Alaska

Iditarod Memories

(Click on each image to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

There is nothing more true to the spirit of Alaska than the “last great race on Earth.” That race is none other than the Iditarod.

This world-famous and celebrated dogsled race, from the interior Alaskan community of Willow to the coastal community of Nome, covers more than 900 miles of Alaska’s backcountry in the freezing winter. Mushers, leading teams from 12 to 16 dogs, compete for mostly glory and cash prizes for the lucky top finishers. That glory is often international media coverage. Japanese and German media frequently make the visit, to name a few.

The race is followed live by dog lovers the world over. Those with deep pockets and plenty of free time fly to Alaska in winter to catch a glimpse of the annual ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage the first Saturday of March, followed by the official start on a frozen lake in Willow. A few of the rich visitors will pay a handsome fee to ride in a dogsled on the ceremonial 11-mile run that starts the race in Anchorage.

Race Origins and this Year’s Contest

The race’s origins are tied to the famous public health emergency in 1925. A diphtheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska, required that emergency medical supplies be delivered, and dogsledders made the journey. A statue in downtown Anchorage commemorates that famous event, honoring the lead sled dog, Balto.

Today’s modern Iditarod roughly celebrates that legacy and mostly follows the same difficult route, over mountain ranges, frozen berms, and through Native villages. Joe Redington Sr., an Alaskan musher whose family legacy remains well-known in the Great Land, worked with Dorothy Page to launch the modern race in 1967.

That first race had 57 mushers. This year there will only be 53, down from more than 80 when I saw the race start in person in between 2005 and 2010. The race has come on hard times in recent years due to dog deaths, drug tests, and feuds. Sponsorships likely have dried up to support a profession/passion that is like none other in the world. No musher can afford this sport without sponsors and/or corporate backers. Each musher is an entrepreneur, as well a master of a team of world-class athlete dogs.

The 47th annual running of the race begins at the ceremonial start on March 2, several blocks from where I used to work for six years. I could walk here from my house.

How I Enjoyed the Ceremonial Start Day

While living in Anchorage, I would always catch the race at two places. I would arrive early at downtown, before the dawn broke, to watch the racers and their support crew unload their sleds and dogs early in usually freezing cold conditions in downtown Anchorage. The night before crews of municipal workers would work til the early morning hours hauling in snow from streets normally plowed clear. At this staging area, dogs were kings and queens and mushers were royalty. Everyone, like me, was taking pictures.

I then would head to midtown Anchorage, where a family I knew hosted an annual Knapp’s Crossing Iditarod Party, just outside of the University of Anchorage. The dog teams would run by, the Knapps serenaded them with trumpet songs, and everyone cheered.

The pictures here date from 2007, the year cancer survivor and famous musher Lance Mackey won the race after competing and winning in the earlier Yukon Quest dog race between Fairbanks and Dawson City.

[Ed. note: I updated this post on March 3, 2019, to correct the number of mushers who competed between 1005 and 2010. The correct and revised number, “more than 80,” is listed above.]

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Winter’s icy clutch has come

 

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The arrival of the winter solstice yesterday made me think about winter, in its most raw, powerful form.

I used to live in a wintry place, Anchorage, Alaska. I spent six years there, meaning six winters. One measures a true year in winters in Alaska. I first feared the cold, and then embraced it after I took up skate skiing. Soon, I found myself skiing almost every day of the winter season on Anchorage’s miles of multi-use trails and its world-class ski trails in Kincaid Park and on the Anchorage Hillside.

In 2008, the winter was particularly nasty. We had a stretch of days below -10 F for almost two weeks. I was sidelined with a bad running injury, and I was unable to exercise like I normally did. The hoarfrost was both beautiful and terrifying, because it signified how dangerous the elements were. To this day I don’t know how the ravens, moose, lynx, stellar jays, owls, foxes, wolves, and other local critters survived such conditions, with no respite from mother nature.

I did love my walks, and I used my period of convalescence to document the icy beauty of the Anchorage area, including some festivals where ice sculptures were installed in a downtown park that was turned into an ice skating rink. It was so cold that year, qualifying heats for the U.S. National Cross Country Ski Team were cancelled at Anchorage’s Kincaid Park because of the potential harm the cold could have to the athletes.

So, on our first day of winter, in the northern hemisphere, I say, all hail winter. May your icy clutch be gentle and memorable.

The wolves of Rome

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This week, various media agencies reported that the most iconic of all predators, the wolf, had returned to areas surrounding the ancient and still great city of Rome.

Two wolf pups were photographed frolicking in a reserve area for birds. For centuries, the predators were hunted to near extinction in Italy. The iconic predator also is celebrated in Italy’s history in the myth of Rome’s founding.

Capitoline Wolf statue, Sienna, Italy

The Romans credited the creation of their city to the kindness of a mother she-wolf, who nursed the infants Romulus and Remus, who had been left to die in the wild. According to the legend, the pair would go on to establish Rome. The wolf also is celebrated in many other cultures, through art, myth, and folklore.

Rome’s founding story is celebrated in statues called the Capitoline Wolf, first erected in Italy in the 11th and 12th centuries. I saw several such statues, in Sienna and Florence.

At the most basic level, Rome’s creation myth is literally connected to sucking the breast of a feared carnivore. The almost primal connection to something feared and revered is woven into Roman identity. For anyone familiar with that history, Rome went on to conquer and absorb all other cultures and civilizations surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, stretching from the highlands of England to the hot sands of modern-day Iraq to the Nile valley, as far south as southern Egypt.

I photographed these statues in 2006 during my travels in Italy, mainly because I feel a strong personal connection with wolves. I had some of the most memorable encounters with wolves in the wild in Alaska, when I lived there between 2004 and 2010.

During one spring mountain run, I met a wolf mom and her pups. They approached me, curious as pups are. Their mom whimpered, trying to signal them back to safety. She was a loving mother. Humans fear them because they have, I think, more dignity than us in many ways in how they care for each other.

 

 

Fourth of July, Alaska style…ah the memories

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Fourth of July is always a great time to enjoy the outdoors and the incredible nature in Alaska. Many Alaskans who live in its largest city, Anchorage, celebrate by going to Seward for the annual Mt. Marathon race. This is a 3.1-mile race, with an elevation gain of 3,022 feet, and slopes average 34 degrees. This all takes place above the breathtaking scenery of Resurrection Bay, where sea otters and orcas can be spotted from the boat and even the shore.

Up to 10,000 people will gather in the city’s historic downtown for the start and finish of the state’s most famous mountain race–and there are many mountain races. This contest is the shortest of the state’s “official” mountain races, but one of the most grueling, because of the sheer verticality of the climb and the risk of injury.

One year an older male racer who likely never should have competed went missing and his body was never recovered. Another year a man suffered brain trauma during a terrible fall near the end of the descent. So this is not a race for sissies and people who do not respect and understand the mountains. A bunch of my friends always competed, and I went a number of times during my six years living in Anchorage.

The race pictures seen here are from 2009 and 2010. The 2010 shot features the top three female runners: hometown favorite and champion Cedar Bourgeois, Olympic skier Holly Brooks. and Olympic skier Kikkan Randall. That year, Bourgeois won her sixth race in a row (tieing a course record), with a personal best of 51:48. All three of these racers are among the state’s finest athletes ever. Randall and Brooks have competed for the United States Nordic Ski Team in the Olympics.

The other pictures shown in the gallery come from the Forest Fair, a laid-back carnival and craft fair held during the Fourth of July weekend in Girdwood, the scenic town at the base of the Chugach Mountains about 45 miles from Anchorage. It celebrates its 41st year right this summer. I loved this event. The setting is unbelievably gorgeous.

Sadly, in past years, the local yahoos–and they are many, and awful–became so rowdy and engaged in so many drunken and destructive behaviors, organizers wisely shut the event down. If you go the the Greal Land (aka Alaska), don’t worry about the bears. Make a lot of noise, and you will be perfectly fine. Happy Fourth of July, Alaska!

Roger Gollub: doctor, leader, mensch

A year after the utterly senseless killing of the best man I have ever known, Dr. Roger Gollub, I decided to pay tribute to him around Westchester Lagoon, in Anchorage. I put these signs up on a cold November Saturday, in 2009. It is where Roger often went for walks with his dog, Sophie, and it is where we spent some memorable moments walking and talking about nothing in particular at all. I cannot claim to have known him that well. But I still miss him, and so do hundreds and hundreds of his former patients, coworkers, family members, and friends. Thanks for everything, mensch!

Fall in the Chugach Mountains

Let’s be clear. I will say that fall in Alaska is as good as it gets for autumn colors. I still cannot believe the colors of red blueberry bushes on the hillsides, birch trees firing up the forest canopy, and the orange and red underbrush. I took all of these pictures in Fort Richardson and Chugach State Park, both just outside of Anchorage. (Chugach State Park is more spectacular than most National Parks in this country by a country mile, if you ask me.) I do not miss the winter at this stage of my life, as of today, but I do miss the fall, all days of my life. See more of my photos of Alaska on my Alaska photo gallery. (Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Tok, gateway to the ‘Great Land’

By far, my favorite sign in the world, I think, is this one that greets visitors as the drive in on the Al-Can Highway from the Yukon and arrive in the first junction and town in Alaska, called Tok. Go straight, you arrive at Fairbanks. Head left, you come to Glenallen, and then on to Valdez or Anchorage. Do not be fooled. Tok is also a graveyard of dreams, where many who dreamed of a better life, or escaping their problems or the law, or perhaps a Permanent Fund Dividend check without working for it, busted. Alaska is filled with dreamers and also broken dreams. It is what makes it Alaska, and I still love it so. (Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Crow Creek Gold Mine, Girdwood, Ak.

About 30 miles from Anchorage you’ll find Girdwood, which is one of the prettiest places in the entire world. From there, follow the signs to the old placer mining gold operation known as Crow Creek. Today it is a popular tourist attraction. I visited the mine in May 2005, so time to trot out one of the old pictures. I loved this place. But, I loved tons of places in Alaska. (Click on the photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Kotzebue, Alaska, spring 2008

I visited Kotzebue, Alaska, just north of the Arctic Circle, in 2008. It was a fabulous trip to the largest city in northwest Alaska. I ate beluga whale and was treated with great hospitality by residents. This was a work trip, and one of my most memorable visits to Bush Alaska during my six years living and working in the Great Land. Other photos from the 49th state can be found in my web site’s Alaska gallery.

Kayaking in Prince William Sound

In July 2010, I took a fabulous and sometimes soggy kayaking trip to Blackstone Bay, in Prince William Sound, one of the most amazingly beautiful landscapes in the world. I went with my former neighbors, J & D, and benefited from their years of wisdom gained paddling as a team. There are few better ways to cut yourself off from technology, enjoy life’s precious moments, and feel humbled by natural beauty. (All of these were taken with a small hand-held Canon, converted to B&W using Lightroom.)