I bounce over to www.iditarod.com, click on "Race Updates," watch the page load, let loose a sincere but muted, "This is good," pick up the phone, and dial a number in Fairbanks. The receiver clicks, and without waiting to hear a hello, I cheerfully announce, "DeeDee is out of Finger Lake with 16 dogs. First place. Swenson is a minute back, also with 16 dogs. You owe me 50 bucks."
A baritone voice mutters, "Punk-ass Swenson."
It's March, time for the Iditarod column. For new readers, Iditarod refers to the 1000-miles-plus sled-dog race that runs from Anchorage to Nome. Sort of. The Anchorage start is for TV. The municipality trucks in snow; locals crowd saloons, line the streets; mushers don their racing gear, gather their dogs, hook 'em up, mush down Fourth Avenue, wave at the cameras, turn onto Cordova Street, mush past the city limits, a little farther, then stop, load their dogs onto trucks, drive 70 miles to Wasilla, spend the night, get up, dress, gather their dogs, and start the real race. The Anchorage start isn't timed.
Because of GLOBAL WARMING, snow is iffy in Alaska this time of year. This year, due to the lack of snow on the ground, the start was moved to Willow, 30 miles up the road from Wasilla. Same thing happened last year. In 2003, in search of snow, the start was moved 360 miles up the road to Fairbanks.
There are 79 mushers in the 2005 race. This year all the heavyweights have signed on. Mitch Seavey (defending champion), Robert Sorlie (2003 winner), Martin Buser (four-time winner), Doug Swingley (four-time winner), Jeff King (three-time winner), and Rick Swenson (five-time winner) are here. DeeDee Jonrowe, Charlie Boulding, Ramy Brooks, Ed Iten, John Baker, Ramy Smyth, and a dozen others who could have won -- damn near did win -- one or more Iditarods, are on the trail too.
There are always a number of mushers who race for reasons other than winning. One is Rachael Scdoris, 20, from Bend, Oregon. Her goal is to finish. Scdoris can see shapes and shadows but is legally blind. It may not surprise you to learn that she is the first blind person to compete in the Iditarod. Iditarod authorities are allowing Scdoris to use a "visual interpreter." The interpreter is fellow musher and competitor Paul Ellering, who will talk to Scdoris by radio and describe the trail ahead.
Sounds nuts to me, but I'll be rooting for her. Follows is a little of what she'll be going up against. Will the radio work for ten days under racing conditions? It's going to be over 40 degrees during the day for much of the race, too hot for dogs to run. So, mushers run in the late afternoon and at night when it's cool. Ellering's not going to be able to see much at night. At times, he's going to be busy with his own problems and won't be able to tell Scdoris when to lean, when to break, or when to turn. In places, the trail is much rougher than civilians imagine. There are rocks, boulders, spots of snow, spots of bare earth, a jungle of shrubs, thin ice on one zillion creeks, moose, bears, buffalo, steep grades, sharp turns -- and that's if the weather is perfect. Get a wind blowing, get a storm happening, and things can get life-threatening in less time than it has taken you to read this.
DeeDee Jonrowe, 51, is the front-runner as I write this. She began mushing in 1979 and entered the Iditarod the following year. She has 13 top-ten finishes, including second place in 1993 and '98. Although never winning the Iditarod, Jonrowe has won other top-tier sled-dog races: Copper Basin 300, Klondike 300, and the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
Between 1985 and 1990, a woman won the Iditarod five out of six times. There was a saying going around at the time, "Alaska, where men are men and women win the Iditarod." It was an ironic jab, but for men folk, after the third or fourth female victory, the statement became a little too real, and many Alaskan men froze whenever "Iditarod" and "woman" were used in the same sentence. That time is long past, and DeeDee Jonrowe, by a long mile, has become the favorite of both sexes.
She earned her way in. This is her 22nd Iditarod. Jonrowe is a U of Alaska alumna. Been married to the same man for 29 years. Here's a quote from the Big Lake Baptist Church parishioner: "The Iditarod provides me more uninterrupted opportunity to talk with God than at home." She built her dog sled and oversees her dog kennel, home to 96 dogs. In the fall of 2002 DeeDee was diagnosed with breast cancer. She completed chemotherapy three weeks before the 2003 Iditarod started. Then, she mushed to Nome and finished 18th.
The Iditarod finish will be streamed live at www.iditarod.com