February was a short month but long on news here at ALO. Because of a 10 day trip at the start of March, the February news will also include the first part of March, which of course is dominated in Alaska by the Iditarod. There is much controversy surrounding the race this year, too complicated to dissect in this format, but in summary the management of the race is taking heat from three directions. First from many of the racers for lots of decisions they don't like, including a reduced purse. Second from major sponsors, who have responded to recent board actions by suggesting board members with a conflict of interest should step down, and third from PETA in its continued attack on long distance dog racing. This was a good year to not be involved as a race commentator with all the negative news.
The race results are positive, at least for the folks who put on the Kuskokwim 300. The race was won by Norwegian Joar Ulsom, who finished second in the 300. Three other teams who finished in the top six in Bethel also finished in the top six of the Iditarod including local racers Pete Kaiser and Richie Diehl. That fact is important because of the persistent suggestion by some racers that you can't race the 300 and expect to do well in the Iditarod because of the effort expended by dogs in the 300. Close analysis of finishes over the years has disproved that theory time and again, but never more dramatically than this year.
Pete may not have won the Iditarod, but earlier he did win a classic contest after the K300. He and Bethel's American Ninja Warrior Nate DeHaan squared off in leg wrestling and the winner had a smooth Ninja Move at the end. That video was sent by Emerie Fairbanks. Emerie is no stranger to one-on-one competition. As a wrestler when she attended high school in Bethel, she provided one of the all-time great photo ops when she was wrestling a boy from another school. Look closely at both their faces. Is torture legal in wrestling?? Remember there are people who say that girls should not wrestle boys in high schoo. Becuase the girls might get hurt...
This music video of Richie Diehl as he approached Nicholai on the Iditarod trail is stunning. For readers who are not familiar with the race, this checkpoint is a small village in the Alaska interior, and comes after a couple hundred miles of wilderness travel through the Alaska range. Its hard to describe the feeling of energy a racer feels as his dogs perk up upon approaching a rest stop after a long run. Of course the checkpoint promises rest for the racer as well, but sometimes it looks like this. That cozy spot was Richie's rest stop at Elim, close to the finish line in Nome.
Just prior to the race it was learned that Dick Wilmarth, the first Iditarod champion in 1973, was in hospice care with late stage cancer. His win was the only time a Kuskokwim racer has ever won, and of course there are stories about that event that could fill several books. He was a former client of ALO, and there are stories about that as well. One of the best stories from the race concerned his lead dog Hotfoot from Stony River. Dick borrowed a bunch of dogs from villagers upriver on the Kuskokwim, and Hotfoot escaped in Nome and was no where to be found. He showed up weeks later in Stony River at his owner's dog yard, kind of skinny. He had run the entire way home, around 600 wilderness miles. Most of it was likely on the Iditarod trail, but of course Stony River is a fair distance from the trail so he had to break his own trail part of the time. Hotfoot eventually retired in Bethel, and will be honored with a special award at this year's race banquet. This is the reception Dick got after winning the first race on Front Street in Nome.
One of the ALO stories involves a unique retainer. Dick, from the village of Red Devil, was a gold miner, and when he showed up with a legal problem involving his gold mine, he paid his $1500 retainer with a jar of gold still mixed with gravel. Gold at the time was worth about $300 an ounce and Dick claimed the jar was worth way more than $1500, but he didn't have time to get it assayed. Most people on the Kuskokwim would suggest Dick never got the short end of any deal and he made a lot of them, so perhaps his valuation was a little high. Of course that was 30 years ago, the price of gold had gone up, and his celebrity probably adds something to the value. The jar still sits in a safe deposit box at a local bank so any Iditarod fan out there who wants a piece of race history can make an offer.
Last month's news mentioned a visit from some famous musicians, one of whom was fascinated with a Bethel dumpster which had been painted to convey birth control information. Neighbor woman and former part time ALO employee Katie Basile always had a good sense of humor, so she sent a follow-up photo from the same dumpster. Katie was overdue at the time, but has since welcomed young Henry to her family. A possible caption for the photo would be, "Now you tell me". Katie was the only girl in a neighborhood of many boys when Andy was a kid. She held her own with the boys, and went on to win the state small school cross country championship the same year Kikkan Randall of recent Olympic fame won the large school meet. Sadly the picture of them together can't be located. But Katie's real claim to fame should put her in the Guinness Book of Records. Katie attended the Bethel Prom four times during her high school years, each time with a different boy from her neighborhood group of buddies. That is a record that others can probably match. But none can claim that all four prom dates later appeared at her wedding, and to top it off, none of them was the groom. At the reception one neighborhood elder wanted to discuss that and other pertinent subjects at the microphone, but cautious family members intervened.
Despite all the race activity during February, one case settled. It involved a car crash on the Kuskowkim river where an ALO client was injured when the car in which she was a passenger went out of control and left the ice road. This year's ice road finally was plowed far upriver after record warm weather kept the river from freezing properly. This might explain it.
This short video about elder Native folks is a preview of a longer show airing this month in Anchorage. The gray haired gentleman with a plaid shirt is Henry Deacon from the Athabascan Indian village of Grayling. ALO has represented his family for over 40 years, and one Iditarod memory sticks out. Henry and his wife Dolly took pity on a bumbling white guy running his first Iditarod in 1979 and invited him in for the night upon reaching Grayling. Moose roast was on the menu, a warm bed awaited, and there was a nice visit after dinner. They even invited a beloved lead dog inside for the night. This was after 10 days on the trail, sleeping on a dog sled for a couple of hours now and then wrapped in a moldy canvas tarp, with temps to 30 below. A few hours later a giant breakfast was prepared and a refreshed racer hit the cold trail up the Yukon for Nome which was still hundreds of miles away with a pack of smoked salmon to munch on. Henry and Dolly always represented the best of the Athabascan Indian way of life.
Finally, this quote from a conservative Republican from Minnesota who served on the US Supreme Court for many years. The gun issue is a hot one, and it is an unusual one. A vast majority of Americans wants action taken to regulate guns more carefully, but the well funded gun lobby has prevented that from happening. It is just a matter of time before the numbers become overwhelming, and even the gun lobby won't be able to stop reform. A wiser course would be gradual compromise, but the gun lobby has had complete control of the issue for so long they think can't possibly lose out so they refuse to compromise. The scary part is there are gun freaks who won't take kindly to losing their clout, and some are crazy enough to respond with violence when it happens.