Anchorage

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.

Fourth of July, Anchorage Style (2007)

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

It is the 241st birthday of the United States of America. For the 231st party, in 2007, I was in Anchorage, living the Alaska dream. On a typically cloudy Anchorage July day, I walked from my nearby home to downtown and caught the annual Fourth of July parade.

These parades are magnificent in Alaska. Alaskans know how to make them inclusive and celebratory for everyone who calls the Great Land home. They show participants what community means, because in a harsh place, you have to rely on others. You really cannot do it alone.

The parade in Anchorage also brought back fond memories of seeing July 4 parades in Sitka, where I once lived briefly in 1992, and then visited for a Fourth of July in 2004.

The 2007 parade in Anchorage featured a diverse stream of floats and bands, from the U.S. military, the city’s diverse ethnic communities, musicians of all kinds and the LGBTQ community. If you cannot make it to Alaska for a Fourth of July parade, you can enjoy this one from a decade back. Have a great holiday.

Janelle demonstrates frost face

 

One of the truisms of true runners is, a runner runs. And they run no matter what the hell is happening outside, hot, cold, pollution, whatever. I took this shot of a running buddy, Janelle, on a great Anchorage area backcountry run on snow. Yes, you can run on snow that has melted a bit and then froze crust hard. Our adventure traversed the length of Chugach State Park in March 2007. Many a time I had ice on my eyelashes and whiskers when running during an Alaska winter.

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.)

It is spring, and I am cathartically happy I did not ‘endure’ winter

 

I found these pictures among the many hundreds I took while living in Anchorage. These were all taken during a bitter cold spell in 2009-10, when temperatures plummeted  to about minus 10 fahrenheit and colder. It was great for taking images. I remember getting some skin damage on my extremities on one outing. Now that it is spring in Seattle, I shutter to think I lived through this year after year, even with the beauty. That is my feeling today. It is one of joyous happiness.