Without Target, this article would not be possible, so, first, a thanks to Target® as the sponsor of the Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ position. Its sponsorship is the reason I am writing for this E-runner. From assistance with cold weather gear to transportation to lodging to the opportunity to experience the Iditarod firsthand so I can authentically bring the race to teachers and students around the world, Target has made it possible. Target’s commitment to literacy and its connection with the Iditarod show that this corporation is “right on target” with education.
So many memories come jumping out at me when I think about writing about the race and the experience. Chronological order is the best way to organize them.
The Junior Iditarod
The Junior Iditarod, teams coming off the Yentna River arriving at the roadhouse for their layover. Teens setting and pulling snowhooks with the ease of much practice and foretelling their futures in the mushing world. Early morning at 3 a.m., so cold that moving was essential to warmth, teenagers up at that hour, feeding dogs, hooking up harnesses, packing up gear, teams dashing down the cut trail to the Yentna River, starting the homeward leg of their race. At dawn, the curve of the new moon hanging over the trees on the riverbank, its pale light contrasting with lightening dawn. Anticipating Jeremiah Klejka’s surprise when he realizes what we all know what he does not know—that he is first to finish.
The Iditarod in Skwentna
Fast-paced Skwentna—the teams are still bunched together at this point, so many volunteers direct mushers to food, to straw, to water, to their parking place, and all this starts in the dark, continuing through the night. By late morning, all the teams but three are gone, a fishbone skeleton outline of straw beds on the river.
Nikolai for a few hours- a visit with Ms. B’s class who is excited about the mushers coming to Nikolai. Their autograph books hang in the gym where mushers and visitors can buy moose stew or mushers stretch out on the gym floor pads to sleep, despite noise and light. Martin Buser hooking up his team, game face on, intent on leaving Nikolai to be first into McGrath. The volunteer veterinarians working their way through each team, with exams, scratches, and rubs for each dog.
Flying out of Nikolai with five dogs, including a canine co-pilot in the right seat, for company and warmth. The dogs look out the window to see where their pilot is taking them, then lie on my legs and feet for a short snooze on the way to McGrath.
McGrath, a busy hub, with logistics organizing the Iditarod Air Force planes and volunteer pilots, the backbone of the race’s transportation of volunteers. I get there early enough to see the trailbreakers come through, putting in the trail ahead of the first teams, and I’m early enough to see the first musher, Martin Buser, pull in and out of McGrath on his way to 24 in Takotna.
Takotna to meet more teachers, more students, more villagers. Norwegian students in reflective parking vests valet park teams as they arrive throughout the village between homes, the community center and post office, along the road into Takotna edging the river bank. Kristy Berington and her leaders with dawn’s early light touching their faces. Fourseater planes landing and taking off on the river with cut evergreen branches sprouting from the snow to form the landing strip outline. In a hurry to get back to the river for an outbound flight, sprawled in the snowmachine sled on top of gear and Iditarod Insider camera equipment bags, HANG ON and ZOOM! Down the river bank.
Anvik and a Five Course Breakfast
Anvik where Hugh Neff reaches us first to take the First to the Yukon award, $3500 of cash in a goldminer’s pan and a five-course meal cooked on hotplates. His GPS tracker showed an early morning arrival time, and we all rolled out to greet him, then John Baker, then Lance Mackey. The time spent waiting for Hugh was passed with listening to Ken Chase, an Anvik elder who ran in the very first Iditarod, his voice betraying his passion for the event, even now.
More teachers and students in Anvik, a young boy studying Lance closely as Lance booties up his team, the apprentice watching the master. Children caring for the pup who thought she should run from Shageluk to Anvik because she saw Aliy Zirkle’s team running on the river.
Shageluk, Grayling, Eagle Island, Kaltag, & Unalakleet
Squashed in the back of Dave Looney’s plane, on top of gear with gear on top of me for quick trips to Shageluk, Grayling, Eagle Island, an outpost of nothing but what volunteers set up for camp, Kaltag and the nearly straight-up climb from the river to the village, to Unalakleet for the first shower in about four days. Another hub of logistics and people crossing paths. By now, I am greeting people I met earlier on the trail as we all move to our next villages and checkpoints, just ahead of the first mushers.
Koyuk, where I pitch in moving HEET to the Dodge Lodge, wash the spaghetti with caribou meat sauce dishes, and greet the first five mushers from late evening to 3 a.m. John Baker arrives first, and the villagers crowd into the checkpoint for his arrival (they are following the GPS trackers on their home computers) and stay, to be near John. Speculation begins—Will he be the first Eskimo to win the Iditarod? The Koyuk hillside cemetery painted pink in the rising sun’s light, simple crosses moving me more than eloquent marble. Young boys footracing Mike Williams, Jr. and his team as he comes off the ice.
Running into White Mountain
White Mountain, flying over John and arriving just before he does for the mandatory 8 hour layover. Now, unless something unusual happens, John will win, although Ramey Smyth is second and literally has a track record of making the fastest times between here and Nome. Will it be a foot race?
Nome, Mile 1049
Nome, where it all finishes, but not until all are finished. Not a contest that ends with the first contestant to get there, but one that ends when the last athlete arrives, under the burled arch. A contest recognizing the work, the time, the effort, the perseverance to complete the thousand mile Iditarod. From John Baker to Ellen Halverson, now the race is complete.