Get Up, Dogs

February 15, 2011

It feels like a scene out of a Jack London story, and that’s probably why they are doing it, right now.

Dogs and dog drivers are braving 50 degrees below zero (actual temperatures – not wind chills), frostbite, unbelievable winds, sun, snow, mountains and the Yukon River.

It’s the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race – and here is how I called the start of the very first race, way back in 1984.

Fast Forward to Now.

According to yesterday’s Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the great newspaper that is all the news that’s fit to print for the good people of interior Alaska, it has dropped another 10 degrees from the previous day to 50 degrees below zero out on the Yukon Quest Trail  (I had to repeat that, because it is hard to fathom how cold that is, even when you have lived through it), and the mushers and their dogs and are getting ready for the big push to the finish line on the Chena River where it runs into Fairbanks.

Here is a little taste of one brief segment of this year’s race, as reported in the pages of the paper

(Four Time Champion Hans) “… Gatt ran into trouble Sunday night when he drove his team onto what looked like glare ice, but turned out to be a thin layer of ice over cheek-deep overflow on Birch Creek, according to the Yukon Quest website. The team and sled broke through the ice and the sled got stuck. Temperatures were well below minus 40 degrees. Sebastian Schnuelle came up on Gatt and helped him pull the dogs and sled out of the water, built a campfire and rigged up some boots out of dog coats and burlap bags to replace Gatt’s soaked footwear. After an hour, the two headed on toward the checkpoint in Central.”

As I said, the Yukon Quest is a dog sled race.  An amazing international sled dog race.  In design, it celebrates the brave (lunatic?) fortune seekers 100 years ago who followed the discovery of gold into interior Alaska, and a few years later, when even richer discoveries were made in the Yukon, well, they walked, or if they had the money, rode, on dog sleds, down the Yukon River the thousand miles to Dawson.

So the race follows that historic route –  from Fairbanks over the mountains and out to the Yukon River at Circle City – just 50 miles from the Arctic Circle and the end of the northernmost road in the US, before the haul-road was punched to the oilfields in Prudhoe Bay), then downriver to Eagle, Alaska, and into the Yukon at Carmacks and Dawson City until it ends at Whitehorse, 10 or 14 days later, depending on the weather. The next year the route reverses,  it starts in Whitehorse and ends in Fairbanks.

It is ridiculously grueling for the mushers.  Some choose to try to sleep while being pulled.  They have to push their loaded sleds up the mountains and across areas where the runners stick like glue to the ice. They need to heat and cook food for their dogs at every stop. Through blizzards and 100 below wind chills and… well believe it or not, sometimes unbelievable heat, blinding sun and thaws.

The mushers have the utmost respect for their dogs.  It always seemed to me, a relatively objective observer, that those big hearted, furry critters lived to pull, and lived to win.

The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race got its start when an idea was born after a few drinks, in a bar in Fairbanks.  A short few months later the mushers were racing across Alaska and the Yukon on the inaugural run in February of 1984.

I’m sure lots of other great ideas get started this way.

A few guys sitting around, with probably a few too many cocktails in them saying… whaddya think? And because they didn’t see what couldn’t be done, or know how really treacherous the trail would be, or didn’t want to calculate the potential legal liability or the lack of roads, or the lack of trails … or… or. They just did it – got out their maps, plotted it, planned it, organized it and made it happen. They were all volunteers, as was everyone else on the committee.  They did it for love.

By the way, I lived in a small log cabin, about 5 blocks further down 2nd Avenue from where the interview was videotaped for a couple of the years I lived in Fairbanks.

Anyway, the race, while a dream come true for Leroy and Roger, was an unknown, uncharted experience for me.  A far cry from the subways, and public schools and playgrounds of New York City, where I grew up. And a far cry from doing news in L.A. – where I later wound up, or programming an education network for healthcare professionals, where I work now outside of Chicago.

The race experience would be a blur of flying aboard donated Cessna single engine aircraft with volunteer pilots, through the sketchiest of weather to places that didn’t believe in IFR. Passengers sitting along side me might be a sick dog, or supplies or random hitch-hikers. I remember frozen interviews, and meeting people along the trail who played acoustic music, opened their homes, cared for dogs and mushers and just loved being part of this experience.

On the first trip – up to Circle City for instance, the overloaded Cessna carried, in addition to me and the pilot and my cameraman, a photographer and reporter from the News-Miner, a guy broadcasting live from the plane for radio station KJNP – King Jesus North Pole.  He was literally giving the play by play as we flew into a white-out after leaving Fairbanks on our way to Circle through the mountains – over Eagle Summit and, hopefully, out into the flats and Circle City.  A partially frozen compass on the airplane occasionally jammed but loosened up when pounded on, no radar… just a pilot who had eaten a can of sardines and taken a shot of whiskey before we lifted off to the sky, a couple hours after he dug the volunteered plane out of a snow bank.

But we were flying and before you could say – another fine mess you’ve gotten us into – the entire scene turned white, I could discern no summit, no eagles, no trees, no creeks… in fact… I had no illusion that we were actually moving.  Just the drone of the single engine overloaded airplane, pushing through the snow, and me listening to Mr. KJNP – praising the Lord myself that the KJNP reporter was on board, figuring we could use all the help we could get. Fortunately the sardines and whiskey cocktail worked – my pilot eventually picked his way through that frozen diorama into bright blue sunshine on the other side of the ridge.

And that was just our first flight.

Did I mention the telephone exchange, and our communication to the outside world, burned to the ground for no apparent reason right after we arrived in Circle?

Every day we leapfrogged ahead of the mushers, and waited until they arrived.  I worked with my photographer who labored with frozen solid lenses, frozen because they were brought inside and outside and inside and outside to 25  degree below zero weather…. rubber audio cables stretched out so I could do a standup in front of the camera, and then the rubber froze in place to form the proverbial Frozen Rope.  Fingers against long frozen metal to focus. Eyes against foggy eyepiece. Lubricated mechanics (focus… tape transport… and other mission critical parts) that were sluggish when they decided to work. Did I mention it was cold?

Remember this was all old school.  We had no GPS, no cell phones, no digital video, no internet. No sat phone, no webcam, no voip, no skype. You can see the prehistoric graphics… video of maps, dot matrix graphic generators on the report above. The video – called broadcast quality – was captured on 3/4 inch tape. The camera was tethered to the recorder by a cable. Hell, you probably get better looking video from your cell phone camera now.

My field reports were all on tapes that were physically sent back with the pilot. They were edited at the studio in Fairbanks according to instructions I hand wrote on paper and tucked into the tape boxes. I recorded my tracks, and interviews without screening the tapes.  We had no way to screen the tape in the field, but gave approximate in cues and out cues, and prayed the editor back in the shop could figure it all out.

I was on the trail.

That is where I developed the utmost respect for the beautiful, strong dogs, bred for generations, who pull long distances.   And I got bitten by the drama of the race, the bravery of the dog drivers, and most of all the stark, timeless beauty of Alaska.

The following year, when the start was in Whitehorse and we finished in Fairbanks, we covered the race with a dedicated plane, but of course, that didn’t stop icing during a midnight run across the vastness of the state to make a deadline. We used a chopper for some shots, had snow machines. We expanded our coverage because CBC North gave us some money for the broadcast rights. Now the program would be seen not only in Alaska, but also in Canada. We introduced a number of never before seen features into the program, including the first ever broadcast of the Northern Lights videotaped with a special Ikegami video camera, developed for the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

I also convinced my musician friends to do the score.  The title song, Get Up Dogs, was written and performed by Buddy Tabor, and was featured on the album Alaska Hit Singles (really!).

And in that second year, I shifted into the career role I have followed for much of my life – I was the field producer.  I came to really like this role.  I could focus on the story, as I was out getting it and I didn’t have to spend any time preparing for and doing gratuitous live shots and yammer endlessly about nothing, answering inane questions from anchors and promo-ing my next story, on the next newscast, that essentially was the same story I just presented with a new top to it.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Because right now, in 50 degree below zero weather in Alaska, dog drivers and their teams are pushing toward the finish line, on the frozen solid Chena River, in downtown Fairbanks.

Get Up Dogs.

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