We arrive in Fairbanks, and soon modify our mode of transportation from our Silver Submarine to railroad tracks and Iditarod dog training sleds. We’re near the apex of our journey north, having taken a route circumscribing an area resembling a small drunken triangle in the bottom portion of a vast surrounding wilderness.
As the raven flies, Fairbanks lies a tad over 600 miles from the International Date Line in the Bering Strait off the West Coast. The IDL bisects two tiny islands, Big Diomede belonging to Russia, and Little Diomede, the United States. Once the essential land bridge into North America, now 50 miles of water, separates the two continents.
Living in the lower 48, we don’t put much thought into the idea that just a short distance away geographically, you can travel to the future. The IDL up here provides a nudging reminder that time is relative and frankly within our human construct, a necessary illusion. The Aleutian Islands swing out so far from mainland Alaska that they cross over into the Hawaii/Aleutian time zone and finally nose the border of the IDL again, 1,380 miles west of the Bering crossing.
It’s no secret that we’re train lovers, and have been on pretty much all of the train routes in the United States. Training—that is, riding on trains—is a visceral and meditative experience. Train travel offers new perspectives of the land, often breaking free from proximity to roads and human commerce to reveal unspoiled vistas. And for this, seeking new perspectives, we traveled from Fairbanks to Talkeetna, a nine-hour train ride through a spectacular visual extravaganza; the sweeping tundra and mountain views, canyons, gorges, flora and fauna challenging the senses.
The Alaska Railroad has come into its own over the last century, struggling in the early teens of the 20th century until the federal government stepped in for financial and infrastructure support. Anchorage was just a tent town in 1915, and the railroad changed its operations base there, beginning the slow development to the metropolis of today. President Warren Harding drove the final spike to complete the track system, and on his return to San Francisco died of food poisoning. Undercooked caribou steaks can kill.
One big reason the A.R. has become successful in contrast to Amtrak in the lower 48 lies in its singular ownership. Amtrak runs its trains on 97 percent track owned by private shipping corporations and hence is almost always late—not good for business. All too often Amtrak trains are sidelined until huge spans of freight cars shuttle past and clear the line. This can mean up to an hour delay and it often adds up. If you have no deadline to meet, and the journey is the destination, this dilemma extends the pleasure, particularly if you have your own private room with plenty of food, temperature controls, and often cell and room service. Having said that, when I was still teaching, we returned six hours late from a Spring Break excursion and I missed my first day back…quel dommage!
As Alaska has grown, so has the railroad, adding new bridges, connections, and perhaps the only remaining flag stop service for residents living in the extreme outback with only small plane accessibility, provided a landing strip is available.
World War II and oil discovery, production, and transshipment added immensely to the railroad’s viability and profits. The last major improvement is where we step into the picture, tourist service from Anchorage and Fairbanks to Denali National Park and nearby points of interest. After purchasing high-in-demand first class tickets and climbing into our Vista Dome luxury train car, we folded ourselves into the arms of relaxed somnolence.
There is something comforting in a train car’s gentle rocking and rhythmic vibration over the trackway. Perhaps it hearkens back to our earliest experiences as rocked babies. For our nine-hour journey from Fairbanks to Talkeetna we were offered breakfast and lunch on our ride south and lunch and dinner back up north. Here again, Alaska trains shine and provide real first class, white tablecloth and china table service. Not quite Pullman level from “back in the day,” but head over heels above Amtrak. Since the end of the Pullman era, I’ve ridden, seen, and regretted the demise of the old school service.
At our service level, our car was equipped with a P.A. system and ubiquitous tour guide, though not as obnoxious as we’ve experienced on Amtrak. They provided some historical context and, most helpful, direct information from train conductors on critter sightings which were numerous along our route. There were more than a few times I wanted to grab the mic and share geological fill-in to up the info quality ante, as a number of our amateur guides had difficulty pronouncing multi-syllabic words, but imagining the WTF look on the tourist faces turned off that switch.
Our southerly destination was Talkeetna where, as I mentioned previously, we visited years ago and embarked on the epic flight. This time, we were entering the world of the most revered sport of Alaska: the Iditarod.
Running with dogs
As noted in Wikipedia: “The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, more commonly known as The Iditarod, is an annual long-distance sled dog race run in early March. It travels from Anchorage to Nome, entirely within the U.S. state of Alaska. Mushers and a team of between 12 and 14 dogs, of which at least 5 must be on the tow line at the finish line, cover the distance in 8–15 days or more. The Iditarod began in 1973 as an event to test the best sled dog mushers and teams but evolved into today’s highly competitive race.”
In pre-statehood days before technology, sled dogs provided the primary mode of transportation throughout the territory. Wikipedia goes on to note:
“The most famous event in the history of Alaskan mushing is the 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the Great Race of Mercy. It occurred when a large diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome. Because Nome’s supply of antitoxin had expired, Dr. Curtis Welch sent out telegrams seeking a fresh supply of antitoxin. The nearest antitoxin was found to be in Anchorage, nearly one thousand miles away. To get the antitoxin to Nome, sled dogs had to be used for part of the journey, as planes could not be used and ships would be too slow. Governor Scott Bone approved a safe route and the 20-pound (9.1 kg) cylinder of serum was sent by train 298 miles from the southern port of Seward to Nenana, where just before midnight on January 27, it was passed to the first of 20 mushers and more than 100 dogs, who relayed the package 674 miles from Nenana to Nome. The dogs ran in relays an average of 31 miles each. One of Seppala’s workers, Norwegian musher Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog Balto, arrived on Front Street in Nome on February 2 at 5:30 a.m., just five and a half days later. The two became media celebrities, and a statue of Balto was erected in Central Park in New York City in 1925, where it has become one of the most popular tourist attractions.”
The length of the Iditarod varies from year to year, with both a northern and a southern route. The northern runs approximately 975 miles; the southern, 998 miles. This route flip allows local villages to share equally in the celebrations. The range of winning times has improved over the years with extreme care given to every facet of mushers and dog care, to between 20 and 7 days.
Traveling approximately seven days though subfreezing frostbite conditions, race-required resting of musher and dogs, trail repairs, moose attacks, dog sickness and drop outs, fatigue, etc., is a testament to superhuman and dog effort, breeding, training, and stamina.
It is this connection with Iditarod that brought us to Talkeetna a second time to experience the lifestyle of one of Alaska’s premiere mushers and dog breeding champions, Dallas Seavey. Seavey, and his father before him, have been at the top of the heap of racing champions since the beginning of the Iditarod in the early ’70s. Applying the term “geek” doesn’t hold a candle to Seavey’s extreme focus and frank obsession. Studying and breeding dogs, learning veterinary skills, staying in top physical condition to remain awake, and cultivating the ability to run alongside the sled if necessary to relieve the dogs, all while eating and drinking minimally. Sleep deprivation aside, it’s all about dog care when required race breaks have been reached after a grueling run. Prepared food is sent ahead to resupply points along the trail and the dog teams have to be rubbed down, massaged, fed, paw booties replaced, warm jackets put on in extreme weather, meds administered as necessary, and much more. Dogs’ needs surpass humans’.
When sled dogs are mentioned, most people visualize Malamutes or Siberian Huskies:
The most desirable competitive dog teams, however, are the Alaskan Huskies which are not bred for conformation or looks, but for strength, stamina, speed, tough feet, endurance, good attitude, extreme weather tolerance, and a desire to run! These dogs are mixed-breed, Kennel Club non-conformists. Alaskan Huskies in the Iditarod will burn about 9,666 calories each day. On a body-to-weight basis, this caloric burn is 3.5 times that of a human Tour de France champion cyclist. The VO2 max (aerobic capacity) of a typical Iditarod dog is about three times that of an Olympic marathon runner.
While visiting Seavey’s dog “ranch,” we learned just how much work goes into preparing for the yearly race, and it is deep and wide. There are teams of trainers and volunteer work crews that put in the hours of work to maintain this caliber of dog. Then there is the dollar factor. Just dog food alone can run tens of thousands of dollars for the race period requiring flying in supply to the check points. Competition is extremely high, but so is inter-team cooperation, with mushers sharing dog food, medicine, and even equipment if possible. However, though dogs can be taken out of the race if sick or injured, none can be replaced. A race started with 12–16 dogs must not drop below five dogs on the towline at the end of the race.
During our visit to Seavey’s ranch, we spent nearly an hour meeting dogs, and visiting the “maternity” section to handle and acclimate newborn pups to human contact (Ruth’s favorite part of the day).
Dallas Seavey’s champion lead dogs
Then we were divided into two groups to go on a modified sled run. Obviously, midsummer lack of snow doesn’t get in the way of dog workouts. Seavey hired a custom bike builder to construct a four- wheel, four-disc-brake cart with handlebars and front passenger seat facing out to the pack. Once the pack knows they’re going to be chosen and hooked up, their energy level goes to eleven! These are extremely smart dogs. They vie for attention and the opportunity to pull, answering the call of breeding. Once the team is clipped into the training sled, a serious brake is applied and handlebar brake handles are locked. Each of our teams ran with four very determined-to-go dogs, leaping in the air to begin their journey.
We know horse power, and it is massive, but let me tell you, dog power is thrilling! Sitting behind the tip of the pyramid of dog sled breeding with Ruth standing behind at the controls is exhilarating, and honestly a bit scary. Their power could easily pull an unwary, uncontrolled driver into a real mess. After a mile or so, Ruth and I changed positions, she taking the front power seat, and me finding the sweet spot of using braking and leaning to minimally manage turns over rocky terrain.
Once you experience this amazing human dog teamup, your mind naturally imagines the magnitude of effort of racing in the freezing mostly black of Arctic night, 1,000 miles of slogging through the winter wilderness, just you and your trusted family of dogs, no support permitted.
Wanderlust opens the doors of wonder to learn and emulate the mastery of life, reveling and humbled by the efforts of those “reaching for the ring” around us. Running with the dogs was breathtaking, anon, farther on!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiH4KytSk5E (Meet Iditarod winning sled dogs, 5 min)