My two sons and I enjoyed a Saturday afternoon at our library, where Karen Land, a three-time participant of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, spoke about her experience. She brought with her one of her dogs, Romano. Romano is a retired sled dog, and now travels with her when she speaks at libraries and schools. He wasn’t one of the blue eyed huskies (love those blue eyes), but he was so cute!! He only stayed for the first couple of minutes, because he was getting a little nervous around so many people in such a small room. We learned that sled dogs hate to be alone, so when she took him out to her truck, there were actually two more dogs to keep him company. 🙂 She explained to us how the dogs are named with different themes for each litter. So Romano was from the cheese litter, so he has siblings named, Gouda, Jack, Colby, Cheddar, and Stinky.
She talked for a good 2 ½ hours and it didn’t seem that long. She had her sled set up, and a slide presentation. Everyone was so fascinated by the stories that she told, and what it takes to be in this race. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an annual 1,100 mile race that runs in early March. It began in 1973 as an event to test the best sled dog mushers and teams, which consists of 16 dogs, of which at least 6 must finish the race. It can take anywhere from 9 to 15 days to complete, in the most unfavorable conditions. I am familiar with this race due to the animated movie called Balto. The story about the 1925 diphtheria epidemic, where dog sleds were use to bring the healing serum to Nome Alaska, which the Iditarod race commemorates. Due to the lack of snow in Alaska this year, the mushers for this year’s race will be using the path known as the serum run, which is the same one used during the 1925 epidemic.
She also answered questions, and talked about all aspects of the race. She does some of her presentations at schools, where she will have her sled set up at one end of the gym and she spreads out her towline for the 16 dogs, and it extends all the way to the other end of the gym. She talked about the power that 16 dogs have, and the fun, and somewhat frustrating antics as well. All 16 dogs must have booties on their feet, which are cloth and have stretchable velcro to keep them on. So…the musher has to put the booties on all 16 dogs, which takes a little bit of time. When working for the first time with a team, she said you would be halfway through putting the booties on, and then you would hear the rip of the velcro and see one of the dogs removing their booties. So, once you figure out which dogs can get them off, you then do them last. Some dogs not only take their booties off, but the booties of dogs near them. She will go through 2000 booties for one race, and each bootie costs $1. The reason they need these booties are to protect the soft pads of their feet, otherwise the packed snow and ice would be like running on shards of glass, and would create small paper-like cuts on their feet. Very interesting fact, if the dogs are pure Siberian Huskies, they do not need booties, because the pads of their feet are much tougher. Most sled dogs are 100% mutt, and are not very big, usually 40 to 60 pounds. She explained that if the dogs were big and muscled, there would be more injuries. The dogs are treated very well on the trail. There are about 17 checkpoints along the race, where the dogs are checked by volunteer vets. It’s at the checkpoints that the mushers decide to “drop a dog,” which means to not let them continue in the race. Usually mushers are more pro-active, and drop a dog before serious injury can occur. Because if an injury occurs on the trail, that dog then has to be wrapped up in the sled, and it’s extra weight to have to steer for the musher. What happens when a dog is dropped, is they will be transported to Nome, where the end of the race is. Usually mushers will have their own handler’s there to take care of the dogs. But if a musher doesn’t have the resources to have handler’s waiting for the dogs, the dogs are sent to the prison. A vet had started a program in the prison in Nome where prisoners are trained to take care of these dogs until they are picked up by their owners. Karen said, sometimes mushers would pick up their dogs from the prison and find them 10 pounds heavier, obviously enjoying their stay, and being well taken care of.
There was a slide in her presentation that showed a picture of the winning check for the 2004 race, which was $69,000. Also in the picture was a red lantern. She explained that prize is for the person who comes in last, and said it is almost as coveted as winning the race. She talked about how some of the mushers who were at the end would just hang out at the last checkpoint for as long as they could, trying to get the Red Lantern. The Iitarod.com website says this about the award:
“Awarding a red lantern for the last place finisher in a sled dog race has become an Alaskan tradition. It started as a joke and has become a symbol of stick-to-itiveness in the mushing world.”
I like that…a symbol of stick-to-itiveness. 🙂
Since my boys and I were so fascinated by this presentation we decided to follow the race at Iditarod.com. There is a lot of information about the race, and all the mushers. So what we decided to do, was each one of us pick a musher, and we are following them. You can sign up for free on the site, and pick your favorite musher and you will receive email updates when they check in and check out of their checkpoints. So we looked through the musher list, and picked our 3 mushers. We have Sean Barnes, Benjamin Harper, and Aliy Zirkle. I of course picked the girl, she is close to my age, and because of her last name beginning with a Z. (I grew up at the end of the alphabet being a Z myself). And as of today, my girl is in first place…(ahem) we are just tracking them for fun… it’s not about the competition. 🙂 I did print out the map, and we have different colored push pins and are moving them along the route, I posted it on our bulletin board in the kitchen, this is what it looks like.
Then I made some excel spread sheets with info that we will write down as they enter and leave each checkpoint, like the date and time, how many dogs they come in with and how many they leave with. Also the current temperature. Currently they are racing in –20 degree weather. Today is day 3 of the race and one of the mushers, Benjamin, is down to 13 dogs, and Seth is down to 15, which we all kind of feel bad about, knowing that something could be wrong with the dogs. 😦
I could write so much more, it was such a good presentation. It’s inspiring to see someone who is passionate about what they do. There were a lot of fun stories, but it takes hard work and discipline, as well as mental and physical strength to deal with the weather conditions and dangerous situations. It is amazing. At the end she allowed anyone to ask questions and there were people of all ages there, not just kids. I don’t remember what one of the older ladies asked her, but she raised her hand, and she just had a look on her face, and just said to Karen, “you’re amazing,” and she then asked her question. I don’t know who the lady was, but I bet she was thinking…oh….if only I were younger. You could just see how much she enjoyed the presentation too. My one son (who’s 14) just couldn’t say enough about it, he thought it was sooo cool what she does.
It was definitely fun to learn about something new, and we have a fun project for the next couple of weeks. But hey, what was not to love about it? Snow and dogs!! Oh…and when asked what she ate while on the trail she kinda laughed and said, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups…a girl after my own heart, LOL.