This is not the Iditarod. It’s a dog-sled sprint that starts and ends in downtown Fairbanks, Alaska. I was there last week for a wedding and had a chance to catch the 68th running of the Open North American Championship (ONAC). It was part of why I fell in love with Fairbanks.
I missed the start of the race, when locals told me the dogs are crazy and jazzed up, rarin’ to go. It was -10 degrees, and downtown Fairbanks was full of people who seemed to think that’s normal weather for standing around outside drinking coffee. I walked further down the street and found a cozy deli and cafe named the Red Couch at 309 2nd Avenue.
The woman who served me said the racers would be back in about 20 minutes. The route ran right in front of the cafe. She seemed to know exactly where the unseen dogs were on the course. I finished my potato chips and bowl of chili quickly and walked outside to wait for the teams. After about 10 minutes of stomping my boots on the snow with my scarf tied around my face, I saw the first sled approach.
And then it was gone. That was fast!
The dogs were smaller than I had expected. After about 20 miles of hauling a guy behind them, the dogs were loping along mainly in silence. Their long tongues were hanging out as they ran.
I learned that the mushers aren’t just along for the ride. They turbo-charged their sleds with huge, sweeping kicks that left the kicking feet high in the air behind them. It might take years of yoga to build that much flexibility into your joints. It was impressive.
I walked back down 2nd Avenue to the finish line and admired the cool trucks with little hutches built into them for the dogs. Metal bowls were laid out beside each truck, filled with watery gruel to reward the racers. There was lots of tail wagging and celebratory barking in the streets of Fairbanks.
My iPhone weather app says it’s zero degrees this morning in Fairbanks, a day after the Equinox, when everyone on earth, from Fairbanks to Buenos Aires, experienced a 12-hour day of sunlight. Here in Denver, it’s a balmy 43 degrees.
My friends Kes Woodward and Dorli McWayne, who were joined in an artful and musical wedding ceremony in his studio five days ago, will probably be out today running on a trail through the birches surrounding their Fairbanks home. Zero degrees? That’s gotta feel like a heat wave!
I admire anyone who not only lives but thrives in a climate like that. It’s bracing. Each morning when I walked out of the Princess Riverside Lodge, the frigid air felt like an assault, or at least a warning. The blue electrical cable connecting my rented all-wheel-drive Nissan Juke to a post in the parking lot was stiff and brittle when I unplugged the heater. The air was brilliant and still.
As a reward for living in such a place, the sky sometimes puts on an awesome show. On my last night in Fairbanks, I drove with a fellow wedding guest, David Policansky from Washington, D.C., to a high ridge with a good view to the north. And yes, we did see the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. I was surprised at how quickly the eerie greenish shapes shifted in the sky, forming curtains of color, then twisting ropes directly overhead, then blobs of glowing presence that looked as if they were about to fall on top of us.
I nearly froze out there on the ridge and kept ducking back into the Juke for warmth while David snapped away with his camera. He focused on the thumbnail moon then turned to the aurora over and over again. My neck hurt from looking up for nearly an hour, and then we drove back to the hotel, stunned into speaking softly about what we’d seen.
Kes assured the wedding guests arriving from all over that March is a wonderful time of year to visit Alaska. He wasn’t lying. My visit there last week stirred me deeply. Fairbanks left me ready to stray from my rut, to try new things, to bundle up and race down the street on a sled with my leg kicking high up behind me.
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