Alaskans have hearts of gold. And sometimes they have handbags made out of an entire wolverine. You never know what you're gonna see along the mighty Yukon River. Surprises in every corner of the state.
It’s no secret I’m obsessed with the Iditarod. Many of my Alaskan friends ask me “Why?” I ask, “Why not?”
To me, the Iditarod is the epitome of the best of Alaska: challenging, inspiring, and epic. It’s an annual event full of historical significance, remarkable legacy, and deep tradition – all of which tests the limits of man and the strength and endurance of man’s best friend.
The Iditarod is also the Alaska State Sport and one of the most competitive events on Earth. Did you know more people have summited Mount Everest than finished the Iditarod? Yes, it's really that tough.
This year’s race is one for the books. For the second time in the race’s 43-year history, the start location was changed to Fairbanks some 225 miles north, due to lack of snow. This switch-a-roo is a game-changer for most competitors, but in some cases, it'll be a deal-breaker.
There are 78 mushers in this year’s race, including a handful of former champions and a slew of rookies. Despite the uncharacteristically warm weather, the Ceremonial Start fortunately remained in Anchorage, and I was able to fly up from Juneau to take part in the festivities. I had a blast seeing old friends, interacting with inspirational mushers, and listening to the cacophony of sleddogs eager to get the show on the road.
My next few blogs will be Iditarod-themed, and I plan on featuring some of this year’s mushers – a few of my faves and a few “ones to watch.” But for today, I'll highlight the Ceremonial Start and the real stars of the Iditarod – the dogs!
Over 500 loads of snow were trucked in to downtown Anchorage to prepare for the Ceremonial Start of the 2015 Iditarod and the Running of the Reindeer – two long-awaited and eagerly anticipated events of Fur Rendezvous, the largest winter festival in North America. It's uncommon for Anchorage to have a drought of snow in the winter months, but these past few months have proven especially difficult for dog mushers and other winter athletes who usually revel in the winter climate this time of year. Regardless, from February 27 to March 8, thousands of Alaskans and visitors from around the world converged on downtown Anchorage for a sight to behold: eager and energetic sled dogs, Alaskan celebrity sightings, and more fur hats than you can count.
I spontaneously flew on a mileage ticket to Anchorage for this year's festivities. March 7 was an unseasonably warm March day with no snow despite earlier weather reports of 6+ inches of new snow accumulation. Bright and warm sun rays came out during the Iditarod Ceremonial Start, and the scent of reindeer sausage wafted all around. Super friendly folks and loud laughter was around every corner, and there was a real spirit in the air - the spirit of the best of Alaska.
I registered for the infamous Running of the Reindeer, which is sort of a play on Spain’s Running of the Bulls, but less intense or fatal. Then I donned the same St. Pauli's Girl dress I wore to welcome my friend, James Volek, across Nome's Iditarod finish line in 2013. This year's running event brought back bittersweet memories. The last time I ran with reindeer in 2012, I was about 60 pounds heavier and had zero cardiovascular endurance. This year? I literally ran with reindeer and was toward the front of the pack in the "Gals Herd." Once finished, I then got such a runner's high (first time ever, by the way) that I snuck into the "Groups Herd" and ran a second time! Addictive, I tell ya.
Mucho thanks to my friends, Cyndi and Michael, for rolling out the red carpet and being such terrific hosts. You know it’s been an epic weekend when friends in Bama say they've spotted you on the local FOX News channel.
"Running of the Reindeer" photos below courtesy of Michael Oliver. Thanks for capturing the moment, Michael!
I guess you could say it all began with cat whiskers. Kitties shed their whiskers naturally, and every once in awhile, I'll find one of Sonny Bunny's big long white whiskers on the floor. I've started a little collection over the years, and I jokingly refer to them as Sonny Bunny's little "gifts" he leaves for me, since he's now an indoor-only cat and can no longer bring me gifts of squirrels and finches. (He's yet to bring home an eagle, despite his size.)
I digress. This past summer when my dear sweet Momma was visiting, she noticed a small vase of whiskers. Of course she thought I was weird when I told her what they were. But then the tables turned and I thought she was the incredibly weird one when she asked me to give her a few. I must have had a funny look on my face as I handed them over because she said, "Don't ask why I want them. I have a reason."
Flash forward to Christmas 2014. I'm in Alabama, sitting on my Momma's couch as we're opening presents. She gave me a dainty little box with strict instructions to "open it carefully." I didn't know what to expect. And I certainly had forgotten all about those cat whiskers!
It turns out that Mom commissioned a small company in California, Backstitch Chicks, to make a replica of Sonny Bunny. Artist Sharon Constant created a perfect replica of my bobtail tuxedo cat, and her attention to detail blew my mind. Not only did she add his real whiskers, but she positioned Sonny Bunny on an exact replica of my outlandish vintage carpet. The fact that she included his round blue scratching pad, catnip mouse, and peacock feather (his fave toy) were all special details that made this present one of the best gifts ever.
Another keepsake from the package was this personalized note:
"Your Sonny Bunny soft sculpture was created in collaboration with your Mom. She supplied photos, anecdotes, descriptions, and some of Sonny Bunny's actual whiskers. Sonny Bunny is needle felted - a technique of manipulating wool, silk, and alpaca roving into 3D objects. Different colors and textures of roving are stabbed thousands of times to create separate shapes. The more shapes are "needled," the denser they become. As the shapes are worked up, they are needled together and fine-tuned into a completed portrait of your beloved pet."
I'm a big believer that the best gifts come from the heart. They don't have to be spendy or lavish. Sometimes, it's truly the thought that counts. And gifts with such thought and care behind them become keepsakes that warm the heart and make a lasting impression. As for this gift, I will cherish it for a lifetime. Thanks, Mom.
To order your own pet protrait needleart, contact BackstitchChick [at] gmail [dot] com.