We left for Alaska on Tuesday, March 2nd. It was kind of a whirlwind leaving – as Tony and Liza had booked their flights at separate times. Tony left first. Liza drove him to the airport at 7 in the morning, so he could catch his 9 AM flight to Seattle, and his connection to Anchorage. He would arrive in Anchorage at 3:30 pm local time. Liza drove back home and finished up last minute packing things, before her ride came to get her. She got to the airport around 11, even through her flight was not until 3:30 pm, Minneapolis time. Michael was coming from Aberdeen on a flight by himself, so she met him at his gate around 1, and they walked together to their non-stop flight to Anchorage.
The flights were all pretty uneventful. Tony had a bit of a getting-off-the-ground issue in Minneapolis, something to do with flat tires and not being able to find replacements on time in the hangers, so by the time he got to Seattle, he had to run to his next gate to find his connection. Liza and Michael had a pretty uneventful straight shot. They enjoyed some pizza in the airport and got onto the plane in time, and had a great, although bumpy, ride into Anchorage. Tony touched down on time, and was met at the airport by Diane. When Michael and Liza landed, at 6:30 pm Anchorage time, Tony brought the hotel shuttle to meet them.
We decided to stay across the street from the Millennium, which is Race Headquarters during the race, and which is where Diane’s room is. Usually, when Mark and Michael go visit her, they stay in the room with her. But, it was a good idea to get our own room across the street. We checked in on Tuesday night and had dinner in the lobby of our hotel, the Mariott, while we waited for Diane to be done with her meetings. We watched Lost in the hotel room – the only TV we caught the entire trip – and she came over around nine to see our room and chat with us for a little while. It was great to see her and catch up a little bit and just enjoy getting to hang out for awhile.
It was a good thing we had a time difference to adjust to, because we were up early the next morning for Diane’s Teacher Field Trip. This was a great way to really get into the action around Alaska and get prepared for the race. We got on a bus at 8 AM, and immediately drove the hour to Wasilla, where Iditarod Headquarters is. Usually, this is just a building where trophies and pictures are kept and where you can buy souvenirs, but during the lead up to the race, it’s a pretty busy place. We were able to see vet checks. Before the Iditarod, mushers must choose 20 of their dogs – from which their team will be built. Each of these 20 dogs must be presented on the Wednesday before the race. Each dog has a full physical, in which the vet listens to the dog’s heart, checks their feet, ears, eyes, and temperature, and takes blood tests to make sure they are healthy. Their microchips are also checked and written down, so no musher can change out dogs before the race. On Wednesday, mushers can present their dogs to the vets at Race Headquarters, or can have their own vet do these complete exams and submit certified paperwork to the race officials. So, we got to be at Headquarters for about two hours, in which we watched many mushers present their dogs. It was fun to watch the vets check the dogs over, and to see how professional the operation is. No dog can leave on the trail without having a complete exam. It was just like the Olympics, as these athletes were checked to make sure they were in top competing condition! It was also so much fun to be able to wander around and chat with mushers. It isn’t like the Superbowl, where teams are kept away from the press. All week long, we saw mushers hanging out in the hotel lobbies or restaurants (Lance Mackey and Newtown Marshall were staying at our hotel, and we ate dinner next to them Tuesday night, as well as had a few small conversations with them.)
After vet checks, we got back on the bus and drove to a beautiful overlook to have lunch. It was good to sit and look at the mountains and eat – although Liza had a run in with an accidental non-vegetarian ingredient. After all, who would stop to think that their butter might not be vegetarian? Only in Alaska, where they are pretty proud of their salmon!
Our next stop of the day was Martin Buser’s kennel. Martin has won the Iditarod 4 times. He has run for 23 years, and has finished every year he’s run. In 2002, he set the record for the fastest time finishing the Iditarod, which still stands today. He gives tours of his kennel to the public. We got to watch a video in which we saw pictures of almost every aspect of the trail itself. We also got to spend time listening to him talk about the various equipment that is needed on the trail. Later, we spent some time walking around his kennel, petting his dogs and visiting with them. He has a big set up, and even has an exercise kennel, in which there is a large wooden wheel, like a hamster wheel. The dogs love to go into that kennel because they can jump in the wheel and practice for their races. Anyone who sees the dogs jump into that wheel and run and run and run could never think that these dogs DON’T want to run!!!
We got back to the Millennium around seven and had dinner with Diane and her friend Nancy in the Millennium’s restaurant. It was fancy food, and good as well. We were pretty exhausted after the day, so we went to bed early.
On Thursday, Michael and Tony went with a group from South Dakota, to explore Alyeska, a mountain near Anchorage. They got to go on a van tour of some of the surrounding area, see lots of wildlife, and take the tram to the top of the mountain. It was an excellent day of sightseeing. Liza, meanwhile, became Diane’s personal assistant for the day. She sat with her and ran her phones – fielding phone calls from teachers ,people needing help with their online subscription ,and people who needed to get a hold of Diane for one reason or another. It was easy to see why Diane works for twenty hours or more a day during the race! Her phones were ringing off the hook, and it seemed like there was always someone who wanted to get a hold of her for one reason or another. She was running around like crazy, and Liza was glad that she was there to help out.
We all met up together for the Musher Banquet on Thursday night. This is the traditional banquet that happens before the race each year. When the race first started, it was a dinner for mushers, where they would draw their starting numbers from a snow boot, and toast each other before the competition began. Now, its turned into a major attraction, with thousands of people in attendance. We were lucky enough to sit at one of the Wells Fargo (a major race sponsor) tables. Vern Halter sat at our table with us – and so we were just a little bit star struck! The musher banquet was a truly awesome experience. There was entertainment and a meal, followed by the musher draw, where each musher would come to the stage in turn and pick a number out of the boot. Mushers would announce their numbers, and some would say a few words. Then, they’d go get in a huge autograph line, which Michael and Tony soon joined, and sign books or posters or papers. We also got a bunch of free goodies from Exxon Mobil, one of the major Iditarod sponsors. We got free posters and pins and a small flashlight card, and some other goodies to take home with us. Although drinks were pretty pricey, it was one of the coolest things we’d been to in a long time. We also got to see Diane in an excellent video before the banquet, talking all about the education department and what its been doing. We all agreed that the banquet was very, very neat.
Friday was the last day of Diane’s week-long teacher conference. There were some excellent speakers that
Tony and Michael got to go see. Liza helped Diane out again with her phones and some online stuff, so she watched some speakers from the back of the room. We got to see Rod Perry, one of the mushers to run in the first Iditarod, Jeff King, one of the Iditarod’s most well known champions, with five wins under his belt, Stu Nelson, the Iditarod’s chief veterinarian, and Trent Herbst, an Iditarod musher who not only uses the Iditarod in his classroom, but has built an entire curriculum around the race. His students, all of whom were in Alaska to attend the banquet and speak at the conference, and watch the start, work all year to build his sled, figure out how much dog food and people food and supplies should be sent out on the trail, and to which checkpoint, and pack all of his gear. They fix harnesses, make and organize booties, and pretty much prepare everything that he does for the race. All in all the speakers were very good, and we enjoyed listening to them.
Friday night the group from South Dakota that took Michael and Tony on their tour on Thursday, ate at a Mexican restaurant in down town Anchorage. According to Diane and Michael, this is a yearly occurrence, and there were plenty of shenanigans. It was a good meal, and we enjoyed the company.
Saturday was the ceremonial start for the race. Although the race started at ten, we wanted to be able to have plenty of time to really get to see the mushers, so we went downtown around eight. For the ceremonial start, which is in downtown Anchorage, the city trucks in all of the snow they have been plowing and saving all winter long, and spreads it on their main streets. The mushers park their dog trucks on these snowy streets in their correct starting areas, and the dog teams take off from under the Start banner right at 4th and D in downtown Anchorage. The two hours before the start were spent wandering through the various streets and watching mushers prepare. We got to see some feeding their dogs, and others talking to photographers. On this day, the atmosphere is fun and relaxed. Each musher leaves at their regular two minute intervals, but they are only going eleven miles. Also, each musher has an Idita-rider, someone who has paid or been chosen to ride in the sled for these eleven miles. They go through crowds of people and head through the streets of Anchorage. The mushers don’t compete during this start. They wear fun or traditional gear, and most of them have two sleds hooked onto their dogs to keep the dogs from running very fast. No one wants to tire out their dogs! Mushers take 12 dogs, who must be 12 of the dogs who were vet checked on Wednesday. After they leave, their handlers take their dog trucks to the end of the 11 mile stretch, so when they are done they can pick up the dog team and sleds and start to get ready for the real start.
We had so much fun watching the teams. We walked a bit down the street and around the corner so we could stand right up against the snow barrier and, if we wanted, reach out and give the musher’s a high five as they passed. Although it took more than two hours to get through all of the mushers, time seemed to fly, and suddenly we were done with the ceremonial start.
We headed back to the hotel to catch a short nap and pack our overnight bags. We had a wonderful and excellent opportunity on Saturday night. Sunday, the restart would be at Willow, which is close to Wasilla, almost two hours from Anchorage. Vern Halter, an Iditarod musher who is originally from South Dakota and is friends with Diane, lives at his kennel very near to Willow and the restart. We drove to his kennel in a blizzard on Saturday night, and enjoyed a great supper in his home with his family, the group from South Dakota, and some other people. The big group had dinner and drinks, and then we all sat for a half hour and made our race selections. We chose who we thought would be in the top ten, who we thought would be the first woman to Nome, who would be the first to scratch, and who the Rookie of the Year would be. Then, even though the room was full of mushers, Alaskans, and people who have been doing this for years and know everyone involved, we all had to read our choices out loud and try to defend them to the group. This was very nerve wracking, although it was all in good fun. We copied our lists and turned them in so they could choose a winner after the race is over.
Then, we got to sleep upstairs in Vern’s dog-barn/bed and breakfast. Vern has so many groups that come in to tour his facilities, and he has so many people that pay to come stay with him and learn about dogs and mushing, that he created a separate place for them. He has a certified bed and breakfast, but those rooms were full. We stayed up in the loft, which is a big room with beds in all of the corners, and a couch and TV and tables in the middle. It was a fun experience. Liza, Tony, Michael, Diane, musher and last year Iditarod musher Nancy Yoshida, and Nancy’s son Mike all spent the night up in the loft. It was fun to hear all of the snores going on in the room!
We had a somewhat easy morning on Sunday. We all slept in until about nine or so, except for Diane, who was up working as soon as it was light! We got our gear on, packed up at Vern’s, and got back in the car for the few minute drive down to the Willow school, where they were putting on a breakfast. And what a breakfast it was, too. Enough to keep us going all of the way to lunch, to be sure!
On Sunday, the restart began at about 2 pm. We got to the lake around noon and spent an hour or so wandering around looking at the dogs and listening to the mushers talk. Although still jovial, the atmosphere this day was a little more serious. No Iditariders, and no costumes. This is the real deal, and the mushers spent the time double checking supplies and really getting ready for the experience. Around 1:30, everyone except handlers was kicked out of the main mushing area, so we regrouped and visited the bathroom, and then began to walk down the Iditarod trial to find a place to watch the restart. The mushers start right there on the lake, and then travel across the lake to get on a road which will take them on to the first checkpoint. So, we walked through the somewhat deep snow and lot sof people, on down the trail. We saw the first few musher s go by as we walked, and by about nmber 15 we had walked all the way across the lake and up a huge hill, to the place where the trail met the road. Here, there were large snowbanks that lined the road, but there were not any trail railings or barriers, so we sat on the snow banks and literally watched the mushers go by. It was a fun experience because we were able to be really close to the mushers as they started their journey. We were so close that some of the people around us were slapping five with the mushers as they went past.
We stayed up there until the start was closed to being over, and then we began to walk back the way we came. In this way, we were able to see all of the rest of the mushers as they went past, as people had started to clear out of in front of the railings around the trail across the lake. By the time we got back to the start banner, it was all said and done. Then, we were sure in a hurry to get back to the hotel and watch for the stats to come in!
We drove back through Wasilla and back to Anchorage. Tony did the driving so Diane could work. As we got back into town, we stopped to eat at a burger joint called Red Robin. It was some good eats, they even had vegetarian burgers! We got back to the hotel around eight or nine, and tried to stay up for awhile, looking at musher stats as they came in.
The Millenium is race headquarters, so during the race there is a big billboard in the lobby with the current musher stats on it. We enjoyed stopping past that every time we could, just to see if there was new information. Of course, we also could check online, or hear them from Diane, as she got updates in her email often.
After such a long day, we were pretty glad to get to sleep. We did sleep in on Monday, our last full day in Anchorage. Liza, Tony and Michael got up and took Diane’s car to go downtown for the day. We wandered in and out of shops for most of the afternoon, doing some shopping but mostly looking to see what there was to see. It was fun to get some Alaska stuff of our own. We also stopped in some art stores and some fur stores so Michael could find a good purchase. He finally found one, a second hand fur coat that he’s excited to wear on the trail next year.
All too soon we headed back to the Millenium to meet up with Diane and have our last dinner in Alaska. We went back to Red Robin, because it was affordable and such good food that we wanted to try some more. We took Jane and Terrie, two past Teachers on the Trail, and Herb, the current Teacher on the Trail. It was fun to chat about the race and how the mushers were doing already. Herb was excited to get out on the trail and go to the checkpoints, so he was having a good time as well.
Monday night’s dinner was our last meal in Alaska. We went back to the hotel and got Tony packed up, because his flight left at 12:30 AM. Michael and Liza put him on the airport shuttle and then finished packing. We got up at 6 the next morning, so we could meet Diane, get a shuttle to the airport, and get on our plane by 9.
Even though Tony left much earlier than Michael and Liza, he still beat us to the airport, but only by about a half hour because he had connections and we didn’t. When we’d all landed in Minneapolis, we went out to dinner with our friend Steve, who had come to pick us all up.
The rest of the week passed much too quickly. Michael turned 14 on Friday the 12th, so we celebrated a couple of ways. We took him to the Mall of America on Thursday night to go on the rides at the amusement park, and ate at Hooters, which he loved. Friday, we went to the Water Park of America for half the day, which he ALSO loved, and so did we. We met Mark in Alexandria on Saturday, o he could take Michael back home again.