CHAPTER 1: In which I travel to Alaska and learn that all dogs are not created equal, although most smell alike.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Mush! Whoa!
Get off my leg!
All right. I admit it. Before arriving here for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race — or, as they call it in Alaska, The Last Great Race On Earth — my canine knowledge was somewhat limited. This, basically, is what I knew about dogs: If they urinate on your carpet, it’s damn hard to get out.
And that isn’t much help. Not in the Iditarod. When you ask a pack of huskies to pull your sled over 1,000 miles through snow and ice and windstorms and frozen forests — well, let’s just say you don’t worry about the odor. You worry about other things.
Yes. A moose means trouble. It was a moose that killed two dogs and put Susan Butcher, the four-time champion, out of the Iditarod six years ago. It was a moose that attacked Rick Swenson’s team and may have cost him the race last year. It was a moose that inspired the mushers to carry guns on their sleds. So I must be prepared. For a moose. And I am. Just let that big ugly creature make one move toward me — or my pilot — and he’s asking for trouble. After all, I am from Detroit. We don’t give moose the time of day. Although, I must confess, I’ve never actually seen a moose, besides Bullwinkle.
But I’m jumping the gun here. What am I doing in Alaska, you ask? Especially when the baseball teams are in spring training and the basketball teams are in midseason and the hockey teams are jockeying for playoff position? Alaska? Well. There are several reasons: 1) This is a sport, and I am a sports writer. 2) My boss wanted to get rid of me. 3) I love reindeer. 4) This is the only state in America that I have never visited. And now, having visited, I can safely say it is the only state in which I checked into my hotel and saw a polar bear in the lobby.
Also a mountain lion.
And on the way to my room, across from the ice machine, a musk ox.
They were stuffed. I think.
I didn’t notice any moose. Spring training? No way, Jose
But the real reason I am here is simple: If I write another story about baseball players’ salaries, I am going to throw up.
I wanted to get away, to find a slice of the sports page unspoiled by owners, players and Dick Vitale. An adventure. Some history. The Iditarod — an endurance race from Anchorage to Nome in which the mushers often sleep on their sleds, fight blinding snowstorms and suffer hallucinations in the northern skies — is older than pro football. It dates to the early part of the century, the gold rush, when sled dogs were the only way to reach the treasure. In 1925, when an epidemic of diphtheria broke out in Nome, it was dogs on the Iditarod trail who delivered the serum to save the population.
You know what? Not one of those dogs demanded a three-year contract.
So I like it already.
You’ve got danger out here. Collapsing ice. Wild animals. You’ve got natural obstacles. Mountains. Snowstorms. And then there are the characters who are nutty enough to do this, the mushers who have made the Iditarod part of their heartbeat. Like a woman I met Thursday morning, Beverly Masek, who grew up raising dogs in the small town of Anvik, Alaska. She met a guy, fell in love — he also was a sled dog racer — and they decided, what the heck, let’s get married during the Iditarod. In the middle of the race! So in 1984, she flew into the fifth checkpoint on the course, Finger Lake, population 2
(that is not a typo, only two people live there), and she waited for her husband-to-be.
“He arrived in the late afternoon. He fed the dogs, made sure they were OK. And then we got married,” she recalls. “We had one of the older racers do the ceremony, and several of the other mushers came and watched. It was beautiful, out in all that scenery. I had a bouquet made out of branches and flowers I collected in the woods. We said I do. And then, a few minutes later,
he was back in the race.”
Beats the heck out of a Jose Canseco story, doesn’t it? Bring on the moose
By the way, you don’t cover this race from a press box, either. You want to follow, you have to rent a plane. Fly from checkpoint to checkpoint. Sleep in a post office. Or on someone’s floor. Or in a tent, in the snow. And the temperature can reach 40 below.
I’m not crazy about the tent part. But I do have a pilot, a trusty old sort named Jim Okonek. I will also have some company in the plane: two Japanese journalists. I don’t think they speak English. They sent a representative to arrange their flights.
“How will I know you?” I asked when he called.
“I wear an eye patch,” he said.
And he did. And he walked with a cane. And he spoke in a whisper. Before he left, I asked what happened to his eye and he said he fell on an icicle when he was a boy. Then he walked away.
The adventure begins.
I have gone to the dogs.
Now. Where’s the damn moose? TOMORROW: We encounter the champion — and discover she is a Pistons fan.