Our last night in Alaska, we (The Teachers) got to work in “comms” (communications). Which means we got to see what happens “behind the screen”. For years, I’d wondered who those people were that entered the data that pops up in the standings screen. Who are those people I grumble about when I just KNOW the team is into the Rohn, or Unalakleet or Koyuk, but it’s just not updating?
I discovered that it’s Sondra behind the screen. Well, last night it was Sondra. There are many people who show up for 6-hour shifts at the computer, at all hours of the day and night. But for me, it will always be Sondra. At least until I have a chance to work in Comms again, and put more faces behind the screens.
We got to be data partners for a couple hours. When an update email comes in from a checkpoint, a small chime goes off, “ping ping.” Then we get excited and print out the report. One of us reads the information out loud, “Skwenta in, bib number 19, today, 0427.” The other of us types the data into the appropriate boxes, publishes it to a pdf, and shares it out. Then, the screens out across the internet flash a new orange line, and people everywhere perk up to find out who is in or out.
Between emails and data updates, we got to chat. Sondra is from Indianapolis, and works for a finance company. We talked about Indiana, then we talked about what brought us here. She first came to Iditarod several years ago when she was an Iditarider. The following year, she handled dogs, this year she is working night shift in comms. Go for a ride. Come back and walk with the dogs. Come back and get into the inner workings of the race itself. The key words here: come back.
It was the same story with Lisa M., the pilot/volunteer we met earlier this week. She was in Anchorage just by chance, and a couple friends convinced her to come back this year and volunteer for the race. They convinced her that the best way to experience the Iditarod is from the inside, and she dove in. We found her with a huge smile at the banquet, the ceremonial start, and the restart. She will be back.
Over and over, we met Alaskans who came to visit, then stayed. One came for a visit, then went home to the lower 48 only long enough to sell the house and moved back to Alaska for good. Others go home, but come back again and again to volunteer, to be part of Iditarod.
Alaska and Iditarod grab people. Iditarod started to grab me from the pages of Akiak, a sweet story about an Iditarod sled dog, by Robert Blake. Then I opened the door another crack and started to follow the race on the internet. Then I started to use sled dog curriculum and Iditarod curriculum in many subjects at school. Then I started weaving sled dog curriculum throughout the day and year. Then I needed to go to Alaska. Once I arrived in summer 2015, and traveled from Fairbanks to Anchorage, I was hooked, and had to come back for Iditarod.
Over 100 years ago, Robert Service described this effect that Alaska has on people. In his poetry, it was the rush for gold that brought people to Alaska. But the story has been playing out for thousands of years. Siberians came and became the Beringians, grandparents of the Athabascans, eventually peopling most of North America.
Later, Siberians came along the coasts and became the Inupiac, Yup’ik, Aleut, and Tlingit. These folks came wth their dogs and sleds. Russians came for furs, Canadians came, then gold brought people from all over, including thousands of Americans. We come, as they came, and we all are affected by The Great Land. Iditarod has the power to draw people in.
THE SPELL OF THE YUKON
I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy—I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it—
Came out with a fortune last fall,—
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.
No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
For no land on earth—and I’m one.
You come to get rich (damned good reason);
You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kinds of sinning;
It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
It seems it will be to the end.
I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
With the peace o’ the world piled on top.
The summer—no sweeter was ever;
The sunshiny woods all athrill;
The grayling aleap in the river,
The bighorn asleep on the hill.
The strong life that never knows harness;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness—
O God! how I’m stuck on it all.
The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back—and I will.
They’re making my money diminish;
I’m sick of the taste of champagne.
Thank God! when I’m skinned to a finish
I’ll pike to the Yukon again.
I’ll fight—and you bet it’s no sham-fight;
It’s hell!—but I’ve been there before;
And it’s better than this by a damsite—
So me for the Yukon once more.
There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.