An Iditarod checkpoint offers a warm welcome

[by Natalie Baumgartner]

IN 1974, MCGRATH RESIDENT BABE ANDERSON WAS THE FIRST MUSHER FROM THE AREA TO ENTER THE IDITAROD TRAIL SLED DOG RACE. Over the years, 16 others from McGrath and surrounding villages followed in his footsteps. Notable competitors include second-place  Finisher Eep Anderson and third-place finisher Ernie Baumgartner, as well as many others placing in the top 10.

During the Iditarod’s early years, most everyone in town participated in some way. Local families hosted racers and their teams as they arrived in McGrath, 311 miles into the race, where the hospitality and strategic location along the trail made the stop a favorite for many to take their mandatory 24-hour layover.

Local competitors helped fuel the excitement and community support in the early years, and normal day-to-day activity halted. Everyone in town attended large fundraisers for racers. Non-stop entertainment while the teams were in town kept revelers awake till long after midnight. Many racers slept hunched over the bar or curled up under a pool table, and a few missed their early departure due to the festivities.

After some years, the Iditarod Trail Committee changed the rules and racers and their teams could no longer accept hospitality in village homes. Instead, rest areas were designated near the checkpoints.

Annual preparation has grown considerably, to include the “Iditarod Air Force,” volunteer pilots who arrive early to haul supplies from hub locations on the trail such as McGrath to each checkpoint for the teams.  The Iditarod Trail Cafe in downtown McGrath opens its doors as a communications center between the pilots and the all-volunteer ground crew.  The restaurant is close to the airport and convenient to lodging.

As the race start date nears, local checkpoint volunteers gather at the Cap’n Snow Center, the city of McGrath’s multi-use building, to organize and prepare for a hectic week. Stalwart residents and visitors work exhausting hours in bone-chilling cold to prepare the checkpoint and make spaces available for logistical and communications volunteers as well as race veterinarians and others. TV reporters and crews also assemble.

Outside, city staff establishes dog yards in cleared areas where teams can bed down on fresh straw. General Communication Inc. maintains Internet and phone equipment that has been donated for the race. Residents build two snow ramps on either side of the frozen river, and the ramps serve as the trail to the roads leading in and out of the checkpoint.

“Many racers slept hunched over the bar or curled up under a pool table, and missed their early”

The checkpoint area is also a quiet location with the amenities of the community washateria, public showers and restrooms, a payphone that still works and a peaceful, dark room in which racers can sleep.

Upstairs, the City Council Assembly room becomes a 24/7 buffet with meals, snacks and dining areas available for racers and volunteers alike. Many volunteers return year after year to rub elbows with racers, reporters, veterinarians, tourists, officials, school students, pilots and dogs. Projected onto the wall, the GPS tracker website allows everyone an easy glance at the location of “their” team.

Die-hard fans track the nearest team online, and many supporters arrive early at the checkpoint in anticipation of greeting teams as they slide in.

When a headlight approaches on the river; everyone rushes outside. Family and fans gather, cameras at the ready to capture the arriving teams and watch as the mushers complete formalities with race officials.

Once checked in, racers, officials and volunteers duck inside to the aromas of delicious food wafting through the building. Racers eat, relax and visit fans and long-time friends, often conveying veiled and blatantly false indications of their race strategies. It’s all part of the game. Iditarod fans sit close and listen, sometimes participating in the lively conversations.

On occasion, school closes during the first few days of the race, and many students hang out at the checkpoint, watching the race and enjoying the accolades they receive when visitors view their Iditarod-inspired artwork on display in prominent places. Some years, students hold fundraising food stands, providing hot food and beverages for all those who aren’t directly involved in the race and aren’t able to take advantage of the dining-room fare.

Today’s fast, competitive Iditarod no longer resembles its early years, yet the excitement persists. No longer do the leaders take two to three weeks to reach Nome. These days, the top racers reach the finish line in little more than a week. Technology has changed how teams prepare and travel, and how fans follow their favorite mushers.

Last year’s race had to be rerouted much farther north along the Yukon River due to minimal snowfall in the Alaska Range, skipping McGrath and other standard checkpoints altogether. For a community dependent upon Iditarod fans, the change stung. Hotel owner Jen Baumgartner said, “After the last-minute rerouting of the 2015 Iditarod, we had to take a hard look at the expectations we have for our business, Hotel McGrath, which has enjoyed a big boost in revenue during the Iditarod since it’s opening in 1999.” Still, McGrath residents are keeping their fingers crossed for good trail conditions this March.

With winter upon us now, the air and snow glisten in an unspoken promise that the race is not far off, a great relief to those living on the historical trail whose blood flows the very DNA of the Iditarod.

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