The First Last Great Race
By Peter Erickson
Glacier City Gazette Intern
Iditarod, the last great race in the frozen north has arrived!
As they have in years and decades’ past, spectators from all over flocked to the ceremonial start in Anchorage, then up to the official restart in Willow. It’s a sort of yearly migration taken on by the grizzled mushing enthusiast.
For some, Iditarod 2018 was a brand new experience, a traveler’s first time watching the long romanticized event. A child’s first time seeing the majestic dogs doing what they live for. PETA held its first local protest at the race.
And amidst all of that, this reporter was observing and experiencing all of it for the very first time as well. I have to admit; I’ve never been terribly interested in dog mushing. I’m not very knowledgeable about Iditarod or any dog races for that matter.
Yes, I live in Girdwood, and that means I have a profound love for dogs. But beyond that Universal Studios movie about Balto, dog mushing never really caught my attention. That was until I was sent north to cover one of the local Girdwood teams operating out of Willow.
I figured Team Petit was just another assignment. I did my research to make sure I had all my background down before I even got up there and so on. But when I actually arrived at the property things just felt different.
As soon as I stepped out of the car in Willow at Team Petit’s kennel, I could feel it, an electricity in the air, an excitement emanating. Over the next day and a half in January, I learned all that I could of the team’s daily life and training regimens. The more I talked with them, the more I came to understand the bond that inexorably connects musher and dog.
After that day and a half I was hooked. When I got back to Girdwood, I made a point of keeping track of Team Petit’s progress through the Knik 200, the Copper Basin 300, the Tustumena 200, and the Willow 300, all races Nic Petit won.
It was like mushing had been missing from my life without my ever knowing it. I jumped at the prospect of covering the ceremonial start and restart at the Iditarod.
The ceremonial start in Anchorage felt a little forced. Maybe it was the out of place snow track down the middle of 4th street or the knowledge that after 14 Kilometers the teams would come to a stop, load up and drive north to the restart. It just didn’t have that energy that I felt up in Willow.
The restart was simply buzzing. You could feel it as you walked across the parking lot that was little more than a field of poorly mowed alder saplings. Across the road and through the Willow Library/Convention Center, various teams and sales people were selling memorabilia. Down into the corral area, dogs and their mushers were preparing while saying their cheerful goodbyes to friends and family.
This was it. The moment everyone had been waiting for. The dogs knew what was coming. They had trained for this their entire lives; hours, days, weeks, months spent on trails hauling 4-wheelers and sleds loaded with gear meant to prepare them for the endurance race of their lives.
And the mushers, every one of them worried more about their dogs than themselves. Checking and rechecking to ensure harnesses are worn and attached properly, that paws are adequately covered, and that tails are wagging.
The energy intensified as the time for the first teams to hit the trail approached. Excited yips and the occasional bout of laughter spilled from the corral as I set up at the starting line.
The first team in the chute nearly dragged their handlers down the trail, they were that excited. It was amazing to watch them go. Like furry bullets fired from a frozen gun, they were off to Nome, one team after another. It only took a few hours to get them on their way. As I headed back to Anchorage there came a sudden realization. It occurred to me that I would now have to WAIT over a WEEK to know the results!
Initially this delay troubled me, but in today’s world of instant gratification, where we can binge watch a year’s worth of programming in the space of a day, I’ve decided it’s nice to have to slow wait for the race’s result.
It is day 7 of the race. Nic Petit is in first place and pushing out of Unalakleet, and I am cautiously optimistic. A lot happens between now and Nome, so we watch and wait as the race unfolds before us.