The Nome Recreation Center was packed to the brim last night to celebrate the accomplishments of the 2014 Iditarod Mushers. For every single musher in attendance feelings of relief, satisfaction, and pride had to be filling their hearts. I am sure in the days to come there will be the “what-ifs” and “if only I hads” and “next year I’lls” but last night was for recognizing the accomplishments of a race well done.
I have held my composure pretty well for the last few weeks. I’ve tried not to show how star-struck I am or how much I’ve felt like a kid in a candy shop. But I did buy my tourist souvenir trail mail packets that Nathan Schroeder and Monica Zappa carried down the trail. I tried to convince myself they were to show the kids at school, but I doubt they will make it there. I did get a little weepy when they got announced and recognized onstage. I know, I’m a sap. I know how much it meant to them and how hard they worked, and I am so very thankful to both of them for sharing a small part of their journey with me and my students. I was so very proud of them and of each and every musher who made it to Nome.
The food was wonderful, and the stories are true. There really are sleds full of chocolate covered strawberries on each buffet line. I can’t even begin to imagine how you get fresh strawberries to Nome in March. Hobo Jim played, and played, and played. He played the “Iditarod Trail Song” I think three times with the crowd joining in every time. He even sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for Curt Perano’s child who has shown more than once this week that guitars and music are very interesting by crawling up onto stages.
The special awards were given. Most we knew about already as they had been presented on the trail and were presented here again at a location where the mushers could properly thank people for them and carry them away. Some of them are rather large, and I’m sure wouldn’t fit in the sleds if the mushers were expected to carry them away from the various checkpoints where they were originally presented!
Nathan Schroeder was presented with the Jerry Austin Rookie of the Year Award for being the highest placing rookie. He received a beautiful trophy and a check for $2,000. New this year, he also received a piece of native artwork. James Pete of Stebbins, Alaksa created a beautiful drawing on sealskin. It’s a drawing of a dog team and is stretched on a wooden frame. It’s a wonderful keepsake. Nathan told the crowd that when he finished the race he said it would be his last, “but I lied” he added. The crowed laughed and cheered. I knew he’d be back! He’s been telling me that all along! The award is named for Jerry Austin, a member of the Iditarod Hall of Fame. You can learn more about him here and here.
Jessie Royer and Ray Redington, Jr. tied for the Fastest Time Safety to Nome Award. That seems to fit perfectly with this crazy race doesn’t it? They were both all smiles as they accepted their awards and joked about being tied. This award is presented by the Nome Kennel Club and is a $500 award.
The most improved musher this year is Richie Diehl. He finished in 36th place in 2013 as a rookie and in 14th place this year. He accepted his award, gave his thanks, and then said, “Sorry Matt Failor!” So I had to go look – looks like he beat Matt by one spot to earn this award! He also beat Matt to the finish line by about seven minutes this year! So another close race to add to our collection of close races within the close race! This award is presented by Horizon Lines and includes a trophy and $2,000.
One of the most coveted awards, the Sportsmanship Award, is voted on by the mushers. On Saturday, the mushers had a closed meeting where they discussed the race and voted on several things. (Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on the wall at that meeting?) In presenting the award, Aaron Burmeister, President of the Iditarod Finishers’ Club, said that there were many, many times on this race that mushers had to help others out. But that it seemed like Mike Williams, Jr. was always there when you needed someone to help you out and he never failed to do what he could. Mike is a very quiet and humble guy, and I have no doubt in my mind that this award was well deserved. Mike received $1,049 and a plaque.
The ExxonMobil Mushers’ Choice Award is given to the musher that the finishing mushers vote on as being the most inspirational musher on the trail. This year the mushers chose to give the award to Aaron Burmeister who completed the race despite wrenching in knee in the early stages of the race. He is still having a hard time walking – especially having to climb up and down the stairs to the stage! His young son however, had the time of his life and followed his dad everywhere! Aaron received a special gold coin valued at $3,900.
The Northern Air Cargo Herbie Nayokpuk Award is chosen by the checkers in the checkpoints along the trail. It is given to the musher who most demonstrates the spirit of the Iditarod along the trail. It is named after Herbie Nayokpuk who is also known as the “Shishmaref Cannon Ball.” You can read more about him here. This year the award was presented to a clearly moved Newton Marshall to the resounding cheers of the crowd. This may be the most quiet I’ve ever seen Newton. He was clearly moved and didn’t really know what to say. I know that he’s been struggling to raise the funds needed to run this race and a little birdie told me they were raising funds to get him out of Nome right up to the very last minute, so I know this award will help. He was given free freight on Northern Air Cargo, a trophy, and a jacket with $1,049 in one dollar bills stuffed into the pockets. I have heard Newton say time and again that he loves people and he loves meeting people, so I’m sure the fact that his award was voted on by the volunteers in the checkpoints will make it all that much more special to him.
The Golden Clipboard Award is given by the finishers to a checkpoint each year. This year, the finishers chose to recognize the town and checkpoint of Galena. The town was devastated by floods about nine months ago an is still putting their town back together. In presenting the award, Mark Nordman the Race Director, recalled a conversation he had with the mayor of the town. “Are you sure you are ready for the Iditarod to descend on you?” “We need the Iditarod to come,” was the response. I know that thought was echoed by the people I met and talked to in that town. Having the Iditarod come gave them back a sense of normalcy and something to look forward to. The race needed Galena and Galena needed the race. It was a perfect match.
The mushers traditionally award one vet with the Golden Stethoscope Award each year. This year they decided they couldn’t choose just one explained Aily Zirkle and Karin Hendrickson. Instead, Jeff Schultz, the official Iditarod photographer, donated a print that will be given to each and every vet as a memento.
For the fifth time in his career, Martin Buser was awarded the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award. This award is given to a musher who is competitive (finishing in the top 20) whom the vets have determined has given outstanding care to his dogs. Each vet on the trail turns in votes for first, second, and third place. At the finish, each dog is scored after being given a physical. They also look at their gait. The scores are added together to determine a winner. Martin, in accepting this award, was obviously moved. He reiterated that it was he who let down his dogs. That the two-legged person couldn’t keep up with the four-legged ones. I’m not sure I agree with that. He clearly took exceptional care of them on the trail, and that is an admirable thing.
The City of Nome Lolly Medley Golden Harness Award is given to an outstanding lead dog selected by the mushers. Lolly Medley was a harness maker from the town of Wasilla and one of the first two women to compete in the Iditarod in 1974. The golden harness was awarded to Beatle, one of Dallas’ lead dogs. Beatle came in to get his award and Dallas joked, “This is the hardest part of the Iditarod for him!” and in fact he did look a little stunned by the crowd of people and the flashbulbs going off! Dallas also talked about his other lead dog Reef. Reef had been training all year with Christian Turner, who was running Dallas’ puppy team. At the last minute Reef graduated from the puppy team to the A-Team and ended up hitting the trail with Dallas! Imagine being called up to the major leagues and then going on to win the World Series! Wow!
Once the special awards were presented, the finishers were called to the stage one at a time in reverse finishing order to receive their recognition. Most mushers thanked their dogs, sponsors, friends, and families. Many thanked their host families in Nome. A few talked about how bad the trail was. Some mentioned trying again next year. And several shared trail stories. The theme that seemed to run through many of the stories was how much the mushers helped each other out on the trail. They offered each other words of encouragement, for example Allen Moore told Travis Beals to “put his big boy pants on and get zesty!” They helped each other out with equipment and supplies. They worked together to get through storms and wind. They were competitors, but they also cared tremendously for each other and each others’ teams. They accepted their awards, and then were off to the autograph chute again.
Finishing in third, Mitch Seavey talked about the trials at the beginning of the race. Travelling through the Gorge and getting bumped and bruised along that section of the trail. His parting shot? “I’ll never get used to being beaten by girls and kids,” as he looked at Aily Zirkle and his son Dallas standing off stage right.
Aily, for her part discussed the storm that pinned her into Safety. She said she never realized she passed Jeff King and when she got to Safety was terrified for him. She says her race ended there. “I don’t really know Jeff King, I’d never sit down and have a coffee with him, but I was scared. I thought he was dead.” When he showed up half an hour later, she said she gave him a big hug, “I’m so glad you are here and safe.” “But without my dogs,” was the response. She praised the Insider Team who went off on their snowmachines with Jeff to get the dogs. And then she says she fell asleep from sheer emotional exhaustion. She was awoken later by the checkers saying they saw headlights. And she was relieved. That meant Dallas was coming and he was safe too. Then she looked out and he was signing out of Safety and the wind was gently flapping his dog jackets. Gently flapping. Not blowing like crazy. “So we can go!” she thought and the race was on. She said that was the most fun part of her race! She saw his headlight, he kept turning around to check on her. She finally thought she had caught him right where they turn to come off the sea ice onto Front Street… she was getting closer and closer to that headlight. And then she realized it was’t his headlight, it was a guy standing stationary directing her her where to turn. She has no regrets she says.
The other story she shared was of a young girl in Unalakleet who shyly asked if she could take a picture with Aliy which of course Aliy agreed to. The girl told Aliy that her boyfriend thought all girls were sissies and that when Aliy won the race she was going to show this picture to her boyfriend and tell him that he was wrong. Aliy had all of the women who had finished the race stand. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like a sissy!” she said.
Dallas them come up to receive his winner’s check and the key to his new truck to a standing ovation from the crowd. He said his dad had covered the early parts of the trail in his story, Aliy had covered the last storm in hers, and so he guessed he’d talk about the question of did he really not know he had won the race. And in fact he really did not know. He says he pulled into Safety, saw Aliy’s name on the clipboard and figured she was long gone. “Who actually looks to see if they are signed in AND out?” He noticed Jeff’s name wasn’t there, but just assumed Jeff had slipped by and was missed by the checkers. So he took off. He wasn’t going to slouch, he was going to give it all he and his team had to finish the race up strong. At some point he looked back and saw a headlight in the distance. He was shocked, and tried to figure out how his dad had made up so much time on him. He was NOT going to let his dad beat him, he was sure he’d never hear the end of it! So off he went and started running with the team. He said, yes, he kept looking back but he thought he was covering up his headlight with his hand, but obviously his “little, skinny hand” didn’t do the job so well since Aliy said she kept seeing him! He was surprised there were some many people at the finish line for the third place team, but maybe they had come to see his dad beat him. He really didn’t realize it until a cameraman told him he had won.
And so the Awards Banquet came and end. And in what I have come to realize is just part of the Iditarod surrealism, I was swept into a truck, driven to the airport, and put on a charter plane back to Anchorage along with Hobo Jim and Jeff Schultz…. two more people who make me star-struck!