You know those moments when you look around and suddenly think, “never in my whole life did I think I would end up in a situation like this”?
I had one of those this weekend. I found myself in the Meiers Lake Roadhouse, a small bar/cafe/lodge in The Middle of Nowhere, Alaska, standing beside Jonathan as he covered a dogsled race for the radio station.
The Copper Basin 300 is an annual dogsled race that runs a 300-mile circle through the woods in Alaska. It begins in Chistochina, about 30 miles from Glennallen. From there, mushers race to Paxson Lodge, where they have to check in, then Meiers Lake Roadhouse, Sourdough Creek, and continue in a circle back to Chistochina (going through Glennallen at one point.)
People from EVERYWHERE race… there were mushers from Brazil, New Zealand, Russia, Kansas, and so on. Most of the mushers stayed at the Caribou Hotel, where I work… we had a full house. 53 mushers plus a bunch of their crews led us to light up the “No Vacancy” sign out front- a sight I never thought I’d see! The start was on Saturday afternoon, and Jonathan covered it for KCAM while I cleaned rooms at the hotel.
Cleaning the rooms of mushers was quite exciting, when they were still staying in them. I like to play a game when I’m cleaning stay-overs; I use things in the room to help me figure out what the person staying in there is like. It’s amazing what you can figure out just from what is in their hotel room… or even just their trash. Where they are from, if they’re here on business or pleasure, if they are health food nuts or junk food eaters.
Sometimes I’ll have an entire person created in my head by the time I’ve fixed the bed, but one object in the bathroom will throw me completely off. For example, I once cleaned a room that had a bed full of camouflage coveralls, wool socks, thick hats, and gloves. It was a man, here to go hunting, I decided. I had a picture in my head of a big, burly guy with a giant beard and beady eyes, setting out to kill a moose or a bear.
But then, I got to the bathroom, and found a hot pink, faux leather makeup bag.
Anyway, the mushers’ rooms were super interesting. Dried fruit and crackers piled on the desks. Hand warmers and pistols out on the beds. Five gallon buckets of dog food in the bathtubs (I guess there was no where else to put them…).
Watching the mushers come in and out at the hotel was so fun! They all had their dog trucks (they look like super little miniature cattle trailers with a little window for each dog). The dogs weren’t at all what I expected; I thought they would be like big huskies, at least as high as my waist. They were not. They were like little puppies in comparison… they didn’t look at all like they should be big enough to be pulling sleds around.
After I got off work, Jonathan and I set off to chase the dog sledders! He was supposed to broadcast live from the second checkpoint, Meiers Lake. They gave us a room and food in exchange for staying the night there and doing a few live updates from the lodge. We took our stuff into the lodge, but then took off for Paxson first, because the first mushers were just getting there (this is about 7:00 p.m.)
Jonathan and I discussed all we knew about dog sledding on the way there… all of it gleaned from this weekend and the movie Iron Will from when we were little. I was remembering how, in that movie, one guy tied his hands to his sled so he could sleep while still moving. Another guy was mean to his dogs, and they attacked him… and killed him. I guess this… along with the other wildlife in Alaska… is why they carry pistols.
We were getting close to the lodge when suddenly a huge, dark shape appeared in the middle of the road… right across the yellow lines. It looked as big as a house. Absolutely GIGANTIC. We were both quiet as we stared at it, trying to make out what it was, when we both realized that it was a moose! A cow, a HUGE one. I have truly never seen such a big animal in real life. Jonathan slowed way down and left his brights on, and we both hoped and prayed that it would just stay put until we drove by… and, thank goodness, it did.
The Paxson Lodge was very similar to the Meiers Lake Lodge; a small cafe area, a bar, etc. As the mushers came in, they took care of their dogs first- getting them fed and settled into some hay- before coming in for a rest. At about 8:00, about 20 mushers had checked in at Paxson, 2 had moved on, and as far as anyone knew, everyone was doing well- no injuries or anything.
We took off to go back to Meiers Lake, knowing that the first mushers would arrive THERE at about 9:00 p.m. We got there before any of them did and went on to bed, planning on waking up early to try to catch some interviews with some of the last mushers.
We woke up at about 5:30 to the sound of dogs barking right outside our windows. After getting up and investigating, we found the lodge FULL of people- almost all mushers. Apparently, things had gotten interesting during the night. The trail conditions between Meiers Lake and Sourdough were NOT good. The National Guard had been out on snow machines trying to clear it, but to no avail. A few teams had been trying to make it through, but about halfway through the group they started holding teams back at Meiers Lake and not letting them continue. Before all was said and done, all the teams that HAD tried to press on had ended up turning around and coming back anyway.
By 9:00 this morning, the entire race committee and all 53 mushers were at the Lodge, and they officially decided to cancel the race! All 53 mushers went to pack up their dogs and leave. Of course, this meant that some of them had no where to go but back to the hotel… where we still weren’t caught up on cleaning rooms. So, this morning I got a frantic call from my boss asking if I could please, please come in and help clean rooms. I did, and I got to see a string of forlorn looking mushers and dogs coming in and moving back into their rooms. So sad. Some of them were using this as a qualifier for the Iditarod (you have to have raced a certain number of miles within 2 years in order to race). I don’t know what happens to them now… if they have other options, or if they just have to sit out this year. Bummer.
I decided that I am fascinated by dog sledding. But I don’t understand the appeal. It’s cool for me to watch from a place that is warm and cozy… but the desire to ride around behind a bunch of dogs in the freezing cold weather (at one point they hit -50) does not make sense to me. It’s got to be one of those things that gets in your blood, though; there were several mushers who have tried to retire in the past, but just couldn’t because they love it so much. Crazy!
Anyway, I wasn’t able to get many pictures… it was way too dark last night, and this morning when I tried the insides of my camera literally fogged up. But I got a couple!