“Don’t Love Something That Can’t Love You Back” – Martin Buser

IMG_2627_2

“It’s the friends we meet along life’s road who help us appreciate the journey.” – Unknown

Martin Buser at the Restart in Fairbanks

Martin Buser at the Restart in Fairbanks

“Don’t love something that can’t love you back.” – Martin Buser. Truer words could not have been expressed during a time of tragedy in lives of so many in Willow, Alaska.

 I’ve been spending the last week at Vern Halter’s Dream a Dream Dog Farm (mile 64) helping out before the annual Iditarod Summer Teacher Camp. On an unusually hot Sunday afternoon my experience at Vern’s took a huge turn. As Cindy, Lynda, and I were outside preparing the dogs for the tour, Vern was inside giving his presentation. The bus driver for the tour group came over to Lynda and asked her what mile marker she lived near because a forest fire just broke out at mile marker 77. Lynda lives near mile 74, so she took off to check on her home, dogs, and cats. As we drove up the highway to the tour halfway point to meet Vern and the dogs to water them, we could see the smoke intensifying in the distance. The tour finished as the fire expanded from 200 acres to 1000 acres in a matter of hours.

 After the tour, the preparation began. A few neighbors and friends began transporting their dogs to Vern’s kennel as they were being evacuated from their homes. Including Vern’s dogs there were close to 80 dogs on the property. The fire continued to spread south and even leapt across the highway.

 In a matter of hours word had spread across social media and throughout the mushing community. Calls for help and support were being cast out on Facebook. People in the small community of Willow had begun loading up dogs, horses, chickens, and personal effects; anything they could grab and evacuated their homes. The fire strengthened and continued to spread.

 At Vern’s we began to prepare for the worst. We started loading up dog food, necklines, water, harnesses, ganglines, dog dishes; as many supplies that would fit in our vehicles. We drove the 4-wheelers about 10 miles south to Houston, loaded with even more dog food. We waited. As we waited the power flickered on and off a few times and at one point staying off for about 20-minutes. We waited.

unnamed

Some of Vern’s dogs at Happy Trails Kennel

 It was now our time to evacuate. We began moving more vehicles down to Houston. Since there was close to 80 dogs at Vern’s, it was necessary to call for additional trucks. Trucks were sent from Martin Buser and Dee Dee Jonrowe to help load up dogs and evacuate. Approximately 80 dogs, including Vern’s racing dogs, house pets, 10-week old puppies, 3 friends’ dogs, were now loaded up and on their way to Martin Buser’s Happy Trails Kennel. Buser graciously offered up his kennel to anyone. When we arrived at Buser’s, there were close to 400 dogs spread out around the kennel. We immediately began arranging the dogs around the property sheltering them from direct sunlight. Our number one priority was the dogs and their care. We made sure they had water and enough room to lie down and be comfortable. The puppies took refuge in their very own large puppy pen complete with a couple of doghouses.

 If I ever had any doubt that people are genuinely good, those thoughts were laid to rest amidst this heartbreaking disaster. Martin Buser, who ironically battled a fire at his home in Big Lake back in 1996, opened his kennel, visitor center, Bed and Breakfast, offered dog food, people food; any accommodation necessary, to anyone that needed help. When we arrived there was countless water dishes already filled and ready to serve up to the dogs, chains, lines, and doghouses available and ready to hook up dogs. During my 3-day stay at the Buser’s kennel I gained new friends and gained a great deal of faith in humanity. So many people stopped by at all hours of the day to drop off donations of dog food, kennels, water, human food, meals, clothes, and money. Some even stopped by to help volunteer to clean up poop, dish up water, or just lend a helping hand.

 A couple of the mushers that were staying at Martin’s place were Dee Dee Jonrowe and Justin and Jaimee High. Dee Dee, her husband, and the Highs are neighbors off mile 73. Dee Dee and her husband lost their property. The only thing left standing was a building that dog handlers sometimes stay in. I had an opportunity to see her place first-hand as we headed out to help put out hot spots. When we arrived we heard great news of her chickens surviving. We could still feel the intense heat of the fire as we sauntered around her property. Smoke billowed from a shipping container filled with dog food. The burnout of multiple vehicles left trails of molten aluminum from the motors and rims. Dee Dee’s father’s classic 1953 automobile, which was a gift to her as it was her birth year, was resting within the skeleton of a burned up trailer. It looked like a war-zone.

 

Doghouses surrounded by scorched trees

Doghouses surrounded by scorched trees

We stopped at Justin and Jaimee’s property as well. Six months ago Justin and Jaimee had already lost their home to a fire. They were in the process of rebuilding on the same exact property while living in a shipping container that housed all of their possessions. Again, destruction hit the High’s; they lost everything. The home was nothing but a smoking hole in the ground. Scorched trees surrounded relatively untouched doghouses. Directly next to the burned up temporary home of the shipping container was a table holding dishes that had been washed the morning of the fire, undamaged. It was a heartbreaking scene to witness.

 “Don’t love something that can’t love you back.” Many people lost their entire life possessions. I know it’s hard to hear, but you can replace possessions, you can’t replace lives. All of these people have their dogs and their lives. The possessions may be gone, but you still have the memories and the stories that went along with the belongings. As I was talking with a friend last week we talked about the importance of one day at a time. This statement is perfect for those living through this tragedy.

 I never imagined this would be part of my experience, but I feel privileged to have been able to help the many people in need and witness so much selflessness. Fierce competitors during the Iditarod in March, compassionate support teams in time of need.

We moved all the dogs and puppies back to Vern’s as of Wednesday morning (June 17). Everyone is happy and comfortable in their own doghouses.

Next Dream: Run the Iditarod

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." - Lao-Tzu

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao-Tzu

My first half Ironman

My first half Ironman

A few years ago I was watching an Ironman Kona special on T.V. I was amazed by the commitment, dedication, and inspiring stories of these athletes. Each time someone would cross the finish line and Mike Reilly would announce, “[insert name] YOU are an Ironman,” chills went up and down my spine. I started imagining my name being announced. Immediately after the show I started looking for a half-Ironman close to home. In August of 2014 I completed my first half-Ironman with my eyes set on a full Ironman. I am currently training for Ironman Wisconsin in September. Had it not been for a T.V. special, inspiring stories, and a dream, I would  have never imagined doing an Ironman.

In Nome under the Burled Arch

In Nome under the Burled Arch

As I was standing in Nome, the feeling I had when watching the Ironman special came rushing back. I was standing there listening to the announcer call the names of the mushers as they crossed under the Burled Arch. You can’t help but feel extremely happy for those mushers who put so much time, effort, and commitment into making their dream a reality. I kept wondering how they felt during that moment or what they were thinking. I started imagining them calling my name.

DSC_9914

At Vern’s Dream a Dream Dog Farm

Two summers ago I made my first trip to Alaska. One of the many amazing places I visited was Vern’s Dream and Dream Dog Farm. Here I had the opportunity to play with puppies, take them on hikes, harness sled dogs, and take my first sled dog ride in the back of an ATV. I remember thinking to myself, “I want to do this.” Just as most of us do, I shoved the thought aside and it became a dream. There is no way I could be a musher, I live in Iowa. There is no way I could afford to be a musher on a teacher’s salary. There is no way I could be a musher without quitting my job; a job I love.

During my journey as Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, I continued to read about, write about, and witness incredible Iditarod adventures. Each book I read, blog I wrote, or other person’s adventure I witnessed, something kept nagging at me; I want to do this. Out on the trail, my journey was indescribable, but I could feel it was not quite complete. There is something I still feel I need to do; I want to do this.

When I arrived home, still more reading of Iditarod books and looking at pictures some mushers were posting on Facebook; something still missing. My journey is incomplete; I want to do the Iditarod. I started pondering how I could run the Iditarod without quitting my job. I contacted Cindy Abbott who did just that; she ran the Iditarod and didn’t have to quit her job in California. We chatted back and forth a little and she pointed me in Vern Halter’s direction. My next step was to contact Vern. I have spent some time at Vern’s during the Iditarod Summer Teacher Camp, so we know each other. After getting a positive vibe from Vern I had to figure out what to do about school. After speaking with my principal, we determined extended leave would be the best plan. My principal has been very supportive knowing how passionate I am about my students, the school district, and the Iditarod. After waiting around for a month until the next school board meeting, my request for extended leave was approved. I am going to run the Iditarod.

Just as the inspirational stories of Ironman finishers moved me to attempt an Ironman, the inspiring stories I witnessed on the trail have moved me to attempt the Iditarod. Something I have learned over the last few years is if you have a dream, don’t let anything get in your way. I could have easily given up when I first thought that this was impossible. It is not impossible, with the support of many people, I found a way. I am excited to continue my Iditarod journey.

I will be spending this summer at Vern’s place working with the dogs, puppies, and tour groups. I will begin to develop a relationship with the dogs that will take me to Nome. I will head back up to Vern’s from October to the end of March training and qualifying for the Iditarod. According to the Iditarod rules, a musher must complete two 300-mile qualifiers and another approved qualifier for a total of 750 miles to be qualified.

I hope to again be in Nome, this time crossing under the Burled Arch with a team of dogs.

Dreams Can Come True

"I know how the distance between your dreams and the reality can seem to be scary. But for me, my dream is one long journey and I am ready to take every step on the route." - Mina Deanna

“I know how the distance between your dreams and the reality can seem to be scary. But for me, my dream is one long journey and I am ready to take every step on the route.” – Mina Deanna

The most difficult posting I have had to write so far, has been this one. Ever since I arrived home I have been trying to figure out a way to put my experience in words and share it with the world; it is impossible. There are no words to describe the feelings or what I experienced out on the trail.

I was told by several former Iditarod Teachers on the Trail™ this will be a life-changing experience. After only being back for a month, I can honestly say it has been life changing. I have a completely different outlook on education, coaching, and life in general. I have noticed a change in how I teach in the classroom and interact with my students. Once I arrived home I started tennis season. My coaching style and highly competitive attitude changed immediately.

Since I have been back I have been busy writing articles and presenting to a variety of groups in the community. This too, has not been easy. I want people to fully understand the impact this journey has had on my life, but unless they’ve been there, they never will.

DSC_4878

Jason Mackey

One thing, among many, that I enjoy sharing is that the Iditarod is much more than just a dog race. There were so many inspiring people, touching stories and dreams fulfilled.  Long-lasting relationships and memories were created that will last a lifetime. I take pride in being able to share the many compassionate stories I witnessed on my journey. These stories have inspired me to continue fulfilling my dreams.

One major impact this journey has had on my life is the importance of turning your dreams into reality. If nothing is done, they stay just that, dreams. Had I not made the decision to look at the application for Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, my life may be going a completely different way. Making that first step is what started my dream down the path of reality.

I encountered many people along the trail who did not let anything stand in the way of their dreams; money, illness, cancer, disease, and other heavy burdens. It is encouraging to see what some will put themselves through to achieve their ultimate dream.

This journey has helped me understand the importance of encouraging my students to dream and to attempt to make their dreams come true. You should never let anything stand in the way of your dreams. Life is too short to say it can’t be done or it’s too hard. If you want it, go after it and achieve your dreams.

Pictures Tell a Story – Family

Grandpa Phil and Rudy

Grandpa Phil and Rudy

Last night culminated the 2015 Iditarod with the annual Iditarod Volunteer Potluck at the Millennium Hotel. Several volunteers gathered together to enjoy conversation, stories, pictures, and fun for a final time before everyone packs up and heads home for another year. There is no mistake, though, the Iditarod is one massive family. There are approximately 2000 volunteers who make up this large family.

Several volunteers have been around since the beginning and several are rookies. Either way, everyone feels a part of this family. Without the many volunteers, this race definitely could not happen. The Iditarod is a year-round job, a job which relies on volunteers. Some volunteer year-round, some a couple of months, and some just during the race. No matter how long one volunteers, each is critical for the race.

A bulk of the volunteers only see each other once a year, during race time. Once reunited, the volunteers pick up right where they left off the year before, just like family. Wonderful, lifelong friendships are created because of the Iditarod. I experienced this myself before the race, along the trail, and after the race. I witnessed the many friendships and family like atmosphere along the trail. I was welcomed into the family immediately and will forever be part of this family.

Some awesome volunteers in Nome

Some awesome volunteers in Nome

It’s All About the Dogs

11067771_10203462228630990_1390238816516062187_nThe 2015 Iditarod is finished, the Willow Lantern has been extinguished, the Burled Arch has been put away until next year. The streets of Nome are back to normal. For the dogs, they are anxiously waiting for their next run. Many dogs got their wish as most mushers took their dogs on a short “stretch out the limbs” run. This race is truly about the love of and for dogs. Every single person on the trail cared for and treated the dogs with the utmost respect and love.

Dog handler bootying a dog before Restart in Fairbanks

Dog handler bootying a dog before Restart in Fairbanks

The dog handlers treat the dogs as if they are their own. As they cared for them at the start and restart it was obvious they would miss the dogs while they were out on the trail. Hugs and kisses were exchanged as the handlers fed, watered, and cared for the dogs one last time for a couple of weeks. Handlers proudly trotted the team they have worked and trained with all year to the starting line. Honored to be part of the team, the handlers waved good-bye as the dogs headed down the trail. After a couple of weeks of waiting and watching the tracker, many handlers made their way to Nome. You could see them anxiously waiting at the finish line for the dogs to come running down Front Street. Each and every dog received a huge hug from their handlers they have missed while out on the trail.

Vet checking a dog

Vet checking a dog

The veterinarians have volunteered to take 3-4 weeks off of work, probably unpaid, travel to Alaska at their own expense, to care for these amazing athletes. It is obvious their love for the sled dogs. Each vet is extremely concerned with the health of each and every dog out on the trail. They are constantly checking every aspect of the dogs; their paws, their heart, their gums, their hydration, their lungs, even their attitude. They even get the opportunity to sneak in some hugs from their new friends. Vets are moved up the trail during the race, so they run into the same dogs over and over again. While they may not become extremely attached, they do know their names and can certainly tell if something is wrong.

Drop dog volunteer loving on a dog

Drop dog volunteer loving on a dog

The dog lot and drop dog volunteers have one of the best jobs on the trail; they hang out with the dogs. If the description of the job doesn’t tell you they love dogs, watching them interact with the dogs sure will. When dogs get dropped along the trail, someone has to keep an eye out for them. These volunteers go above and beyond to make sure these dogs are loved while their musher and friends are still out on the trail. They will fluff up the straw to make sure they are as comfortable as possible. They will lay in the straw with the dogs if they are having trouble sleeping. They cuddle with them ensuring the dog they will see their musher and friends soon. They cover them with blankets, they feed, water, and care deeply for the dogs.

Monica Zappa hugging her lead dog after finishing the 2015 Iditarod

Monica Zappa hugging her lead dog after finishing the 2015 Iditarod

There is absolutely no question; the mushers love their dogs. The bond the mushers have with their dogs is a hard bond to explain. I have seen closer relationships between dogs and mushers than I have witnessed between husband and wife, brother and sister, and friendships. It is a bond you must witness or experience. The mushers spend more time with their dogs than they probably do with their family. Mushers will always do what is best for their dog. If they see their dog isn’t performing well or is injured, they will drop their dog. This doesn’t mean they don’t love their dog, in fact, it is quite the opposite. It is hard for them to leave their dog behind, but they love their dog and will do anything to keep them safe and healthy. The first and last thing mushers do when entering and exiting a checkpoint is make contact with their dogs. As each and every musher crossed the Burled Arch they first greeted their dogs and told them how proud they were of them before doing anything else. The bond between mushers and dogs is a bond of love, trust, and respect.

The dogs are the reason the mushers completed their journey to Nome. The dogs are the reason some found their way when lost on the trail. There are trail markers, but at times weather conditions make it impossible to see the markers. The dogs instinctively know exactly where they are going. Dogs may defy a command their musher has given, but it quite possibly saved all their lives. There are many stories on the trail in which a dog defied a command, went left instead of right, then the musher notices the open water or cliff their dogs avoided, in turn, possibly saving their life. These dogs are extremely smart, beautiful, strong, and loving athletes. The dogs love their musher just as much as the musher loves them.

An amazing race which shows the world just how close a person can be with a dog.

Perseverance

DSC_5577

Third time’s a charm. Cindy Abbott officially put the finishing touches on the 2015 Iditarod last night when she extinguished the flame in the willow lantern. The crowd witnessing the monumental event was similar in size as it was last Wednesday morning for the champion. A reporter asked Cindy when she knew she was going to finish this year. Her response was perfect, “right at the start.”

I had my eye on the tracker all day following Cindy. Over the last two years I have become friends with Cindy and my class has been working with her and her quest to finish the Iditarod. As I was kneeling in front of the stage at the Finisher’s Banquet in Nome snapping photos, I heard my name. Vern Halter, Cindy’s trainer, and her husband, Larry, were going to be leaving the banquet; Cindy just went through Safety. We stopped at the hotel to pick up the meat snacks for the dogs and headed out to find Cindy. Vern drove us out to Cape Nome where we waited. Vern and I hiked about halfway up to greet her and the dogs. Suddenly, out of nowhere, we saw her head. We were probably the last thing she thought she would see when coming over the cape. I took some pictures and we were off. We continued to follow her and stop along the way for more videos and photos.

As we were waiting for her to come off the beach, the siren sounded one last time in Nome. The police cars were waiting to escort one last musher to the Burled Arch. One last time we jumped into the truck and sped to the chute. A little black dog tried to steal the limelight from Cindy as she was running down Front Street. He ran up the chute as the crowd cheered him on and race officials tried to snatch him up. Then it was Cindy’s turn. She and the dogs came through the chute towards the Burled Arch with the biggest smiles on their faces. As Cindy was officially signing off the trail, the dogs were given a celebratory snack.

The Red Lantern is the award given to the last musher to cross the Burled Arch in Nome. It stands for perseverance, hard work, determination, the will to not give up, and so much more. It is an honor to receive. It does not matter what place you finish in this incredible race; what matters is that you finish. The Red Lantern demonstrates to athletes across the world to not give up. I think Cindy was the perfect musher to earn the Red Lantern. It signifies her entire journey to the Burled Arch. She has persevered through many bumps in the road, but none  of them stopped her. Cindy has been fighting a rare disease for many years, Wegener’s Granulomatosis. One of the effects of this disease is it has left her blind in one eye and partially blind in her second. She has a very difficult time seeing, especially in certain types of light. Imagine running close to 1000 miles in pure white snow that blends in with the sky, struggling to see. While fighting this disease, Cindy also summited Mount Everest in 2010. What would she do next? The Iditarod.

DSC_5603Cindy first attempted the Iditarod in 2013. She was forced to scratch in Kaltag after running over 600 miles on a broken pelvis. In 2014 she scratched in Rohn after injuring her shoulder. Her dream to finish the Iditarod would not be halted. She set forth to run in the Last Great Race one more time in 2015. Nothing would stop her from achieving her goal. Nothing did stop her. Cindy encountered below -60 degree temperatures, frost bit toes, being secluded out on the trail with no other mushers, and she persevered and crossed the Burled Arch.

A true inspiration to athletes around. The perfect representative for the Red Lantern. She never let her disease get in the way of any of her dreams. She was determined, she was driven, she was tough, she was tenacious, and she was destined to be in Nome. On March 23, 2015, at 9:19 p.m. Cindy Abbott became the first woman to both summit Mount Everest and finish the Iditarod. What will we see her doing next? Whatever she does, she will do it well.

Pictures Tell a Story – Family in Nome

DSC_5288

Becca Moore hugging her son

DSC_5293One of the moments I see at the finish that puts a big smile on my face, besides the dogs, is when families reunite. It is a rough couple of weeks for mothers, wives, husbands, and children while their family member is out on the treacherous Iditarod trail. There is absolutely no contact made during this long wait. All they can do is follow the green flag along the trail on the GPS tracker. It can be a long and stressful couple of weeks.

When the siren is sounded notifying us someone is almost to Front Street, family members anxiously stare down the chute waiting for the moment they can hug their husband, wife, mom, dad, or any family member. As their musher nears the Burled Arch you can see a smile so bright it lights the darkened sky. You can see in their eyes how proud they are of their family member.

The best is to watch young children greet their parents. Becca Moore’s children cheered for her and the dogs on the street as she mushed down Front Street. As her son saw her for the first time in 12 days, he shouted, “MOMMY!” with the biggest smile. Big hugs were shared and pictures were snapped. The kids rode with mom on the sled to the dog lot. It was such a touching moment to witness.