“On my way to go play with dogs.”
That was Sherrill Miller’s Facebook status as she headed to Alaska on Feb. 28.
“Play” might not be the word most people would use to describe being in the fray of 1,000 hyper, howling huskies.
Miller checked doggy IDs and ran with dog teams through the snowy streets of Willow for the March 3 official start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
“It’s like herding cats,” Miller said. “The noise level is so high you could bottle it.”
The ruckus went on for several hours as 66 mushers, each pulled by about 16 dogs, embarked on the 1,049-mile trek to Nome for the race that commemorates the role of dogs in the settlement of Alaska.
Volunteering as an Iditarod dog handler is an annual rite for the Mukilteo woman, who usually goes with her daughter, Kellie Simon, 25. This year, Simon, an EMT firefighter in Arlington and full-time nursing student, was too busy to play with the dogs.
The Iditarod fever started with Simon’s fourth-grade history project in teacher Rebecca Hovik’s class at Serene Lake Elementary.
“We picked two mushers out of a hat,” Simon said. “You got a prize if your musher came in first, and you got a prize if your musher came in last. My mushers came in first and last. I kept following it. I was totally fascinated. I have newspaper clippings from fourth grade to today.”
The mushers were her rock stars. Her mom got starstruck as well.
“It became an obsession,” said Miller, who covers Alaska as a Premera Blue Cross senior account manager. “It became a contest of knowledge.”
For Simon’s 16th birthday, Miller surprised her daughter with a trip to Anchorage for the ceremonial start the day before the competitive race in Willow.
They went as spectators and nearly froze their tushes off. That didn’t deter them.
“Best birthday ever,” Simon said.
“What better mother-daughter trip,” said Miller, who also has two sons.
It became an annual tradition to volunteer. One year, Grandma came from Texas to meet up with them. In 2009, Simon was in firefighter school, so Miller’s younger son, Joel, then 13, went in her place.
He had fun, but it wasn’t his thing. “It was cold,” said Joel, now 17. “And it smelled bad.”
Another year, at the hotel in Anchorage the duo bumped into Hovik, the teacher who started it all. “She was there for a teacher education thing,” Simon said. “We introduced her to the mushers. We knew the cool people.”
Their goal, maybe next year, is to get to Nome to see the finish. The first musher to reach Nome wins $50,400 and a 2013 Dodge Ram pickup truck. The last one gets a red lantern.
The Iditarod uses volunteers for many posts. To do what Miller and Simon do, you must love dogs and be able to run fast, sideways and fearlessly.
Jan Steves of Edmonds got her Iditarod start as a volunteer and is now a musher in her second year of racing. This is her second year racing and blogging. To follow Steves: livingmydream2.blogspot.com/.
Will this mother-daughter team move on to mushing?
Miller is content with being pulled around the block by her two portly English bulldogs.
As for Simon, she’s game. “I would do it in a heartbeat,” she said.
Andrea Brown; 425-339-3443; email@example.com
The first Iditarod race was in 1973.
Teams average 16 dogs, which means more than 1,000 dogs leave Anchorage for Nome.
The course is about 1,150 miles.
The closest finish was in 1978 when Dick Mackey finished one second ahead of Rick Swenson. Mackey’s time was 14 days, 18 hours, 52 minutes and 24 seconds. The winner was decided by the nose of the lead dog across the finish line.
The largest number of mushers to finish a single race was 77 in 2004.
Every musher’s arrival is heralded by the city’s fire siren and greeted by a crowd lining the chute, no matter the time of day or night, or if he or she is first or last across the line.
A red lantern is awarded to the last musher to finish Iditarod. The longest time for the last musher to come in is 32 days, 15 hours, 9 minutes and 1 second by John Schultz in 1973.
More dogs start out than end. Dogs left by mushers at a checkpoint go to a correctional institute where a group of inmates care for them until the handlers take them home.