Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Iditarod Volunteer Corps--Part 2

When I covered the volunteer subject in the previous post, I semi-intentionally left out one function. It will lead right into some of my experiences that were more closely linked to that area than the others. That final function is security. Volunteers working in this area do a wide range of things. They assist in guiding the musher parking in downtown Anchorage for the Ceremonial Start. Imagine lining up about seventy five dog trucks, some with trailers, so that each musher can proceed with his or her team to the starting line in an organized and orderly way. Yep, that is one big job.  Then the same work is repeated at the official start, be it at Willow, as usual, or in Fairbanks.

And, while the ceremonial start takes place and the ensuing run for eleven miles through the city and out to the BLM Compound on the northwest side, others serve for crowd control and make sure the snowy path stays clear and no one gets into a hazardous spot or distracts the dogs.  Once again they control the crowds as the official start gets underway.  Everyone wants to see it ‘up close’ and they jockey for the best photo op spots but spectators must not be allowed to interfere so volunteers man the barriers and keep people in a safe place. Volunteers  also assist at the Mushers’ Banquet—more on this shortly—and they keep watch on the dog yards, both that for dropped dogs returned to Anchorage and at the finish in Nome where dogs are housed for several days until all the mushers have arrived and the final awards ceremony is completed.  

Table decorations
One of the first jobs I had was working at the Mushers’ Banquet. This is a big event held in a huge hall in downtown Anchorage. At the event, fans and supporters can purchase tickets to dine and socialize with the mushers and watch the action as the mushers are called up in the order they registered for the race to draw their bib number which also determines their starting position. There is a big silent auction to raise added funds for the event and some volunteers help with this, using tablets to collect and record bids. Kids all around the country have made table decorations and long before the doors open volunteers put them, race guides and other documents out at each place—roughly 2,000 chairs in this enormous room, ten places at each of about 200 round tables. Every table had at least one item made by a school child somewhere in the US. Some were very creative and handsome, too!

Da'anina Center, Banquet site
Finally the doors opened and more volunteers stood in the portals and asked to see tickets of everyone who enters.. Most are orderly and polite but a few get pushy and have to be asked to stay out—or someone goes to find a supervisor and be sure the person is allowed to come in. I helped with both tasks and then got to observe the rest of the event. Unfortunately I was having a bad eye day and instead of wandering around to chat and get some photos as I had hoped, I watched the blurred action and mostly listened from the back of the room. Still, it was a thrill to be there. I heard Aliy speak after she drew her number—42—and thank the supporters for the love and good wishes they had poured out to her after the tragic snow machine issue last year. And I cheered for several other favorites.

This was Thursday evening, March 2. Two days later, I considered going to downtown Anchorage to watch the start –busses ran from the hotel and later brought people back--but instead opted to go out a bit farther with a group of the “Trail Guards” that included a new friend who had also volunteered at the banquet. 

At about 7:00 a.m. (still before daylight savings) it was c-o-l-d. The mercury hovered around the zero mark. Bare hands went red and then blue in mere minutes and you wanted a scarf or neck gaiter to cover your lower face! We took a cab out to the area known as Tudor crossing where the trail, normally a hiking and bike trail through some parks went in a tunnel under a busy road. We soon found the rest of the group who were mostly local residents. Everyone pitched in to help set up a big tent to give a warm-up place and to serve later for the tailgate party after the last team had passed. By then the sun came up and before long it was up in the twenties and did not feel bad at all.
Tudor Crossing trail guard gang

I found a couple of likely view points not far from the trail and set up with the goal of getting a photo of every team as it passed. I missed a few but got about sixty five of the seventy four or so that ran by. Besides the seventy three entered racers, the Honorary Musher—someone selected by the ITC Board each year for their support and contributions to the race-- led the way with a non-racing musher as their ‘taxi’.  I’ll be posting several of these photos in a later post.

After the final team had gone by—it took about three hours—we gathered for a great feed the local people provided. I had some ‘moose bratworst’ that was delicious and other more ordinary tailgate party treats. Finally my friend and I rode back with another volunteer who was in the same hotel we were—the Lakeside. It was a beautiful, sunny and mostly still day—what the Alaskans call a “Bluebird Day,” a real blessing and treat.  What a fabulous day that had been!!

My fave of the table decor!
Aliy via big screen video--know by red beanie
that it is her!!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Iditarod Voluteer Crops-Part 1

 It takes a virtual army of people with a variety of skills to support the massive endeavor that is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in the twenty-first century. When I arrived at the Lakefront Millennium Hotel on the south side of the city early in the morning on March 1, many people were there already. During the next two weeks, a conservative 2,000 people came and went, some heading home early, some out to the checkpoints, and some remaining long after I returned to New Mexico. They come from almost every state and a number of foreign countries. It seems very popular with Aussies and New Zealanders, Germans, some Japanese etc.
Lakefront Millennium Hotel

Here are a few of the special functions that must be performed:

  1. Veterinarians and Vet Techs. These folks have to examine and drug test every dog that goes out on the trail before the official start. Teams of them also go out to the checkpoints, sixteen in this year’s race route which ran from Fairbanks to Nome for the third time in the race’s forty-five year history. The normal official start is in Willow, just north of Wasilla and about sixty miles from Anchorage.  Then, as dogs are “dropped” which means taken off the musher’s teams, normally due to injury, sickness or just being overly tired, they are checked before they are transported by air back to Anchorage and after they arrive there.  The wellbeing of the dogs is very important to everyone involved and each year more advances are made in how they are managed and cared for.  More vets are at the finish at Nome to reexamine all dogs and ensure they are not in need of medical aid.

  1. Dog Handlers: This bunch has several jobs at different points in the race. For the ceremonial
    Hotel grounds, SW end
    start in Anchorage, which is the “show” part of the event, they assist the vets/techs and then help the mushers get the excited dogs lined out and kept under control until each team receives it’s “go” from the Race Marshall. They start at two minute intervals here just as they do in the second or official start.  Next, groups go out to the checkpoints where they assist the mushers by directing them to rest or parking places, locating drop bags (bags of food and supplies sent out ahead of time, each marked with the musher’s name) , watch and check on all dogs to include the dropped dogs before they are transported, help the vet with the examination of each dog and clean up the bedding straw and debris after each team departs.  They also monitor the dog yard at Nome while the mushers are busy with the festivities and public activities there, keep unauthorized people out and sometimes dispense food and water. Another group stays in Anchorage to pick up returned dogs at the airports and care for them until either the musher’s authorized representative can come to take them or for those not picked up with a few hours,  groups are taken to the Women’s Prison in Eagle River where inmates are privileged to care for them.

  1. Communications: This covers two broad functions, data collection and recording and answering incoming calls from the public.  Groups of comms folks go out to all checkpoints on the trail and with laptops and other electronic devices send back information on the arrival and departure times of each musher, number of dogs in and out for each team, monitor the mandatory rest times, and any other critical information. This data is received and compiled in Anchorage and entered into the data bases which generate the status reports given to the public and maintained for the entire period of the race.  Meanwhile, after the official start, people want to know who is ahead, where their favorite musher is and often seek to find out about rumors and ‘wild tales’ which do circulate. Information on such things is only given out after a press release is prepared but current standings can always be shared. This crew also sends out “Mushergrams” which are notes of support and encouragement sent to mushers by family, friends and fans. This function is not as busy as it was before the extensive use of the internet with videos and live streaming of portions of the action, but not everyone is on line, even today!
    Volunteer Registration  Room

Miscellaneous:  Other assorted tasks include packing materials to go to various checkpoints and in this instance to Fairbanks for the official start and Nome for the finish. All volunteers must register, receive a badge and the year’s cap, sign releases if they are not ITC members (that is not an official of the actual board but a ‘card carrying’ supporter, such as I am and most of the volunteers are.) In short the race headquarters is a busy place, even after the preliminary mushers’ meeting, the banquet where they draw start or bib numbers and get their dog ID tags and bibs etc. and the ceremonial start events.  A few also go out to some checkpoints to cook to feed the volunteers and mushers. Not until the last musher arrives in Nome, the last dropped dog is safely returned and the ‘loose ends’ of the rce are neatly tied up do the last volunteers depart.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Miracles of Modern Travel

In a lot of ways I am awestruck by something we almost take for granted these days. It is almost too easy—you get on an airplane; it leaves the ground and soars hundreds of miles in a few hours to return to the earth and deposit its passengers to take another form of transportation to their destination or get on another plane to continue their journey.

For many years, the north forty-ninth state, which was not even a state when I was born, seemed incredibly distant to me and beyond reach. Then a dream and an idea began to take shape in my mind. In 2014, I discovered that by air, it is not so far at all—mere hours had me there.  Now I have been to Alaska and back five times and spent a total of close to three months there.  

Any long trip is an adventure. My latest was no exception. Although I am certainly not Catholic and really not even religious, I nearly feel I need to light a candle for St. Christopher, the patron of travelers. Either he or my guardian angel had to have been working overtime to ensure I made the trip as I had planned it and even my checked luggage did the same. It was by the narrowest of margins not once but twice!

On Tuesday, Feb 28, I boarded a ‘regional’ jet at El Paso, bound for Phoenix. Although the wind was blowing close to hurricane force gusts and moving clouds of dust, the plane took off without issues and landed safely in Phoenix at the appointed time. My gates were some distance apart as usual—switching from the short hop small planes to the larger long distance ones usually has the result.  I had more time than I expected because some issue –I think they said “a minor maintenance matter” kept us on the ground for quite while after the expected take off. Finally we were airborne, headed for SeaTac, the Seattle-Tacoma airport.

I was fretting about making a fairly close connection and expecting to have to take the tram from the “D” to the “N” concourse since I was switching from American to Alaskan. One of my seat companions was a younger business man who clearly traveled a lot. He had an app on his phone to look up gates and assured me we were to come in at D-11 and I would go out at D-3. What a bit of luck. Coming into the crowded airport, I checked the first board I saw and found that was true. I scurried and found the plane already in the boarding process but I was far from the last passenger. I did worry a bit whether my suitcase had made that flight, though. However I knew Alaskan is very good with luggage and would ensure I did get it.

Off we went to land about three and a half hours later in Anchorage. Lo and behold, my suitcase had indeed made it on the same plane and popped up quickly on the carousel. I grabbed it and went out in the chill to catch the shuttle to my hotel.

Two weeks later on March 14, I rode the same shuttle, emblazoned with a picture of sled dogs running in harness, since the hotel is the long-time headquarters for the Iditarod. At sundown the local temperature was about 10-15 (above zero!) but wind chill made it feel colder. I was early—I’d had to check out of my room at 12:00 noon and got tired of schlepping around the hotel. Now I just wanted to be home! The old hurry up and wait routine, too familiar!

I checked in, made it through security and found my gate. Still had time to burn so I visited a McDonald’s for a snack, wandered through some shops and finally it was time to board. We were about on time and landed in Seattle at 2:00 a.m. Again both gates were in “D” but the outbound was in a new area where the concessions had not even been opened yet and at that hour might not have been anyway. Oh well, I was then too tired and dull to want to eat. We were to leave at 5:00 and I would have an hour in Phoenix to get back to the puddle jumper gate.

The hour came and we were not boarding. The growing crowd was restive. Finally the representative told us they were missing two crew members, an officer and a flight attendant for whom substitutes had been summoned. We waited some more. It was right at 6:00 a.m., an hour late, when we took off. The pilot told us there was a headwind so he could not make up much time but he’d do his best to help all of us make any connections.
Just before take off I texted my brother and the friend who was picking me up that there might be a delay. An hour of my expected seventy-two minutes in Phoenix was gone…

When we touched down I had about forty minutes before the next plane was to leave. My set was back in row 21 and it took forever to get everyone on their feet, gear collected and moving. I tried not to get frantic. They had promised me an electric cart when I expressed concern at Seattle but someone lese must have nabbed it. With about twenty minutes left, I went to a customer service desk and got the gate number—the usual long run from the outer wing of “A” to the inner wing of “B”. I ran; even on the moving sidewalks, I ran, almost certain it was a lot cause but I had to try. Gate B-15 was obscure—I asked for it at B-16 and dashed back to find it hidden behind Starbucks. By then I was  shaking as I both cursed and blessed the fact more construction had these smaller planes out on the tarmac in the old fashioned way, though with a long ramp rather than stairs to climb aboard. I was the last passenger to get there.

I barely had time to text that I had made it and would be in El Paso at the appointed time. My hand shook so much I could hardly hit the letters.  I was and amazingly, my bag was too! Outside it was pushing 90 degrees. Even my flannel shirt was too hot and the mid-weight parka I had worn to the Ted Stevens Airport in Anchorage was a useless albatross. I shed both when we reached my friend’s SUV. He cranked up the air and two hours later I was home to be greeted by my eager red dogs. A journey of about fifteen hours total, from winter to summer, from Alaska to the Mexican Border, on which El Paso sits. From sled dogs to pet dogs and my own bed at last.

Yes, miracles on all sides. Heartfelt thank yous to whichever of the Powers-that-Be interceded for me.  Thanks also to the chap with the app between Phoenix nd Seattle and the two young men who shared my set from Seattle back to Phoenix and helped me slip on my backpack and blocked those behind so I could head down the aisle as soon as it was possible. Maybe looking like an old lady, especially a kind of eccentric ‘cowboy girl’ sort of one has its perks!

Sunday, March 5, 2017


I am here, crazy busy and having a blast. Not a. lot of spare time so I am doing mostly Facebook for now. I have taken lots of pix but not uploaded them yet. Really need to get home to crop and clean them. . But I did get about 65 of the 73 mushers yesterday. Volunteers are from all over and have made many new friends. Check my FB page (Gwynn Morgan) for short updates and I will be back here if and when I can!!