I also met some pretty special animals who have the good fortune of living with people who treat them like royalty - Jamie West and Harry Bank's Jenny Lynn. Jenny Lynn is an eight year old Siberian who was born blind. She is the resident "house dog" and pretty much rules the roost along with Harriet the cat (Harriet my apologies for getting you stoned on catnip a few too many times). Jamie's neighbours, Paul and Erin where I stayed, have a number of house dogs, including Kayla and Manny who patrol the house and yard and greet everyone with open paws. Rueger, who I renamed the "Wingless Raven". Rueger lives with Vern Halter and Susan Whiton at Dream a Dream Dog Farm (Jamie and Harry's neighbours). He was one of Vern's best leaders and has retired to take on the job of neighbourhood mooch. Rueger would strategically show up after a run or at feeding time and quietly expect an invitation to join in on the buffet.
And then there are the North Wapiti "Woofs". I had a blast with the 22 dogs that I helped care for in Alaska - Surge, Draco, Loki, Snickers, Sprite, Dasher, Nahanni, Olena, Hilda, Kara, Pepsi, Jinx, Crunchie, Q, Jr, Moses, Barq, Skor, Odie, Hector, Bat Dog and Herman. It took me a few days, but I found ways to remember who was who, and I had a cheat sheet of the dog yard if I really got stumped. By race day, Janet Mattos from Howling Dog Farms (thanks again Janet for all of your help), had me go around the dog truck with her and name off all of the dogs to make sure we had them in the right starting order. I did it like they were my own, realizing that we had come a long way in two weeks.
I thought I had made it through the emotional part when I didn't bat an eye at the ceremonial start on Saturday as I walked the dogs to the starting line. I can get pretty sappy at "ceremony" and thought for sure the tears would flow. But instead, there was pride and joy at being a part of it all. Then Sunday rolled around and things took on a different tone. It started with our drive out of the yard and leaving behind six very fine dogs who had worked equally as hard to make the team, but for one reason or another would not be able to participate on the trail to Nome. I bit my tongue as we waved to Q, Barq, Nahanni, Jinx, Pepsi and Hilda, knowing that they weren't quite sure why they had been left behind.
The restart at Willow was nice because we could see all of the trucks and teams and get a better feel for the magnitude of the event. The teams started leaving at 2:00 and we watched periodically as teams went by, commenting on the type of sleds being used and rating how gracefully (or not) the teams were led to the shoot. Just before it was time to put on harnesses, I went around and gave every dog a kiss and hug and wished them well on the trail. Right thing to do? In my heart, yes, but the tears started flowing. If nothing else, I decided that the bystanders got a first hand glimpse at just how much these dogs do mean to us and they are not simply vehicles that will take the musher to the next checkpoint closer to Nome. I got myself together and carried on with the task at hand. A couple of hugs from Karen and a lot more tears on my part, then it was back to business.
Janet stayed close by and between me leading out Snickers and Dasher and Janet keeping an eye on the other handlers, we made a graceful entrance to the starting line. I heard a variety of comments from the mob of spectators, all very complimentary of the team. Snickers was particularly anxious to get going and Dasher was a little more laid back. Once the handlers moved away from the team, both leaders instinctively looked back at Karen and you could see the focus shift, knowing that the journey was about to begin. Before I knew it, the team blew past me. And that is where my story ends and the real story of Iditorod 2006 begins.
(used with permission)
(used with permission)
Before I sign off, I want to mention another team that may not receive the attention it deserves - Team Ramstead. There are only two members on this team, so I guess they are the lead dogs, the team dogs and the wheel dogs of the operation, all wrapped into one. Prior to arriving in Alaska, I had not had much of an opportunity to get to know Karen and Mark. At the end of the day, I have to say that they are the real "team" behind it all. They have a great relationship and it is clear that both of them play an equal part in making NorthWapiti what it is and what it will become. Karen and Mark, a lot of hard work and a lot of fun was accomplished in my two weeks with you and I owe you a huge THANK YOU for offering me the opportunity to have a part in preparations for Iditarod 2006. The ride was sweet!!!
Handler for the 2006 North Wapiti Team