KEN ANDERSON’S 2009 IDITAROD JOURNAL TELLS IT LIKE IT IS

Fairbanks dog driver Ken Anderson pulls no punches when it comes to telling his Iditarod story. That is to say, he writes an honest account and isn’t necessarily sharing his plight to make any friends or boost any egos but rather gives his readers—dog musher or not—a brief yet detailed glimpse into the good, the bad and the ugly of Iditarod 37.His 2009 Iditarod Journal, now available on his website, windycreekkennel.com is a run-by-run, checkpoint-by-checkpoint recount of this year’s events according to Anderson. Sure, a lot of mushers who finish the race write about their Iditarod, but Anderson’s is different. It’s real. Not sugar-coated to please the masses. And it’s especially a good read for those wannabe mushers who are contemplating the 1,049-mile race to Nome.Since 1999, Anderson, a father of one-year-old twins, has been running Iditarod with his best finish in 2008 when he was fourth. Like every year since his rookie run, Anderson has been a contender and a shoe-in for a top 20 spot. This year however, Anderson had just two veteran dogs on his 16-dog string and with a team full of young, Iditarod rookies, his race was full of pleasantly surprising moments along with many frustrating ones.The journal is also a glimpse into Anderson’s thought-process before, during and after the race. He thinks and rethinks his decisions, even though he and his wife, Iditarod veteran Gwen Holdmann, toil over schedules and scenarios for weeks before the race. He also holds onto seemingly benign comments made by others and, of course, he frets over his team’s performance. This allows the readers to see what it’s really like out there when sleep deprivation takes over, the weather kicks up and the daily grind of the race sets in.Though his team had many hundreds of miles on them before Iditarod, Anderson, who had a stellar mid-distance season before his 1,000-mile journey, and his team started the race to Nome on a bit of a sour note. Anderson works hard all season to tweak his systems, whether it’s feeding, training or equipment, to get the best performance possible while keeping the dogs happy and healthy. In 2008-2009, he thought he found the perfect harness set-up—after trying three different options throughout the season—with short tugs attached higher up on the harness and no necklines. But, shortly before Iditarod, he noticed some dogs were getting rub on their necks. In the end, Anderson reluctantly went back to standard X-back harnesses with long tugs and necklines. The decision was the right one for the dogs’ health but did little to bolster their spirits like having the freedom of a no-neckline system did.The harness fiasco was just another glitch in the seemingly endless list of hurdles faced by Windy Creek Kennel. (We won’t even get into all the truck problems.) But as he always does, Anderson made it to the start line with a well-trained team and a mass of supporters and family to see him off.In his journal, Anderson is upfront about his outbursts and less-refined moments out on the trail as well as the small victories and great runs, even showing remorse after one such outburst early in the race with Kasilof dog driver Bruce Linton.Just after cresting Rainy Pass but before dropping down into the dreaded Dalzell Gorge, Anderson came upon Linton struggling to turn his team back onto the right trail after straying down a gulley. Anderson waited but couldn’t set a snowhook to secure his own team. Both mushers and dogs were teetering on a steep downhill. According to Anderson, Linton got his dogs on the right trail but couldn’t muster the strength to push his sled out of the steep gulley. As tension mounted, Anderson’s dogs were lunging and pulling to go and without much to hold the brake, Anderson’s dogs were getting closer to Linton’s team, which was strung across the trail.“The trail is soft with no base and we’re perched on this pitch where I know the dogs will only stay put a few seconds before dragging us right into Bruce’s team and causing a massive tangle that will be nearly impossible to fix without having proper snow to hold our snow hooks.  To make matters worse, I noticed several lights behind us that will only compound the mess if we get tangled here,” recounts Anderson in his journal.Finally, as the situation becomes more dire, Anderson snaps at Linton, who snaps right back. After several frustrating moments and some choice words, Anderson is able to pass by and makes it through the whole mess unscathed.It’s those small, seemingly minute details during the race that make Anderson’s account personal and interesting.Of course, his journal has the bigger, scarier stories, too. Much later on in the race, Anderson was caught in the same coastal storm that was ramped up in the media as the big hurdle of 2009. That blasting wind and unforgiving cold forced several teams out of the race and worse.Anderson waited out what he thought was the worst of wintery blast in Shaktoolik with many other front-runners before crossing the sea ice of Norton Sound to the village of Koyuk. But once the team hit the ice, the gale-force winds hit the team from the side and Anderson was forced to struggle onward. He would stop frequently to wipe snow and ice out of the dogs’ eyes and make sure the entire brood was OK. His young leaders put their heads down and got him through the blizzard.Over the years, Anderson has honed his skills as a competitive dog driver, but also as a writer. He carries a mini-recorder on the trail to document his experiences and thoughts throughout the race. And despite a few typos and grammatical inconsistencies, the journal is a well-written, open account of his race. It shows that even the top-contenders have issues and would serve well as a guide for rookies and veterans alike.Anderson finished 14th in 2009 in 11 days, one hour and 34 minutes. And though as a highly competitive person, he wanted a better placing, it was a learning experience for him and his young team.“This year’s race was definitely one for the record books.  We experienced a lot of firsts: first time I’ve ever run so many young dogs, first time I’ve been so aggressive at the start, first time I’ve had a team lose steam on the coast, first major coastal blizzard, and first time racing as a new father. It was a year full of learning experiences and I look forward to applying these lessons to future years. In many ways I would like to just forget about this year and move on to the next but I still want to find the silver lining in the agony of this year’s race.  Of course, it’s always a challenge to pinpoint exactly what went wrong and why, but I know there are a few things I would do differently in the future,” Anderson writes in the epilogue.Training for the 2009/2010 season is well underway for Anderson and the Windy Creek Kennel gang with a new scheduling method being put to the test. Check out their progress at windycreekkennel.com. Jillian Rogers is a writer and musher living outside Homer, Alaska. She owns Spitfire Kennels and is training for the 2011 Iditarod.

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