Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tracking the Mushers, Then and Now~

In 1986 I worked at Iditarod Headquarters in Nome.  I was assigned a chair in front of a phone in a room lined with tables around the perimeter.  My job was to answer the phone and then try to respond to the person at the other end of the line.  Most of the questions were about where their favorite mushers were along the trail.  Occasionally people wanted to rent a room or ask if I knew someone, great-uncle....long lost friend, etc.,  that lived in Alaska.       People called from ALL over with many different accents!

In the '80's villages were just beginning to receive phones connecting them with the outside world.  The internet was unheard of, and villagers were more interested in getting running water and indoor plumbing than information at the push of a button.  If they did have a phone there was a delay between speakers making conversations challenging to both sides.    Every village had at least one radio and just about everyone knew how to use them.  They were very self-sufficient!

Updates along the trail were sent by ham radio to a phone contact and that information was relayed to us.  A large map was on the wall.  Round-headed pins moved along the route on the map and progress was noted as the teams moved on.     Scratches, the teams that choose to stop, were tracked in a list on the bottom right corner of the map.  Computers were crude by today's standards and their usefulness was limited at the headquarters.   Human voices were well-organized and the system worked pretty well, although it wasn't instantaneous information.        It was a really hoppin' room duing the race with a lot of coffee and energy consumed 'round the clock!

Fast forward to 2011 .....           most villages have reliable phones and many have the internet.  The rules were changed this year so that mushers could carry a personal gps for the first time.  There is a huge group volunteers;  snow machiners marking the trail, Iditarod planes, vets and hosts along the trail.  So far two mushers have scratched in 2011, although several more were beat up on some rough spots early on the trail.

A few years ago the Iditarod Committee decided to have mushers carry a tracker so that they could be followed on computers by everyone.  They thought it would make things more interesting and appealing to fans and better for the media and race committee.    They didn't think about it from the mushers point of view............  A lot of the race is strategy.  Team will pass in the dark with their head-lamps off so that a resting team won't know they have been passed.  Races have been lost when unsuspecting mushers have relaxed thinking they were ahead and had time to rest.  Mushers out-guessing other mushers is always a part of the race!

One musher, Martin Buser,  http://buserdog.com/ , didn't want to be tracked and have other mushers knew where he was as the race made its way to the coast.  At the checkpoint he gave his tracker to a pilot moving dogs!       It took a while for those tracking to figure out why that musher was moving in the pattern he was showing onscreen.  He didn't win, but it sure made some people smile  :o)

Here are some great Iditarod sites to follow the race:


Day 3: Buser leads pack into Nikolai


  1. I would sort to miss the old way with the map on the wall...are you helping with chopper rides this year?

  2. Yes, we start on Tuesday! Several are booked already.


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