It all started in Willow on the first Sunday in March. More than a thousand dogs pulling 67 humans on sleds left to traverse an iconic landscape of mountains, frozen rivers and seas.
Along they way they stopped in small towns and camped along the trail. They fed their dogs and slept and fell asleep at the wheel or daydreamed about things more real than not along the long and windy journey.
They battled for position, they coaxed sick and disheartened teams into glory-making runs. They played mind games on themselves and on other mushers.
They commemorate a way of life long gone by. It is snow machines that make the trails for the dogs now, the dogs that once carried the serum and the miners, the supplies and eventually the racers across the vast openness untouched by sound or machine.
I watched from the sidelines. Sometimes the nosebleeds. But I watched this race up close, close enough to see the frost-covered faces, the tears and the touches of insanity that come with sleep deprivation and communing so long with non-speaking companions.
Along the way you start to feel their suffering in sympathy or simply the weariness of covering a race that sleeps in shifts, never all at once.
When you can’t be with them at the checkpoints, you envision them out on a cold river or facing a blowing fury along the coast. You check on their progress every 15 minutes when you have Internet fast enough to allow you to do so.
As the population of Nome grows, the bars fill with patrons eager to celebrate an ending not written yet, and as the heroes of the race pad along in booties, the excitement builds like the growing daylight in March.
Safety becomes a byword for close, as almost no one can comprehend how long it will take a musher to get from that checkpoint to Nome.
Nome begins to gather. People in seal skins and beaver furs line Front Street. Children bundled up like bouncy balls bobble around the icy streets.
Then the siren sounds, and the waiting begins in earnest.
Some Iditarod volunteer banters in the background as people begin to crane their necks down the street.
Eventually Nome’s finest turn their flashing lights on, and you know that behind them there is a team of dogs that has just pulled a sled and its human up the ramp from the sea ice and onto Front Street.
The dogs seem to know they’ve reached the end of the trail. They look for the spot that some of them have seen in years past. It’s the place where they know they will not have to run anymore, at least until the inborn urge rises again.
The musher hangs on for dear life. From a thousand miles of wilderness with voiceless companions to a street lined with a thousand people. It can be overwhelming.
Then there is the Burled Arch and the meaty hand of Mark Nordman. Your wife and child or your sister, brothers, fathers, mothers and tears and joy and laughter await.
From nothing to everything in the length of a city street.
It is the end of the trail.
Aily Zirkle is a beautiful soul. She just ran her dog team a thousand miles through some of the most adverse conditions you can find. In the end, she had a smile and laughter to share with a crowd of her fans in Nome.
There’s a lot of gold in them thar ice-covered waters. #goldrush #Nome (Taken with Instagram at Nome, Ak)
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.
Finding good Internet access in Nome is tricky. WiFi is my lifeblood, so I’m always interested in finding the optimal place, preferably close to whatever location I happen to be working, to get a good signal.
During the Iron Dog, the world’s longest, toughest snow machine race, Nome serves as the halfway point. The turnaround where racers spend 36 hours resting and wrenching during their 2,000 mile race across Alaska.
I spend a lot of time shooting photos and videos, but I spend a lot more time waiting for 2 minutes of video to upload or writing captions for photo galleries.
On this trip, I didn’t want to hang out in the two-stroke-fume-filled Nome City Shops, so I spent more time at the ramp that both welcomes racers and sends them out again.
The Polar Cafe, which sits just down Front Street on the Bering Sea coast, is full of big, wide tables and chest-level electrical outlets to plug in all the various appliances that go with being a digital journalist.
On Tuesday, I set up shop in the Polar in the early afternoon. I worked quietly in the corner for several hours putting together a bunch of video clips and photo galleries as well as updating our social media.
The waitress, a slight, long-haired Alaska native, kept checking on me, and I apologized for monopolizing her space. She just shrugged and quietly told me that it was all right.
She served me two cups of terrible green tea, and because I felt bad about staying in the restaurant so long, I finally ordered a cup of reindeer chili.
Eventually an older Alaska native lady walked in. She was missing most of her front teeth and seemed to be much too old to have a 10-year-old son. But she called him son anyway.
They ordered, and when the waitress asked if she wanted anything else, the older lady said she wanted to send a meal over to a gentleman at the bar.
“Please get him the halibut, a salad and a bowl of soup,” she said. “And take it to him at the bar.”
Eventually her husband and another young child joined the lady and her 10-year-old.
They ate quietly at the table for a half hour or so before two highly intoxicated gentlemen sat in our section.
Being a writer and highly distracted by human nature, I took in bits and pieces of the various conversation.
The drunk men wore camouflage and hats with American flags on them. They sat in a two-top near the window.
“Oh, they have fresh local halibut on special.”
The other man just nodded as the waitress set down their waters.
The older Alaska native lady spoke up, suddenly, loudly.
“Whew, boys, the fumes coming off you could light this place up,” she complained. “Why you gotta drink like that.”
When one of the men realized she was talking to him, he responded.
“We don’t drink like this, you know. It’s just today.”
“Oh, you’re just in town for a little good time, eh?” she said.
“Yeah, you now, it’s just today,” he retorted.
She asked him if he was King Islander. He nodded affirmatively.
I worked a little more, until the two men suddenly erupted into a one-sided fight in front of me.
I couldn’t see or hear the quiet drunken man, but the man with his back to me suddenly started spewing profanities at his companion.
“Give me that,” he spat. “You can’t take that.”
He stood up and walked over the shoulder of the other man so he could yell into his ear directly.
“Shut up, shut up.”
He sat down again and put some food in his mouth.
“Where’s your hundred?” he asked the other man. There was no reply.
The older lady and her husband were discussing what type of beverage would go best for the drunkard in the bar for whom they’d purchased a meal.
“Get him milk,” she said.
“No, get him coke, the milk will curdle with all that alcohol.”
“Ah, yes, the milk will curdle in his stomach.”
Then a man showed up holding a bowl of soup. He staggered across the floor to a table near mine and sat down.
“Thank you Goudis,” he said. “Thank you for the soup.”
“I didn’t just buy you soup, I bought you a whole meal,” she said.
“What do you want to drink with it?”
The waitress appeared, and the drunk from the bar asked for a cup of coffee.
“Coffee, he ordered coffee,” the older woman said to her husband.
The waitress returned with a cup of coffee and a large plate of food.
“Oh, I get more food, oh, thank you Goudis,” the drunk from the bar said.
Working became impossible, as every person seemed to want to try to speak louder than the other person.
Suddenly the two men at the table in front of me erupted into a verbal fight again.
“You’re my best hunter. Shut up, shut your mouth,” the man with his back to me yelled.
The lady called Goudis by the drunk from the bar walked over to the two men and began to lecture them.
“You can’t do that,” she said. “You can’t yell those things. There are young children present. Can you see that?”
The man nodded and went back to eating his food.
Finally he muttered an apology.
Soon his partner got up and walked away. I had never once heard him speak.
The lady called Goudis continued to lecture the remaining island hunter.
Finally he apologized, and with bits of food on his fork, he paid the whole bill and left to return to the bar.
The drunk from the bar thanked Goudis again.
“Don’t thank me any more. I take care of the people in this town. They know I won’t buy them liquor or give them money, but I will always feed them.”
“Thank you Goudis,” he said and sauntered away tipping his cup of coffee precariously.
“Don’t thank me again, you’ve thanked me enough. I’m just taking care of you,” she said.
I folded my computer, detached my hard drive, my card readers, my iPhone and my iPad charging on the wall.
I paid my bill and thanked the waitress for putting up with me all afternoon.
She looked at me and shrugged.
“It’s fine, any time you can come work her. I’m sorry for all of that.”
I told her not to be sorry. It’s human nature.
“It’s just Nome,” she said.
“It’s every where you find humans, my dear.”
Spend two days listening to KNOM, the local, Catholic radio station in Nome, Alaska, and you’ll find yourself in a ridiculously good mood.
It’s not just the short reminders about living a good, clean life or the playing of an Eric Clapton classic next to something from Foster the People.
Last night the two DJs played White Stripes and The Black Keys back to back for hours, debating which was the better band.
It’s not just the fact that they have great journalists who cover big events like Iron Dog and Iditarod with as much passion as a war correspondent or that they provide wide-spread news and cultural information around Western Alaska.
It’s not just the completely NPR-ish on-air personalities who sound exactly like a Saturday Night Live skit.
It’s a combination of all that.
People from other places look at me funny when I tell them I love coming to Nome. People in Nome know exactly why I like coming here. I like to keep it that way.
When we touched down with all the tenderness of a meat cleaver on Monday, I gazed at the powdered-sugar hills to the north of town hoping to see the herd of musk oxen that haunts those hills in winter.
My esteemed hosts picked me up in a lifted truck so big I needed help to climb inside. From such great heights I looked out over a sun-drenched and surprisingly warm city on my way to pick up the rental car.
Snow drifted into patterns based on where it was touched by the Nome wind. Alleys were scoured clean, while the snow piled into dunes. And these are beautiful, until you’re driving and find yourself barreling down on a snow dune.
When I approached my first snow dune, I was inclined to stop and inch through it, but I was going to fast and decided just to plow through. The high-walled tire tracks leading through the middle of the snow dune told me that this was what other drivers had done.
Maintaining control while speeding through the snow dune is of absolute necessity, as there is no telling how deep the snow off the sides of the road is.
Maintaining control while plowing through a snow dune at 55 is not easy.
But a sunny day in Nome proves too alluring for me to not venture out to get pictures. I decided to get in a quick meal at Airport Pizza, which I thought was the only restaurant in town until my second visit to this fair burgh.
After dinner, the sun seemed to hang enticingly at 20 minutes to sunset. I figured I could risk a few more snow dunes and venture down the Teller Highway a bit to get a good shot of the ball of fire dipping into the frozen Bering Sea.
It’s not a Kona sunset, by any means, the northern sun just lacks the power to really paint the sky. But if you like delicate pastels interspersed with lead, nickel and steel over bleak tundra, a Nome sunset is worth the price of admission.
As if to compliment my sunset drive, KNOM played something by a group of Arctic drummers followed by one of Bruce Springsteen’s less-played numbers.
I think I love this place.