view from the hill

A look at the elements and events that come into view from where I'm standing...
... the stuff that matters in this life. Some flicker and are gone in a matter of hours
only to live in memory, others become life long travelling companions, never far from reach.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Flying South

Alaska Day 6
flyinghomeThe time has come for me to say goodbye to Alaska. What an adventure! I knew before coming up here that I’d only be dipping my toe in all this state has to offer, so I can’t be too upset about the little I’ve seen. But my bags are packed with souvenirs and memories. I’ve got over 700 pictures to wade through. My time in the Last Frontier has definitely been FULL.

It’s always hard to return to the familiar after any trip. Tiff and I have a tendency to get seriously depressed after returning from adventures. Coming back to London after Sweden and Ireland were tough ones. I don’t feel too crushed this time around because I know I’ll be back. Still, it’s a strange sensation stepping back into what you once knew so well, and to see it again with fresh eyes. I’ve been home for a couple weeks and I still catch myself being amazed at the sight of palm trees, and the lack of snow on the roads. I wince when cars take corners too fast, but then in LA there’s not a whole lot of danger of sliding on ice.

alaskastuff1My thick socks are packed away, my winter boots stuffed in the back of the closet. But I’ve got new books and treasures spread out on the coffee table. I’ve got a head full of memories, and when the house is quiet I can still hear those sled dogs barking out on the trail.

Check out more photos here!

Skiing Through the Woods

Alaska Day 5
dogcrossingThe race for me is over, my duties done, now I’m free to play (not that I haven’t been playing this whole time). I was pretty wiped out after all the excitement of the last few days, but I had this whole day in front of me, so I drove off to find the Iditarod Headquarters and Museum. I got more post cards and some stuffed animals for the menagerie back home. They also had a pretty interesting video on the “dogs of the Iditarod.” The production value left something to be desired, but I did learn that a dog in a city is 5000 times more likely to die prematurely than a sled dog on the trail. Good to know.

Snow began falling as I drove south back to Anchorage. The wind picked up and the roads were getting a little icy. Good thing I had the SUV. Once back in town and found the REI - what a haven! There’s a cross-countryrei skiing section right inside the front door. $15 and 15 minutes later I left with a pair of rentals and a map of local trails. I was off to explore! I drove back out to where the drop-off from Saturday’s start had been at Campbell Field. There’s tons of parks and miles of ski trails all over Anchorage, but a lot of them are a little too close to the city for me. Campbell Field connects with a much larger park up against the mountains so I knew the place would be quiet.

skisI set out and immediately had the place to myself. It’s been over a year since I last skied, so it’s been way too long. I still had this mythic image of Alaska in my head, a land of unbelievable cold and harsh conditions, but it wasn’t long before I was peeling off layers like I was back in CA. skitreesThe trails were great. It was an overcast day, the snow falling lightly, and I glided through birch forests all afternoon. I eventually saw a couple other people, but for the most part it was pretty empty out there - just the sound of my skis on the snow. Perfect.

bigboard2After I exhausted my need to ski, I headed back into town and once again to the Millennium Hotel. I couldn’t get the race out of my head, and had to take another look at the Big Board to see how the mushers were doing. I sat in the lobby for a while soaking in the atmosphere, reluctant to leave. The hive of activity had calmed down a lot since the days before the race start, but there was still plenty going on. There were people waiting for the weather to clear so they could take chartered planes out to the check points. A couple from Michigan was waiting news on their favorite mushers from their home state.

droppeddogOutside down by the frozen lake/landing strip were the dropped dogs - dogs that, for whatever reason, mushers had left at check points along the trail. The teams all started with 16 dogs, but there’s no telling which dogs will get sick, or won’t be pulling the way they should. Mushers are allowed to drop dogs at designated check points, where they’ll be taken care of and flown back to Anchorage. These poor animals looked a little dazed and confused without the rest of their teams. Vets would monitor them throughout the night to make sure they were doing OK.

I met fellow volunteer Scott, who was helping out with these dogs. We had talked about meeting for dinner, but I was pretty exhausted by this point and just needed sleep. He was off to another drop location anyway, so we headed our separate ways.

I ended the day back at my hotel in downtown, figuring out how to pack all my memories into one little bag. In the morning I’d be saying my goodbyes to Alaska and flying south.

Check out more photos here!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Girls on the Pier

I just came across an article on Sky and Telescope’s web site about Edvard Munch’s painting, Girls on the Pier. I guess there’s been some question as to why Munch chose not to paint the reflection of the moon in the water.

munchpaintingI’d never seen this painting before, so this “mystery” is new to me, but I can imagine if there’s been a century of art historians puzzling over the significance of the missing reflection (as the article says), then there’s also been a century of fellow artists who have been chuckling at the silliness of the historians’ lack of vision.

I don’t know who these art historians are, but I take one look at this painting and it’s obvious to me why there’s no reflection of the moon. There’s just no mystery at all. If you’ve spent any time at all looking at reflections in a lake, it’s clear that there’s a perspective shift. What you see reflected in the water is not a perfect mirror image of the view above the water. Unless your eye is at the water level, there will be a difference in what you see above and what you see below. These historians should spend less time looking at paintings, and more time looking out the window at actual nature.

Now, I can dive into a painting with the best of ‘em, and analyze something to death, but to talk about the “missing orb” as a symbolic meaning of failing memory or some other nonsense is like trying to have such an open mind that your brain falls out. In the best of symbolic interpretation, you must engage your mythic imagination as well as your rational mind. When the two spheres of thought and feeling sing together, whole new worlds of harmony are opened up. But to rely on one while ignoring the other is to fall short and see less than half.

On another note, figuring out whether the orb is the sun or the moon is fascinating to me. I love when astronomers and scientist attempt to reconstruct the time and place depicted in a painting to see what was going on in the sky. This has been done with Van Gough’s Starry Night, and others. This kind of scientific insight deepens our understanding and appreciation of a work, and all spirits are lifted. Science and Art are at their best when they walk together in service of wonder.

Read Sky & Telescope's article here

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Race Begins – for Real

Alaska Day 4
This morning was the re-start of the Iditarod, when the real racing got under way. The ceremonial start in Anchorage, as I saw, was a cross between a warm-up run and a media circus. This though, would be the real thing. I got up early, had breakfast in the restaurant downstairs, and headed off to find some dogs in need of a volunteer handler. Instructions from the organizers had been sketchy as to where and when we were supposed to do our thing. All I knew was that the race was beginning in Willow, a small town about 30 miles up the road. After the short drive I found some official-looking parking, and at 9am was one of the first cars to pull in.

icelakeThe re-start this year was staged on a beautiful wide open frozen lake. This was a definite change of scenery from the day before in downtown. There was so much space! A giant area had been plowed where the mushers could prepare their teams, and the starting banner was strung over a shoot that lead out across the lake, the beginning of a thousand miles to Nome.

I found the cabin where I was to check in, but this time my name wasn’t on the list. Not to worry though, they signed me up anyway and issued me an official ID badge. I went down to the lake, showed my card from Friday’s dog training class, and was given a dog handler arm band. Once again, I was in! It’s always a great moment when you’re issued an all-access pass, whether it’s for back stage, on a movie set, or a frozen lake in Alaska, there’s just something cool about the official badge.

barbequeWe had a couple hours before the first teams needed handlers, so I was able to walk around and watch as the mushers arrived and prepared their sleds and dogs. It was such a more relaxed atmosphere than the day before. We’d been warned that today was when the mushers would have their game faces on, they’d be grumpy and tense. This is the day the race really begins. Teams would be running with a full 16 dogs, they’d have to carry all their essentials with them, and there’d be no room for tourists to ride along. But walking around that morning the mood was more like a casual tail gate party. There were guys with barbeques set up. Teams were taking group photos. They were all methodically preparing for the next two weeks of racing - dogs had to be fed, gear checked, sleds packed up - but no one seemed in a real hurry. It was fascinating to watch as Mushers rolled in all morning, found their spot on the ice and got to work.

sleds2I was once again amazed at the contrast between all these teams. At one extreme was Ramy Brooks with his bright red truck and trailer covered in sponsor’s logos, his team all in matching jackets, his state-of-the-art sled complete with seat and windshield. Or former champion Jeff King with his custom-made trailer waiting to unveil the latest in sled-design. At the other extreme, a few spaces over a was a couple who drove up in a beat up old Suburban barely held together beneath all the rust, their entire dog team piled in the back. Teams were sponsored by everything from rustbucketCelebrity Cruises and Cellular One, to local sewing clubs, or an elementary school in their home town. One way or another they’d all made it here to this frozen lake to begin this grueling event.

It was great to be out in the open on this lake. I couldn’t get over how much space there was. It was also a lot colder out here on the ice than the day before in town. I had to go back to the car and pile on a couple more layers.

stopFinally the time arrived for volunteers to gather and team assignments to be handed out. The first teams began harnessing up and making their way to the starting shoot. There wasn’t nearly as far to run this time around, and the organization seemed much better. No frantic running alongside out-of-control dog teams today. First up for me was bib #18, musher Gerald Sousa. We held the dogs as they got more and more excited as race coverage Helicopters flew overhead. Maybe these dogs could sense this year’s Iditarod was finally starting for real, or maybe it’s because there were more dogs in each team, but these animals were LOUD! It’s one thing to hold the collar of a dog who’s barking constantly in your face, and to have two dogs mydogs2harnessed right next to each other doubles the output. But to have a team of 16 dogs, all barking non-stop is another thing entirely. Multiply that by the 9 or 10 teams on either side that are also crazed with blind barking instinct, and it’s enough to unhinge your sanity. The noise level the day before in downtown never got unbearable, so today, like an idiot, I’d left my ear plugs in the car. Standing amongst hundreds of dogs worked up to a fever pitch, it wasn’t long before the cacophony was constant. There were so many dogs that it restart1actually became impossible to distinguish each individual bark. All this noise overlapped on itself and the thousands of barks melded together into one continuous full-volume wall of sound. It was intense to say the least. (See and hear a movie of the dogs barking.)

The thing is though, as soon as the brakes are off and the dogs are free to run, it all goes quiet. The barking stops immediately and they’re nothing but business.

tovebootiesAfter Gerald Sousa was off down the trail, I asked to handle for musher 48, Tove Sorensen, who I’d helped to the start in Anchorage. She remembered me from the day before, was so sweet and seemed completely relaxed. I had my picture taken with her and wished her luck. She and her husband run mushing tours out of their kennel in Norway, so Tiff and I are thinking a trip might be in order.

restart2The countdown in the starting shoot on this morning was thrilling. Crowds lined the course out onto the lake, and when the teams took off, the dogs just bolted down the trail. There was no trucked-in snow, no buildings to block the view, they just raced off across the lake and into the trees in the distance. The first check point was Skwentna, almost 100 miles away. Teams would be running day and night, resting only occasionally for the next two weeks, all the way to Nome. It’s a beautiful thing to see these teams of dogs race off like that, and more than a few people in the crowd were wiping away tears.

handlers2After I saw Tove off, I was assigned a third team, #74, musher Jim Warren. There were less volunteers this day, so we could each do more and help out more than just a couple of teams. Once again, the casual attitude of the day was felt when the mushers would walk the length of the gang line in the shoot, offering final encouragement to each dog, and shaking hands with each volunteer handler. These guys were so gracious and humble. My fellow-volunteer Scott said that at what other major sporting event can you get so close to the athletes and the action? It really is a special event.

When the final musher entered the shoot, the announcer was choking back tears. She had the entire crowd count down with her. 5…4…3…2…1…go! The entire field for the 2006 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was on its way.

hotdogsI stuck around for a while as the crowds dispersed. There were fences to take down and signs to clear up, plus I didn’t want to sit in the traffic on my way back down the highway. Jennifer, the woman in charge of the volunteer dog handlers cooked up hot dogs on the grill. All the pressure was off now, another race successfully begun. It was a great atmosphere.

mystartMy final task as a volunteer for this year’s race was to help dismantle the giant “Start” banner that spanned the starting shoot. Lowering the huge beams that framed the sign was like a reverse of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. Bringing down that sign and undoing the bolts that held it all together was a poignant coda for my time here in Alaska. I had come to see the spectacle, the circus and the beauty of this race. I hadn’t quite known what to expect, but I ended up jumping in deep, volunteering and becoming so much more than a spectator. And now here I was, on a frozen lake under a fading Alaskan sky, dismantling the very thing that symbolized the start of the Iditarod.

I said goodbye to some new friends, crossed the highway to my car, and was one of the last to leave the parking lot.

drive2A final exclamation point to this amazing day came on the drive back to Wasilla. I was in a bit of a daze, but I did manage to see a moose as it ran across the highway in front of my car. That’s a pretty cool “you’re welcome” from Alaska.

Also on the drive back I was thinking about all those mushers and all those dogs who are now out there on the trail. The sun was setting and it was getting a lot colder. That night I would be sleeping in my warm hotel room, and they’d be out there moving further away from civilization. Then in a couple days I’d be on a plane flying south, and they’d be out there. A week later I’d be back in LA, starting a new job, and they’d still be out there racing.

cleanupI’d follow the progress of the race on the web site, cheering as my favorite teams reached Nome safely. All those names and bib numbers are now faces and hand shakes and great memories. Even as I write this, two weeks later, there are teams are still out on the trail. The stamina of these mushers and their dogs is remarkable, and I’m inspired to have been close to it, and taken a small part in it all.

Check out more photos here!

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Alaska Day 3
4thaveI was up at 6:30 piling on the warm gear Saturday morning for the race start. I was going to be outside all day and I did not want to be cold. I checked out of my room, put my bags in the car and walked up to 4th Ave. Snow had been trucked in to cover the streets to give the dogs something to run on. Even if the weather had cooperated and it had snowed for days, this is still a working downtown and the streets needed to be clear during the week. But not today. 4th Ave. and the surrounding blocks were buried under a foot of mushy snow.

startIt was a surreal scene seeing the place wake up in the morning fog. I found some fellow volunteers and at 7:30 after a few instructions from our fearless leader, Carl, we were given official arm bands and hats. The first teams wouldn’t roll across the starting line until 10am, so we were free to mingle for a couple hours. I wandered around as the teams began arriving and setting up. The mushers came in all sorts of trucks with custom designed “dog boxes” on the back, and sleds piled high on top. Each team was different; some had state-of-the-art gear, others were more on the mom-and-pop scale. But each musher would be heading to dogboxthe start this morning with a sled pulled by 12 eager dogs. Since this is the “ceremonial start” the teams would be running with only 12 dogs. On Sunday, for the re-start, they’d all be fully kitted-out with 16 dogs.dogstart

The ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage is definitely a show for the cameras and crowds. The mushers weren’t running their best sleds, they would carry no gear, and each had a paying passenger. These “idita-riders” bid on the privilege to ride with their favorite musher for the 11 miles of the first day. Some of these bundled-up passengers paid $7500 for the hour-long trip. That seems like a lot of money for a short trip to me, but these folks seemed happy, and I’m sure the mushers are willing to put up with the extra weight if it helps pay some of the race costs. It can cost a musher $50,000 to train and prepare properly for this race. That’s a huge scramble for a lot of these guys, seeing as training jacketsfor the Iditarod can be a full-time job in itself. A handful of the mushers are professional sled racers with sponsors footing the bill. They’re decked out like NASCAR drivers, covered in corporate logos. They have pit crews with matching jackets and fancy trucks. One guy even had his own merchandizing stand with hats and ear warmers. Most, however drove up in beat-up old trucks with family members helping to unload the handmade dog boxes.

At 9:30 or so, the volunteers met again to get assigned to dog teams. Our fearless leader, Carl, asked who was willing to run. My hand went up and I was told to find musher Jim Lanier, wearing bib #4. The teams were arranged along 4th Ave. in the order they’d be starting. The first team would hit the trail at 10am with teams leaving every two minutes after that until all 84 mushers were on their way. For some reason, the first teams to head out were the furthest from the starting line. So, to get Mr. Lanier to the starting shoot was a mile-long run in the snow along the entire length of 4th Ave.

Our job, as we’d been so thoroughly trained the day before, was to hang on to the gang line and slow these dogs down enough to make the trot to the start a calm and enjoyable experience for all involved. That was the plan anyway. As Tiff and I learned in Sweden last Winter, sled dogs have one speed – FAST! - so maneuvering a team of 12 half-wild beasts at anything less than their desired sprint was going to be a challenge. Plus there were 48 little paws not to step on.


Three teams left before us, so we should’ve had plenty of warning, but a huge gap developed between us and the team in front before we got under way. We finally began trotting down the street, but running in my massive snow boots, leaning over holding on to the gang line, all the while trying to keep these dogs under some sort of control was a tough one. They were eager, to say the least. It’s amazing the strength they have. There were 6 or 7 handlers per team, and these dogs could have easily pulled us over and dragged us all face first for miles. To make things worse, the trucked-in snow was pretty soupy, it was like running in 8 inches of butter.

4thDUp ahead we couldn’t yet see the start, but we heard the announcer introducing our musher to the crowds. Then the countdown began… “one minute.” Organizers along the way started yelling at us to get up there, we were late! “30 seconds…” We were still blocks away, but had to pick up the pace. What began as a trot, turned into a run, then devolved into a panicked mad dash. One of Jim Lanier’s “official” handlers just let go, the dogs were running too fast for her to keep up. With one less handler the dogs were able to run that much faster. “15 seconds.” By now we were in a full sprint. The musher yelled at us all to let go, so we dropped the line and the dogs bolted like a rocket. As Jim’s sled sped past me I heard him yell, “Don’t let go!” What!? Didn’t you just… never mind. I ran after the sled as fast as I possibly could. This was the definition of chaos. I was at a full sprint, barely gaining on the team. I just couldn’t quite reach out and grab the gang line. “10…9…8” here comes the starting line. Almost there… “3…2…1… GO!” The team crossed the starting line at a full gallop. With his race officially under way, I dropped back, but then Jim slammed on his foot break to stop the team a few yards beyond the start. Other handlers ran forward to unclip the extra leashes that we’d let go of four blocks back. It was absolutely nuts. I just stood there panting as Jim’s team raced off down the road, his Iditarod journey officially begun.

It was then that I realized I couldn’t feel my nose. I guess sprinting as fast as you can on a freezing Alaskan morning isn’t such a good idea. I thought I’d gotten frost bite. I staggered back to the staging area to get assigned to another team. It took me ages to catch my breath. The day before when they said I should be willing to do some running they weren’t kidding. Luckily, after the first 5 or 6 mushers were off, the organization got much better, and teams were actually leaving inside of their 2 minute intervals. Hopefully the crazed running was over.

mydogsThe next team I was assigned to was musher #48, Norwegian, Tore Sorensen. I learned later that she and her husband were racing together this year (he’s bib #46). I would follow their progress through the Iditarod web site over the next couple of weeks, imagining them out there day and night. Tove had harnessed up her dogs very early, so I, and the other handlers just played with them for ages, trying our best to calm them as their barking got more and more frantic. These dogs can sense when it’s time to run, and instinct takes over. There is nothing that can be done to quiet them. I saw one dog who looked so sweet and angelic, but once he started barking he became demon-possessed. It was freaky. Fights are common as the barking gets more intense, and to have so many teams so close together on such narrow streets is asking for trouble. These dogs are the true athletes of this race, so any small cut or nip is serious. It’s a definite handful to keep them from tearing into each other.

Luckily one of my dogs was a Zen master. When all around was a complete cacophony of hundreds of dogs barking, howling, yapping, screaming, this guy was a rock in the storm. Amazing. It was only right at the end, when he must have known they were really ready, did he start in, and then there was no stopping him.

handlersFinally it was our turn to go. Tove released the snow break, a two-pronged hook anchored to a truck bumper, and we were off. It was all we could do to keep the dogs in check, and it wasn’t long before I was tripped up in the lines and paws and other handler’s feet, and went falling and rolling out of the way. I caught up again in no time, and we lead our team to the start. This was a much more civilized approach than the chaotic dash of the first time around. We actually slowed down behind other waiting teams on our way along 4th Ave. It’s a huge thrill to wait in the starting shoot, hanging on to these half-wild dogs, and hear the countdown begin. When the announcer finally said “go!” we released the gang line and the entire team took off like a dragster down the trail. Tove stood calmly on the runners, waving to the cheering crowd. What a rush.

start2I stayed at the starting line for a few minutes taking pictures and soaking in the atmosphere before heading back to find Carl and my next assignment. He said that all mushers had been assigned handlers so there wasn’t much more to do, but they needed help at the drop off point at the end of today’s course. So, fellow volunteer handlers Scott, Erika and I raced off to find my car. We lost Scott somewhere along the way, but it was no big deal because once we got to the drop off, there wasn’t anything for us to do there either. They had more handlers and more security than they knew what to do with. Still, Erika and I stayed out there and watched all the teams come in. It was great to see a different side of things, away from the circus of downtown.

dropoffBy the time all the teams were done for the day it was about 3pm. I swung by downtown again to see that the streets had already been plowed of snow, and the crowds were fading into the afternoon. The only thing left to do was drive the 30 miles up the road to Wasilla, where I’d be spending the next couple of nights. Wasilla is where the re-start was supposed to be on Sunday morning, but because of a lack of snow the re-start had been moved another hour or so further north. Wasilla was also where the annual Musher’s Ball was happening and I had myself a ticket.

thedriveThe drive out of Anchorage was spectacular. Old Jack was right, once you’re out of town the real Alaska begins. I saw two bald eagles fly over the highway, and Denali in the clear distance. The highest peak on the continent is pretty impressive, even when it’s over 100 miles away. I drove north through a wide valley, with snow-covered peaks ringing the horizon. When I got to the hotel I called Tiff with my excitement. She’d seen me that morning on the live feed on the Iditarod web site, so we were living the moment together.

mushersball2The Mushers Ball Saturday night was a bust. It just wasn’t my people, much more the Chamber of Commerce crowd. There was a silent auction with a bunch of crap I don’t need, fireworks over the frozen lake (which was kind of cool), and people getting their pictures taken with a pair of posing huskies in a mock-up of a sled. A senator made a speech. It was interesting to see a different side of the whole race spectacle, but once the middle-aged white people started dancing I knew it was time to leave.

lucilleThat night was the first time in days that I was truly tired. No more nervous/excited sleep for me, I had finally burned off my adrenalin. This was truly an awesome day. I had done what I set out to do. And the best part was, in the morning I would do it all again, this time on a frozen lake, at the re-start.

As I lay down to sleep, my ears were ringing with the barking of a thousand sled dogs.

Check out more photos here!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

I'm In!

Alaska Day 2
carFriday morning I was up and back to the airport to pick up my rental car. The airport’s only 10 minutes away, so before I was fully awake I was behind the wheel of my new Nissan Murano sliding through intersections and trying not to cause to much damage.

millenniumFirst stop was the Millennium Hotel, the headquarters for the Iditarod. I walked into the lobby and was immediately in a throng of activity. There were people and bags everywhere. Boxes of supplies waiting to be taken out on the trail, a make shift gift shop, huge moose heads and stuffed polar bears everywhere. I found the Big Board they had up from last year, showing all the mushers and their respective times at each of the checkpoints along the 1100 mile trail. There was also a giant map of the entire race coarse. This was definitely Iditarod Central.

I wandered around the lobby trying to look as if I fit in. This place was buzzing with the race. It was so cool. I wandered down some of the hallways, the race had taken over a bunch of the rooms. Doors were swung open with signs announcing “Comms Center,” “Phone Room,” “Dropped Dogs.” There were banks of computers, telephones, coordinators. Hotel rooms converted into production offices, it was just like being on location for a film. I was looking for signs for volunteers. I still had hopes of talking my way in to volunteering for this spectacle if I could, but I couldn’t seem to find the right people.

photomanUpstairs and there was even more activity. The third floor meeting rooms had all been taken over by race committees. There was a breakfast just ending for school teachers who design curriculums around the race. A communications meeting was also finishing up. I saw a notice that Gary Paulson was speaking later in the morning. He’s the author of Winterdance, the book I read last summer in London (see this blog August '05), one of many that has tipped the scales for me to be here in Anchorage. I bought myself a ticket for that, then mingled around taking pictures and once again trying to look like I belonged.

I was trying to get my bearings, I hadn’t seen any sign of volunteers, and my first impression was that they’ve got it covered. Everyone seemed to have a job. This machine was well under way, and the last thing I wanted was to get in it’s way.

booksigningWaiting outside the banquet room before the talk I met a woman who was also there to hear Paulson. She asked if I was a teacher, I said no and she looked at me as if to say, “then why on earth are you here?” We filed in to the room, and I was immediately surrounded my hundreds of teachers. This was strange. Was I in the wrong place? Is there another Gary Paulson who’s some inspirational instructor? Finally I saw someone carrying a copy of his book Winterdance, so I knew there was at least one other person as confused as me. Luckily the couple I sat next to were, like me, non-teachers, and I finally figured out that Paulson’s talk was part of a four-day teachers workshop that coincided with the Iditarod. I guess he’s written a ton of books on all different subjects that are read widely by elementary school kids. Things were beginning to make sense.

Needless to say, his talk was awesome. He described his journey since the end of Winterdance, and what lead him back to dog mushing after nine years of sailing around the Pacific. He’s a great speaker, and his love of dogs is infectious. He told stories of how they’ve saved his life more than once out there on the trail, and the primal connection he feels when it’s just him and his team miles from nowhere.

Afterwards he signed copies of his books in the lobby for the eager crowds. There was another talk scheduled two hours later, this time with former Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey. I thought maybe I’d come back for that, but for now it was time for lunch. I left the hotel (the restaurant there was too fancy for me), and headed back into town. While away form the hotel I thought I’d also stop into the Alaska Native Medical Center. I’d read about this place to find authentic Eskimo arts and crafts. I guess people from native villages bring in crafts to sell when visiting relatives. This sounded more interesting than the gift shops downtown, so off I went to the hospital.

bowlsSo, that’s me. Who needs tourist sites when you’ve got the cemetery and the hospital to go to? It was a little strange walking in to the medical center being the only white guy around, plus, it’s a hospital, so no one’s having a very good time. But I found the small shop packed with sculptures, jewelry, masks and dolls, all made from wood, bone and fur, and I came away with a couple small bowls made from birch bark.

mitchBack at the Millennium Hotel I got my ticket to hear Mitch Seavey speak. He was great as well. He talked about the romantic spark that got him into mushing, and the mythic nature of Alaska. He also spoke about his philosophy of raising and training sled dogs, and how it’s a natural thing for these dogs to run over huge distances. He says the only organism on the planet that nothing is expected of is a pet dog or cat. It’s just not natural to spoil animals in this way.

volunteersWhen his talk ended it was mid afternoon, and I was wondering what to do next. It had already been a very full day, but it was only 2pm. I walked downstairs and there was a large group of people gathered in the lobby. I glommed on to these folks to see what was going on. It turns out these were the volunteer dog handlers, and they were being instructed on what they were going to be doing at the race start in the morning. I hovered in the background for a while, but saw that they each had official badges, and email lists with names meticulously checked off. They were obviously the “in crowd”, and I was most definitely on the outside. I started to leave, but after a few steps stopped myself. If I left the hotel lobby now, in the morning I’d just be a spectator. I’d be in the crowd with all the other cheering fans, and it would be great, but these volunteers would be on the other side of the barrier. They’d be the ones closest to the dogs. They’d be participating. I’d come all this way to get close to the race, and it seemed like a pretty huge opportunity that I’d just bumped into this group.

I walked up to one of the leaders at the back of the group and said, “I’m not on any of your lists, but could you use and extra set of hands tomorrow?” He looked me up and down, and saw that I had descent snow boots on. His assistant noted that I had long legs and could probably run. He asked if I could go to the re-start on Sunday, because that’s where they would be needing extra handlers. I was planning on going there anyway and told him that I had my own car. He took my name and info, and said to stay with this group. From then on I was in!

dogWe were lead outside to the parking lot where a team of very tame dogs was being harnessed up. We took it in turns to hold the guide line while running next to the team as it made its way around the lot, careful not to step on any paws with our massive snow boots. We practiced falling and rolling out of the way – something that would come in very handy later, and were told that at the race start communication was all about hand signals because the barking of the dogs would be deafening.

trainingAfter an hour or so of this we were issued cards that certified that we’d been officially trained as dog handlers. My name was now on the list, and I was handed my card! We were told to meet at the corner of 4th and D at 7:30 in the morning and be ready to work. And that was it. I was officially in! A volunteer at the 2006 Iditarod Dog Sled Race! I walked back to my car completely high.

localinterestI wandered around town in a bit of a daze after all the excitement. I found a giant Barnes and Noble where I spent some time. A B&N is a B&N, after all, and once I came to my senses I got out of there and headed to local favorite Title Wave Books which had much more personality (and a better Alaska selection, which stretched for 6 isles!). I picked up a couple things and settled into the coffee shop to write post cards and recover from this day.

titalwaveDinner was a pizza to go that I took back to my hotel room. There’s a cool dinner/cinema place that looked tempting, but they weren’t showing anything I needed to see, besides, I had to pack up and check out of my room first thing in the morning. Saturday evening I would be driving north to Wasilla and another hotel closer to the re-start for Sunday. I had to get some rest, tomorrow was going to be a Big Day.

Today, I volunteered. Tomorrow, the race begins!

Check out more photos here!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Words Haven’t Been Invented

Alaska - Day 1
Old Jack is an Eskimo who owns a shop in downtown Anchorage that sells caribou hides. He says I should really get out of town and see the real Alaska. This is something I’ve read, that locals don’t consider Anchorage part of Alaska. It’s only when you get out into the country that you see what’s real. Alaska begins in a mile or so in any direction. Old Jack says, “the English language cannot express what there is out there.” He said it over and over. At first I thought he was just a talkative salesman, as soon as I walked in he said he liked my beard. He just started talking like I was the first person he’d seen all week. But this guy is a real character, he’s educated. He’s been a bush pilot for 40 years, flying to villages in the Interior to get the hides he sells in his store. He has a son who went to Oxford. He knows the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the National Gallery in London, and the Louvre (he pronounced it correctly).

We talked about art and nature and Hollywood. I told him that I was at the museum earlier and I’d seen some paintings by Sydney Laurence. He said again that I have to get out into the wilderness. The wilderness hasn’t changed in a thousand years, he said. You can’t hear cars, your senses become heightened. I know what he’s talking about. He says it will change who you are. Words cannot express. The English language is not capable. He said maybe the camera could capture some of it, but he wasn’t sure.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself…

cookinletI woke up in Anchorage at 7:30 on Wednesday and was out the door by 8. I didn’t get to my hotel until about 1:30am the night before. All my flights were delayed so it was the middle of the night driving in, and I didn’t get a good view of the town, so this morning was my chance to get some bearings. I walked up to 5th St and hung a left. At the end of the block was the Cook Inlet. I found Captain Cook’s statue overlooking the creaking frozen tide where 200 years ago his ships were anchored. That guy really got around. He was up here cooklooking for the Northwest Passage, he sailed along the Aleutian chain of islands, hung a right and went 250 miles north of the Artic Circle before heading south to Hawaii where he was killed by the natives who apparently didn’t appreciate being "discovered."

After paying my respects I went back to 4th St. to the Snow City Café where I could thaw out and eat a huge breakfast. It is icy up here and my LA blood had yet to thicken up. In the café was the Italian musher, Fabrizio Lovati. So, that was cool, my first musher sighting. The Iditarod is in the air.

A few blocks down 4th is the Alaska Visitor Center, where I met another CA traveler up here to see the race. We loaded up on maps and info before heading out into the cold again. It was still early and nothing was quite open yet. I did find a great bookstore though with a ton of Alaska books. I got a great collection called The Last New Land. This added to the collection of Robert Service’s poems I picked up in the Seattle airport on my way up the night before.

This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain:
Send not you foolish and feeble; send me your strong and
your sane…

mallBy now shops were opening and the mall was across the street. I found the Iditarod store where I gathered more bags of loot. Yep, there’s a mall. Downtown Anchorage is filled with tiny shops with names like Once in a Blue Moose, that are filled with the inevitable Crap for Tourists - fridge magnets, wind chimes, fish platters. I did my shopbest to resist.

artifactsFrom the mall I went to see the real stuff at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art – history upstairs, art downstairs. What a treasure trove! I saw stone carvings and bone needles and baskets and kayaks and seal-gut waterproof parkas (parka is a Russian word, I learned), and I read about Cook and his expeditions. I love that in all the signs when they’re describing dates they say 10,000 BP (before present), there’s just no reason in this frozen land to bring a religion from the deserts of the Middle East as a point of reference.

paintingThen downstairs was the art. I was brought to tears by a landscape of snow and mountains by moonlight. That’s majesty! There’s some serious art that’s been done up here. I stood in a room full of paintings by local legend Sydney Laurence, each one a different view of Denali. This guy loved to paint that mountain. I can only imagine how well he knew it, painting it over and laurenceover again throughout his life.

I spent a ton of time (and money) in the shop, but came away with a nice book on the collection and one of native stories. Then it was off to the cemetery where, just like the guide book said, I saw Russian crosses, boneEskimo whale bone grave markers, and Laurence’s headstone. It was a pretty amazing mix of cultures all covered in a foot of snow. I tromped around taking pictures of raven wing imprints in the snow. I had the place to myself – except of course, for the long-term residents.

After the cemetery I came back into town to find a coffee shop, and that’s where I walked into Old Jack’s and he said the thing about the English language not having the words. This was all coffee1a bit much. It had been a pretty full day already - excitement, tears, wonder, slipping on icy sidewalks, an encounter with an Eskimo. I was loaded up with books, gifts, post cards, my souvenir Iditarod hat. I had to thaw out in a coffee shop and take it all in. It was pretty damn cold. My breath was frozen in my beard. As long as I kept moving I seemed to be OK, except my knees were freezing in my jeans. I knew I’d have to really bundle up on Saturday because I’d be outside all day for the race start. I sat in Kobuk, a Russian tea house/coffee shop and wrote post cards till my nose stopped being numb.

humpysAfter I dropped off my bags of loot at the hotel, I headed out again for some dinner. I found Humpy’s, where the only seat was at the bar. There ain’t no no-smoking section here. I sat between two locals, so between the recommendations from both left and right I got quite an education on the microbrews of Alaska. Turns out there’s some good stuff up there. A band started up a little later and through the haze of my exhaustion I knew I was beginning to find what I’d come up here for. I’d been in Alaska less than 24 hours and I’d already experienced more than I’d dreamed of.

What a day, what an introduction!

Check out more photos here!


Wow! I did it. I survived Alaska. I’ve been back for a few days now, and I’ve barely had time to reflect. I agreed to storyboard a commercial while I was still in the Anchorage airport on my way back south. As soon as I stepped off the plane in LA, I was already thinking about work the next day. I’ve been buried all week, it’s amazing how fast sellavision works to squish out any dreams of an actual experience. But even though work tries to take over, I’ve still gone to bed each night this week with the sound of sled dogs in my head.

alaskastuff1Actually, it’s taken me this long to even think about putting words to my Alaskan adventure. What a trip! I saw three bald eagles, a moose ran across the highway in front of my car, I had a pretty mind-blowing conversation with an Eskimo, I talked my way into being a volunteer dog handler for the Iditarod race start, I shook musher/author Gary Paulson’s hand, went cross-country skiing, drank Alaskan Amber at Humpy’s, a favorite Anchorage watering hole, and both Saturday and Sunday nights my ears were ringing because I’d been in the middle of a thousand sled dogs all barking and yapping to get on the trail. What a week!

Now I’m back home in LA, safe and warm. I haven’t unpacked yet, I don’t want the trip to end.

I’ll post some of my 700+ pictures, and share my stories here over the next few days.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Touchdown Take Off

boardingpassThe Tuesday before I left I had a mild case of resigned depression about this whole escapade of mine. This dream of venturing off to Alaska to witness the start of “the Last Great Race,” my visions of being in a land where the elements rule, where the people are tougher, hardier, the Last Frontier, seemed to be evaporating before my eyes. Alaska is no longer the undiscovered country that it once was. It was pretty well tromped over when Jack London was doing his writing. Now there’s McDonalds and Starbucks. OLN is doing complete race coverage of the Iditarod this year. A picture I saw from last year’s start in downtown Anchorage looks like it could be downtown San Jose. There’s banks and parking meters. They have to truck in snow to cover the streets because it just doesn’t snow like it used to. The Iditarod is a huge event complete with corporate sponsors. Alaska is a red state filled with republican hunters. My idealism and romantic notions of what this adventure are to me were getting squashed by a reality that I didn’t like my glimpses of.

Maybe it’s all just last minute second guessing, some inner pessimist trying to take the shine off my excitement. Maybe it’s just preconceptions showing themselves to the door.

Somewhere all these dreams I have in my head are going to bump into some sort of reality. I really don’t know what to expect. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Off the Page

The day has arrived. Today I fly to Alaska, or, as Chris MacCandless put it, “Today I walk into the wild.”

packingI’m setting out to clear some of the carbon monoxide from my spirit, and play in the snow. I’ve got all the gear I need (for now), the camera batteries are charged, the boots newly sealed. Of course, my adventure might be closer to what another writer said, “Going where a lot of other dudes with really great equipment have gone before: the call of the pseudo-wild.” But this is all new to me, and definitely feels like a Big Deal.

And, to keep the quotes flowing, Jon Krakauer says, “The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.” I’ve read some great stories about Alaska and the Wild in the last few months, and today I get up off the couch and take a step off the page.

Check back next week for photos and stories of my time in the Last Frontier and the Iditarod…