P.dog's B.log

Paula goes to Talkeetna, AK for the winter. Etc.

In Conclusion…

And suddenly, I’m home.

(Except not so suddenly anymore, as I’ve now been home for a few days.  But the transition still seems sudden, waking up in Talkeetna one day, with things pretty much the same as they have been for the past five months, then waking up the next day in Denver, where everything is different from Talkeetna, and yet, everything is the same as when I left.)

I felt the need to somehow conclude this blog, because I started it to document my time in Alaska, which is over. But what happens to a blog like this?  I suppose it’s obsolete now, but I imagine it will sit around for a while collecting dust, because I don’t really want to delete it.

I thought about shoving everything I felt I failed to cover thoroughly enough into this post. Things like how incredible Mt. Mickinley is, really, how massive and picturesque it always looks (when it’s visible, that is), how extra impressive it is because it seems to rise out of nothing - as if someone sheared one of the Rockies off at the bottom and dropped it somewhere in eastern Colorado, in the middle of the plains.

Or how nice the river looked when it was steaming, before it froze.

Or how nice the sunset was (like, midafternoon) on my drive down to Anchorage with my mom in late December.

So maybe this post is just becoming a repository for photos I intended to put up but never did.

Either way, now I’m home, wearing shorts, even though it’s not really quite warm enough for shorts yet.  I sort of feel like my moving to Alaska for the winter was a bit like going on a road trip. You expect it to be sort of epic, to change you, to maybe help you become the person you want to be or could be or something like that.  But then you do it, and change is imperceptible.  Maybe I’ve changed, but I can’t tell, and I guess I wouldn’t really expect to be able to tell right away.  I don’t really know why I went to Alaska, and I don’t really know what I’ve gained, but I don’t regret it at all.  I don’t think I’ll ever run the Iditarod myself, but I’m glad to have the experience.  I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned about dogs and people and Alaska and how to stay warm.  I’ve learned a lot about how to manage or not manage a business or employees, about communication and a lack thereof.  And I’ve learned a lot of smaller harder to explain things, things that I hope will stay with me. And eventually, maybe, I’ll grasp the full magnitude of how this experience has affected me.  Or maybe I never will, and that will be okay too.

Thanks for reading.

The Iditarod, Part Deux

The day after the ceremonial start was, of course, the restart.  The restart was just like the ceremonial start - if the ceremonial start had been a big cookout held on a giant frozen lake in Willow, with a few dog teams thrown in there.  Which is to say, we didn’t have to wake up at 4:30 am to feed dogs and our truck wasn’t surrounded by fans trying to get pictures of the dogs. The whole thing seemed relatively perfect to me, and maybe that was the gorgeous day and the continued blissful, inexplicable, feeling of pride I had for the dogs and Jerry, but I think it was also the setup, at least the later start time.

All our buddies from Talkeetna came to the restart in Willow and cooked brats and drank beers.  The dogs were considerably less stressed.  Some of the dogs seemed calm and collected, like Olympic athletes in the shots they have just before the big race - Michael Phelps swinging his arms back and forth, adjusting his goggles, looking poised.  Others weren’t so serene - Bumblebee tried to climb into the back tire of the dog truck when the announcer started speaking on the megaphone. 

I spent a surprising amount of time just petting dogs on Sunday.  Somehow it seemed like exactly the right thing to do. I talked with them in a sort of embarrassing way, telling the leaders to make sure the team got to Nome safely, not really thinking how I might look to an outsider, petting and having serious conversations with a bunch of husky dogs.

And then Jerry, Goose, Charger, Mikaela, Nala, Bumblebee, Apollo, Hercules, Witwicky, R2-D2, C-3PO, Martin, Charlie, Ale, Guinness, Pepper, and IPA left. And we drove the empty dog truck home. And started obsessively following their progress online.

People lining the start, three snow machines, and a truck.

Mikaela.

Dog trucks.

Guinness.

Iditarod 2011: The Musical. (Act One)

Dear Readers,

This post, like so many of my other posts, begins with an apology.  I suppose I left you with a bit of a cliffhanger last time - “the Iditarod starts tomorrow” being pretty much the last thing I wrote. So, why did I wait so long to actually follow up and write about the Iditarod, the climax of my time here, the reason I’m here, the thing that’s been looming in my future since October?

For one, I’m a procrastinator.  Sorry. For two, I’m a perfectionist procrastinator, which means that once I did start writing about the Iditarod, trying to do it justice was such a daunting task that I became disheartened and overwhelmed and turned to washing dishes or something instead.  Then, finally, I became satisfied with the piece I had written about the start of the race.  It’s tone was right, it wasn’t too long and rambling, not obnoxiously self-referential. And then Firefox decided to quit and I lost all but the fist sentence or so. So then I became disheartened all over again.

And now the Iditarod is over.  Today, at 10:45 am, Alaskan time, the last finisher reached Nome, two weeks after the start of the race.

Two weeks ago, this is where I was.

On March 5th, 2011 the 39th Iditarod began.  The Last Great Race on Earth.  The longest sled dog race in the world.  An epic test of grit and strength and warm clothing.  Rather, on March 5th, 2011, everyone who would run in the 39th Iditarod took their dog teams to downtown Anchorage to go for a little practice run at the ceremonial start. 

Even though Jerry wouldn’t be crossing the ceremonial start line until around noon, we had to arrive in Anchorage to check in by 8:30 am.  Which meant we had to leave Talkeetna at 5:30 am.  Which meant we had to feed dogs at 4:30 am.  Which was excellent.

The whole day was sort of blurry. Blurry and thrilling.  I felt sort of like an expert, like an insider, very legit. But also sort of like a total newbie, lost and in awe.  I had a fancy armband identifying me as a “Musher Handler.”  I’m in the pictures of a lot of people I don’t know.  People were lining the fences along 4th Avenue trying to pet the dogs, or get pictures of the dogs, or ask questions about the dogs.  I guess I never really thought about what celebrities these dogs actually are until we brought them to Anchorage and they were fawned over like the children of movie stars.

This is Charger at the Ceremonial Start.  She got plenty of attention from the fans.

Anyway, Saturday went quickly.  We woke up early. Fed dogs early. Left early. Got to Anchorage early. Quickly found coffee.  Took dogs out of the dog truck to decompress from their long ride to Anchorage.  Pet dogs. Fed them some salmon water. Watched as other teams began to make their way to the start line. Watched them leave.  Put dogs back in the dog truck as there was no sense in leaving them out to get riled up as 50-something other teams went by.  Retreated to the free stuff tent for more coffee and cookies.  Acted like we knew what we were doing. Watched 50-something other teams go by on their way to the start line.  Acted knowledgeable when asked questions about the dogs.  Schmoozed.  Got dogs out of the truck again. Harnessed and bootied dogs.  Pet dogs.  Posed with dogs for what seemed like a lot of pictures taken by strangers.  Put dogs on the line.  Lined up along the dogs to keep them in check while walking to the start line.  Walked them to the start line.  Sensory overload at the start line. Let go and watch Jerry and the team speed off down 4th Ave.  Went back to the dog truck. Drove to the airstrip where the run ended. Located Jerry and the team.  Snacked, watered, unharnessed, and unbootied the dogs.  Pet the dogs.  Put dogs back in truck.  Fell asleep on drive back to Talkeetna. Finished the afternoon/evening like it was any other day.

Dogs next to the dog truck.  Adoring fans lining the fence. Maverick howling.

It seems really obvious to say that I had no idea what to expect from my first Iditarod.  The most resounding feeling coming out of the day was something I hadn’t really anticipated though.  I was really proud of the dogs.  Like, not only that they didn’t fight each other or bite their fans or pee on anyone.  They did exactly what they were supposed to.  But I think it was a bigger feeling of pride. One that extended back to October.  I can’t really say what it is in them that I was so proud of, I imagine it was a similar feeling to one that a proud coach or parent or teacher might have.  Maybe it was just so pronounced because I hadn’t expected it. Either way, here are some pictures from the ceremonial start (I can’t decide if “ceremonial start” should be capitalized or not, sorry):

Goose, shaking her head.

The chairs I never got to sit in.

Hugh Neff is sponsored by the Cat in the Hat.  (Actually, he’s doing something to promote literacy, so props.) It’s been a while since I’ve read Cat in the Hat, but I don’t remember that lady being in it.

Hugh Neff’s dogs, wearing tie-dye art smocks.

Some random team making their way to the start.

Our team making our way to the start.

My official looking jacket. And armband.

And, last but not least, the strangest dog I saw all day, huddled next to the fireplace in the Anchorage visitor’s center.

Next up: the real start.

Moose, Sarah Palin, and the Northern Lights

Since I’ve been in AK, I’ve been asked many times if I’ve seen any of these three things.  While I think the true Alaskan experience would be to see Sarah P. riding a moose under the northern lights, I’m not holding my breath. 

(In case you were wondering, no, I haven’t seen the Palinator, yes, I have seen the northern lights (albeit only twice), and yes, I’ve seen many a moose.)

As far as the lights are concerned, they really are the kind of incredible I usually just describe by saying that they evade description. Sometimes the northern lights are so beautiful and ethereal that I can’t find words to really describe them, the northern lights that everyone has seen pictures of - smears of green and red and pink over a dark sky, like contrails of a superhero, or light shining out through a crack in the sky.  Other times they just look like light pollution, nights where the sky to the north is just slightly less dark, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s actually brighter over there or if you’re just imagining it.

On clear nights like last night, I often debate staying up late just to see them, but sometimes that would mean staying up really late, and sometimes (most times) I’m just too tired.  Anyway, the one picture I attempted to take of the northern lights came out looking simply dark. Like, totally black. 

           

(I did not take this picture.)

As far as the moose are concerned, I’ve actually lost count.  Not that I was ever really keeping track.  I’ve seen a few moose while driving between town and the dog yard, many while I was out with a dog team, and one while I was in Anchorage, standing in the front yard of a Taco Bell, juxtaposed against the giant Crunchwrap Supreme ad behind it. 

Seeing moose while I’m out with a dog team can mean a number of things. One option is that the moose is actually standing on the trail, which means I have to stop the dogs (who want nothing more than to run right up to the moose and play) and hope that the moose will either think we’re a wolf pack and get scared and go away (unlikely) or that it will become bored with us and walk away. Usually, they just saunter off.  (It should be noted that moose are huge. Not new news, I know, but they saunter in the way you would imagine a bear sauntering, that its body is just so massive that this is normal speed.)  Other times, I’ll be out with a team when suddenly the dogs smell or hear or otherwise sense a moose and speed up accordingly.  It’s times like these that make me wonder why I’ve agreed to be pulled around by a bunch of animals who can hear things I can’t hear, smell things I can’t smell, etc.  So then I get really tense and start looking for the moose, who tends to be somewhere off to the side of the trail. I haven’t attempted to take any pictures of moose, because usually I’m on a dog sled, and I think trying to take some moose portraits while with a dog team might be irresponsible.

                            

(My favorite moose.)

Oh, also, the Iditarod starts tomorrow. (Sort of. Tomorrow is the ceremonial start in Anchorage. The real start is on Sunday in Willow.)

Moving On Up

Yesterday was a big day for some of our pups.  The oldest group of puppies we have here, four, who will be a year old in March, were moved from their puppy pen to real dog houses, in the real dog yard.

They’re dealing with the change in their own puppy-logical way.

Yesterday, for the first time ever, these puppies each got their own collar. And their own house. And their own chain attaching their collars to their houses. So they yelped and jumped and gnawed on their chains and got tangled.  Then they calmed down a little bit.

These are their new houses.  Usually, these houses are just used for momentum - as in, they’re attached to the wheel, which is like a giant dog walker (usually eight dogs are hooked up to the wheel, where they run in circles for one or two or five hours at a time).  This time though, we set the brake on the wheel, lowered the houses, and put straw in the houses. Voila, new homes.

As was previously mentioned on my blog, a long time ago, when I last discussed the puppies, none of them have names yet.  As these four now have houses, my co-handler and I feel they should also have names.  He wants to name them after motorcycles, because he thinks motorcycle inspired names could sound fast and intimidating.  He’s suggested Buell, Ducati, and Harley.

I suggested that we name this one Sidecar.

Today was Ullr’s birthday (a birthday shared by many great worthwhile people), so to celebrate, I got him a stuffed animal from the local Free Box.  The Free Box is basically just what it sounds like, except it’s not a box, but a shed-like building full of free stuff.  Today I got a blue sweatshirt and Ullr’s present, a stuffed pterodactyl, the one from The Land Before Time, actually. (Anybody else remember Petrie?)

Ullr loves Petrie. And by loves, I mean he already ripped off one of his wings. Adorable.

Note: Apparently, Petrie was not actually a pterodactyl. He was a Pteranodon.

Note: I’m sorry this post has nothing to do with dog mushing.