By Joseph Robertia
Water flowed like a small stream in the asphalt gutter in which my sled dogs were standing. It was the result of warm, falling rain combined with melting snow — trucked in the night before and spread down the center of Fourth Avenue in Anchorage — that was quickly disappearing in the unseasonable, 40-degree air temperature. Still, I pulled on my beaver fur hat and slid my hands into beaver fur mittens, both usually reserved for temperatures 80 degrees colder, at the warmest.
I felt a little silly, but nothing about last weekend seemed logical. It began a few weeks earlier when I got a call from Rod Perry, one of 22 finishers of the first Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race in 1973. He no longer has a kennel of his own, but has never drifted far from the race or the route’s nonsporting beginning.
In 2009, Perry released the first of two volumes on the history of the Iditarod, “Trailbreakers: Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod,” which chronicles the gold-rush era, when tons of gold worth millions of dollars was run, via dog team, out of remote areas of Alaska. In 2011, for the centennial commemoration of the Iditarod Trail, Perry was asked to lead the mushers during the race’s ceremonial start.
It occurred to him in that experience that while fans were rabid for race action, not many seemed to have a good understanding of the history of the route. Wanting to change that, Perry worked with the Iditarod and sponsor Wells Fargo to get the go-ahead to lead the 2015 ceremonial start while wearing vintage clothing and riding a replica of the Wells Fargo “Gold Train” freight sled that hauled gold from Nome to Anchorage from 1910-18.
The caveat, other than Perry needing to find a dog team to pull the 21-foot-long oaken freight sled — built in Kasilof by Perry, his brother, Alan, and friend, Cliff Sisson — was that this behemoth needed two people to steer it. One musher, Perry, would be on the back working the brakes and managing the speed, and one would be in front to steer by using a rudderlike device called a gee pole.
Having a trained-up team of huskies not committed to racing the trail, being athletic (and not scared to take a few falls) and generally standing too far from a shaving razor, I was an obvious choice for the part in the historical re-enactment. But from what I knew about gee-pole sleds, the front man was on skis.
“And I don’t ski, Rod,” I told him when he called.
“No problem,” he assured me. “You won’t be on skis. You’ll be riding a Ouija board.”
Always up for adventure, I got excited just from hearing the name, even though I new nothing about its use in old-school sleds.
A few weeks went by and we had hoped to get together for a few trial runs before the big day, but with weeks of rain and above-freezing temperatures, it wasn’t possible. Running out of time we decided to meet at Tozier Track in Anchorage, where just a week earlier the Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship sprint races were canceled due to lack of snow. When I arrived Friday, it seemed like there was no way the test run, much less the ceremonial start the next day, was really happening.
“Ducks, Daddy! Ducks,” cheered my 2-year-old daughter at the sight of a sword of mallards, many with heads in bright, iridescent-green breeding plumage, quacking and swimming in a foot-deep puddle where the mushing trailhead was located.
“This doesn’t look good,” said my wife, Colleen, a two-time Iditarod veteran.
“Doesn’t look good?” I said. “It couldn’t look much worse.”
We agreed that there was no way Perry would want to proceed with the trial run.
Not wanting the first time I stepped on the Ouija (pronounced WEE-jə, like the séance tool used to supposedly commune with spirits) to be in front of 30,000 shouting onlookers, he thought we should hook up a small team and make the best of it. I had brought 14 dogs, knowing the real-deal sled would weigh 500 pounds, but since Perry had brought a smaller, lighter replica, I decided on only hooking up seven.
As soon as Perry pulled up the snow hook and the team splashed down the trail, I immediately realized why the oven door-sized board I was riding was called an Ouija. Whoever is standing on it — in an effort to keep their balance — looks like they are channeling dead people.
Other than dancing like a boneless Jell-O mold of a man, I did pretty well. I held on to the gee pole for balance. In front of me was an additional short line, coming off the gangline to which the dogs were all attached, that I could hold like a water skier would.
Whenever the little board was sliding along on slush or ice I was able to keep my balance, but anytime we hit a patch of bare earth, exposed spruce root or a puddle of standing water — and there were many — I pitched forward to the ground, like a child flung from a merry-go-round. Still, my confidence was bolstered for the big day.
So there I was Saturday morning, in my fur gear to look the part for the historical re-enactment, regardless of the weather. Perry had also lent me a fur-lined parka that looked like it was made of ticking with the traditional muted-red pinstripes. My pants, which only went to just below my knee, were made of wool and bulged out at the hips in a very Gen. George Patton-esque way. Knee socks were pulled up over the short pants and my footwear was supposed to be mukluks, but fearing I’d ruin them in all the water, Perry threw me a pair of old-timey leather work boots. He was dressed in similar garb, with the exception that he committed to the mukluks and had wolf fur, rather than beaver mittens.
We hooked up the full complement of 14 dogs and at our scheduled time we moved up under the giant banner that marks the starting line of the Iditarod. In “five, four, three, two, one” we were off, leading the charge of the 2015 Iditarod. We sped past the throngs of people cheering and snapping pictures on either side of the street, from the tops of buildings and even recording the event from helicopters above.
The snow was slushy but the Ouija was sliding nicely. We made the first 90-degree turn onto Cordova Street and that’s when things got a little choppy. While on the main drag, cars had not been allowed to drive on the trucked-in snow, but through traffic had been going across the main path on all the streets along the way. This left deep, perpendicular ruts in the fast-melting snow. Each time we hit one the Ouija would kick out wildly from beneath my feet and it was all I could do to not go down face first.
At the end of Cordova is a huge hill, the largest drop along the ceremonial start. It is a favorite place for newspaper photojournalists and other shutterbugs, knowing they will eventually get images of a few good wipeouts. As we were nearing it, Perry shouted up to me.
“You should go ahead and sit down on the bow of the sled for this part, Joseph! It could get pretty hairy!”
“If it’s all the same to you, Rod,” I yelled back, “I’d like to give it a go!”
With a shrug and half grimace, he said, “Your choice!”
I squatted low and leaned back, hoping to really lower my center of balance, clenched the gee pole with white-knuckle tightness, and took a deep breath as we neared the road crossing at the crest of the hill. We hit a deep tire track and the Ouija began shimmying wildly and jetted out to one side, where I promptly ran over an orange construction cone.
This knocked me not just off my feet, but right onto my ass, and I rode the length of the hill in that position. Not one of my proudest moments, but not the worst the day had to throw at me.
Nearing the crossing over the Tudor Road, there is an always-tricky 90-degree turn over a creek, which this year was open and flowing. The creek is at the bottom of a fast downhill, so there isn’t much time to get any sled into the correct position to cross the little ice bridge over the water. It was even more arduous when trying to steer a 21-foot sled.
I pulled into the gee pole with all my weight to guide the freighter where it needed to go, and was successful at saving the sled, but not myself. I splashed down into the creek, holding onto the gangline so as not to be sucked under the sled. My pants, boots and mittens filled with the cold water, much to the delight of the dozens of gleeful onlookers in the area.
Like a skipped stone, I popped out on the other side, where Perry was able to get the brakes to bite into the semifrozen earth and stop the team. He immediately asked if I was OK.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, “but this beaver I’m wearing hasn’t seen this much water since it was on the animal.”
The rest of the run was pretty much the same — long stretches of relaxed mushing with total sled control, punctuated by brief periods of complete out-of-control chaos and carnage to my body. It was also undeniably the wettest mushing I’ve ever done, with the Ouija skimboarding over expansive puddles in some places, throwing huge wakes like a jet ski.
But, in the end, I not only survived, I also had a tremendous amount of fun in the process.
After it was over we loaded up the dogs and much of the gear and began saying our goodbyes. Perry told me he had had a great time out on the trail, but it had affected him more than he expected. He still heard the internal calling for excitement, he said — still felt the need to pursue thrilling deeds and still had the desire to take a team of huskies to Nome. But at 72, the hard reality was that age was no longer on his side.
“It’s tough knowing I’ll never be 30 again or able to do the things I did at that age,” he confessed.
I thought a lot about those words the next day when I woke up with my right glute knotted in like it was clamped in a vice, one of my knees swollen like a tennis ball and my legs marked with bands and blotches of dark purple bruising that made me look more like I had been beaten than merely dragged behind a dog team.
Now in my 40s, I knew I wouldn’t be healing as quickly as I had 20, or even 10 years ago. But I was still thankful to be young enough to have had a grand adventure at all, and to have shared it with an Iditarod pioneer and piece of living history like Rod Perry.
It’s easy to lament what we can’t do once we’re no longer in our 30s. But, like Perry, I hope I’m still able to ride the runners 30 years from now.
Joseph Robertia is a freelance writer living in Kasilof with his wife, Colleen, and daughter, Lynx. He and Colleen operate Rouges Gallery Kennel.