering us on.  I spot Dale and Jan at the halfway mark waving madly.  I echo the gesture, surprised and delighted to see them. They had arrived just in time to see one musher’s team rush on before us.  I find out later, their “luck” was due to the navigational skill on a practiced route by my guide’s niece. Perfect planning.
The long view

 Martin tells me that we’re almost there, and I spot the air field ahead. As we pull next to the truck, a volunteer approaches and announces that she’s there to help me out of the sled.   I’m grateful, as my exit wasn’t going to be pretty if left to my own devices.  My lips and mouth are bone dry because I think I was grinning the entire time.  Dale and Jan join me, and I thank Martin for the amazing experience. I hope to briefly see him at the re-start on Monday to wish he and the team a safe journey up the trail.

On the way out, I stop and say hi to Aliy Zirkle.  She embraces me in recognition from the pizza lunch as her dog, “Barista’s” sponsor.  She’s amazed that a moose just crashed across the trail ahead of them.  I get to have a private moment with one of my heroes, DeeDee Jonrowe, and even get a picture with the elusive and impressive Lance Mackey.
Aliy exclaims, "We saw a moose!"

I still can’t stop smiling.

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