ANCHORAGE’S FUR RONDY CELEBRATES 75TH ANNIVERSARY YEAR

“The Rondy World Championship Sled Dog Race is the cornerstone and unique identifying event of the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous. Where else in the world do they close down major streets downtown, cover them with snow, and run a sled dog race for three days?” says Susan Duck, Rondy’s executive director. “Add in the challenges of urban and trail mushing, as well as the intense physical challenge to both driver and dog over three days and you’ve got one hell of an exciting event!”Even without dog races, the Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage is an exciting event. People from all over Alaska and even the “Outside” are out and about enjoying and partaking in a variety of activities. There are fur auctions, bingo, carnival rides, blanket toss and even auto races, an ol’ fashioned melodrama, parties and fancy balls, plus snowshoe softball, and outhouse races, not to mention the more recent “Run With the Reindeer” on 4th Avenue. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s little doubt, however, that the Fur Rondy sled dog race is the centerpiece of the festival. The sound of the dogs tells you. The buildings that line Anchorage’s 4th Avenue seem to form a sort of echo chamber at times and the sounds of barking dogs resonates downtown as the excitement begins to build. While the Fur Rondy goes on, race or not, there’s a special magic to the event when the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship sled dog race is on. Known to most as the Fur Rondy, the race has been a part of Anchorage’s celebration since 1946. “The World Championship Sled Dog Race debuted in 1946 and has become the cornerstone event of the Festival,” says the Fur Rondy website, “bringing teams of sled dogs and mushers to Anchorage from across Alaska and all over the world. The World Championship Dog Weight Pull began in 1967 as a bet between two dog owners to see whose animal could pull the most weight. Four decades later, dog owners are still competing against each other for the cash, notoriety and the illustrious World Champion title for the event.”When the Fur Rondy and the race were created, there was little else going on in the state to compete with it for entertainment value. “Back in those days,” remembers Gail Somerville, a long time race fan, Anchorage resident/teacher, and Iditarod volunteer, “the races were a really big deal, and the names of the mushers were household names – George Attla, Doc Lombard, Carl Huntington – and the enthusiasm for the races was high.  It was, without a doubt, the premier event of Fur Rondy.”The old days of the Fur Rondy hold fond memories for Bill Waddell, too. “Everything was televised,” he remembers, “and radio stations beamed it out to the bush. Schools were closed and the whole town turned out.” That’s the spirit that Duck and race organizers would like to recapture. “We wanted to build on the strengths of Rondy, the unique and traditional events that celebrate life in Alaska, and the World Championship Sled Dog Races are the best example we have of that,” she says. “In the past, this race was the main event during Rondy and I firmly believed it could be again.  To start that elevation process, we acknowledged that ‘The Rondy’ is the cornerstone event of the festival and marketed it as such. Also, it is the World Championship of open class sprint racing – that alone is huge!  We have held the World Championship trademark for over 50 years and we needed to treat the race with the reverence it deserves as being the toughest sprint race on earth with the most unique set of challenges to both dog and driver.”Like many, Waddell soon found himself a part of the action. “I was conned into helping out one year by Dick Tozier,” he chuckles, “and it’s been all downhill since then.” Since then, Waddell has served as Race Marshal, trail boss and helped provide snow machine support. He’s become part of the mushing family, one that doesn’t stop at the borders of being only involved in one aspect of it and can be seen at many mushing events today manning a huge black-and-yellow stripped plow dubbed “Tigger.” Like many, he’s never looked back, looking only to the future.Like the sport of mushing, the Fur Rondy Race has changed and evolved. In its earliest days, remembers Somerville, “the race was not coed.  The women’s race was run the first weekend out at Tudor (Tozier) Track and the men’s race was held on the last weekend of Rondy. Unlike the women’s heats, it started downtown on 4th Avenue.  It was a busy, bustling place to watch the races from, and it was always exciting if two teams were coming in close together.”Dixie Waddell, Bill’s wife, can attest to how exciting close finishes can be. When the Alaska Sled Dog Racing Association (ASDRA) needed a timer in 1983, Dixie was asked to step in to help. She worked a variety of races, not just the Rondy, just as is the case with many volunteers. For races often decided by seconds, which many sprint events are, having an experienced timing crew is of the essence.It’s even more important when several teams come in at the same time. Waddell remembers having all the teams involved in one early race come in to finish line practically together. “Two teams crossed so close to the time shack that it was difficult to separate the numbers. We needed the bib numbers immediately. That can be scary.” “Preparing for the Rondy race is quite intense, there are many obstacles to overcome such as ski trails, loose dog parks, and swamps, but the big one is getting down 4th Avenue to Cordova Street, then to the ski trails. Every year there are new challenges, that is what makes it a World class race,” says Bill Waddell. “I remember way back when Earl Norris or Orvil Lake would groom the trails with a dog team and a pallet, now we use track rigs with heaters. Times have changed.”If things go right, of course, the fans never notice this behind-the-scenes drama. They line the streets. Some opt for spots near the start-finish while others stretch out down the streets across town to grab a glimpse of the racers going past. Some even combine a bit of cross-country skiing with race watching, spotting teams dashing through Anchorage’s parks along the route. Ask most fans where the best race-viewing spot is, however, and you’re likely to get the same answer from many: Cordova Hill. Teams charge down 4th Avenue from the starting line at 4th and D, making a sharp gee toward Cordova Hill, which is where many fans congregate to watch the action. “I always thought the best place to watch the race was near the bottom of Cordova Hill,” says Gail Somerville. “The dogs came roaring over the top of the hill and would tear down the street as if they were being chased by a hive of angry bees – just like today. If I am remembering correctly, and I feel certain I am, there was a slight turn at the bottom of the hill where the teams headed off into the frozen swamp area.”“There was no Sullivan Arena or ball fields then,’ she remembers. “That little turn was one of the most thrilling parts of the trail as sleds would sometimes slide into the fencing there at the curve.  As I remember, the dogs had the width of the street, but then it narrowed down to a slightly curved chute at the bottom of the hill as they crossed to the other side of the road. It was always very exciting, and the dog races were an even bigger deal than they are now.”The sight of a team cresting the hill, then seeming to plunge downward in an almost wild, uncontrolled run is the thing of many Rondy memories. It’s rare that the Anchorage Daily News doesn’t publish at least one photo of mushers running, pushing their sleds, attempting to help their tired teams up the hill during the event.So, what runs through the mushers’ minds as they wait for their start? Their thrill ride down Cordova Hill? In some ways, I asked several, all of whom mentioned the rush, but think Ed Wood may have been most honest about his first Rondy start. “I was scared out of my mind!” admits Wood.When you consider the array of obstacles and distractions awaiting them on the trail, it’s no wonder. Joee Redington, the 1966 Fur Rondy Champion, even recalls a now long gone tree during one race that had several adventurous children hanging upside-down from a branch along the trail.Race organizers try to help mushers avoid surprises during the race as much as possible by providing them the time to do an inspection tour of the trail, usually by snow machine, the day before the first heat. What are they looking for? “Obstacles like bad corners, icy spots, overflow, things that could be hazardous,” says Wood. Redington added that some of the obstacles common today didn’t exist in the early days. They certainly had to deal with elements like moose, loose dogs and crowds, but in the early days there were no massive overpasses, pedestrian bridges, or tunnels that had to be navigated. As Anchorage grew more modern and expanded, the demands put on the teams and their drivers have increased. While mushers do what they can during training to simulate possible conditions that might be faced, not everything can be reproduced. For instance, Redington recalls one of the tunnels near the turn toward Cordova Hill being angled just so that it looks all black to the dogs as they approach and enter.Despite the best preparation then, there are always surprises. It is how the drivers deal with them that can be the difference between winning and being at the back of the pack. Not all can be avoided, either, adding the element of luck. Moose are a common problem. Ed Wood remembers turning a corner one year only to have a cow moose with a calf in tow run out of nowhere into the middle of his team and start stomping his dogs. Although Wood was eventually able to continue, he would later scratch. Asked to recall one of his scariest moments, Redington remembers one when the race was started on 3rd Avenue instead of 4th Avenue (he can’t recall why now). He somehow took a wrong turn onto 4th Avenue and winding up finding himself and his sixteen-dog team facing oncoming vehicle traffic. Bill Waddell remembers one of his scariest memories as a Race Marshall being when a call came in that a musher had lost his team. His sled had been smashed and his dogs were running loose in Anchorage. The musher needed his dog truck at the Tudor road crossing, and then a few minutes later at ASDRA’s club house, then, no, it was needed at Campbell Airstrip. All this before the time of cell phones. Everyone was eventually reunited and safe, but happenings such as these are what create the stories that make the Fur Rondy so memorable. So, what can you expect to see if you show up to watch the Fur Rondy Championship Sled Dog Race? “The World Championship Sled Dog Races are super exciting to watch!” says Susan Duck. “We will have 20+ mushers and their teams taking off every two minutes from 4th and D.  There are lots of good viewing spots along our trail, and the finish line (also at 4th & D) is always great because with our reverse start on Saturday and Sunday, there are multiple mushers on the avenue crossing very closely!” She adds that post-race is often a good time to approach for a chat. “I find that just after the race, many of the mushers are still pretty hyped up from their run and full of great stories of what happened on the trail, so that is also a great time to talk with them.”

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