Iditarod: The Official Start

Welcome to the Official Start of the Iditarod.
Welcome to the Official Start of the Iditarod.

As Rick Steves’ sister, Jan Steves (with her team of sixteen canine companions) mushes her way through the snow-blanketed Alaskan wilderness of her second Iditarod Trail Race, I’m wrapping up my three-part series on my behind-the-scenes perspective 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 7, 2012.

The thing that’s so brilliant about taking a “tour” up to Willow for the Iditarod Official Start – a 20-person van with only 10 passengers and a tour guide who gives you just the right amount of useful/interesting info – is the efficiency. 1) You don’t have to get up early, 2) you don’t have to be the one driving in snow and traffic, 3) you can sleep on the way up and back, 4) the van drops you right off at the front entrance, and 5) you leave the race late enough to have seen your friend embark on her greatest adventure and early enough to beat the multitude of cars going back to Anchorage.

No dogs required for these sleds.
No dogs required for these sleds.

We arrive at the Community Center on Willow Lake around 2 p.m., just as the first musher takes off. Walking through the C.C., you see people mingling, bundling up, buying souvenirs and standing in line for the bathroom.  As you walk out the back door toward the lake, you are immediately hit with the brisk air against your face, and the smell of deep-fried donuts, reindeer hot dogs, kettle corn, and onion-slathered chili bombards your olfactory nerves. To the left, little tykes take advantage of a snowy slope to go sledding – dashing through the snow, laughing all the way…literally. Just about 50 yards ahead of us is a colorful, swarming sea of North Face jackets and woolen beanies bobbing up and down as people try to catch a glimpse of the mushers and their dogs burst out of the chute and out towards the wilderness.

Fans jockey for position to get a good view of the race.
Fans jockey for position to get a good view of the race.

Thank goodness Sandy and I still have our handler armbands from yesterday.  We snake our way through the crowd, past the security guards (including one wearing a construction hat, replete with felt-like ears and tail made to look like a Husky), and into the holding area for the mushing teams. My plan for today is much the same as it was for the Ceremonial Start: take pictures and notes to document my perspective on the race and Jan’s experiences. Well, “the best laid plans of mice and men…” My plans will get slightly altered today.

Jan is musher number 40, and by the time we reach her staging area, about seven mushers have already taken off, leaving at 2-minute intervals. It’ll be about another hour before her turn, but time seems to be ticking away much faster than it did at the Ceremonial Start. I can sense it, and I know Jan does, too. Nonetheless, she still seems fairly focused, so I try not to worry.

Who let the dogs out?
Who let the dogs out?

One by one, her dogs are brought out from their mobile kennels. They seem less distracted than yesterday, which is a good thing. The crowds can’t gather near them, and there is no “party” atmosphere in the staging area. Today, it’s all business. This is the real deal, and we all feel it.

While Jan stays focused on her team and the tasks at hand, I sneak a peek at the nearby mushers and their dogs. Everyone is intensely busy, and the dogs are just aching to burst out into a mad dash. The piercing canine cacophony reaches practically intolerable levels; it’s almost impossible for anyone to concentrate or even be heard. I don’t know the details and histories behind these other competitors, but it’s interesting to note who has matching gear for their dogs and handlers, who has logos on their fancy mobile kennels, who is pacing back and forth, who looks frantic, and who has the most help.

Another dog team is ready to go.
Another dog team is ready to go.

Part of what amazes me about Jan is that she is a rookie at this. Now in her mid-50s, Jan has chosen to take on a challenge that most people would never even consider. She wasn’t raised in this environment and culture of Iditarod.  She started because of her background in winter sports and absolute love of dogs. She somehow ended up volunteering at Iditarod several years ago. She was later offered a chance to train sled dogs, which led to three winters of training and racing up in Alaska, including her participation in the 2011 Serum Run.

Jan's sled is fully loaded with her gear.
Jan’s sled is fully loaded with her gear.

As her passion for this grew, she knew her goal was to complete the 2012 Iditarod. Along the way, she has had amazing support from so many people, but she does not have the massive logistical or personnel support that some of these other mushers do. She (with the unwavering help of her partner Bob and friends like Ted and Paula English and Angie Taggart) has learned to hone her survival/dog care/mushing skills. She’s learned to do it with the bare necessities and without the help of handlers to help train her dogs on a weekly basis. She does it herself. She has good, sturdy, practical gear. It’s cool stuff, but it’s not all necessarily the top-of-the-line, the newest, or the shiniest. And while a pro may see that as a disadvantage, for me, it only increases my admiration for Jan that much more. She may not have all the advantages of her fellow mushers, but she has the invaluable assets of skill, passion, a soaring spirit, and a loyal team that will help get her through any challenge.

Jan gets the team in their correct order.
Jan gets the team in their correct order.

I begin to calculate how long it will take me to trudge through the snow to get to well beyond the crowds and down the trail.  I want to get some good shots of Jan so I can make a fun memory book for her.  At this point, it occurs to me that I’ll never make it that far.  A woman has just come by to give a twenty-minute warning.  That’s not much time, and Jan still needs to finish getting her dogs and herself ready:  put on the booties, put on the harnesses, put on her suit, double-check the sled and its contents, line up the dogs, attach the handler lines, do this, do that, and that thing, too! I’m stressing out, and I’m not even the one who’s racing!

Jan and Bob give each other loving support.
Jan and Bob give each other loving support.

To be honest, Jan is less composed right now than she was yesterday. It’s too real, too close, too intense, too much. Her partner Bob, who is also in this race, sees this, and in his Zen-like way comes up to Jan and says, “Honey, I need a hug.” As much as he says he needed it, I somehow think that he was really looking out for her needs. They embraced for a long, long time. It was one of the most precious and beautiful moments I’ve ever witnessed.

My pal, "Dog"
My pal, “Dog”

Knowing now that I can’t get to the area I had scoped out, I commit to being an actual handler for the start.  With my camera slung across my body, I connect my leash line to the main line.  I stand next to the third dog on the right.  Regretfully, I don’t know the dog’s name or whether it’s male of female, so for now, I’m just going to use the name “Dog”. Dog and I look at each other.  I can see in Dog’s eyes that s/he is ready, eager to hit the trail, and determined to run like the wind.  I ask Dog to take care of Jan, to do the best that s/he can, and to make it safely to Nome.  Dog affirms my request with a rooo-rooo-rooooooooooo!

Jan makes her way to the starting line, and her friend Angie gives last minute advice and encouragement.
Jan makes her way to the starting line, and her friend Angie gives last minute advice and encouragement.

It’s time to move. We get the signal to take the team to the starting line. Man, can those dogs pull! Jan can control it with the brake, and we handlers must use the strength in our bodies to prevent the canines from taking off like a bat out of hell. With one hand on my camera to take pictures and the other holding the leash (not the wisest decision ever), I run, and I mean run, with the dogs and pray in mantra-like fashion, “Please don’t let me fall, please don’t let me fall! Angie had advised me earlier that should I fall, I need to roll and “get the hell out of the way.”

Jan takes some time to connect with each of her dogs before the race begins.
Jan takes some time to connect with each of her dogs before the race begins.

With just one musher ahead of us now, we detach our leashes. Jan makes her way down the line of dogs, calmly talking with each one, reassuring them and thanking them. When she gets back to her sled, a swarm of TV cameras, photographers, and reporters crowd around her. She’s confident again.  She beams with an inner glow that could brighten a dark, Alaskan tundra night.

The media clamor for Jan's attention.
The media clamor for Jan’s attention.

She is now less than 60 seconds from embarking of the wildest adventure she’s ever known. Her dogs are ready.  She’s ready. The cheering crowd gets louder and louder still.

And they're off!
And they’re off!

And then for a brief moment, I swear I hear absolutely nothing. Life is suddenly in slow motion for me. I see Jan wave at the people lining the trail. Her dogs bark their eagerness. All around us, camera flashes pop: boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And in an instant, Jan and her team are on the move… away from us and toward her future. I turn around to stare at her back as she begins the first leg of the 40th annual Iditarod Trail Race. She wears the number 40 on her race bib. It must be a good omen.

Happy and safe trails to you, Jan!  We all wish you well!
Happy and safe trails to you, Jan! We all wish you well!

To stay up-to-date on Jan’s standings in the 2013 Iditarod Race, you can follow along on the Iditarod official pageJan’s website, or Rick’s Facebook page.


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