The rookie meeting for this years race was held on the weekend of December 5th/6th in Achorage. There were 24 of us rookie types there, with a wide range of backgrounds. Some newbys with few years of racing experience (like me) all the way to my friend Dan Kaduce, who could write a book or two on the subject. Dave Decaro has been handling for Jeff King for a few years and also knows more than I'll ever know about training and racing dogs. I was really happy to see my friend Colleen Robertia there. She is a talented and driven gal with some great dogs; most, if not all, rescued or demoted from professional kennels. Michelle Phillips is another gal who is as tough and competitive as they get. I'm sure she'll be vying for the Rookie of the Year! There were two guys from Scottland, Newton from Jamaica, and guy from Ontario, and the rest of us yanks from all over the states (even Chicago). The scottsmen are leasing teams from Dean Osmar and Rick Swingley and Newton is training with Lance Mackey. These kennels are as good as they get; and yes, there is a slight twinge of envy and/or jealousy. But! I dig my mutts big time and we're going to have a great time.
The first day of the meeting was held at the Millenium Hotel, the headquarters of Iditarod in Anchorage. We heard from Mark Norman (the race marshal), Dr. Stu Nelson (head race veterinarian), Dee Dee Jonrowe, and Lance Mackey among others. They talked about dog care, race logistics, equipment, race strategy and more; more than we could mentally digest actually.
The second day was spent at Martin Buser's in Big Lake, about 1.5 hours north of Anchorage (if you don't know, Martin buser has raced in 25 Iditarods, has won 4 times, and still has the fastest recorded time). Martin shared really great information on equipment, feeding, dog care, training techniques, trail conditions, and the overwhelming topic of how to pack your drop bags. 'Drop bags' are large sacks of everything we need between the start and the finish of the race. We'll have 20 checkpoints before reaching Nome, with each checkpoint supplied with 3 drop bags, straw and fuel for our cookers (to heat water and make a soup for the dogs - their main meals..... more on feeding later). Our drop bags have to be packed and finished in Febuary, when they will be taken away and that's that. No changing. We better have enough food, dog snacks, dog booties, people food, hand warmers, batteries, veterinary supplies, underwear, socks, runner plastic etc etc etc etc etc.... you get the idea, in each of those bags for each of the checkpoints. So it's a bit stressful, especially for a rookie, to figure out exactly what and how much to put in. Oh, and you can't bring the food back; that stays in the villages. They do their best to get our gear and non-food items back to us. So premium kibble is running a little over $1/lb. Shipping is close to $1/lb. So this makes drop bag planning a sporting operation!
Dog talk between Emil and Martin. Notice the exercise wheel in the puppy pen.
In the afternoon, Pat, a search and rescue dude from Nome came in to talk about some tricky sections on the coastal portions of the route. Specifically, he talked about the section between White Moutain and Safety. Now, I've been watching the Iditarod for a few years, and I have some good friends who routinely run the Iditarod, but I really had no appreciation of this section of trail. The media is always camped out at the Happy River Steps, or the Dalzel Gorge, or the Burn; places where you see mushers crash and burn, I'm sure to the delight of some camera man who just flew in on a helicopter. Why don't they talk about the BLOW HOLE!? Probably because the media can't get there when it's bad. Scared the crap out of me. There's a little mountain range between White Moutain and Safety, with a nook between the hills. A high pressure can develope on the inland portion and a low pressure over the Norton Sound. Well, you know what happens with that; can just blow a gasket through that little nook, like over 100 mph winds. Pat had stories of people losing their snow machines to the wind. I mean, the machine was blown over and out to sea. My eyes opened a little wider at that story. So, I think they wanted to scare us a little so that we wouldn't 'go for it'. I'm not sure who they think is going to 'go for it,' but it certainly won't be me. My goal is not to be Rookie of the Year. My goal is to finish with happy musher and happy dogs (ok, and preferrably not in last place). To my mom and dad, if you read this, it will be ok. We will have weather reports in White Mountain. We will know when not to go. I will not be blown out to sea.
So in a nutshell, the rookie meeting made the race real for me. It gave me the steps I need to take to get organized. It also gave me both the fear of god and even more respect for the race than I already had.
Martin's new house. I wonder what his day job is? And, it's so far from the dogs...... retirement or just more dog handlers?