I grew up diving into and dog-paddling around Long Lake, one of a handful of cabin-lined features in Willow, Alaska. Twenty years later, and I'm still no stranger to these waters.
But it was early March this last time around, and the lake was frozen. I waded through waist-deep snow and knee-high slush to get out to the solid middle of the lake, where the real party was, but the arctic quicksand was pulling me under. I turned back towards shore, back to my cabin, out of frustration and concern for a worse fate.
My boots had become lined in a sheet of ice by the time I made it back to the mud room, so I cracked a beer and waited for the space heater to do its job. The race wouldn't start for another hour, anyways, and my musher-of-choice, Rick Steves' little sister Jan, wouldn't be crossing the lake until ninety minutes after the first musher passed.
Alaska's famous Iditarod, billed as The Last Great Race on Earth (trademarked, no less), celebrates a 1,049-mile trek made by mushing teams of the early 20th century who were brought the diptheria vaccine to the Bering Sea coastal community of Nome. The race is one of the highest tests of fortitude and mental vigor, as mushers brave the worst kinds of weather and circumstance, alone and surrounded by hundreds of miles of isolated, unforgiving Alaskan wilderness.
For spectators, the event is a wonderful excuse to throw tailgate parties on the snowbanks and lake ice. Fathers can be seen in the late morning hauling toboggans laden with barbecue grills and iceboxes, with kids in one-piece snowsuits in tow, galump-galumping through the snowpack. EZ-Up tent shelters spring up along the Iditarod boundary, where snowmachiners zip back and forth to pack the trail in one last time.
Every Alaskan claims a musher as their favorite to win—long-time favorites are cancer survivors DeeDee Jonrowe and Lance Mackey (both winners of previous races), but there's a code of ethics echoed here that stands out as an Alaskan mainstay: in a place as harsh as this, no one can afford to have enemies.
So it was all there, out on the ice at the start of the Last Great Race, where everyone cheered for everyone else. Kids lined the race trail, hands extended: by the time the mushers had left the lake, they had high-fived hundreds. Thirtysomething-women squealed like teenaged-girls at a rock show when Mackey skated by, beer in hand. He had mastered the art of musher swagger, and as he passed he smirked and threw a how-you-doin' look to the women in pink parkas standing next to me. They about melted through the ice.
I felt a little silly trudging around in my snowshoes in the middle of the lake ice, but I didn't want to take them off and add to my burden of already-cumbersome camera gear. Besides, Alaska is a place where no one questions personal attire: as soon as spring temperatures hit 30°F, locals start wearing shorts, and not an eyebrow is to be raised. Like the groundhog predicting another 6 weeks of winter, an Alaskan in cargo shorts means that warmer weather is extremely nigh. I left my snowshoes on and shuffled down the race line to find our lakeside neighbors and long-time friends, who offered me a beer as soon as I arrived.
In one of Alaska's most publicized and popular sporting events, the atmosphere of the Iditarod restart still feels remarkably homegrown. The Anchorage Daily News had printed a pull-out sheet with biographies of the mushers in the order of their bib numbers, and before each musher passed, my friend David stood in the middle of the track and dramatically read each paragraph aloud, like an announcer at an underground prize fight. When his favorite musher whisked by, he jogged alongside and extended the last beer he had in his supply. Beer-sharing is a universal gesture of friendship, and its practice is especially celebrated during the Alaskan winter.
Outsiders (non-Alaskans) who know me often ask, "What's the difference between Alaska and everywhere else?" It's taken years for me to distill my answer, but eventually this short rule emerged: "Alaska is where the place will kill you, and the people will save you," is what I've come to say. And it's true, too: every year there are terrible stories of individuals confronting—and becoming victim to—the very worst of wild Alaska. But in the same instance, the external conflict that continually surrounds Alaskans is what draws us together the most. We are constantly looking out for each other, and we're fiercely loyal to anyone who braves the elements alongside us.
Thus is the significance of the Iditarod: we celebrate the Alaskan spirit by carrying it into the future as we look to the past. We have in this race a glimpse of the pioneer's glory, and in the lessons this task teaches us we find pearls of wisdom for the coming age.