My two brothers and their families as well as my son Gerrit and I spent the afternoon on Vera Lake in Willow watching the start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon with the temperatures around 15 degrees.
Festive crowds were spread out along the trail as it wound down the lake. The mushers took about 20 minutes to get to our location from the starting line on their way to Nome more than 1000 miles away. The dogs were running strong and eager. All of them looking like they wanted to be the first to the finish line.
We relaxed in the sun, roasted hot dogs and marshmallows and cheered each musher as they went by. It was a nice relaxing afternoon for us, but the beginning of 9?15 days of hard racing for the mushers and their teams.
Growing up on the Innoko River in the village of Holikachuk gives me a special affinity to this race since it is named for a town fairly close to ours. I remember the adults talking about going upriver as far as the Iditarod. They were talking about the river, not the gold rush town. I always wanted to explore that river, and still do.
My Dad, Gale Van Diest, had a dog team since it was the only way to get around in the winter. He hauled all our firewood with it and travelled to Shageluk and Anvik. I was allowed to drive them occasionally but usually spent my time inside the sled.
But our dogs were completely different than these racers. They were a lot bigger and slower. I think our dogs probably ran about 6 miles an hour or so on a longer trip, while these Iditarod race teams often average close to 15 miles an hour between checkpoints. Thats like running a 4 minute mile for hours on end.
Our teams were smaller, usually just 5?7 dogs. These teams are 16 dogs strong. I can?t imagine handling 16 dogs at full speed on some of the trails they are running. These teams are very well trained and in great condition.
Their sleds are nicer too. I don?t think they could haul much wood in them, but they look mighty comfortable. What with the new sit-down sleds and modern materials they are a far cry from the ones we used. Some of them almost look like they had lazy boy recliners on them.
There?s Rick Swenson, on his way to Nome.