It’s what we talked about in the parking lot of the Thai restaurant in Seattle, waiting for our ride back to the hotel. My first time on the west coast was the in-person interview for KNOM.
“So what is Iditarod like?” I remember asking Kelly and Laura, thinking about the book report I wrote on Susan Butcher in the 4th grade, after which I hooked up my West Highland Terrier to a small wagon, convinced that he, too, could be a sled dog.
I don’t recall what general response they used to summarize the experience, but I vividly remember their faces filling with glee as they gave me the play-by-play of Aliy Zirkle, Dallas Seavey, and Jeff King duking it out for first place during Iditarod 2014. These were only names at the time—while now they’re people I’ve interviewed, photographed, and shamelessly fan-girled after while attempting to be a professional member of the news… All I could think about on the drive back to the hotel was: God, I have to be there for Iditarod.
And all I can think right now is that Iditarod is…everything. It is all-consuming, life-giving, spirit-rejuvenating insanity, and even though now I’m sick from not sleeping, I wish that Iditarod could last forever. It’s nearly impossible to put into words, but I’ll do my best to convey the highlights of my first Iditaweek.
First of all, doing race updates on KNOM was scary at first, but by the time Iditarod rolled around, it became incredibly exciting to invest ourselves in the mushers (Go #TeamAliy !), analyze their strategies, listen to interview after interview after interview, and chart their progress closer and closer to Nome.
The night Dallas Seavey and his team arrived in Nome, I was actually up late talking with a friend from my college who has lived in Bethel since she graduated three years ago; she was in Nome for the finish. We were swapping stories about old friends and life in rural Alaska when I looked down at my phone to see a text from Caitlin: “JENN HES OUTTA SAFETY” and even though we knew it would be two or three hours at that point, we snow-suited up and camped out on the floor of KNOM, eating the delicious soup Lynette made though it was 3 in the morning.
That night began my personal tradition of crying every single time a musher and team came down Front Street. The best way I can describe it is like not sleeping for a week straight and just watching Seabiscuit over and over, all day, every day. When Rob Cooke came up off the ice, a few of us were further down Front Street cheering him on as he approached the larger crowd under the arch. Unfazed by the sudden presence of other humans, you could just hear him repeating, “Good dogs, good dogs.” Instant tears.
I’ve only been out mushing a couple of times, but even on a short run of just a few miles, it is awe-inspiring to watch those dogs in front of you run with joy and pull with all their might. The power of the sled dog is not to be reckoned with. It shows why the last musher into Nome is celebrated just as much as the first. Any team that can work together and endure 1,000 miles of Alaska’s toughest terrain is a hero.
But speaking of dog strength…human strength is not to be forgotten. Musher Nathan Schroeder stayed in one of our extra rooms while he was in Nome, and I can honestly say it’s the first time in my life I’ve been sleep-shamed by a musher. Even on the longest days of KNOM’s 24-hour rotation to cover the top 20 teams, I always had a warm bed to eventually make my way home to. Thirty-six hour stretches on the 50-below Yukon River with no sleep? I don’t think so. I will never complain about being tired again (unless I become a musher).
I truly believe being a reporter is the coolest job in the world. And I think I can safely say that reporting on the Iditarod is the coolest assignment a reporter could hope for. How else would I have the opportunity to cry live on the radio while interviewing My Hero Aliy Zirkle or linger in the chute as my favorite musher this year—Red Lantern Cindy Abbott—climbed the burled arch to extinguish the widow’s lamp? It’s like waking up after a long dream that I prayed would never end, with the northern lights guiding the final teams into Nome.
Last night, to formally end our first Iditarod season, a few of the iditaexhausted volunteers settled into the couch to watch Balto (and pick apart the historical inaccuracies). In case you’re curious, I did cry at the end, because humans’ lives once did, and in many ways still do, depend on the strength, determination and love of dogs.