Today we explored the country north of Anchorage. Instead of the freeway Spirit houses at Eklutna (Glenn Highway) we followed Old Glenn Highway, which got more interesting the further we went. By the way, it's interesting that Alaskans don't speak of their roads by numbers, but by names. We've been on State Routes 1, 2, and 3, but people think of the Richardson Highway, the Glenn Highway, the Tok Cutoff, the George Parks Highway, and so on.
Just in the last two sunny days the hills have turned a fresh yellow green as all the trees are leafed out. We passed through the suburb of Eagle River, with attractive homes on the hillside; then we drove down Monastery Road past a new orthodox Antiochean church of St. John. There's a school next to the church, and the kids were all outside, playing and eating pizza and drinking pink lemonade.
Eklutna is the oldest still-inhabited Athabascan village in the Anchorage area. A weatherbeaten Russian Orthodox church is being restored. It dominates the graveyard which contains "spirit houses", brightly colored wooden buildings over the graves. We found this interesting as it revealed the early Russian influence on Alaskan people before it was purchased by the U.S. Farmstead half buried
The Old Glenn Highway runs up the Knik River, past fishing camps and boatyards, and then towards Bodenburg Butte, which rises steeply up from an area of alluvial farmland. This was the site of the original Matanuska farming colony established during the depression. We took the circle route through the farming area, where we found an old half-buried homestead, as well as many modern farms and exurbanite homes and -- a reindeer farm!
We passed (but didn't photograph) an Alaska home with a giant second-story glass conservatory; inside were dozens of palms and palmettos! We did photograph a more bizarre Personal Vision, the home of a jack-of-all-trades who had a pretty good collection of schoolbuses and hearses, not to mention the motorcycle and bicycle on the roof, the creche, the statue of the fisherman in his canoe, etc.
Palmer and Wasilla, with modern shopping malls and subdivisions, appear to be Anchorage suburbs rather than country towns; the freeway commute is about 45 minutes. After driving hundreds of miles from Haines to Tok to Valdez and Reindeer ranch then to Anchorage, with just a few isolated communities and frontier homes, this part of Alaska is a striking contrast. It's as if there are two Alaskas: Anchorage and vicinity, and the rest of the state!
We headed down a back road in the direction of Knik, where we suddenly found ourselves in front of the Iditarod Dogsled Race Headquarters. Inside we were treated to a video describing the "Last Great Race." Dog sledding had basically come to a halt with the advent of the bush pilots and the snow machine. But some devotees rekindled interest in dog sledding and the Iditarod race was born. Dog sleds had a good reputation in Alaska, because in 1925 they saved the population of Nome by rushing diptheria serum across the tundra from Fairbanks.
After a couple of shorter dog sled competitions in the 1960s, the idea was conceived of a race along the Iditarod trail, a historic path all the way from Seward to Nome. (Iditarod was the last of the gold rush towns; gold was discovered in 1909, but panned out by 1912. Like all gold rush towns, it was for a brief moment a dazzling place, with fine china, music, operas, outfitters stores, and plenty of saloons.) The winner took 20 days to finish the first race in 1973, but the times are now down to 9 days, due to training and selective breeding (the sled dogs are not purebred Siberian Huskies.) A dog who becomes weak is airlifted home while the musher continues the race with a reduced team. Teams may be no more than 16 dogs to start, and must be at least Personal artistic vision 5 dogs to finish.
There are numerous checkpoints along the way, where the mushers cache food (yes, dog salmon) and booties (typically more than 1000 fabric booties are cached to protect the dogs' feet from ice which can build up between the toes.) Veterinarians check the dogs before the race and at each checkpoint; as befits a modern sporting event, random drug checks must be made.
The Race now has a $2M budget and operates this headquarters year round; the center is lined with newspaper clippings, photos, and race trophies, with a well-stocked gift shop. Several famous sled dogs have been stuffed and mounted in display cases. Visitors may see the official start in Anchorage, the restart here in Wasilla (the dogs can't run down the freeway, too bad), the first checkpoint in Knik, fly to Nome to watch the dogs finish over the course of a week, or else have a bush pilot fly them to an interior checkpoint in the Alaska winter to watch the teams pass through.
After we left we talked about what seems to happen to modern sporting events. They often start out with the ideas of pure enjoyment and popularization of the sport in mind, but end up with all the attention paid to winning (think of the Olympics). It looks as if Iditarod is going this way, too. The breeding of faster sled dogs with more endurance reminded us of the Iditarod Race Headquarters breeding of thoroughbreds or greyhounds. Too bad we can't find a way to just enjoy sport for the pleasure of participation.
We've been hearing stories about Talkeetna, a bush town two hours north of Anchorage. It's a tourist town, where you can pan gold dust and go flightseeing around Mount McKinley, and so on. Well, the locals got up an idea for a festival to draw more tourists. It would be a Moose Dropping Festival, with folks going out in the woods looking for spoor (diligent readers will recall we saw our first moose droppings which we mistook for bear droppings in Ronning Garden out in the back country of North Vancouver Island.) To make a long story short, the representative of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) appeared on the scene and started to protest the intended hoisting of moose up in the air some distance and dropping them to earth. We guess the PETA folks are too involved with cat dropping and beagle ear-lifting to understand the logistics of lifting a moose! Needless to say the red-faced rep turned tail and beat a hasty retreat out of town!