Thursday, March 25, 2010


 I suspect most Americans immediately think of college basketball when they hear the phrase March Madness. However, if you live in Alaska or follow sled dog racing, you know it means only one thing: IDITAROD!!

For me the crazy month actually began in February when Blake Freking and his handler, Phil Morrison and Blake's sponsor Forrest Sheppard showed up at my house with a large trailer full of the Siberian Huskies of Manitou Crossing Kennels. (above) The trailer is so large it barely fits in the area we cleaned for it. The truck did not fit. These dogs travel in comfort! Visit their website:Manitou Crossing Kennel
Forrest would stay with us a few days before heading to Anchorage to meet his wife. At the Iditarod start, Forrest would drive Blake's tag sled.

The boys set out to care for the dogs and to run them every day for the next couple days. You can see those photos under Freking Siberians--Iditarod bound. The best surprise was that one of Blake's females, Takhini, gave birth to one puppy as they drove up the Alaska highway. Naturally, the puppy is named, Alcan. :) We would watch him grow over the next month. Unfortunately for me, Momma didn't like me, so I could only visit the pup when Phil brought him out from the kennel in my garage.

Takhini checks to make sure Blake is handling her baby properly. Alcan is only about a week old in this photo.

On Tuesday before the start of Iditarod, my friend Marlene Daniels from Montana arrived. My house was now full of new and old friends and our whirlwind week began.

Marlene holds Alcan on one of his visits to the house for socialization and granny hugs.


On Wednesday, Blake and Phil load all the dogs and head to Wasilla and Iditarod HQ for the final vet check. Marlene and I arrive later. This is the last exam for all the dogs qualified to run this race. After today, mushers will have decisions to make as to which dogs to take down the trail and which to leave behind. It's not always an easy choice. But what fun to walk around the lot and see which mushers and their dogs are there.

Fan favorite and three in a row Iditarod champion Lance Mackey has a talk with his Father, Dick Mackey. Dick is also an Iditarod champion.

Newton Marshall poses with Lance's famous lead dog, Larry (below). Newton trained with Lance this season and Larry will help take him to Nome.
Marlene chats with fellow Montanan, Cindy Gallea. This is Cindy's tenth Iditarod.
After the vet check, Blake and Phil would head back to Willow and run two teams one more time. Marlene and I would head into Anchorage for a media meeting and pick up our press id's for the race. We also shopped for food for the open house we planned for Blake on friday. We had a fun dinner with friends in the Fancy Moose before taking the 90 minute drive home.


On thursday, while Blake spends the day in Anchorage at musher meetings and Phil takes care of dogs in Willow, a group of ladies would meet at my friend Mary's home in Palmer. After snacking and chatting we headed to the Musk Ox Farm. Mary works in the gift shop there in the summer and is allowed small tours in winter. We had lovely weather that day, as Palmer can be quite windy. The baby Musk Ox were  happy to see us. Of course, Mary spoils them with treats. :)

Pat, Marlene and Judy reach out to touch a baby musk ox.

How cute can they be?  Baby musk ox can socialize nicely if visited frequently. Good thing since they grow to upwards of 1000 pounds. I saw them wild on the hills outside of Nome when I was working on the All Alaska Sweepstakes. I also made a movie about them which you can view if you visit the farm and go in the visitor's center.
Maxine gets up close and personal with a musk ox. They were so sweet and loved all the treats we  fed them. Everyone lined the fence to feed the "kids".


The invitation said come meet Blake Freking and his team of Siberians. We must have had about 60 people over the course of four hours. Great fun, great food, great people---great dogs!!! We got to meet Blake's Idita-rider. A fun lady from Texas who's husband is a rodeo rider. I'm telling you, you can't make this stuff up. What a hoot!

New and old friends chat, take pictures and meet the dogs.
Eventually, the dogs get bored with it all.

When Blake's party we over, we high tailed it over to Karen Ramstead's open house at Doug Grilliot's place. Just had to say hello and visit the Pretty Sled Dogs. I don't know who has prettier Siberians---Karen or Blake---but I sure liked them all! Below are some of the Siberians of North Wapiti Kennels. Karen's website

That evening we had planned to go out, but stayed home and played with a puppy instead!


Saturday morning rolled around early. We had to leave at 6 am for the drive to Anchorage. Marlene, Keith and I would pick Mary up in Wasilla. Blake and Phil and all the dogs left before we did. Much to everyone's dismay, it was snowing. The roads weren't too bad, but the added stress wasn't needed.
First order of the day in Anchorage, find Sven Haltmann. Keith was to be his tag sled driver. We found the crew and left Keith there. We'd pick him at Campbell Field later in the day.
Jamie, Mary, Sven, Marlene, Keith and ?-sorry!

One can stroll among the dog trucks behind the start line if you have a media pass. I am always collecting photos and video, stock piling it for future ventures. We went to look for Lance and as usual he was surrounded by fans and media. I wished him luck, bought his new book and had him sign it. 
Lance above seems to always be smiling before the race. One of his dogs---Dred or Rev maybe, keeps an eye on Lance.
Some of the people we saw as we made our way to see Karen Ramstead.
Peg Stout-Dee Dee's Mom---she gets our best wishes. 
Jim Lanier dropping his team of white dogs. Always a favorite.

Martin Buser talks with the media.
And finally we get to Karen and the Pretty Sled Dogs.

I keep telling Karen I want this dog---Shooter (below right). Don't think it's going to happen anytime soon.

Karen and friends!

And finally, we visit Blake before to heading to our spot on the trail. 
I find the chute at the start way too crowded. Even with a media pass you can only be in certain areas. It's confining and uncomfortable to me. So, we went to my friend Trish's condo. It's right along the trail, and we had great seats on a curve to watch everyone go by. Our friend Anita joined us and Trish brought us snacks. OK---this was fun!
Mary and Marlene

My favorite teams:

Of course, Blake. Notice Forrest on the tag sled.He sat until he saw the curve, then he quickly stood up. HA Blake and his Idita-rider Carol are all smiles as they hit the curve.
Next would be Karen and the Pretty Sled Dogs. Kathy Carmichael was her tag sled driver.

Then would be Sven and Keith on tag sled. Look at Sven handle the sled on the curve!!His Idita-rider has no idea they could crash. LOL
And finally, Lance! The dogfather! And his prediction would come true!

You can see more of my copyrighted photos of this event at: Iditarod 2010--Donna's photos
When it was all over we picked up Keith, headed to Wasilla, met up with Mary's husband, Mike, had an early dinner and went home to make baked goods for the restart. The Willow Dog Mushers has a booth there and I promised to bake. It was nice to be home before dark. Blake and Phil spent the evening in last minute preparations. We brought them a pizza just to be sure they ate something! Tomorrow would be another early and long day.


Sunday morning Marlene and I were at the Willow Community Center at  8:30 am.  With a vendor parking pass we could unload right at the door and then park nearby. Sweet! We helped Erin, her Mom, Kari and a few others set up the tables and merchandise. This is a huge fund raiser for the Willow Dog Mushers Association.  It helps us maintain our goal of preserving mushing as a way of life in the Willow Community. Mushers have been forced out of so much of Alaska---hard to believe huh?--but we are trying to keep it thriving here in Willow.  Visit our website to learn more, join the organization or buy gear:Willow Dog Mushers
Our tables are loaded with all kinds of home made baked goods and WDMA merchandise. The favorite seemed to be the red hoodie with the WDMA logo on the front and the words: MUSH ON! on the back.  WDMA president Erin McLarnon speaks with Joe Runyon and Kari Skogen---both Iditarod finishers.

Around 11 am I ventured down to the lake and the holding area for teams. This is always an interesting place to be. Some mushers, used to the routine have grills set up and are fixing food and visiting with fans. Others hide in their trucks and wait. Others make last minute checks of their gear. John Baker at his truck.

Blake Freking
Blake and I

Blake's handler Phil explaining runners to a rodeo champion.
The whole Freking crew!

Joan and Forrest Sheppard-Freking sponsors

The funniest moment of the day when Phil tells Rocket he is going to Nome. Rocket seems to be saying,"Nome!?? I thought you said we were going home!"
Sebastian with friends.

Lance makes his grand entrance!....
...and is immediately surrounded by autograph seekers and media.

Enjoying all the fun:Brenda Borden, Helen Hegener, Marlene Daniels
Some of the boys: Dick Mackey, Bill Borden, Dan Seavey

Sonny Lindner stays in his truck.

Mark and Karen Ramstead. Thanks for the reindeer sausage Mark!  Karen and her team are the subjects of my movie:Pretty Sled Dogs

Pat Bach with the wonderful and crazy Charge, whom she sponsors on Karen's team.

Sven Haltmann with girlfriend, Jamie. Sven is the subject of my movie: See You In Nome!
Sven and Keith. The story behind this photo starts at the 2009 start in Anchorage. Sven went to kiss the big husky dog that walks around, thinking there was a lady in the costume. Turns out it was a guy. So, he and Keith have a running joke about kissing men! And the joke continues on Willow Lake. Guess it works since Sven finished well again this year.

This shot was for my friends in the band:Barleyjuice
Musher Wattie McDonald who actually wore a kilt at the start was more appropriately dressed for the restart.
When we finished visiting the mushers, Marlene and I and Carol Falcetta---who is a wonderful still photographer: Carol's Photos-- went out on Long Lake to watch the teams go by. We had a wonderful time in the sunshine surrounded by all the parties that happen out there. You can see video of the mushers on Long Lake: Iditarod 2010 restart videos

Below is the photo (©Carol Falcetta) Carol took of me standing on the brake of Karen Ramstead's team while Karen switched dogs around. DeeDee Jonrowe is coming up from behind. Thanks for a great shot Carol!
Can I say I've been on the Iditarod trail now??? :)

When all the teams had passed us by, we returned home, tired, slightly sunburnt but very content for experiencing a wonderful day. Nothing to do now, but watch the race on the internet.

                                                           BACK TO NORMAL
For several days after the restart life was quiet. Marlene returned to Montana. Life at Husky Heights was pretty routine. Phil took care of the dogs left behind and we would go to the prison to pick up the dogs Blake dropped along the way. None were really hurt and all recovered just fine. They spent their days lounging in the warm March sun.
The dogs stay in this sheltered area until handlers come and pick them up. The inmates here love taking care of the dogs and do a really nice job. No dog goes without attention.

On this day, we picked up Trouble and Roland and brought them back to hang out with the rest of the Manitou Crossing Siberians.

Taku in blue (collar)


I didn't realize Phil was a mountain climber until one day he said he hadn't seen Denali since he had been in Alaska. So, one evening when the sunset looked particularly nice, we drove 3 miles up the highway to Kashwitna Lake to enjoy the view.

Phil on the lake, the Alaska Range looms behind him.
Denali alpenglow
Sunset over Kashwitna Lake
So, with appetites whetted, we headed to Talkeetna a few days later. We had breakfast at the infamous Roadhouse---YUMMY!!!!---walked around town, and of course, I made Phil kiss a moose!
We checked in with K2 Aviation and figured out when we could fly depending on weather conditions. A few days later we went. We wanted to land on the glacier, but they can't do that in winter as the runway has not been set up. So we just enjoyed a picture perfect day flying around THE mountain!

Hard to believe we were flying at 12000 feet and the mountain was still 8000 feet taller than us. I didn't know Denali actually has two peaks--north and south, with the south being taller. Climbers have made the mistake of climbing the wrong peak and thinking they have reached the summit.

After our flight it is back to normal days as the race wound down. I laughed at the huge Ravens hoping around the dog lot picking up left over kibble. One day I noticed markings in the snow and realized they were impressions of Ravens wings.
The large indentation is from the body, the lines are from the wings.

                                           AND SUDDENLY IT'S OVER

Blake finished 42nd with 10 dogs and beat his record for a team of all Siberian Huskies. Saturday, Phil and I retrieved the race team in Anchorage.Blake returned   late sunday night after the mushers banquet in Nome. Monday night, he, Phil and I went to have dinner with Natalie Norris of the famous Anadyr kennels and some of her family and friends. It was a delightful evening of dog tales.  Tuesday, Blake would tend to some chores while Phil starting packing for the drive back to Minnesota. We had our own seafood feast that evening with Maryland crab cakes and Alaskan red salmon. On wednesday morning, the dogs were dropped one last time. The dogs in my back lot were brought out to the trailer and Momma Takhini and little Alcan joined the mix. We took a few pictures and then they were gone. It's awfully quiet around here.
The beautiful Siberians of Manitou Crossing Kennels.
Tuuli was my favorite--look at those eyes and face. But Tagish was Blake's main leader, stepping up for the job.
Blake and Alcan--boy has Alcan grown! Below, Blake, myself and Phil. It's been a fun month!


Before Blake arrived, CG LaBelle asked if she could mail an item to me for Blake, something he promised to carry in his sled to Nome. Of course, I said yes.

"Blake Freking generously helped make a wish come true.  Blake's generosity allowed Sharon Stahl to return to Alaska.  Sharon was a member of an RGO that put on sprint and mid-distance races in Foresthill CA.  Sharon is battling cancer and due to treatment, and her health would not have been able to return to Alaska if it were not for Blake Freking."--CG LaBelle