Among other reasons, since this year’s Alcan was ending in Anchorage, the rally was timed to end the day before the start of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race. The Iditarod is the famous dogsled race that honors the rescue of the residents of the town of Nome, Alaska during a diphtheria outbreak in 1925 when serum was raced from Anchorage to Nome. The grueling, more than 1,000 mile race starts with a winter festival that is the highlight of the Anchorage winter.
We arrived in Anchorage the night before the start and, after checking into the hotel set out to for dinner. On the way back, the preparations for the start were well under way. Though Anchorage has had a record amount of snow this year and it had been snowing the day before the race start, the streets had been cleared. Now at 9 o’clock at night were bringing in snow to cover the 4th street with almost a foot of snow to make a surface that the dog teams could pull the sleds on. Truck after truck dropped snow and graders pushed it onto the street.
The race was scheduled to start at 10:00 so we were out and over to 4th street by 9:00 to see the teams prepare for the start. Tyhe dogs are leached to the kennel trucks that have brought them. They seem bored and sleepy but as the teams start to harness the dogs the team’s excitement starts to mount and the air fills with barking and howls. As we watch one team, one dog starts to howl as though he was baying in the forest. Soon the entire team is howling. They’re ready to go.
The actual race start takes place the next day in Palmer outside of Anchorage. The start in Anchorage is a ceremonial start so the is a festive air with each team being introduced and many of the teams carrying a passenger in the sled. Some of the sleds are even dragging a second sled which, I’m told is to slow done the dogs who, left to the own devices would rocket down the street.
We find a place in the upper deck of a parking garage to watch the teams go by. The crowd loves it. The camera crews take their pictures and videos. The local TV stations carry the start live. It is a great event to watch. The start of what they call the Last Great Race. Certainly not for the faint of heart or body.
Later in the afternoon, we return to 4th street for the Running of the Reindeer (?). Now, if you take 20,000 or so people who have been partying for the better part of 24 hours and want to get them involved in the event what could be a better way than to sell tickets to run down a couple of blocks of 4th street chased by a small herd of reindeer. Kind of an imitation of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. In the Running of the Reindeer, the danger isn’t being gored. The danger is being trampled by the crowd of drunken participants that you are running with.
The crowd is just a bit crazier than you might suspect. It’s cold. The snow in the street is deep. The crowd is well lubricated. There are teams in costume. There are people nearly naked. There is a distinct possibility of hypothermia for some. What could possibly go wrong.
Actually, not much. The participants are staged in the same area that the dogsled teaks were staged in in the morning for the start of the Iditarod. The announcer runs the event. The Running is broken into smaller groups. Women from outside Alaska. Men from outside Alaska. Local Women. And then local men. For each run the reindeer brought up the street in harness. The announced gives the start to the humans and, 30 seconds later, they release the reindeer. The reindeer really don’t see the humor in this at all. Their only goal is to get through the stumbling mass of tourists, drunks and morons in front of them as quickly as possible. The result is hilarious for the participants and the spectators. Not so much for the reindeer. And fortunately, no one has told the reindeer that they have to do this 4 times. If they knew that, things might be considerably more difficult.
After the 4th race, the festival starts to break up and we do some shopping and then wander back to the hotel. The Run with the Reindeers is the perfect ending to FurRondy. It fits the collective personality of the native Alaskans and furthers the grasp on the transplants. Alaska is a very tough place. FurRondy is a way of celebrating some of the things that make living here so difficult. And, of course, the drink and smoke certainly help.
Back to the hotel to pack. Barbara has a flight at 1:50 in the morning and we have a final celebration dinner with the entire rally. I load the things that we don’t need into the car and load in some excess baggage to take home for Hal and Peter. They have sold their car to Jerry Hines to avoid the cost of shipping it back to SC and are flying back to Colorado (Hal) and SC (Peter).
The last dinner together is in a second floor of a restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. A few of us walk over together and in a few minutes the rest of us start wandering in. Beer and heavy or d’euvres. Announcements, speeches, awards, promises to stay in touch.
In any experience that bonds people like this rally does, there are always these pledges to maintain the friendships that have been formed in the intensity of the event. But we know that few will really flower. We’re too diverse a group geographically and though the pledges are sincere, most will simply pass with the passing of time. Until 2016.
Many of the people will sign up for the next Alcan Winter Rally as soon as they can. Some, like me, will go home and take the 2012 entry form, fill it out, scratch out 2012, write in 2016, fax it to Jerry and put it on oyur mental schedule. All that will remain is enduring the wait til 2016.