Iditarod Cometh

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The Iditarod starts this Saturday.

When it comes to famous annual events in Alaska, if you have heard of any of them, you have heard of this.

The Iditarod is a dog sled race that starts in Anchorage and goes to Nome, Alaska.  Dog mushers start with 16 dogs on pulling their sled and after passing a number of checkpoints, required stops, vet checks, and 1000 of the most grueling terriane and bad weather Alaska has to offer arrive in the small Bearing Sea coastal town 8 to 10 days later.  This year, 68 competitors are planning to start the race, and based on averages a third of them won’t make it to Nome and half the dogs will be left behind with handlers at some point during the race.  Finishers are treated like champions in their own right, with one of the major awards, the “Red Latern”, given to the last to make it in.  Winners are moved to Alaskan folk lore status, and not just the mushers but the dogs as well – many of the lead dogs are memorialized.

I plan on doing a few blogs on the race, but thought I would start with a history lesson to get you interested (or bored) — then come this weekend I can fill in with the fun stuff.

Started in 1973, the race was begun as a rememberance to mushers of the past.  Many of the coastal communities along the Bearing Sea are iced in, and have no roads heading back to other communities.  Before airplanes and snow machines, locals relied on dog sleds to cover any significant distance.  Back during the Alaskan gold days, miners and prospectors used sleds to get from southern towns like Seward and Anchorage to where the gold was at.  The trail they took was known as the Iditarod Trail after the gold town of Iditarod (derived from a Native American word for ‘Far Distant Place’) which sat halfway between Nome and Anchorage and is now a ghost town.  Roadhouses sprung up every 15 to 30 miles along a main trail that ran northwest out of the Anchorage area.  This led to dog sled being the main form of winter transportation. 

Prior to the race, the most famous use of the trail was in 1925 when a diptheria epidemic threatened Nome, and serum was only available in Seward (a town south of Anchorage).  The only planes in the area were unable to make the trip and the train stopped 675 miles short of Nome.  So the dogs took over, and 5-1/2 days later the serum arrived.  Mushers remember Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo who covered the roughest ground and the longest distance of the run, but Gunnar Kaasen is remembered for running the last leg into Nome led by the pup of legend “Balto”.  At that time, the US had seen over 20,000 deaths nationwide from diptheria but the publicity from that run caused a great increase in inoculations nearly wiping out the disease all together.

While a modern musher is equipted with GPS, advanced breeding techniques, scientific feeding formulas, and all the amenities one can stuff on a dog sled – the musher life isn’t so far removed from the days of old that they lose touch with what it was.  They will still cross the same harsh, untaimed terrain.  Still see winds and snow so heavy you can’t see the front of your pack.  Still trust the furry friends in front of them as much as they trust you. 

And it all starts on Saturday.

Magic Curls T-Line Weight as Lead at the Speil

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This weekend, I paid $50 for a chance to win a brand new airplane.  I listened to stories swapped about a compressor going down and you could see the rocks leaving a wake down the ice.  I helped up a marine who made a big fall for the sixth time in 8 hours.  I tried to figure out which bar in Prairie du Chien was the place where “Chester” was the bartender, because my skip came in from Petosi when he was 19 for Softball tournaments to try to score with his daughters.  I had nachos, soup, fresh strawberries, but missed on the infamous biscuits and gravy when I slept in on Sunday.  I learned the new Civil / Environmental Engineering building at Michigan Tech is no longer considered “new” and saying that it was just a concept when I was there made me old.  I left early on Friday at 11:30pm but didn’t get off the ice until quarter to 1am on Saturday night.  I hung out with a 40+ woman dancing like a six year old as we watched fireworks in heavy snowfall.  I put a buck in to play a dice game called “shut the box” & was told that the object was that you but a buck in and do nothing but not see the buck again … then that’s exactly what happened.  I considered yoga but was more than happy to agree that the carpet where we would have the class wouldn’t work (and not at all suggest that I couldn’t see any other part of me doing yoga).   I not only met an Olympian’s father, he called me his new best friend and I teased “this must be the lowest point of your life”.

AND … I got a new nickname.

This weekend I competed in my first Bonspiel.  When I asked what that was, someone told me “It’s chili and beer drinking occasionally interrupted by curling.”

A few weeks back I shared with you my first experience in curling, a sport I tried out to get it off my bucket list – which can be described as shuffleboard meets bocci ball meets ice skating meets house cleaning.  Two teams of four alternate sliding granite rocks down a sheet of ice at a target in the effort to get theirs closer to the center of the target and keep the other team’s out.  After I tried it out for the first time, I joined a beginner’s league … nothing special, just a night where newbies throw teams together and give the game a go.  Bonspeil is actually a weekend long tournament, set-up to welcome all levels of teams get through at least three games and in a crazy bracketing came up with multi-tiered champions.  Along with the Fur Rondy, the Anchorage Curling Club was hosting a Bonspiel this weekend.  During one night, the Fur Rondy Bonspeil came up, and it was suggested that someone needed a team.  They were specifically were looking for a beginner.  $50 later, I was signed up.

I showed up Friday night with a pot of chili and only the name of my skip or team captain (being reassured that he was a great guy … and given no other description).  In fact, he was a great guy and a great curler.  He just loves playing the game, win or lose, his regular team was going to be missing a few people so he put together purposefully a patchwork squad — the skip who is one of the top players in Anchorage, one of the top Anchorage junior girls (all of 16 years old), the oldest ACC member who has been curling in Anchorage since 1968, … and then there was me.  It’s not easy to put a team like that together in short order so we didn’t do great — lost, won, lost — but so not the point.

A good curling match is hard work, over two hours you run back and forth along the ice sweeping and throwing stones.  We don’t play nonstop, and in between … there is a bar.  This is where the fun really kept going.  From the other players, I learned a lot about the game and ways to play better, but moreso I got to know them as well.  I learned alot about curling this weekend, but the one thing I learned the most is that it is first and foremost a social game.  From the overly competitive to the kids trying to play with the adults to the newbies like me, nothing was kept us from having a laugh telling a story and finding common ground over a game that is just too much fun to not love.

Put simply, I had one of the best weekends I’ve had since moving here, and like all great times it starts with great people making it great.  Believe me, I am sparing details, and that’s the way it should be. Some things are best kept for Club members, and that includes Magic.

 

Fur Rondy

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Friday begins the 78th Annual Anchorage Fur Rendezvous.  The 10-day event, also called the “Fur Rondy” or “Rondy” for short, is one of the highlights of Anchorage events in the calendar year and without question the biggest event outside of tourist season.  This is my first Rondy up here, but the best I can tell is very much like other things in the past but as unique as parties can get.

Back in the 1930s, Anchorage was only 3000 people, and during the winter there was absolutely nothing to do except … well … survive.  Every year, back then, in February, Anchorage will fill somewhat with trappers and miners coming in to sell what they have and barter for goods & suppliers.  A local named Vern Johnson, thought that was as good of an excuse as anything for a party.  In 1935, the first Rondy was held over 3 days and included fun things to get out and play – including skiing, hockey, basketball, a dance, and a torchlight parade.  They also included a children’s sled dog race that went right down 4th Avenue (one of the main roads still to this day in town). 

78 years later, the event is still going on, and keeping with many of the old traditions.  For instance, fur trappers still come to town, including “Buckskinners” – the old-time fur trapper re-inactors who will set up skin tents and tepees and make camp near downtown.  For those of you from my youth or are from my hometown of Prairie du Chien, WI (53821 … just can’t say that without the zip code for some reason) will probably wonder if this is something like the Rendezvous held there every year for decades.  Well … yes it is … nearly identical, and maybe the same buckskinners.  The difference is (and Jeff Rogness, get ready to feel even more uncomfortable with your memories of Rendezvous) we aren’t talking about going around in buckskins in Wisconsin June heat … this is Anchorage February.  So, wearing a loin cloth has a completely different set of challenges.

The event still has the dance, still has the torchlight parade, still has basketball, skiing, and figure skating.  It also includes sports, including the biggest adult outdoor hockey tournament in the world.  It has traditional events you would see at any other party like that, complete with carnival rides and carnival food (again, this is Anchorage February … so … tilt-a-whirl will come with frostbite protection). 

The highlight of the Rondy is one tradition still around from 1935, dog sled racing.  Two of the biggest dog sled races are a part of the Rondy annually.  The second weekend includes the ceremonial beginning of the Iditarod, the 1000 mile race to Nome (more about that next week).  This weekend includes the biggest spectator dog sled race in the world.  A 20 mile track of snow will be put in across the city, including a route that goes down city streets downtown.  Teams will race three times (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) with accumulative times naming the winner.  But with 20 miles of track, there will be spots you can just stand and watch the race come right at you full speed.

There is winter fun things too, complete with snow statue carving – just like the old Michigan Tech Winter Carnival.  These statues aren’t as big, and they use real artists, not drunken engineering students.  There’s also art displays, special theatre shows, photo contests, and concerts.

But what is getting me so fired up is all the “unique” events … as if dog sledding, buckskinning in the cold, and snow statues were normal.  Check this out:

  • Beer Drinking contest, evilly sponsored by a Non-alcoholic beer
  • Snowshoe softball, self-explanatory
  • Frostbite foot race, sadly also self-explanatory
  • Ice Bowling, bowling on ice … not bowling with ice
  • Outhouse Races, where teams pull an outhouse on skis or sleds … rules include that the outhouse must come equipped with a rider on a seat and one full roll of toilet paper, door not required
  • Yuigassen, no seriously, that is a real thing.  Supposedly it’s a mix of ‘capture the flag’, paintball, and snow ball fighting
  • Reindeer sausage eating contest, this year featuring ‘Prancer’
  • Oyster Shucking Contest, don’t ask me why
  • Dog costume, dog lookalike, contest … yeah, its that kind of uncomfortable
  • Rollerderby, complete with tough chicks

The last weekend ends the Rondy with a signature event – the Running of the Reindeer.  It’s just a street full of idiots running as fast as they can for a few blocks while being chassed by docile, yet confused, reindeer.  Loser’s get made into sausage.

So here begins the fun.  I’m spending the first weekend curling and will try to hit a few of the events as well.  I’m sure this isn’t the last Rondy blog you will hear from me.

On a clear day …

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The sun comes up these days while I am on the way to work and its pretty good daylight just a little after 8AM in Anchorage.  When you talk about longer or shorter days of sunlight, the key thing to remember is it’s all about angles.  The Earth rotates at the same rate, the Sun stays where it’s at, so for a day to be longer or shorter our angle to the sun changes.  It’s a greater influence up north in Alaska because the further north you are the more drastic change in angles.  There’s a point to this, so stay with me.

I had an 8am meeting “The Boardroom” of the BP Tower, the main executive conference room in the building located on the north end on the top floor (13th to be exact).  Where I typically work on the 8th floor, I can turn around and look out the same direction and get nearly the same view, but up there it just seems you have a clearer vision for a longer way.  While I did focus on the meeting, something cool was happening out the window that kept pulling me back.

On a clear day, you can see Denali from Anchorage.  Mount McKinley (or Denali, its original name & the common name used around these parts) is the tallest mountain in North America towering 20,320 feet (6,194 meters).  It is 240 miles (390 km) by car from Anchorage to Denali National Park where the mountain is.  Most parts of town, any unobstructed view can give you at least the peak of the mountain on a clear day – though the peak is usually covered with clouds.  From my 8th floor desk, I can see a fair bit of the mountain on a clear day as well; but since I face away from the window its something I don’t stare at for any given period of time.

Today was different.  Right around 8:20 something red started appearing out the boardroom window.  While the sun was up over Anchorage, at that point of time the sun started hitting the peak of Denali. The whole of the mountain is snow covered, and ridges jut to the south giving contrast to it’s shape.   Slowly as more of the mountain saw the light of the sun, the red dawn moved down the slopes and started illuminating the whole of the old girl.  By 8:40 it was in full color, reds to pinks, best reflecting the sunrise.  Denali loomed high over the horizon and majestic as any rocky peak has ever seen.  There are other peaks to the north, and other ranges to the east, but none stand out and dominates like Denali when it glows in the natural light of dawn.

Denali has that strange way of surprising you every time you look at it.  Between here and there, weather can change pretty dramatically, meaning different hazes or wind blown things can change how well we can see it.  Weather changes going above us in all directions, so the light reaching the mountain could have nothing to do with what it’s like in Anchorage.  Because the east rising sun plays over the ridges of Denali differently than the west setting sun, you can have the same day give you completely different views of the same mountain.

I still remember when I came to Anchorage the first time, someone mentioning to me that on a clear day you could see Denali from here.  While I didn’t believe them then, I think they were hiding really what you could see a clear day, and how incredible it could be.

Iron Dog Start

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As the winter starts to get into the deep of it, Alaska becomes the source of some very unique winter events.  Today began one of those events.  The Iron Dog.

The Iron Dog is the worlds longest snowmobile race.  Snow mobiles (aka Snow Machines, aka Ski-doo) for the uneducated — or those where you never see snow — are vehicles that look similar to low sitting motorcycles with skis at the front used for steering and a track on the back used for power.  They are best plowing through fresh snow and are primary off-road vehicles, performing poorly where snow is cleared (I mean … they are made for snow, that’s the point).

Snowmobiles are not just this fun off-road toy.  Alaska is pockmarked with towns and villages well off of the road system, and getting around during the winter requires either a snowmobile or a dog sled (more on the dog sled in a couple weeks).  For as long as they have been available, many communities see snowmobiles as the main transport during the winter between towns, and far more reliable than air planes or boats.  Sometimes that means folks have to go hundreds of miles on one of those things, which is typically giving you no more protection from the elements other than a laughable windshield and grips that make heavy gloves comfortable.  But with anything, when you have people that rely on a means of transportation, you can’t help to wonder who can do it faster.

While snowmobile races can be bigger or faster in other places, none are longer than the Iron Dog.  The race starts in Big Lake, AK (a town about 15 miles by plane from Anchorage and 90 miles by car) and heads northwest.  It crosses over the mountains and catches a bit of the Yukon river until it finds the Bering Sea / Norton Sound Coast until reaching Nome.  Then it backtracks to the east a ways until it picks up the river again and heads up to North Pole until cutting up to a finish in Fairbanks.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Well – that’s 2031 miles.  The event is so extreme that the race requires you to run in a team of two, so if something happens you have a teammate to take care of you.  It’s not out of the question to see temperatures around -20°F (-30°C) and whiteout conditions.

Racers are required to pack a Tent or a Bivy sack, 5lbs of tools, a First Aid kit, and must also have studded tracks and an extreme cold rated sleeping bag. It has become popular for racers to vacuum package their sleeping bags into bricks to save space.  There are checkpoints every so often, usually 100 miles or less between each one (longest stretch being about 115 miles).  At those points racers typically pick up fuel and water (or other drink, dehydration is a major problem on the race) as a minimum but could end up staying the night at those places too.  At key points, racers are required to be off trail for a specific time, including a mandatory layover in Nome for 48 hours.  Race time for winners is usually around 36 hours, but the whole event takes a week to complete.

Thirty-six (36) teams left this morning from Big Lake and six (6) teams have made it to McGrath, almost 300 miles into the race in just 8 hours.  Some are struggling, the last place team hasn’t made it to the Putilla, or 150 miles in.  In early are most of the teams expected to be leaders.  Most of the racers are Alaskans racing modified stock sleds (mostly built up suspension for longevity, weight reduction steps, and larger fuel tanks).  Nearly all of them are the furthest thing from celebrities (except for one – a 4 time winner and favorite to win this year Todd Palin, husband of the ex-Governor and only racer in the Iron Dog once portrayed on Saturday Night Live).  There isn’t a lot to be made from the race.  Most race just to see if they can do it.  Some do it for the rural fans, who will come up to see racers come through by the hundreds in the middle of the night.

So that race goes on for the next couple of days.  As it ends a far more famous race follows much of the same route starting just a couple weeks from now.  But we’ll save that one for later.

Those Things that Catch Your Thoughts

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I got teased yesterday that I have fallen into a rut a bit (how many times can a guy talk about the weather & his dog?), so today I am going to talk about something a little more special … and my dog.

Ok, so Auggie has this way of sitting that is funny to me.  He just plops his butt on the ground and stares at me.  I call it the “confused dog” look.  Like, I can leave the room, and when I come back he is still sitting there staring at me.  It looks like this:

Sit Auggie Sit - good dog

Now that I lost you  in your “awwww, he’s cute” moment … let me tell you what it really reminds me of.  It reminds me of the sticker on the back of my car.

Sit RAV Sit - Good Dog

It looks pretty close, doesn’t it?  It has that same sit position.  Same front legs in front.  Same long tail, same bent ears.  The only difference is that the sticker shows the dog with a smile, and Auggie … well … Auggie’s just confused.

But to be honest, the sticker and the sit position brings up a completely different thought.  I got the sticker as a gift from my mom the week before I brought Auggie home.  Up to that point, I had a couple pictures of him, but nothing to really suggest what he would look like now, and I am betting my mom didn’t know either.  But here we are, a near perfect reflection of the pup. 

Whenever I go to my car, I see this sticker — and I think of my mom.

Whenever I see the Auggie sit like that, I think of that sticker — and I think of my mom.

And I can hear the wise cracks now … “So, you compare your mother to a dog?”  But in its own way, it is how I keep her in my mind.

Which is important today because it’s her Birthday today.

Happy Birthday Mom down there where its warm and sunny and not at all stuck on a cruise ship — thinking about you.

100th Bear Feed Post

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\o/  … Raise a glass folks, this is my 100th Post on the Bear Feed.  Can you believe it?  100!!!!  That’s about 98 more than I thought I was going to post.

To celebrate, let’s look back at some of the favorite moments.  And by favorites, I mean my favorites and not yours … I ain’t gonna ask you what your favorites are because if you read all 100 I think you need to get your head checked.  Feel free to add your comments on what your favorite moments were too … and you more “why the hell am I reading these moments” as well.

Your Top 10 Favorite Bear Feed Moments

10) 9/29/12 — Ready or Not — “Let the record show, first snowfall of the year in Anchorage City was on September 29th.”

9) 9/2/12 — Echo Bend — I hiked back of Eagle River to a place called Echo Bend, and was surprised at my reaction.
“Echo Bend laid itself out like a fantasy.  Illusions of man-made images I have seen hundreds of times in paintings, on computers, in movies.  For a short time, I almost brushed it off like it was all those other things and something that is so easy to get used to.  But as I tried to capture it with the camera on my phone I wondered if I was really capturing anything that could do this justice. … Then a voice in my head echoed back: “You are only a short drive away.  Come back to this place, whenever you want, and see it again whenever you want.”  Vacation is over, this is home now.”

8) 10/8/12 — Oy, With the Puddles Already — “Before moving up here, all people wanted to warn me about back in Kansas was cold.  “You know it gets cold up there” is something I heard so many times that I just wanted to yell “Holy Crap!!!!  You’re right, I didn’t think about that, I better stay here where a coolest here in August is 107°.”

7) 8/17/12 – Hi-Ho Marty the Moose — Regarding a conversation with Ed Warren about getting my car up to Alaska: ”
Ed: “so what are you driving now”
Me: “They put a saddle on a moose for me … I have a rental car, been in it for a couple weeks.”
Ed: “does it have blocks on the pedals?”
Me: “Nah, I just have to strap walrus pelts to my feet for extra length”
Ed: “figured”

6) 10/7/12 — PFD’s Baby — When explaining the Permanent Fund Dividend I told this story: “But for this outsider trying to find a way to overcome the wet weather blues, I have to admit it was the reaction in the bar on Friday.  The place was packed and folks were having a great time.  As I was nudging a fairly cute girl who was three sheets to the wind (plus a few more for safekeeping) what the occasion was, her response in a whooping, drink spilling, high tone screech was a simple “F*ing PFDs, Baby!!! I LOVE THIS STATE.”

5) 2/7/13 — Live from the Salt Pile: Snomaggedon —  “Picture if you will, a poor rookie news reporter standing outside in the cold next to a three story pile of salt.  She’s wrapped up in a jacket that is supposed to make her look like she is at the tip of winter weather fashion sense; but all it really does is accent how red her cheeks are from the biting wind.  Her thin gloves grip the microphone tightly just to hide the fact she shivers uncontrollably.  Her only need to report tonight is just to say the county trucks are ready to roll to keep the roads safe and clear.  Down where I used to live in that belt of states from Kansas to Kentucky and even further south – this is the sign of the end, this is the picture of Snowmageddon! ”

4) 8/11/12 — Namesake — It was the night I saw a bear, a real bear.  And I had to describe what the experience was like.
Over the next few minutes, I went through the stages of stupidity:
1) Giddy: “Woot Woot, I just saw a bear.”
2) Fear: “I just saw a ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bear!!!!”
3) Post to Facebook: “I just saw a bear.  I bet half of you don’t share this, and the others eat at Chick-fil-a”
4) Denial “That wasn’t a real bear, that’s just one of those you can get down town and hug and squeeze and pet and call George.”
5) Brainlessness (Aka: Darwin Award Nominee): “I bet if I a go back with a fish in my pocket, I could get a better picture.”

3) 11/05/12 — Enter the Puppy — “(I brought Auggie home this day and he) showed his gratitude by
1) Throwing up on my car seat
2) Pooping on my couch
3) Chewing on my watch
4) Fought the leash
5) He nipped my nose hard enough to break the skin
6) He cried and cried when he first went into the (kennel)
7) Ran nonstop around the room for the last two hours
And it … was … awesome!!!!”

2) 1/9/13 — Bucket List: How I Hurried, Hurried Hard — I started the post with: “My feet press out behind me. My pelvis is flat down. All my upper body weight is pressed into the handles my hand grip tightly to. My head is lifted out in front of me. All the while I am sliding forward on a sheet of thick ice in a room that is just at freezing. Make no mistake, what I was doing was not at all right. However, while I am doing this an item on my bucket list has a big thick line going thru it.”  –And thus, I became a curler.

1) 8/4/12 — Two Feet on the Ground, Two Fists in the Air — The post on the night I arrived in Anchorage for the first time.

“There were moments though today that made me very aware of the situation.  Two in particular.  One was the view as I left the airport.  I snapped a pic from the taxi and posted this on Facebook:

… And God said, “Welcome to Alaska, here’s something pretty for you to look at.”

The other was when I got on the plane in Wichita.  The flight attendant, being chatty, asked me “Are you leaving home? Or heading home?”  I thought about the question and the answer was simple: “Yes”

Ladies and Gentleman … I am home.”