The Week In Between

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It is the week in between.

In Alaska, February falls into March like snow falls on the tundra. It’s a seemingly endless process, the glory and the bane of those who call the great white north home.

They are one month, sixty days with a leap year, a period of time in which Alaskans so cabin feverish from a January spent below zero and 114 inches of now dirty snow on the ground that they gather together to celebrate a midwinter festival.

A gathering of the various parts that make up the vast and varied state of mind known as Alaska they call Fur Rondy.

Not unlike carnivals and festivals elsewhere, there are recognizable elements in the rides, the frostbite footrace and the grand parade. But the similarities end there.

Fox, caribou and bear hides aside, the Rondy features a full-combat snowball fight with well-trained teams, outhouse races and the annual running of the reindeer.

But the Rondy, by comparison to the two events on either side of it, is absolutely sane and normal by most standards.

The Iron Dog is a 2,000 mile snow machine race that starts in Sarah Palin’s back yard, literally, and ends in Fairbanks, after traveling through Nome. You simply have to look at a map to understand even an 1/8th of the magnitude of this race.

Sarah’s husband, Todd, is a four-time champion of the Iron Dog.

There is nothing like chasing guys doing 90 miles per hour down the Yukon River trying to make slot for the 10 p.m. news.

After a week of breathing two-stroke fumes to the point of dizziness and conducting interviews on frozen lakes, rivers and seas, one is ready for a month’s worth of downtime.

Rondy marks the nonexistent divide between February and March. Somewhere in that Mardi Gras of the north there is a metaphorical change of the calendar page.

But the snow will continue to pile, and this year the all time record is in danger of getting buried.

The ice will not break for weeks, possibly months. The ski resorts will have powder skiing through May, and I will continue to take liquid vitamin D until the solstice-the summer one.

In this perpetual Narnia that magically converts to Never Never Land when you least expect it, March is as far from anywhere, as bleak as looking north from Barrow and as long and unending as the line of RVs on the ALCAN in July. 

And yet 66 men and women and their dogs will set out on a 1,000-mile jaunt from Willow to Nome.

You can’t blame Alaskans for wanting to get out and about during an Alaskan winter. They are unbearably long. But the question I have now and may always have is this: Why the extensive journeys testing every ounce of human endurance?

I asked myself this as I watched the Iron Doggers cross the finish line in Fairbanks last week. I’ll ask it again as I drive a snow machine up the Yentna River to catch the Iditarod mushers checking in at Yentna Station, the first checkpoint, on Sunday.

I’ll likely ask this again at the finish line in Nome under the burled arch and over drinks at the Board of Trade with Hugh Neff.

Three weeks that span the month of Febrarch, or midwinter, and this is the week in between.

The downtime, the deep breaths, the hugs from my daughter and reading to her at night and talking to the kids about Iron Dog and the Daytona 500, the only time of the year our necks get this red.

The trail starts again next week. The insanity that is the northern lights and 30 below and the yelping of dogs so excited to run they can’t sit still. Mushers mumbling like gold prospectors who haven’t seen another human being in years and tourists wearing sealskin jackets like Patagonia from REI.

Looking back and looking forward. The pause in the middle of the long, cold night. The celebration, the revelry and the realization of so much more in the form of snow and ice and melt and breakup and summer, finally.

For now I’ll relax in the week in between. Review the winter worn so far and the threads that will shield my skin from the arctic frost that will hang around like a common but little-loved acquaintance.

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