Saturday, January 20, 2007

Race Day

I was wrong in my last post. Perhaps not wrong, because so many treasures do emerge from surprises. But it's not an exclusive coincidence. Traditions bring about some fine treasures too.

Yesterday I did my daily [symbolic] cartwheel over the start of the 28th Annual Kuskokwim-300 Race.

The K-300 is an Iditarod-qualifiying dogsled race, as well as our winter carnival, our community potluck, and one of the best reasons to make a home in Bethel, Alaska. For a few days every year, a small remote region of Alaska (approximately the size of the State of Oregon) opens up homes, schools, yards, kitchens, cultural centers and hearts to the arrival of dog-mushers and their teams. Mushers and their teams stay with "host families." Kids bake cookies for the mushers, which they pack into little brown lunch bags with endearing notes of encouragement meticulously written onto those sheets of paper with three lines and space for a drawing. The musicians in town, and there are many, kick-off events with a "Benefit Concert," the proceeds of which go to buying fireworks. Kitchens all across town kick into high-gear, producing communal pots of chilis and soups, breads, biscuits, cookies, brownies, lasagne, cheesecake. The radio announces when a musher is coming in for a finish - and the whole town seems to put down whatever task it was in the middle of and make the way down to the river to give a welcoming applause.

There are actually three dogsledding races - the K-300, the Bogus Creek-150 and the Aniak Dash. The Bogus Creek - 150 started yesterday at 5 p.m., the K-300 yesterday at 6 and today will be the start of the Aniak Dash. Three races, two days. All requiring several veterinarians (please keep in mind that this region - the size of the State of Oregon - has only one vet, here in Bethel, that lives in Eagle River and comes out for one week every month), crowds of checkers, checkpoints, trails, trail markers, persons to wait for mushers at certain hard-to-mark corners of the trail, cooks, coffee-makers, volunteers, hay deliverers, truck support, reporters, and more to be dispersed - with gear appropriate for weather conditions that range from last years 60 below to the sweaty balminess of the 30's - throughout a region that has no roads.

It's a miracle of sorts. Except not really. It's all the celebration of a miracle, but all the production, hard-work, selflessness, know-how and social joy of the volunteers.

It all merits so much description. For the moment, however, I must run to finish baking my loaves of bread for the volunteers who have been posted at race headquarters all night long, a batch of banana oatmeal chocolate chip cookies to greet my boyfriend who should shortly be returning from his overnight task of checking at the Bogus Creek checkpoint, and a quiche to refresh him after his 75 mile trek home on a snowmachine.

p.s. So many pictures. Usually Blogger frustrates me by limiting me to just one picture per post. Today, Blogger won't let me post any at all. This is a shame. I wanted to post a picture of the mushers who arrived early for the Bogus-150 Race. My guess is that they hoped to set up before the crowds arrived. If you had looked closely, you would have seen all the different ways in which the dogs arrive. Some make grand entraces in pick-ups the size of tanks, geared-up with every gadget that Black Hawk engineers would have recommended to Detroit had Detroit ever pondered specializing in mushing transportation. Others make more humble entraces, in the homemade wood sleds being towed behind the mushers' snowmachines which they rode in from the village that morning. And you would have seen all the trucks and bulldozers and snowmachines and sleds and four-wheelers and kids being pulled around by mothers in plastic sleds (which I like to call the 'Bethel Strollers'), all - so astonishingly - congregating in the middle of, and on the top of, one of America's strongest, un-dam'ed rivers.

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