Monday, March 27, 2006

Between the Earth and Sky

"In the mythic tradition, the Mountain is the bond between Earth and Sky. Its solitary summit reaches the sphere of eternity, and its base spreads out in manifold foothills into the world of mortals. It is the way by which man can raise himself to the divine and by which the divine can reveal itself to man." ~ Rene Daumal

Friday, March 10, 2006

Iditarod Dreams Come to Life: Restart 2006

Iditarod Dreams Come to Life: Restart 2006

Time after time, handlers lead the dogs to the starting line. You can see some leaning back against the leads they’ve been handed to assist them in getting the Iditarod teams to the line. Other jog beside the teams, knowing the futility of trying to hold back a Nome bound team. Fans line the barrier fencing, cheering on favorites, perhaps wondering what it would be like to change places with those leading the teams, perhaps even ride the runners someday. Officials are busy making sure everything comes off without a hitch, while volunteers line the chute and, in fact, have already left for positions out along the trail. Iditarod 2006 has begun, this time for real.

With their game faces on, the mushers of Iditarod 2006 tend to give off an air of being surrounded by invisible shields at the restart. Saturday was for show; today it’s for real. As a result, their attention has turned to making sure every last detail is taken care of and nothing is left to chance. Most arrived in Willow hours ago and were directed to their parking area on the lake. Eager, early bird fans maneuver for a glimpse of favorites, but for the most part, leave mushers to their routines.

Hearing the sounds of a plane overhead, I have to ponder what all this must look like from the vantage point of an eagle. Perhaps like a sea of ants scurrying about, at first with no sense of order, than with order gradually emerging. For those on the ground, it’s certainly a rush of colors and sounds, with the barking of the dogs being the constant. For them, it’s a steady stream of quick snapshots, memories to file away.

For young Sarah, who’d already done a presentation for the teacher workshop, it was something she’ll never forget. When I spoke with her after the restart, she was already busy planning her next project, one on the “Women of the Iditarod.” Listening to her speak, one can’t help but wonder if one day her name will be added to the list.

Two friends, both volunteers, are headed to different checkpoints. This is their first experience as checkpoint volunteers. They’re both excited and, well, a bit nervous. One is headed to McGrath, a hub of race action, and knows it’ll be busy. He’s nervous, but wouldn’t give up this experience for the world. Iditarod badges strung around his neck, he’s ready for the next step, the flight out, even when I talk to him later that afternoon. This is the spirit of the race, the willingness to go where you’re needed and do what it takes, even when you’re not quite sure what you’re getting yourself into.

Lynda Plettner’s Idita-Rider is still gushing. She has had the time of her life and it’s easy to believe she’ll be back again next year. Idita-Riders are a unique bunch. They pay for the honor of riding in a musher’s sled at the start and many return to ride again and again. Claudia Nowak was back riding with Ed Stielstra this year, for instance, noting that this is simply one way for them to support their area mushers. Her husband rides in another musher’s sled. The Nowak’s have been more fortunate than most, calling the Stielstra’s friends and even going sailing with them (and Charlie and Robin Boulding), but it’s a relationship born of the Iditarod.

Rookie fan Mike Kaplan is also new to Alaska. Like me, he moved up from Florida and hasn’t looked back. This is his first Iditarod. These are his dog photos you see in this entry. As unlikely as it might seem, we’re far from the only former Floridians caught up in Idita-mania. Several Idita-Riders were from Florida and like Mike, they’re all over the place, enjoying the rush of their first Iditarod.

Of course, the Iditarod sparks dreams. Long after the restart, as I sit in the home of friends during their open house, I find myself talking to a handler friend. He’s hooked. That look is in his eyes. He’s decided, “I’m going for it.” Another Iditarod musher is born. The Iditarod Dream is alive and well.

Photos by Kaplen: Jeff King team, Gary Paulsen team, dogs of the Iditarod, and "Iditarod Dreamer" Keith Blaha, right, by Mary Dillingham.