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Iditarod: Ceremonial Start

As Rick Steves’ sister, Jan Steves, continues on her second Iditarod adventure, I’m continuing my three-part series on what it was like last year at her debut  in the “Last Great Race on Earth.”
The original article was posted on Jan’s blog on March 4, 2012.

All dressed up for the Iditarod Ceremonial Start in Anchorage.
All dressed up for the Iditarod Ceremonial Start in Anchorage.

Snow dances its way onto the ground and tickles my face as we trudge our way over to meet up with Jan on 4th Avenue between F and G Streets in Downtown Anchorage. Several streets have been blocked off for two days in preparation for Iditarod, and now their sidewalks are packed with fur-clad spectators (locals, tourists, and die-hard Iditarod fans alike), reindeer hot dog vendors, journalists, and photographers. A palpable excitement is in the air, and it’s contagious. On the avenue itself, which is cordoned off by a waist-high wobbly wooden fence, the mushers have parked their mobile kennels at their designated staging areas. Teams of dogs wait (im)patiently – they just want to run, and the distractions of camera crews, excited onlookers, and an unfamiliar setting make them feel and look a bit out of their element.

Sandy and I sport our official  "handler" bands.
Sandy and I sport our official “handler” bands.

Jan has asked us to help out as “handlers” for the Ceremonial Start. Prior to the start, this entails just being with the dogs, helping them to keep calm, and scoopin’ the poopin’. As Jan and her team move up to the starting line, the handlers run alongside the dogs with leashes hooked to the main line and prevent the dogs from chewing on their lines. While I’m merely wearing the handler armband as I photo-document Jan’s experience, our friends provide as much help as they can. We are all novices–thankfully Jan also has the help of long-time volunteers and former Iditarod mushers like Angie Taggart, who has graciously provided Jan with some of her dogs for this race. She is able to not only help with the technical aspects of prepping the dogs but also lends calming reassurance and support to Jan, based on her own prior experiences in Iditarod.

"Lovin' on" her dogs, Jan helps keep them (and herself) calm and focused.
“Lovin’ on” her dogs, Jan helps keep her team (and herself) calm and focused.
Jan signs the Iditarod program of an eager fan.
Like and Iditarod rock star, Jan signs the race program of an eager fan.

That being said, I’m highly impressed by how calm Jan is. She’s not expending any extra energy and is staying focused on the tasks at hand,“loving on” her dogs, and not getting overwhelmed by all the frenetic action that somehow remains outside her personal bubble of rapt tranquility. Which, I must say, looks impossible to do, especially when so many excited fans come up so frequently to the fence line to ask her about the dogs and beg for her autograph. She is the Iditarod rock star that she deserves to be, and she is gracious under pressure. Jan would tell me later in the day that she felt so relaxed and serene during all of that and just knew that she was ready to do this.

As her starting time draws nearer (she is number 40, her partner Bob is number 49), Jan changes into her Trans Alaska suit and massive boots. She’s conscious of how much time she has left and doesn’t want to be prepared too early and have to wait anxiously to start, nor does she want to have to stress out herself and her canine companions because she doesn’t get them prepared fast enough. She and the experienced handlers fit the dogs with their harnesses, secure the booties onto their paws, and continue “loving on” the dogs to keep them happy and at ease. The dogs keep their gaze focused on Jan. You can see how much they trust, love and need her – just as much as she trusts, loves and needs them.

Time to get the dogs harnessed.
Time to get the dogs harnessed.
Excited yet at ease, Jan is ready to begin her first ever Iditarod competition.
Excited yet at ease, Jan is ready to begin her first ever Iditarod competition.

At this point, I tell Jan how much I love her and that our family and friends back in Edmonds are here in spirit to cheer her on. As we embrace she tells me how grateful she is to have so many familiar faces here, too. That they would fly all way up to Anchorage to emotionally support and physically help her heartens her immensely and gives her beautiful memories and feelings that she’ll hang onto for her entire journey.

The line-up for Jan's dog team.
The line-up for Jan’s dog team.

With that, I take my leave and work my way past the other mushers, their dogs, the onlookers, the media, and the vendors to about five blocks past the starting line. The police officers kindly allow me to move in past the rope barriers so I can bunker myself against a snow berm that marks the mushers’ pathway. I watch musher 32 go by, then 33, then 34, and I start to get butterflies. I’m trying to imagine what Jan is doing right now and am neurotically checking to make sure my camera battery has enough life, that my fingers are warm enough to press the buttons, and that my lens hasn’t frosted up.

At the starting line.
At the starting line.

Suddenly, and even from five blocks away, I hear the announcer say Jan’s name over the P.A. He tells a quick bio: that she’s from Edmonds, that she attended UW, and that this is her first time to run the Iditarod. I’m sure he said some other things, but I was so overwhelmed by emotion that the stream of tears rushing down my face and the racing of my heart just blocked it out.

3-2-1-GO!!!!!!!! Cheers reverberate in the air, and in a couple of minutes, Jan comes into view. The dog team looks so alive and Jan looks so confident…so incredibly happy. I hoot and holler and snap the shutter and try to keep my composure as this most amazing woman whooshes past me and on to the path that leads her to the fulfillment of her greatest personal dream. This is her moment, and she is relishing it.

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To stay up-to-date on Jan’s progress in this year’s Iditarod Race, you can follow along on the Iditarod official page, Jan’s website, or Rick’s Facebook page.

Stay tuned for the last in this three-part series on Jan’s debut as an Iditarod musher.

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