The biggest dog party of the year is set to begin Saturday, March 7th in downtown Anchorage.
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race, made famous by Balto and 19 of his closest dog friends during the diptheria epidemic in 1920’s Nome, is a testament to the enduring spirit of the sled dog and his person. We Alaskans, like many who follow the race each year on their televisions and via the Web, get a little excited each March as race day approacheth.
After three years of Iditarod-lurking around town, I am happy to report upon my unofficial Idit Viewing Guide for Families, as we parents must sometimes go a different direction when it comes to outdoor dog watching.
Kids love dogs, and kids love races of any genre; the Iditarod combines two worthy components of attention-grabbing for a fun family outing. The best place to begin is before the race even leaves the chute, down in Spenard at the Mellenium Hotel. HQ is located here, and all mushers must check in and attend a number of meetings pre-race. Many of the families, volunteers, and visiting spectators stay here as well, and one can feel the energy from the parking lot. Well, the dogs are there, too, so their cacophony adds to the general hubbub.
This year, teams will begin arriving the afternoon of Wednesday, March 4th, so feel free to trek on down to the hotel for a little canine Meet and Greet before the mushers are consumed by race details. Brief your kids, however, on dog etiquette; no patting or petting without permission and use manners. Keep an eye on your little darlings, too, as some dogs are not as well socialized as others.
Race Day means 4th Avenue and all side streets are blocked off for the Ceremonial Start. The morning dawns early for most; teams will begin leaving around 10 a.m. and every two minutes thereafter. We try to get downtown by 8 a.m. to mix and mingle with the VIP’s of dog racing, along with international media and race sponsors. The gates to public access along the staging area go up by 9 a.m., but before that, get a true feel for all that goes into creating such an event. Photo ops and autographs are standard procedure, and some mushers, like the affiable Martin Buser, will be glad to accommodate fans.
Encourage your kids to listen and watch the sled dogs as race time nears. As booties and harnesses are applied to hairy feet and backs, dogs begin to wiggle and howl and get every dog near them excited for what they know is coming. The noise becomes an amazing mix of yips and barks and hollering from handlers; truly a once in a lifetime experience when it is multiplied by 1,000 (dogs).
As mushers pull out of town, we usually do too, heading home for lunch and a brief rest/warm up before catching a little trailside action along either the Chester Creek trail system, eastbound, or, our favorite spot, along the Campbell Airstrip off Elmore Road.
Truly the locale to feel a part of a sled dog’s world, the trail provides silence and peace as teams, settling in to their favorite job, pull mushers along the snowy, tree-lined routes to the finish. Mushers are happy, I think, to be out of the crowds, and will gladly wave and give a cheery “howdy” to observers. And, a little secret; if you ask for booties, sometimes they’ll toss one or two, if your kids give a hearty “Please!”.
The next day will bring the Official Start up in Willow, 65 miles north of Anchorage. It’s a day of higher energy and tension, the relaxed demeanor is gone as teams prepare for a tough, sometimes dangerous two weeks. The day before seems but a memory as sleds are loaded to their limit and equipment is checked and rechecked in the hope nothing is overlooked.
There is an addiciton to the Iditarod in our house; we’ll follow the race start to finish via the Web site, and hope our favorite teams do well. Join us on March 7th for an experience not soon to be forgotten in your children’s minds.