Alaska Cultural Connections: Idita-Culture

For the next several weeks, APRN will be airing a series that looks at how Alaskans describe what makes their way of life unique. Whether you live in a village or a city, everyone has a culture and we’re going to bring you stories of how both urban and rural Alaskans define and live theirs.

Today, Iditarod leaders are closing in on Elim on their way to the finish line in Nome. Nine days ago, just after leaving downtown Anchorage, they turned onto the Chester Creek trail and passed by one “trail party” after another.  Along this stretch, as along much of the trail to Nome, the Iditarod means community.  As Jessica Cochran tells us, the race is part of our culture – one of the ways we identify ourselves as Alaskans.

The organizers of Trailgate 2013 were out early the morning the Iditarod started: putting up flagging along the trail, stomping down snow and carving an “ice bar” for their festive party.  There is a sound system with music, beer and bloody mary’s and hot dogs.  But Emily Fahrenbacher says the main point of the whole event is community.

“Our whole group of friends is very committed, we’re all involved in various things in Anchorage and we really just want to keep it building community, and there are so many people who have come who believe in the same things we do, Alaska, having fun, and so I thinks that’s what it’s really all about, making sure there are events like this for people to plug into,” Fahrenbacher said.

It’s the 4th year of Trailgate, the first in this location, complete with city permits.  It’s a little much for some of the old-timers who have come here to watch the Iditarod start for decades, like Patricia Greenland and Keith Cooper.

“We haven’t missed it since probably 79 or 80,” Greenland said.

Greenland and Cooper cheer on each musher by name, their newspaper listing of the starting order in hand. Kids line the trail, hands out to high five the passing mushers, scurrying after dog booties or candy. Neighbors see each other for perhaps the only time all year:

“It used to be isolated, not that many people knew about it, and now there are all kinds of people here and parties,” Greenland said.

Cooper says the race creates a “unifying” feeling among the whole community – not just Anchorage, but much of Alaska. Mark Wedekind agrees.

“The Iditarod is unique to Alaska, and I think a lot of people appreciate that and that’s why a lot of people are out here,” Wedekind said.

Of course there are lots of events unique to Alaska; for some it may be Fur Rondy, or the Gold Medal basketball tournament in Southeast that helps define being an Alaskan. But, the Iditarod gets the most attention from Outside Alaska; it shines a spotlight on places that aren’t usually in the spotlight.

Like White Mountain, where mushers have to take a mandatory eight hour layover near the end of the race. Mayor Daniel Harrelson says the Iditarod gives big city Alaskans insight into life in the villages:

“When they’re traveling from village to village there’s excitement all along the trail. I think it gives a lot of folks in Anchorage and Fairbanks and even Outside Alaska, it gives people a peak at what rural Alaska is like,” he said.

Harrelson says the Iditarod is a busy time for a village that is usually very quiet. Crystal Holmberg is the city clerk in McGrath, one of the earlier checkpoints. She agrees it’s a hectic week. But she says it’s fun too, especially for the kids in town:

“Oh my gosh, they love it. They’re always out there getting autographs and their spring break is around this time so they’re off of school for the Iditarod, so they get to really be a part of it, they come down to the checkpoint and do some things around here and get to talk to the mushers. So they really get a kick out of it,” Holmberg said.

Kate Persons watched the start back in Anchorage; she did the race four times in the early 1990’s, and she feels that as the race has gotten bigger – it’s a lost a little something:

“The first year I ran it was the last year that mushers were allowed to stay with families along the trail, and I’m so glad that I has a chance to see that and just see the enthusiasm that there was for the race along the trail, and I felt that in the years after that, it was less so,” Persons said.

And yeah, it’s possible to exaggerate the importance of the Iditarod to the people who watch it each year. Seven year old  Marley Ireland’s family hosts a brunch for neighbors and friends, then heads out to watch the race.

“I like to eat the meat because I’m a meat lover,” Marley said when asked about her favorite part of the day.

Still, she has a collection of dog booties somewhere in her room and chances are, years in the future, she’ll remember that it was the Iditarod that brought her out here.

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