Friday, July 8, 2016

Saved the Best for Last?

In a lot of ways, second to the meeting with Deedee and Aliy, Tuesday, June 28 was the highlight of my trip. That morning I picked Helen up at her sons' auto shop on the north side of Wasilla, actually not far from the Big Lake turnoff. The previous evening I had called Jan Steves and arranged to come visit, arriving about 10:30. It was a good thing Helen was familiar with the area around Willow. She had actually lived there for awhile and since we were early, we drove out aso she could show me where she had lived. The neat little house is vacant and although I could not afford it, I felt a tug--what a nice place to live. However when winter rolled around I would probably feel differently!

We continued on up the Parks Highway a few miles and came to the area where the 2015 fire had been. Black matchsticks that had once been spruce and deciduous trees stood stark over ground still bare and dry. It was not pretty. We took a side road and drove to the west, into the heart of the burned area. Soon we saw where many of the mushers who lived out there were busily rebuilding, The ground is still raw and barren. Dogs are staked by their neat little houses with no shade so they dig deep holes and tunnels to find coolness when the sun shines,.It was overcast and sprinkling off and on that day. Unfinished houses, barns and other buildings stand, some just frames and trusses, others with siding in place but unpainted. It was not pretty but there was something affirming about the spirit and determination expressed in every bit of work. Phoenix-like, the community rises again and most of those people will continue to raise, train and run their dogs because that is their life.

We passed the Jonrowe place. At the ITC on Saturday Deedee had been joking about her deep tan. "There is no shade," she said. "Whatever I do outside is out in the sun. There's no shade." A short ways farther, we came to Jan Steves and Bob Chlupach's place. The house is nearing completion and a shed, also with raw outer walls, stands between the two dog yards. "His" are on one side and "hers" on the other. Although Bob apparently does not race now, he still trains and runs dogs and works with aspiring mushers of which Jan was one when they met a few years back. She was cleaning up the dog yard when we arrived and that was when I took the one picture. I then got too involved in talking and listening to take more. Maybe next time.
Jan Steves in her dog yard

It was very encouraging to me to hear some of what Bob had to say. He raced back in the first two decades and although he did not win he is still well respected in the mushing community and served for thirty years on the ITC rules committee. He cannot get back on now; perhaps some deem him too reactionary! However he is in full agreement on the 'carrying' issue and chided me for backing down on the Idita-Support page. I explained I did not want to alienate too many folks and was not sure for awhile that I was actually right.

Jan simply lights up when she talks about her dogs, about the feeling of racing through a snowy landscape, all alone except for your team and the beauty of the night. It has been a dream brought to life for her to come to Alaska and get involved with it. She's had a lot of personal issues besides being burned out --and they did not have insurance although they do now--but she is not about to give up racing and has entered for the 2017 Iditarod, did so on the 25th. Even after the very serious injuries she received in the accident early in the 2016 race, she is determined to musher up and go at it again. She's finished once and wants very much to do so again and start improving her record. You can bet I am rooting for her! She's  now one of my heroines too.

They both agreed that I should not have any trouble finding a place to work for however long I can commit to doing so this fall. Kennels always need help and the middle and lower tier  mushers cannot afford to pay much but are grateful for any support and help they can get. Running the qualifying and either of the two big races is hugely expensive and even if you win, until you amass some strong sponsors to help sustain you, you cannot exist on the prizes paid. For most if not almost all, the whole project truly is a labor of love.

Normally I am not at all in favor of dogs on chains. However this is pretty standard with the sled dogs. Each one has its own little house lined with straw for warmth and cushioning. They have their own food and water dishes and each is staked to a post a few feet from the house but with plenty of length to go in, romp around and dig! In every bunch there will be some that do not get along and others that share close bonds. If all were not restrained, there would be fights, sometimes serious.And if  they were allowed to run loose some would be lost, chasing game or getting into other harm. About the only alternative, a separate chain link pen for each dog, would be terribly expensive. Anyway  most dogs  run daily for exercise and conditioning, are taken for a walk, or let out with a few friends while the musher watches and voice-controls them. They are not neglected or ignored!  Many pets should be so fortunate.. Mother dogs with puppies are usually kept in a pen until weaning time and young puppies are often kept together for several months too.

At any rate, time flew by as we talked and drank coffee and I left feeling like I had more new friends. It was a very good experience and helpful as well. Bob has already made some suggestions that will improve my book and I think I can count on them for a recommendation when I start seeking a position for fall.

Helen and I took the afternoon to drive down below Palmer and Wasilla to the Eklutna area. It is a native settlement which also included Russians in the 1800s. Quite picturesque.  However we drove up to Eklutna Lake, which supplies water for Anchorage. It is fed by a glacier which can no longer be reached by car since the road was closed and removed some years back. It was a beautiful place, very peaceful and quiet despite there being some people up boating, fishing and playing along the edges of the lake. I continue to be in awe of the natural beauty of Alaska, its astounding mountains which dwarf even our Rockies and so much water! You could almost be in New England, around the Great Lakes or in the northwestern states of the lower 48 but everything is just bigger and more,  on the grandest scale!

Coming back to Palmer, we took the back road to avoid a traffic jam due to construction and rush hour traffic and Helen pointed out a few more things to me as we went along. I would have hated even more to see it end and say goodbye but there is no question that I will be back. Unless I pass away or become incapacitated much sooner than I expect there will be many more trips. I look forward to them all.

Lake Eklutna, glacier out of sight to the right.

Mtns on north side of Lake Eklutna

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Further Trip Reports

Let's see, I took a a break for July 4 and dealing with a case of hives.  Back again; today would have been my parent's 74th wedding anniversary! Yikes. Never mind--but I admit I was a honeymoon baby LOL.

First a few more impressions on meeting Helen and then our Monday travels. Some of this is probably old news and repetitious so skip what you've read before.

I tend to be very intuitive about that first face-to-face with anyone. This time totally good vibes came at once. I was so pleased to feel them! We went in and sat down in a booth to wait for another of Helen's friends who was joining us.Actually I think I joined them. Well, no matter. All three of us are booklovers  so there was a lot of talk about literature, Barbara, Helen's friend whose last name slipped right out of my holey brain, is a born-Alaskan with several generations of ancestors in the area. She works in/runs a book store and several other endeavors. Another busy lady..I gave each of them a book although neither one read much genre fiction but I hope they will at least give these a try.  Helen got Back to Tomorrow and Barbara received Relative Dangers.

More names cropped up, other books and it felt as if we were just three friends who had not gotten together for awhile. A bit of background on Helen. I did post earlier about the Idita-Support Facebook page/group, I know. Helen is the owner/moderator, just one of her many projects,  and kind of came to my rescue when I got a lot of the mushers there on my case with my 'carrying dogs' proposal. I just stumbled onto that site as a "recommendation"from FB which clearly already knows way too much about me! Still, it has proved to be one of those amazing serendipity non-coincidences which have marked this whole project from the first and really most of my life. I was meant to get acquainted with Helen Hegener and she with me.

She has her own multimedia publishing firm, Northern Light Media, and so far it focuses on her own writing and a video done with a former husband on the great musher, Lance Mackey. Lance won both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest four times and both in the same year twice! That is a unique and amazing accomplishment. Helen is a tireless historian and writer, researching with meticulous care and collecting old documents, photos and such to illustrate her books.  Can you guess where this is probably going? Yes, I think it very likely that Women Who Run With the Dogs will be a Northern Light book in time.

By about 9:00 a.m. on Monday, June 27, I was in Wasilla, just about ten miles over a couple of ridges from Palmer. We met in a parking lot on the main drag, familiar to me since that was where I caught the bus to go to Anchorage for my flight to Fairbanks in 2014. We went to a nearby Starbucks and chatted while trying to decide where to go, We ended up first at the ITC Headquarters. Helen knows Raymie and Barb Reddington well. They are the couple who operate the cart ride service for visitors there at ITC. He is a son of Joe Reddington and Barb is a Native Alaskan. They have a dozen or so dogs there and puppies when they have some available
Barb Reddington and dogs

Hayfield Flats toward Chugach Mtns

Lake Lucille; Sarah Palin's home is
across the lake. (FWIW!) 

Barb remembered me from 2014 and we three visited for a bit. I had to get a few pictures of the dogs, of course! We had thought of going to the Knik Museum but it is only open Thursday through Sunday and the main lady, Diane Williams lives up at Big Lake and was not able to come down to do a private opening for us.  I had been there and Helen never had, which is like me with Tuzigoot Ruins in the Verde Valley!

We ended up just driving around while Helen pointed out various things to me and we sat for a bit above the Hay Fields slough which sank to become swampy due to the 1964 earthquake which changes a lot of topography and almost trashed Anchorage off the map. Of course there were few moments of silence as we continued to talk about a zillion things.

After I dropped Helen off at her car which we'd left to use my rental, I went to the Wasilla library and looked at all their Sled dog related collection. It was not very large and I jotted donw a few titles to seek thru Interlibrary Loan or Amazon and other venues. Though lower key that the 25th, it had been a very good day!

I did not get a photo of Helen; Like me, she is clearly more at ease behind the camera than in front of it but I've included  a few shots of our travels etc.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A fortuitous connection

I am pretty sure I have mentioned Helen Hegener at time or two earlier. Her FB page Idita-Support was the vehicle for us to encounter each other. I made a post--my first--which hit some of the musher folks in that group very wrong and they were not shy about telling me to shut up and take a time out.
Wow!! I wasn't wearing my asbestos undies but should have been!
Bless Helen. She came to my rescue in her gentle but also very forthright away and we began to correspond both there and on some of her other pages. This lady has more irons in the fire than the King Ranch on branding day!

She reviewed my initial book proposal and liked it, with a few suggested changes and talked a bit about her books. She has a dozen or so all true history tales about Alaska. The north 49th has been her heart's home since she moved there with her parents at age fifteen. And she has a quick, steel trap mind, a head for facts, figures and information and a way of meeting and dealing that is awesome. We had both been looking forward to a face-to-face meeting when I made my trip.

That finally happened the afternoon of Sunday, June 23 and the day after the big ITC HQ events. I drove down to the Mexican restaurant where we were to meet and arrived just a few minutes before she did. When she got out we met with a big hug and both saying how great it was to finally get together; it seemed a lot longer than the few weeks it had really been since we discovered each other's existence.  And, from that beginning, we were not strangers but just long-separated friends. Her friend Barbara joined us shortly and we did a lot of book talking since Barb is a book store manager as well as wearing several other hats. She is also a native born Alaskan and descendant of a multi-generation Alaska-rooted family. And yes, Palmer does have a very decent Mexican restaurant!

Lake Lucille, behind ITCHQ
By the time we left La Fiesta, Helen and I were planning to spend more time together. We did just that for the better part of two days. It was so much fun but also very educational. Helen is an excellent tour guide and has been a huge mushing fan for years, served as a volunteer and collected all kinds of stories, memorabilia and old photos and documents. She knew Joe Reddington when she was a young bride and got involved in the whole Iditarod creation project. I just got her Alaskan Sled Dog Tales book before I left and will have some more soon. She still owns a retired Husky named Chena. Next time I will have to get at least a selfie of us together since I failed to do it this trip.

Lake Eklutna in Chugash Mtns
glacier fed source of Anchorage water
I share here a couple of shots from our travels over the two days. Next post I will cover the  first day and maybe into the second when we visited Jan and Bob at their kennel, lost to the fire but rebuilding better than ever as most of the Willow mushers are doing. The frontier can-do spirit is alive and well in Alaska for sure.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

More on the ITC Day

Of course they had a table set up right away for the musher registration, one of the big events going on. And I did hang around there quite a bit. I know there were some folks I wanted to meet and just missed chances. Everyone looks so different in summer clothes versus bundled up in "Eskimo" or Native style when they are racing. I did recognize and at least said hi to and in some cases snapped a photo of several.

One was Nik Petit who has run at least four Iditarods. He is one of the imports and grew up in Normandy; shoot, I should have asked if he knew of the Breton music group, Tri Yann. He had one of his leaders with him, a beautiful and gentle girl he calls Lolly who although free was never more than a few feet from him. She even likes to be a  lap dog!

Anna Berrington was there, a big lanky gal with a long blonde braid, one of the "Seeing Double" twin sisters who makes the news for being the only twins who race together. Her sister Kristy was off at her summer work. She had people all around her constantly but I did say hi and got a photo. About then came lunch which was delish--the 200 pounds of salmon on the grill that Mr Seybert always has flown in from his fishing crew at Bristol Bay was to die for! I had a big chunk and could have left the hot dog, beans and such for more but it went fast.

More mushers appeared after that. I watched Cindy Abbot sign in with her mentor beside her. her hubby is off climbing to add a few more summits to his list. Anyway i shook her hand and said I was so happy for her finish in 2015. She tried several times but got the Red Lantern that year and will no longer be a rookie. As far as I know she is the only person who has scaled Everest and also completed the Iditarod. Since she has a rare disease for which she is a very active poster gal, that is very impressive. She won one of the two free entries this time also. Must have been her lucky day as she also won some donated dog gear.
Cindy Abbott-in green shirt

Martin Buser was there--a charmer and a fun guy. I asked him about his son Nik who has made an amazing recovery from his terrible auto crash last February and is now home. They say he was dancing at their Solstice Party the previous weekend.

And then suddenly there was Deedee Jonrowe and also Aliy Z! I made a beeline for Deedee and gave her the long delayed hug. She thanked me for the small quilt I sent last year and we chatted briefly but she knows everyone and fluttered around like a hummingbird to see them all. I think this next will be her 33rd start!? So next I caught Aliy and talked briefly about her Ginger. She says they've been running her in lead a little bit in some mild summer type training runs and she is shaping up very well. I do think the Surfivers will be leaving a mark on the SPK teams in the coming years. Their mama Chica has retired but she, Quito and Olivia have whelped 3/4 of the current dogs or more! Grande dames indeed.

A bit later I saw the two of them talking and went over to get a picture. One of the teachers--the day also honors the past and next "Teacher on the Trail" women and local area teachers who come--had a friend take her photo with the two of them and I got brave enough to ask the same gal to take one for me! So there I was between two of my all time greatest heroines, as thrilled as if it were any rock or sports star or celebs you can imagine.  You can bet that is one of my favorite photos ever and I even managed a decent smile LOL. I'll print an 8x10 to frame and hang for inspiration.

If you look at the lower right corner of the pic with Deedee and Aliy you will see an Aussie. He was with a guy riding a motorcycle and when they left was up in his little seat behind the driver with goggles and  headphone style ear gear! I wish I had gotten that on film! I did go by and scratch his ears. Still love my Aussies even if Huskies are a current focus.

Wandering around some more I saw a woman and heard people call her "Jan." On a hunch I went up and introduced myself and asked if she was Jan Steves. Indeed she was and we had a lovely talk. She had a terrible accident this past race, about three checkpoints in and had to scratch. A rope came loose on her sled and tangled around a runner, ripped off the plastic insert and flipped the sled--and her--smash onto ice and rock. She had broken ribs, a broken collar bone, punctured lung and other injuries but went on for a bit to the next checkpoint. Trying to change booties on her dogs she realized she was one hurt puppy and ended up being med-evaced. The upshot was I was invited to come visit at the kennel she shares with her partner Bob Chlupach out at Willow. They were among those burned out but are rebuilding. He no longer races but still has about twenty dogs and mentors other younger racers, an awesome guy. More on them a later installment.

In short, it was a very good day and I felt I made some significant progress on my project and plans for a stay in Willow area when fall training time rolls around. I will also plan to be up there next March with a volunteer job to do (while I follow Aliy in a win--thinking positive!!) Hopefully I can crash with Bill, Svetla or maybe Helen--who you will meet in further reports-- if need-be. Hike, hike!! We are off to the next checkpoint, running good!

Starting the trip reports

It is true, there is no place like home, but at least this time of year, I could very  happily be "home" in Alaska. That is not too likely to happen but one can dream. A fixed income, at least at the rate mine is, would not go very far up there. Unless I can convince a nice sled dog to share her den and hut with me...kind of SOL!

Okay, I left El Paso to start my trip about noon on Wednesday the 22nd and finally arrived at Anchorage about 9:30 local. Words of wisdom--do not change from American to Alaskan in Phoenix! You have to take the air-rail to a far distant place and go through security again since you have been outside the main terminal. The TSA idjits took my untouched milk shake and threw it in the trash!! I made my flight but thank goodness had two hours or I would not have.  C'est la por avion! (bad French but anyway!)

Before midnight, which is barely dusky this time of year, I was delivered by one friend (thanks, Bill) to another friend's home and quickly collapsed in her lovely guest room. The drive from Anchorage to Palmer is pretty but my weary eyes did not take much in. Palmer is a neat little town with a lot of history, BTW, and I'll talk more of that later. I enjoyed my stay there very much. Also thanks to Svetla, my hostess, who cooks amazing things mixing her native Czech cuisine with US/Alaskan fare (buffalo is yum!) and allowed her dogs to give me the doggie fix I needed daily.  Here is a snapshot of her sharing a banana with Sasha (Bichon) and Wally (Swedish Vallhund)  And yes, that is also a very old herding breed and in the background of the Welsh Corgi and Lancashire Heeler! I wanted to stick him in a crate and bring him home but with five dogs here it would be too many. And Svetla would  be devastated and mad at me. She, too, loves her fur kids! Her life story is amazing and eventually we'll work on her autobiography but there are some things she can't quite revisit yet without having nightmares.  One tough, brave and strong woman and also a breast cancer survivor. Think pink!!

Another word to the wise--if you go to Alaska in June or July, do not expect to rent a car easily. After spending a long and frustrating hour on the phone Thursday, my intended recovery day,  I finally got one--back in Anchorage--for about twice what I had planned to pay. :-( Svetla and I drove back down in Friday to collect it  Second day slipped by but I did get to enjoy the scenery this time and came back in a flaming red Ford Fusion with 1600 miles on it when I got behind the wheel. I would not buy one but it was not a bad car.

Suddenly it was Saturday morning, the  day of the Iditarod Committee's annual open meeting, the first day of musher sign-up for 2017 and the annual volunteer picnic. This was one big event on my trip calendar. I drove over to west of Wasilla and got there early which was a good thing. I felt the crowd was a bit lighter than last year and fewer mushers actually signed up. This may be from the 33% increase in the entry fee from $3000 to $4000 and some contention over various issues that have a number of people a bit upset. However there were plenty of folks around before the end of the festivities. I talked to quite a few of them and saw even more.

For what it's worth, the Board promised to revisit the entire Iditarod Race Rule Book at their October meeting so we may be seeing at least a few changes such as the so-called "gag rule" about no public negative or derogatory comments by mushers from sign-up to forty-five days after the race, the also contentious issue of  mobile-phones allowed or not, and perhaps even the 'carrying dogs' business. We shall see. I sat very quietly and said almost nothing at the meeting.

Danny Seybert was reelected to the board by a very large majority of votes, mostly mailed in. Outside I walked up and said "Congratulations --and condolences." He smiled as I explained I know what being an officer in any organization entrails--lots of work, lots of flak and little credit. He agreed and then said, "I know you. You're the lady who's writing the book." I admitted I was and was quite gratified and pleased to have someone --a very busy but also astute and seemingly sharp guy--recall that. From there I talked to the new volunteer coordinator--Joanne Poole is beginning to pass along some of her many tasks at last! She was the honorary musher this past race and has been a fixture at ITC HQ from the first.  And I can't actually sign up until they put the new forms on the site about October but that is in the works. I also saw some of the volunteer folks I met last year and renewed those acquaintances. And since I was wearing my Santa Fe (RR) logo ballcap, I had a number ask me if I was from NM, thinking it was for our capital city. There seems to be a really odd link between the 47th and 49th states which surprised me at first but I am getting used to. Lots of desert rat sled dog fans, it seems, and some very serious ones.

To be continued...