But first, in case you don't already know... Who the heck is posting updates to their site while they're out on the trail, anyway? The twins aren't allowed any two-way communication devices out there, and even if they were, one can only imagine they wouldn't have time or energy to spare for the internet. That's where I come in... My name is Kat, and I am Kristy and Anna's older, non-mushing sister. I still live in our home state of Wisconsin, but I did make the trip to Anchorage to witness the start of the Iditarod. And while I am currently back in Milwaukee, piecing together updates and information by computer like so many of you, I will be returning to Alaska and going all the way to Nome early next week. So you can look forward to a firsthand account of the finish!
But that's more than enough about me. Let's get back to the twins... Having arrived in Anchorage on Thurs. March 1st, I was able to attend the Musher Banquet with them that evening. They certainly make quite the pair, and it was really neat to see them both in the limelight this year, signing autographs, smiling for the cameras, and answering questions about themselves and the upcoming race. I remember Kristy being fairly nervous through these sorts of race preliminaries her rookie year, but Anna, to her credit, seemed to be cruising smoothly through with the quiet confidence gained over the prior two years of being by her twin's side.
That confidence was still present and accounted for in both twins Saturday morning of the Ceremonial Start. Despite their respective dog trucks being parked about a block apart, they still had time to run back and forth through the gently falling snow for joint interviews and last minute questions and advice. I was not able to see them to the starting line as I normally would have because I had the pleasure of riding as Paul Gebhardt's second musher for this leg of the race. But I can attest the twins were all smiles as Paul and I pulled out in the 25th spot.
The Ceremonial Start consists of a course roughly 8-11 miles going from downtown Anchorage to the Campbell Airstrip. It does not count towards the official race time and includes a second musher and only 12 of the allowed 16 dogs. The first mile or two actually takes place on city streets covered in snow that was trucked in the night before. By and large, this section of trail is not very technical, but there are a few things than can throw teams for a loop. There are hundreds of spectators lining the route, a couple of 90 degree corners and steep hills, not to mention a few bridges and tunnels that the dogs never see out in the wilderness and can make them balk. I think each of the three of us had a couple of close calls, but overall the first stretch of trail was an uneventful one.
After the day's festivities wrapped up and we got the dogs settled, we all went out for dinner. I'm not sure what transpired between the conclusion of the Ceremonial Start and our sitting down with menus... Maybe it was the fact that the familiar preliminaries were done and the real thing only hours away... Maybe it was the ITC announcing the dreaded Happy River Steps were back in the race route... But whatever it was, Nervous Anna had made her arrival! While Paul told stories of Iditarods past and Kristy heartily attacked a 10 ounce sirloin steak, Anna sat quietly picking at a small cup of chili and a milkshake. Clearly stomach butterflies were impacting her appetite!
Sunday morning, March 4th, dawned as a bright, cold day full of excitement. The temp on the truck read 9 degrees F, but it didn't feel that cold. I caught a ride from Anchorage up to Willow with Kristy, Paul, and Gary (if you followed Kristy in the Yukon Quest, you may recall Gary was one of her handlers and a friend of the kennel). Anna and her team, traveling with Dean Osmar and Team Janssen, were not far behind us. Even if you're just a spectator and not involved behind the scenes, you'll feel the change in energy between the two days' events. While the former is a fun, parade-like atmosphere, the "restart" is all business for the race officials and mushers, their handlers, and the dogs. Sleds are packed and given a new set of runner plastic to suit conditions; dogs go through microchip and vet checks; mushers verify they have all their required gear for race officials. It's GO TIME, no doubt about it.
I think both Kristy and Anna were a bit nervous at this point, although they did little to show it. They still signed autographs for fans and did quick interviews as they carefully went through their final pre-race checklists. Each dog was given attention, ranging from harnessing to booties to encouraging kisses and scratches. The twins shook it off when race officals went around warning teams that the first couple hundred yards of trail off the starting line was wet and sloppy with overflow. They made and took last minute phone calls from family that were unable to attend in person. And before you know it, ganglines were laid out, dogs were hooked into place, the last layers of parkas and gloves and race bibs were put on, and final time warnings given.
Paul Gebhardt, wearing bib #25, was the first of our posse to hit the trail. After Kristy helped her mentor get his dog team in place, she walked over to me and mumbled, "Geez, 12 minutes doesn't seem like a lot of time to get 16 dogs in place and ready to go." That's how much time she had between Paul pulling away from their truck and her needing to be ready to do the same. But it was enough time, not only to get the dogs in place but also for a quick see-you-soon goodbye to Anna and a slightly longer see-you-in-Nome goodbye to me. And then Kristy, wearing bib #31, was off, making her way through the staging area to the starting line and then down the trail on her way to Nome.
With only 4-5 minutes remaining, I took my place amongst Anna's dogs and handlers while she made final preparations and stepped on the runners of her sled. We got the signal to make our way through the staging area, and heard Kristy being announced. Anna was at the starting line 4 minutes later, which could hardly be more fitting as she was born only 5 minutes after her sister. Additional handlers secured her sled while she made a final run down her team of 16 bouncing, howling dogs, and said good bye to her handlers (yours truly included ~ find video clips on our YouTube channel). And then Anna, with a smile and look of determination on her face, joined her sister on the long journey across Alaska.
After Anna and Kristy hit the trail, Scott Janssen bib #37 ~ a.k.a. the Mushing Mortician ~ a friend of the kennel and sponsor, hit the trail. Those of us in the teams' respective crews packed up the dog trucks and remaining gear and supplies and hit the road. Most folks had dogs waiting at home kennels, jobs, or family to get to.
Before going to the airport to catch the redeye back to Wisconsin, I helped drop off the dog truck in the hills outside of Anchorage. As the sun went down, so did the temperature. Fast. As the sun dipped below the horizon, I couldn't help but be struck by a sense of awe, and extremely humbled, by what these 66 mushers and their dogs had just set out to accomplish.