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A Cruise Trip to Alaska and the Iditarod

Photo by Frank Kovalchek

You just never know how going on a cruise is going to change your life. For example, we never imagined that in the first week of March — when most people were tuning into their source of sports for the final stages of basketball and hockey, or the start of baseball — we'd be looking for the Iditarod.

In case you haven't been here since last fall, our introduction to the Iditarod came while on a Princess Cruisetour in September. Oh yes, did we mention that the Iditarod is a sled-dog race that has taken anywhere from nine to 20 days to finish, in becoming Alaska's most famous sports event?

It's run in early March, from Anchorage to Nome (there's no place like it), on the far western shores of Alaska. It's run in March because just about any other time of the year (when the climate is less than perishable) the terrain from Anchorage to Nome is a bog.

We met a sled-dog racer named Gerry Sousa, who took us for a dry-land ride behind 13 of his puppies, in the rain. For people who thrive on warmer climes, this was preferable to a trip to Nome in March. It turns out that Gerry had been in nine of the last 10 Iditarods…now 10 of the last 11. His best finish is 16th — he was 20th this year. You can look it up (we did).

The race, from its roots to present-day, was captivating. It traces a life-saving race with medicine that was needed in Nome, about 90 years ago. This year's race, the 40th, was won by Dallas Seavey, who turned 25 this week, somewhere between Anchorage and Nome. His Dad (Mitch) finished 7th. His Grandpa (Dan), the only competitor to have competed in all 40 races, was 51st and still sledding yesterday.

Women have made their marks on the Iditarod. Aliy Zirkle finished second this week, 27 years after Libby Riddles became the first woman to win. The year after Riddles won, Susan Butcher was first four times in five years, leading to the slogan:

"Welcome to Alaska, where men are men…and women win the Iditarod!"

How do we know all this?

Because we went to Alaska on a cruisetour, and came back on the Coral Princess.

DAILY DEAL:
Norwegian Epic
11 nights
April 14, 2012
Miami, Ponta Delgada, Barcelona
Inside  $499
Cost per day: $45
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Alaska Adventure: One Last Time

Remembrances from and suggestions for spending two weeks in the 48th state…

Be on the lookout for nature even when you least expect it. These two pigeons we spotted on the docks where the float planes are moored in Juneau. At first we thought it was rather cute to see a couple of pigeons’ kissing…and then we realized, they must be mating. It was still cute, and went on for longer than…never mind.

Make sure you listen to the cruise people who recommend “layered clothing” because chances are they’ll be right. The idea in having several layers is that when it gets cold, you layer up, and after the temperature rises — it could be 15 minutes later — you layer down. In the fall, layering is a must; in prime cruise season it’s a good idea.

Check fear at the door 1: The chances of seeing wildlife can be rare, the chances of encountering a bear or a moose on the trails are rarer still and the chances of being in danger in such an encounter are remote. But it happens.

Check fear at the door 2: Don’t be afraid of flying in that single-engine plane — they’re in backyards the way swimming pools are in most cities — and even dare to go zip-lining (a woman in her 70s in our group did!).

Ports throughout the state are generally small and generally busy. It’s a short season and four cruise lines — Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity — all sail regularly to Alaska.

The most important newspaper headline may not have been Alaska’s acceptance as state No. 49 in 1959, nor John McCain’s decision to make Sarah Palin famous…rather the one that informed Captain James Waddell that the General Lee surrendered and the Civil War was over. This happened two months after the war really ended but Capt. Waddell is credited with firing the final shot — just before he read the paper.

Take sunglasses, just in case the clouds clear.

If you rent a car, don’t think Alaska’s oil means a break at the pumps. All the oil is shipped south, and then back north. It has to be refined and returned. There are no refineries in Alaska.

Relax if it looks likes weather is going to scrap your plans for the day. Alaskans have to be the most flexible people in the world in changing plans for tourists.

Find a way to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, in Kenai south of Anchorage. It’s not free but it’s good.

There can be a 150-degree temperature swing in Fairbanks, from 90F to -60F.

Don’t believe anybody who says the Iditarod in 1925 was the first meaningful dog-sled race, from Whittier to Nome. The All Alaska Sweep Stakes was for big (relatively speaking) bucks, for 10 years (1908 to 1917), from Candle to Nome.

Feel free to look at fur jackets in stores without thinking somebody’s standing behind you with a can of ink to destroy it. This is a fur-trading culture, always has been and few places are nowadays.

Take every chance you get to see a glacier. The most impressive one may not be in Glacier Bay, or the one called Hubbard, or Mendenhall at Juneau. And if you can swing it, fly over one.

Enjoy the locals, and the transplants. Everybody, it seems, is from another state and some of them even stay year-round, which makes them a local.

If you’re on one of those all-you-can-eat-seafood excursions, skip breakfast or at least keep it light. Let’s see…an English muffin or Dungeness crab.

Forget about watching U.S. television in the Inside Passage. CNN is International and the American networks are AWOL. Go figure.

The best free historical talk and movie is in a back room at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, about World War II.

Be prepared to hear this line two or three times about how there are more women than men in (fill in the blank): “The odds are good…but the goods are odd.”

If you come within shouting distance of the Mug Shot Saloon, expect to hear this: “”Only bar in Alaska where they check you for a weapon…if you don’t have one they’ll give you one.”

Going to the Dogs of the Iditarod

TALKEETNA, Alaska — Until now, Iditarod was a word that we always found difficult to spell and harder to say, but that was before we had a hand in training the dogs that run 1,049 miles in temperatures of minus 60 degrees. Yes, indeed, better them than us.

So when the first Sunday in March and the next Iditarod come around, we’ll be watching for Gerry Sousa, the head musher, and his team of 16 dogs. Watching, that is, on the Internet or on television or wherever we can find out what’s happening in the race where spectators gather at a string of small towns along the way…like they do for the Tour de France, only it’s 100 degrees warmer there.

On a wet weekday in September, 13 of Gerry’s dogs were trained by us. Well, sort of. As participants in a Princess CruiseTour, we provided some of the weight they hauled around the woods of Talkeetna, a small town that’s not on the Iditarod map. They knew we were cruise-ship passengers and there’s probably no better place to find a little extra weight for the dogs to pull. We were loaded onto sleds with wheels, because Alaska was still waiting for the snow that’s never far away, and taken mud-mushing. There were five of us in the sled with Gerry at the back and, while it wasn’t quite like pulling six Gerrys, we gave those 13 dogs a workout they’ll remember in March — only this one on forest trails, through mud puddles and even on a short stretch of paved road. This explains, among other things, why any action photos you’re seeing may look a little blurry or wet, or both.

As genders go, we were half-and-half…and you know how much the fairer set likes splashing through mud puddles in the rain. As it turned out, they liked it a lot, but not as much as the dogs. There are 75 canines at Sun Dog Kennels, and the other 62 were howling because they didn’t get picked to run. In fact, all 75 were howling until the training session began when the sleek and slender Alaskan huskies fell silent and did their jobs.

The huskies don’t look exactly husky-like, if you know what we mean. They’re built for speed more than endurance. If you were running through the snow at minus 60, you’d want to get there in a hurry, too. Getting there before the other 50 or so mushers who finish the race is worth $50,000, bragging rights and a new pick-up. Hey, it’s a wilderness thing. Nobody’s quite sure why mushers from all over the world come to run the Iditarod, but Gerry explains it this way:

“There are very few places you can travel over 1,000 miles and not have civilization knocking at your door. It’s the silence, and being with the dogs.”

The dogs wear “booties” for the race, eight of them a day, and the price tag for that is $4,000 a year. On our race day in the woods, no booties. We had to toughen up these puppies for the real thing!

The race has a fascinating history.

The first unofficial Iditarod was in 1925. The last sailing ship to arrive that winter in Nome, an outpost that’s as far on the west coast of Alaska as anyone should ever go, brought a diphtheria epidemic on shore. There was no medicine. Planes were new, there were no roads or rails, and snow machines were half a century away from being invented. The decision was made to send the medicine from Whittier to Nome via sled dogs, running relays across the barren wilderness. The estimate was the dogs could get the medicine there inside of three weeks. Maybe. They did it in five days.

The Iditarod spawned by that race for life — today’s race is not a relay — has never been done in less than eight days, and that record was set last year when the first native Alaskan won it. It was won five times in a row before that by a throat cancer survivor, Lance Mackey. Two women have been the first to get to Nome (“There’s no place like Nome”), one of them four times, and that spawned a teeshirt that read: “Alaska, where men are men and women win the Iditarod.”

More people climb Mount Everest each year than finish the Iditarod. More dogs, however, finish the Iditarod than climb Mount Everest.

Gerry has finished nine out of the last 10 Iditarods. In the one he didn’t complete, he was badly hurt in a bad spill on icy terrain. He doesn’t like to talk about it. His best finish is 16th out of 96.

That, however, was before he had us train his dogs.

For more on our Alaska adventure, click here to read our blog at Phil Reimer’s Ports and Bows.

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