Monday, February 29, 2016

Jr. Iditarod Race from Our Front Porch

Living out in the boonies as we do, we see more eagles than people. But once a year, we have front row seats for a dog mushing race that runs right past our cabin.  We look forward to this each February.
A racer passing by our porch
The Junior Iditarod is a two day, 150 mile race for teenaged competitors (14-17) that has been run in the vicinity of Willow, Alaska since 1977.  Each musher must raise, care for, train, and race his or her own team of dogs (usually 10), so the competition is the culmination of many months of commitment.  The entry fee is currently $150 – 250, depending on date of payment.  The prize money of about $10,000 is split among the fastest finishers, but that surely doesn't even cover the expense of feeding and training a whole kennel of dogs. Before the recession (before 2009), the peak number of participants I found was 22. Most years, though, the entry pool consists of only 9-12 intrepid racers.

It is fair to say that more volunteers than competitors participate, many of whom are long timers.   They have volunteered their time as pilots, snowmachiners, ham radio operators, check point timers, cooks and bottle washers.  Each gathering includes some reminiscence of the kids who graduated from this race to enter the “senior” Iditarod – the grueling 1000 mile race that starts  the following weekend (First weekend of March) and lasts for ten days.  Our only full time neighbor (within ten miles) has offered his small lodge as a check point for a decade or more, which is why the race route passes us.

The rest of the trail traverses frozen rivers, meadows, and bogs, and threads through pretty stretches of woods south of the Alaska Range and east of the Belugas. For several days beforehand, pilots fly straw, dog food, and people food out to various checkpoints along the route, usually someone's cabin or a commercial lodge.  Meanwhile, snow machine volunteers mark the route with labeled, reflective stakes, and groom the trail,  alert to deep, moose footfalls that could trip and hurt the running dogs. 

Peripheral though we may be, we help, too, by grooming our runway on the lake, and monitoring the aviation and ham radio transmissions.  Because of warm weather (even a heavy rain the week before!), our little landing strip was icy and rutted from melt/freeze cycles.  Bryan drove back and forth with the snowmachine dragging a passive groomer that scratches up some snow, thus smoothing the surface  and provided texture to help the ski planes slow to a stop.  One aspect of “bush plane courtesy” is that some pilots politely avoid what they perceive as a private strip (although on a public lake).  Other pilots regard the same as a public service.   Since these volunteer pilots were repeaters, delivering multiple loads of supplies to the neighbor, we waved at each one to assure them that they were welcome to use our strip if they wished to.  Most did.  

The day of the race saw temperatures in the teens and low 20s at our home.  The racers departed Willow Lake at 10 am and, by prior year experience and speed estimates,  we anticipated seeing the eleven teams trot past our home between 2:30 and 4:30.  To enjoy their arrivals, each year I plan a bonfire and a picnic so we can enjoy a leisurely afternoon on the front porch.  This year,  I baked some buns, patted out some hamburger/chorizo patties, and burned a pot of baked beans.  We shoved our homemade wine and beer in the snow by the steps while enjoying our respective books in between racers.

  In some ways, watching the race feels like watching a very slow, very short parade.  The teams are spread out, often with ten or fifteen minutes between them.  The dogs trot by at 6 – 13 miles per hour, with the musher standing on the rails of a sled behind them.  I tend to hear the girls talking to their dogs more often than the boys, and one boy was playing rap music on an IPOD, but generally it is very quiet as they pass by – raising their arms in acknowledgement of our cheers and good wishes.  

I tend to get a bit teary as I see them because I have such great respect for all the effort they have made to enter this race and pass my front door.  How many teenagers today make long term commitments to anything, much less the care, feeding, and training of all those animals?  How many teens choose such a solitary endeavor as long distance racing?  I also respect the families of these kids, who make a huge commitment to shelter those dogs and transport them all in specially designed trucks for practice runs and races.  It is a whole family endeavor.  

I fear that many Americans have short attention spans, demanding immediate gratification from passive entertainments.  On the last weekend of February each year, I enjoy evidence  that this is not so, for at least this group of teens and all the adults who support them.  

1 comment:

  1. This sounds so wonderful, such an incredible thing for young people to do and an event to be enjoyed by everyone. I'm sitting here in Africa in the baking heat and next door are five huskies howling in discomfort. I feel sure, they would much rather be out there in the snow doing what they love, than sweltering in boredom over here.