Instructor Attends

Published on NewsOK

Editor’s note” Ray Gaskin teaches journalism at Southeastern and he attended this event in Alaska

A musher avoids melting ice on the trail.

A musher avoids melting ice on the trail.

I got a first-hand look last week when I went to Anchorage to watch the ceremonial start of the famed Iditarod sled dog race, a harrowing 1,000 mile trek across the state to Nome, an old gold mining town on the Bering Sea. The event is billed as “The Last Great Race on Earth.”

I arrived in Anchorage late at night, wondering if I’d have trouble maneuvering my rental car through the winter muck to the Iditarod headquarters, The Millennium Hotel.

The guy at the rental counter laughed and said from what he’d heard, Oklahoma had gotten more snow in the last couple of weeks than Anchorage. He was right, the streets were bare.

At a press briefing the next day, the race officials spent much of their time answering questions about the lack of snow, which had forced changes in the route to Nome.

Someone suggested that maybe they should have relocated the race to Boston, but that didn’t generate much laughter.

The revised plans called for city workers to haul in tons of snow, so the ceremonial start could go off as usual. Then after the mushers traveled 11 miles to an airstrip outside of town they would load up their dog teams and drive to Fairbanks, 350 miles away, to resume the race where there was considerably more snow. What a hassle.

Changing weather patterns have placed extra hardships on the racers for several years now. In 2014 portions of the course had very little snow. Other parts presented problems with melting ice. Ironically, a massive blizzard with high winds near the finish last year forced the race leader, Jeff King, to drop out.

Now, another Iditarod is underway. It’s the 43rd, and it began on March 7. After leaving Fairbanks, it will take roughly nine days for the winner to cross the finish line in Nome. We should know who that winner is sometime Wednesday, March 18.

The Iditarod is Alaska’s Super Bowl. The word comes from the Ingalik Native Alaskan language and it means “distant place.” It was used to name a remote village where gold was discovered in 1909. Among the 78 participants, the oldest is 74, the youngest is 18. There are 24 women and six former winners competing for first prize which includes $70,000 and a new pickup. That’s not big bucks when you compare it to what NASCAR winners, PGA golfers and pro tennis players earn. Mushers don’t do it for the money, they do it because they are dog lovers and they thrive on competition.

Among the mushers I spoke with prior to the start was a former student at OU, Monica Zappa.

Monica was raised in Wisconsin, and her parents craved the outdoors. They participated in sled dog races and Monica loved being around dogs.

After earning a B.S. in Meteorology and a M.A. in Geography from Northern Illinois University she enrolled in a doctoral program at OU and went to work for the National Weather Center.

She participated in a research project designed to better understand how responsive the general public is when TV weathercasters warn viewers of impending disasters, like hurricanes and tornados.

She rode her bike around campus and at times her studies were interesting, but when she looked out a classroom window she longed to see mountains.

“For 10 years I had lived without a dog and it was killing me,” Monica said. “I was restless. I had friends in the Peace Corps and they were encouraging me to join them.

But the process to get in was lengthy, at least a year. I decided to do something really different, and come to Alaska to see what it was all about.”

That was five years ago and she’s still here. She met Tim Osmar, whose dad Dean won the Iditarod in 1984, and they have been breeding, raising, training and racing dogs at their home base in Kasilof, Ak.

She has become an activist to save Alaska’s wild salmon, and she opposes large-scale mining operations that could pollute Alaska’s waterways.

Last year Monica ran the Iditarod for the first time and finished in 47th place. This year she hopes to move up. She started the race with a full complement of 16 dogs.

After 250 loads of snow were dumped on downtown streets and graders smoothed it out, the ceremonial start went off without a hitch on Saturday, March 7. When the mushers got to the airstrip outside of Anchorage, I caught up with Monica as she was loading up her dogs for the trip to Fairbanks, where the race would resume.
“Settle down Dweezil,” I overheard her say to one of her dogs.

Dweezil, as in Zappa, I wondered?

Frank Zappa was a unique, quirky, and highly talented rock icon of a bygone era. He named his son Dweezil.

“Are you by any chance related to Frank Zappa?” I asked.

“A distant relative, I believe,” Monica replied.

“Have you ever listened to his music?” I asked.

“All the time,” she said. “A friend downloaded 12 Frank Zappa albums to my iPod and I’m going to listen to them all the way to Nome.”

One of Frank Zappa’s songs is titled, “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”

Not bad advice, I thought, for someone about to forge through the wilderness on a sled behind a team of Alaskan Huskies.

Article submitted by Ray Gaskin