Three hundred miles to Nome

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PHOTO BY FAY WENGER My first day of dog mushing training with Paws for Adventure. We left on an overnight dog mushing trip the following day during which I drove a six-dog team, narrowly managing to avoid almost certain catastrophe on multiple occasions.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’ve spent the last week obsessively following the Iditarod—“The Last Great Race” as it has come to be known, though I can’t agree with this nickname while there are still races like the Yukon Quest also occurring annually.

It’s day seven of the race since the restart in Fairbanks on Monday, March 9. (The ceremonial start takes place the Saturday prior in downtown Anchorage but there’s no way a musher and team of 16 dogs could actually race through the streets of Anchorage without destroying the town in what would likely be a highly entertaining fashion so that start remains ceremonial. As it stands SP Kennel’s Scooter apparently barked an ornamental moose in someone’s garden and Izzy apparently got a little to close to a spectating Jack Russell.)

I am, of course, rooting for Aliy Zirkle of SP Kennel (Skunk Place Kennel) as I have done in the last two years since my mom and I visited Alaska and attended the ceremonial start in Anchorage, meeting Aliy, her husband Allen Moore, and many of their dogs at an event the night before at a hotel in Anchorage. (I wish I could recall which hotel but, unsurprisingly, two years later it is the memory of the dogs that sticks with me the most.) The last three years in a row Aliy has come in second place—a close second—in the Iditarod. In 2000 she was the first woman to win the Yukon Quest and since then her husband Allen was won the Quest twice. The couple shares dogs and takes turns racing the A team. Allen takes the A team on the Yukon Quest while Aliy runs a younger, less experienced B team and during the Iditarod Aliy takes the A team while Allen runs the younger team. It’s incredible to me that a team of dogs could run a 1,000 mile race (the Yukon Quest), much of it in 40 below temperatures and then turn around and run a second 1,000 mile race (the Iditarod) in just a couple of weeks.

This is a particularly important year for SP Kennel. Quito, the kennel’s all-star lead—a tiny, 43-pound runt of the litter—will turn nine in June. That’s pretty old in racing years given that Aliy and Allen have three year olds running this year’s Iditarod. Quito’s siblings Nacho and Chica are the same age and are also SP Kennel stars—stars that will likely retire soon leaving the kennel to go through a few years of searching for new leaders. The kennel places a lot of emphasis on training the younger dogs but you can’t predict a rockstar litter like Quito, Nacho, and Chica and you can’t necessarily replace it.

Why do I care?

Yesterday it was 90 degrees where I live in California. People were gloating on Facebook about being able to go to the beach in March, but it was 85 in January and according to the LA Times, my state’s rapidly running out of water. It’s terrifying. And maybe images of dogs and mushers battling the elements, which often hit 40 below and colder, reminds me that there are places in the world that aren’t suffering from an exceptional drought. Maybe it gives me hope.

Watching Groundhog Day last night, Phil states bleakly: “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.” That’s how I feel about the hot weather in California—bleak, desperate, concerned. So you can understand why I’d be a little obsessed with a race that’s the complete opposite of everything I experience on a daily basis.

Perhaps most importantly, when we were in Alaska my mom and I went on an overnight dog mushing adventure with Paws for Adventure out of Fairbanks. It remains one of the most exhilarating, terrifying,
challenging, and rewarding experiences of my life. I can’t describe how connected I felt to my team, how reliant I was on them in the freezing cold, trusting them to take me where I was supposed to go, hearing them howl and feeling them tug against the line to keep running after hours of mushing. I want that in my life. Not just once every couple of years but on a regular basis. Hearing them howl with joy at the end of the day’s run when they bedded down in their straw with bellies full of food was the closest I’ve ever come to perfect joy.

And I have to believe, in a world dominated by ease, constant access to technology, and so many meaningless exchanges and posts, in the existence of something simple and pure. Most professional sports bore me to tears. I love playing sports and I enjoy the stories behind the athletes, but I have to wonder how much is really at stake for a guy making millions of dollars per year, wearing 50 pounds of padding with highly-paid doctors waiting on the sidelines. I have a hard time identifying any heart or soul in professional sports.

But watching an athlete disappear into the wilderness alone with their team of 16 dogs that they’ve spent the entire year training, knowing that the only pay-off for a win is $50,400 and a brand new Dodge Ram pickup truck. That’s barely enough to support an entire kennel of dogs for the entire year, much less enough to cover the cost of equipment and entry fees. Dog mushing is about love, about having to live this particular kind of life because nothing else will satisfy you.

Rule 34 of the Iditarod rulebook states: “In the event that an edible big game animal, i.e., moose, caribou, buffalo, is killed in defense of life or property, the musher must gut the animal and report the incident to a race official at the next checkpoint. Following teams must help gut the animal when possible. No teams may pass until the animal has been gutted and the musher killing the animal has proceeded. Any other animal killed in defense of life or property must be reported to a race official, but need not be gutted.”

While I’m not a particular fan of hunting (though I do think it’s more noble to hunt your own meat than to acquire it in a grocery store), I can get behind hunting an animal to protect your dogs. Truly, it does not get more badass than a rule about gutting an animal in the middle of a race.

Fortunately, SP Kennel is pretty good at attracting sponsors. They maintain an active and informative blog and website, Aliy’s particularly popular with the press as indicated with the fact that she scored an incredible Sports Illustrated feature which ran March 9, but all of this takes time and effort just like caring for and training a kennel of mushing dogs takes time and effort. Many of the mushers in the Iditarod have day jobs and I honestly don’t know how they balance their responsibilities but somehow they do.

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SCREENGRAB FROM THE IDITAROD WEBSITE

As it stands, Aliy is about 300 miles from the finish line in Nome. She’s in first place with a small two-hour lead over Jeff King who’s chasing second. Really, though, it’s two-time champion Dallas Seavey in fourth place that I’m worried about. He’s passed Aliy late in the game before and the final phase of the race brings them along the coast which is notorious for deadly winds and storms, one of which nearly killed several mushers last year.

I want desperately to see Aliy and Quito (and Scout, Waylon, Nacho, Izzy, Scooter, Chica, Scruggs, Mismo, Mac, Schmoe, Sissy, Clyde, and Willie—she had to drop Nelson and Outlaw at a checkpoint where they are being cared for by well-trained veterinarians) cross that finish line first. I want it perhaps more than I should. But it brings me joy to know that she’s out there, that they’re out there, racing through wilderness that most of us will never experience. I can’t say that it brings me calm or peace, given the butterflies that churn through my stomach every time I check the standings, but it gives me hope. It inspires me.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my thirty-one years on this planet, it’s that you should never turn your back on something that inspires you, no matter how far off it might seem.

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