Monday, March 10, 2014

Twenty-three sat phones, sixty-nine SPOT trackers, and thirty-two jars of mayonnaise

Last week I spent a few days in Anchorage - visiting my cousin and cheering her on during the Tour of Anchorage ski race, and volunteering for the Iditarod.   For those of you who did not grow up reading Gary Paulsen books, the Iditarod is a thousand-mile dog sled race stretching from Anchorage to Nome.  The route follows both traditional Native Alaskan trading routes, as well as dog-sled routes used to connect turn-of-the-century gold mining towns to the railway, sending out gold and bringing in mail, food and supplies.   The network of dog trails across Western Alaskan were collectively referred to as the Iditarod trail.  (Except in Iditarod itself, where it was referred to as the Seward trail, my town being for a time the southern terminus.) The historic trail is perhaps best known for being the route of the serum run to Nome in 1925, in which a series of mushers relayed diphtheria vaccine nearly 700 miles from a railway station outside of Fairbanks to the isolated village of Nome in the wake of an outbreak after the village's port had been cut off by ice for the winter.  The mushers relayed the vaccine to the village in only five and a half days.   Some of the old mining towns along these historic routes, such as Iditarod itself and Ophir (named after the biblical city that was the source of King Solomon’s wealth), are basically uninhabited apart from the ten days every year during the race.This year is the forty-second Iditarod and the field started out with sixty-nine teams.

That's sixty-nine humans, actually.  The dog count for the race is somewhere north of a thousand. Sixteen dogs per team, times almost seventy teams is… a lot of dogs.

Lake Hood, Anchorage, as seen from behind the Millennium Hotel

One of the first things I did on arrival at the Iditarod HQ (also known as the Millennium Hotel, who graciously sponsors the race by allowing the race’s admin and logistics people to basically take over the hotel for three weeks in March) was take a dog handler class. This is mostly a quick and dirty introduction to sled dog handling for people who are helping at the race’s two starts. (More on the multiple starts later.) I wasn’t handling at either event, but I did want to get checked off as a handler, because it’s a prerequisite for working on the trail checkpoints, which I would like to do in the future. After a quick talk inside, we headed out to the hotel parking lot, where a kind and patient musher whose name I never did get let us practice leading a team around the parking lot. By lead I do not mean standing on the sled, or anything quite that cool. By leading I mean, hanging onto a leash or gangline for dear life, and try to simultaneously (a) keep the team from bolting hell-for-leather down the road and (b) keep slack out of the dog's lines, so that the dogs wouldn’t tangle themselves into immobility. All while jogging on an iced-over parking lot trying to keep up with the dogs.

After a quick consultation about whether the musher had collision insurance on his sled, the first set of handler-trainees took off around the hotel parking lot.  I ended up going around twice, and once I put it out of my mind that I was jogging on ice, it was actually kind of fun. The dogs were, I think, very accommodating.  If you ever see or watch footage of the real start, the dogs aren’t quite so laid-back. In fact, once a musher arrives in the starting chute, you’ll see about six burly guys rugby tackle the sled to keep the dogs from charging out early.   Our trainee mini-runs were much calmer.   After a few circles around the parking lot, they’d figured out that they weren’t actually going on a real run, and they were a little more willing to trot at a sedate speed.  By the end of practice, we hadn’t hit any cars, though we did drench the musher when the sled swung wide and into a giant mud puddle.

The idea with all of this is to make sure that handlers are able to handle the dogs in a safe manner. So no boot spikes, no dangling necklaces, earrings, or lanyards, nothing that could potentially injure a dog’s paws or otherwise trip them up.   After all, we aren’t the ones who are running to Nome. And if there’s a question between what’s safest for the human and what’s safest for the dog - well, let's just say that the Iditarod is very careful about making sure that all human volunteers are covered by the race’s insurance policy while they are working. The one bit of human safety information that was passed on to us concerned the sled. This was: if you fall, roll clear of the sled as fast as you can, because it might not be able to stop before running you over.

This has only happened once in the past few years, but apparently it was pretty dramatic. In the words of one race person - “I have never seen a human body swell up that quick. It was like watching someone inflating a raft.”

And because once just isn’t enough, the Iditarod starts all the teams twice over two consecutive days. The first is a non-competitive twelve-mile run through downtown Anchorage, which is mandatory for the teams, but for racing purposes doesn’t count.  The teams are limited to twelve dogs, and are pulling two sleds and three humans: their musher in the main sled, as well as a handler in a second sled (called a tag sled) and one very lucky Iditarod supporter who has bid on the chance to get carried around Anchorage in the sled’s cargo bag. The calculus of more weight plus fewer dogs means that the teams are a little easier to control (Anchorage’s streets and bike paths not being designed around the turning radiuses of dog sleds). The teams depart every two minutes.  After making a twelve-mile circuit through Anchorage, the teams finish up at the Campbell airstrip, where everything gets loaded up into dog trucks and driven two hours north to Willow. Where we do the exact same thing  the next day.

Willow, for most of the year, is a small town of around 1500 people. Except for the day of the Iditarod restart, when it becomes Alaska’s fourth largest city.  The ‘real’ Iditarod start happens on a frozen lake in town, at 2pm the day after the ceremonial start in Anchorage. Thousands of people turn out and tailgate on the lake - we could see the smoke from all their barbecues on the TV footage back at HQ. As before, the teams leave in two-minute intervals, but this time there are no tag sleds, and no additional personnel. It’s just one musher, sixteen dogs, a sled full of gear, and a thousand miles of Alaska wilderness. Usually the last teams are starting out across the lake just as the sun is beginning to set.

 Besides being the race's start, Anchorage serves as home base for some of the Alaska-based and Outside media, at least for the first part of the race. In addition to Lower 48 news crews, this year the race is also hosting Norwegian journalists (mostly following Norwegian racers Robert Sorlie, a two-time Iditarod champion, and Joar Ulsom, who finished 7th last year as a first-time Iditarod racer) and a news crew from Al Jazeera(?).   There is a big difference in how Alaska newspapers cover the Iditarod and how Outside media cover the Iditarod.   Alaska papers cover the race like a sporting event.   Outside papers report that Martin Buser has taken an early lead, and IS IT REALLY GETTING DARK AT 4PM? and he is racing hard to the checkpoint in Rohn and THERE ARE NO ROADS TO ANY OF THESE GODDAMN PLACES and Aily Zirkle's taken the lead, pressing her advantage along the iced-over Yukon River and HOW DO PEOPLE LIVE SOMEWHERE THIS COLD, I CAN'T FEEL MY FACE and Jeff King is overtaking the leaders with his more recently-rested team and THERE ARE NO HOTEL ROOMS LEFT IN NOME!   Chalk it up to Alaska's ability to impress. But I find it a little amusing.

The Iditarod dropped dog lot behind the Millennium Hotel

Anchorage is also one of the main staging areas for dogs who are dropped from the race by their musher. Like any endurance athletic event, there are the occasional strains, sprains and bruises, and the Iditarod dogs are no exception. Any dog with an injury can be dropped at a checkpoint, where the dog is looked after by vets and checkpoint staff, and then flown back to Anchorage.   There, the dogs are cared for at the Millennium hotel until one of the mushers’ handlers or relatives can pick them up.  On March 5th, the back of the hotel was very busy with several dozen dogs who had just been flown in from Rainey Pass and Rohn.   About twenty people were running around the dog lot looking after them.   Volunteers were draping fleece blankets over any dog that stayed still long enough.   Others scoured the lot with buckets and shovels, on pooper scooper patrol.   Others made seemingly endless round trips to and from the water cooler and dog food bin, topping off their charges’ dishes.  Vets were walking about with stethoscopes.   Any dog that yipped or howled was immediately cuddled and made much of - showered with food, water, blankets, fluffed-up straw, cooing noises, high-pitched baby talk, contemplative ear-scratching, deep-tissue shoulder massage, or some combination of the above.

A dropped dog getting some love from a volunteer.  One of the Iditarod Air Force planes is in the background. - note the skis.

The Iditarod has twenty checkpoints, strung out over a thousand miles of wintry Alaska wilderness. None of these checkpoints are connected by road.   All transport to and from the sites happens by snowmachine or small plane - a huge number of flying hours being donated by a roster of about thirty bush pilots known as the Iditarod Air Force. Their job starts several weeks before the race even begins, flying out bags of food (people and dog), straw (the dog bedding of choice), and extra supplies to all of the checkpoints. The checkpoints are staffed starting about 48 hours before the first musher is expected to arrive, and are taken down once the last musher leaves - though occasionally weather and or unusually fast/slow mushers can change things considerably. In 2013, musher Martin Buser arrived in the checkpoint of Rohn after running the dogs for nearly twenty hours straight (whereupon he immediately declared his mandatory 24-hour layover).  He arrived a good ten hours before the checkpoint was expecting dog traffic.  (This move gave him a decisive early lead in the first half of the race, though in the end Buser finished 17th.)  Fortunately, with the advent of mushers carrying GPS trackers on their sleds, HQ is able to better track mushers’ imminent arrivals. Frequently during the course of the Iditarod, there is a race-within-the-race to get the checkpoints staffed and set up before the front-running mushers actually arrive.

While all of this was going on, I was working my first shift in the Comms department back at the Millennium Hotel.  The Comms department is in charge of internal race communications, and is in some ways sort of a throwback to the days when none of the checkpoints had internet access, and were communicating with HQ via sat phone and landlines.  The checkpoints would call in to the Comms office, and we’d write down their message (teams arriving or leaving the checkpoint, weather forecasts, numbers of dropped dogs, etc) and get it to the person in HQ that needed to deal with it. With most (but not all) of the checkpoints having internet access, the checkpoints mostly email things directly, and we don’t have quite as much running around to do. But Comms is in charge of tabulating various reports that the checkpoints send in (weather, numbers of dropped dogs, lists of volunteers/staff in any given checkpoint), and also shipping out and troubleshooting all of the remote communications equipment that is sent out onto the trail. Or assisting relaying information form one checkpoint to another, such as a checkpoint with no working internet attempting to call a checkpoint with no working phone.  Over the days I was there, we were dealing with about one checkpoint a day that was laboring under some form of communications blackout.

For example, this year the telecom company that provides our sat phones sent us the wrong kind of power cable.  Instead of chargers that plugged into a regular 120 volt outlet, we got chargers that plugged into the cigarette adapter of a car. By the time we discovered this, several of the sat phones had already been flown out to the trail. The telecomm company, when contacted, was helpfully suggesting that the checkpoint staff run out to Radio Shack and buy an adapter. Or they could just charge up the sat phone in their car if the battery went low. Not the most practical of suggestions in a place with no roads (and therefore no cars), and where the closest Radio Shack is over forty miles away by snowmachine.   On top of this, one of the checkpoints couldn’t get their computer to work at all.  So for the first night of the race, this checkpoint could only report the in and out times of the teams by calling in on sat phones that they were unable to recharge.   There were similar sorts of issues throughout my shifts in Comms.

Mostly what I do as a Comms volunteer is sit in front of a computer, file checkpoint reports, and relay messages down the hall. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait.  The same thing happens at the checkpoints as well, where the wait times can be extremely lengthy if the front mushers are delayed (not a problem this year) or if the weather is too bad to fly the volunteers out after the checkpoint has closed.  The staff at Finger Lake were stuck at their checkpoint for nearly four days after their last musher left, first because of weather, and then because the flight to pick them up was diverted at the last minute to pick up a dog at a different checkpoint with a medical concern.   On the third day, we received a forlorn-sounding email requesting that if we couldn’t fly them out, could we at least arrange to send in ‘a pre-cooked dinner protein, two sachets of oatmeal and a loaf of bread’, which seemed to be their way of delicately informing us that they were running out of food. I wrote back suggesting that they snowshoe to the luxury lodge on the other end of the lake and offer to wash dishes in exchange for their dinner... Someone else wrote back suggesting cannibalism.  (FYI, they got out later that day.)

Besides internal race communications, another thing that Comms is in charge of is mayonnaise.  That's not a typo.   The reason for this is that mayo (unlike, apparently, mustard and ketchup) will freeze at sub-zero temperatures, and the jar will explode.  Anything that can’t freeze, can’t go out with the pre-race food drops. In many of the remote checkpoints, there is literally no warm place to store anything until after the checkpoint volunteers arrive. So the mayo goes out with the Comms volunteers instead.

Comms is also the de facto lost and found department of the entire Iditarod trail. This covers everything from pre-shipped musher bags being sent to the wrong checkpoint, to beaver-skin mitts lost somewhere on the trail before Rohn, to SPOT trackers, iPod chargers and GoPro camera mounts being left in the checkpoint at Nikolai.

The middle of the Alaskan wilderness is not the place where you would expect to find lots of cutting edge technology. However, the Iditarod (as the race is currently run) relies a great deal on remote communication, and not just in the checkpoints. Starting a couple of years ago, mushers began carrying GPS trackers on their sleds. For an operational standpoint, the trackers are a lifesaver, because HQ can (most of the time) actually see where the mushers are on the trail, and plan accordingly. For example, if you’re a checkpoint volunteer, it’s a lot easier to wait for your next incoming musher by hitting refresh on your web browser than by standing outside in minus thirty-degree temperatures squinting into the dark for a headlamp.   Musher still twenty miles out?   Great - set your alarm clock for two hours and get some much-needed sleep.

Technology also makes things safer for the mushers if they run into serious trouble on the trail.   In addition to the GPS trackers, mushers also carry SPOT trackers on their sleds, which come with an SOS button. Activation of the SOS button, even accidentally, means that the musher is automatically withdrawn from the race - but it means that the nearest checkpoint can be alerted very quickly if a musher is injured.  Six mushers this year have used this option to end their race - some of them doing so after fairly major injuries - including one concussion and two broken legs.

Finally, GPS also makes the race a little more accessible to spectators, both inside and outside of Alaska.   For a subscription rate of only $34.99, you, too, can log into your home computer, access the tracker page, and watch the mushers race their way to Nome.  Not all mushers are fans of the development, one Yukon Quest musher saying that the blips-on-the-screen makes the sport of dog mushing look too much like a video game. I have to say, as a spectator, that watching the blips on the screen is much more satisfying than waiting hours for the race stats leader board to be updated whenever the front-runners enter or leave a checkpoint.

Before the advent of GPS, watching the Iditarod was kind of like sitting in a stadium watching a baseball game where the teams are playing their innings out in the parking lot. At intervals, the teams run into the stadium and the referee updates the scoreboard with the various points that were scored while the players were out of sight. The teams rest at the water cooler, and the spectators comment on how many burgers and powerade bottles the players are guzzling, as well as their overall condition.  “Look at that mud stain on Bib 32’s pants! Do you think he slid into home base?’ Or ‘Bib 14 is on the bench? Does the team have another reliable pitcher if he has to sit out the rest of the game?’  And so forth.   Then a few hours later, the teams run back into the parking lot and the whole thing repeats itself.

Besides being able to ‘see’ the teams as they run, another change that the GPS trackers have made possible is that the statistics for the racing teams can be analyzed just as they are in most other sports. The GPS Tracker automatically shows the team’s position, as well as their current and average speeds, and whether the team is racing or resting (both of which happen a lot over the course of a two-week race). It’s also possible to calculate, for any given team, hours resting versus hours running, hours since last rest, and the hours ‘behind’ the leader for any given team.   Some of the best commentary on the race comes from the handlers and relatives of Iditarod mushers, who generally blog, post, or tweet for their respective mushers during the race, and have the time and motivation to go through the GPS tracker information with a fine-toothed comb, comparing the analytics of their musher to those of his or her closest competitors.

Basically, the blips on the screen makes the race accessible in a way that it wasn’t before GPS. And any piece of technology that can keep fans awake into the wee hours of the morning, refreshing their browsers to ‘watch’ Aily Zirkle and Jeff King running neck and neck during the forty mile run from Koyuk to Elim - well, in my mind, that’s a successful sporting event. Whether the fans can ‘see’ the competitors or not. It's also worth keeping in mind that many of the Iditarod's fans will not EVER have a chance to see any part of the race in person - yet some are still devoted to the race.  Some come up from the Lower 48 every year to volunteer.  Some send money to sponsor dogs at Alaskan kennels; some devote hours of their time sewing booties and dog coats for canine athletes they will never meet.  In 2013, one race fan from Florida called up a pizza place in the village of Unalakleet and arranged to have a pizza delivered to the race checkpoint for 'her' musher, Matt Failor.  The woman has since passed away; several of her friends chipped in this year to send him another pizza in her memory. (Unfortunately, he'd already left the checkpoint by the time it was delivered - it is a race, after all.  And I have it on good authority that the pizza was heartily enjoyed by the mushers who were still there.)  Point is, like every world-class sporting event, this race touches people.  The GPS just helps it along.

As I write this, the leading teams are on track to set a new record for the fastest time completing the race, the previous record being eight days and eighteen hours. It looks like the first FOUR teams into Nome will beat this time; this is an indication of not only how competitive the field is, but also how icy (and therefore fast) parts of the trail have been. Earlier in the race, musher Robert Sorlie, fresh from taking his mandatory 24-hour layover, set a new record for the fastest time from Takotna to Ophir.  Conditions-wise, this year has been famous for the lack of snow - so little in the Alaska range that officials were at one point considering moving the race’s start to Fairbanks (which was done once before in 2003, also due to snow conditions).  Well, this year, the start stayed in Anchorage, and the teams have been running on - well, not on snow.   Due to the bad trail conditions, some have been referring to this years’ race as the iDIRTarod.  Check out this video taken via GoPro by musher Jeff King to see what the mushers are dealing with. Keep in mind, this is a champion sled dog driver, and he’s still getting walloped by the trail.

The faster trail has set a lot of people’s schedules on end. Not only are the checkpoints seeing their first mushers about ten hours earlier than expected, the front-running mushers are likely going to beat some of their families to Nome - families who had planned on being at the finish line to greet them, and are now scrambling to rebook tickets, or get on standby flights. The fast trail times have also undoubtedly affected some of the mushers’ strategies.  Dallas Seavey, for example, tends to plan out a very strict run/rest schedule in advance of the race. In previous years, if Dallas found himself ahead of schedule, say, by arriving in a checkpoint half an hour earlier than he planned, he would pay the time forward to his dogs, by allowing them a bonus half hour of rest.  This year, that didn’t work so well.  As he put it, he was at one point seven hours ahead of his own schedule, and still nine hours behind the fastest teams.  Dallas is well known for running his team very conservatively until the last third of the race, where his dogs, often better rested than the leaders in front of him, are finally ‘let off the leash’ to overtake the teams in front.

At the moment, Jeff King is looking to be this years’ winner, after having overtaken the lead from Aily Zirkle near Koyuk.  King has won the Iditarod four times previously; Zirkle has been the second-place finisher two years in a row.  All mushers in the race take a mandatory layover of at least 24 hours at one of the checkpoints.  This is also when the start time differentials between mushers are evened out - so the musher who started first in Willow will have a slightly longer layover than the musher who started in Willow last.  At what point in the race to take the layover is a key piece of most mushers’ strategies. Last year, Martin Buser set racing precedent completely on its head by running a team for nearly 24 straight hours with no major rest periods, all the way to Rohn, where he immediately declared his layover.  Traditionally, mushers want to rest their dogs for as many hours as they run them - which means in theory, the best way to get the most advantage from a 24-hour layover is to precede it with a 24-hour run.  Prior to 2013, no musher had ever tried this before.   Buser’s move  initially gave him a ten-hour lead over his nearest competitor, but he didn’t hang onto the lead.  This year, Buser and Kelly Maxiner both repeated the early-layover strategy, and Buser, at least, is looking to finish 6th or 7th.

Many mushers, including Zirkle and the Seaveys (both of whom are previous champions) take their 24 in Takotna, which is slightly before the midpoint of the race. One reason why Takotna is a popular layover spot is because the village’s hospitality is famous - providing a continuous stream of home-made pies and steaks to tired mushers.  This year, Jeff King and Sonny Lindner elected to breeze through Takotna, running all the way to the checkpoint of Ruby before taking their layover. The advantage here is that the dogs were more rested later in the race when compared to teams like Busers’, who had taken their layover earlier.   When Jeff King left Ruby, he was eight hours behind the leaders; slowly catching up with them over the course of two days.

Another new race strategy this year is mushers, again including Jeff King and Sonny Lindner, leaving Willow with some of the largest sleds I’ve seen on an Iditarod team. Why so large? To give the sleds lots of cargo room for hauling dogs. King was apparently using this to rest his team’s speediest leaders at intervals while the team was running, by hauling as many as four dogs at a time, one in the sled bag, and three more in a specially-built kennel drug behind the musher like a tag sled.   This, apparently, meant that the leaders, fresh from a nice nap while their teammates were running, were more likely to set a faster pace when they were returned to the front of the team.   I don’t know that any mushers have done so this year, but driving a sled that can carry four dogs and be pulled by twelve means that a canny musher could, mathematically, give each dog two hours of rest in an eight hour run without ever stopping the team for longer than it takes to switch the dogs around.   I’m not sure how workable this would be in practice, but I feel its likely that at at least a few teams in next years’ race will be playing around with this idea.

Interested?   Consider keeping tabs on the race next year, or check out the official site to check out the highlights from the last race, or to gear up for the next one.  Sebastian Schnuelle, a former Iditarod musher, updates a blog during the race that makes for very interesting reading.   Who knows, maybe next year you, too will be watching the GPS markers tear down the trail.  Or be thinking about calling up a certain pizza place in Unalakleet, Alaska...

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