Friday, March 15, 2019

Willow Winter Carnival is Alaskan Gold

Mt Foraker, Mt. Hunter, Mt. Denali on the approach to Willow during fall.
March 15, 2019

I look forward to winter all year long; it’s the time Alaskans discover our place in the universe.

This winter is my 57th consecutive Alaskan winter and yet I only this year discovered the Willow Winter Carnival.
An excellent midwinter event!
Two glorious weekends spent celebrating winter in a community one beautiful hour-long drive from Eagle River/Chugiak. Like many of us here, folks there only go to Anchorage when they have to. These are our neighbor Alaskans who live mostly in rugged natural bliss.
The community of Willow puts on this event to celebrate itself, and some old-timers I talked to have been part of it since the first Winter Carnival in the early 1960s.
The kick-off dinner was Friday, January 25, where a silent auction featured art from local craftspeople, selection of a Carnival King & Queen and a fantastic fireworks display. The place was packed with kids! I stayed that night at Alaska Host B&B owned by Jim and Kathleen Houston. They have been running it 25 years, and hospitality is a lifestyle for them. Jim was also the guy who drove his loader to the community center Saturday morning to clear snow for activities over two weekends, starting with the PTA Pancake Breakfast at the elementary school every carnival day.
It doesn’t take new Alaskans too long to find out winter survival requires some routine to stay ahead of natural environment challenges.
As a youth in Alaska, I remember cursing the cold and the short daylight days as my invincible peers and I dressed California Cool. Classes in mountaineering at Anchorage Community College taught me how to take preparation for outdoor endeavors seriously. By learning to dress adequately, to have safety equipment at hand around the home and in any vehicles, I was able to adapt to the climate as an Alaskan must.
Getting out into the country breaks the routine. An active winter is easily embellished by the lesser seasons of spring, summer, and fall. Reflecting on where you are at any given moment, under the Big Dipper and North Star, might also cause one to savor my favorite Robert Service poem (portions excerpted below):
The Spell of the Yukon
I wanted the gold and I sought it;
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy—I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it—
Came out with a fortune last fall,—
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.

No! There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
For no land on earth—and I’m one.
The drive!
Before you descend into Willow Valley, on a clear day you will get a breathtaking view of Alaska’s crown jewels: Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter and Mt. Denali. I stop every time at the pullout there to take one more photo of something I cannot get enough of—Alaska’s glorious landscape.
My father came to Alaska as an amateur photographer and left me thousands of now fading color slides of landscapes all over this state. He took those images during his travels working on the White Alice System. Whenever Dad cranked up the projector and showed them on a screen for visitors in our living room, they were boring to me.
Recently I removed most of them from the projector carousels for placement into protective sleeves. I recall whenever my father showed them to people Outside you might have thought they were watching fireworks from their spontaneous “oohs” and “ahs!” I now consider these photos are timeless.
You come to get rich (damned good reason);
You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kind of sinning;
It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
It seems it will be to the end.

I’ve stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow
That’s plumb-full of hush to the brim;
I’ve watched the big, husky sun wallow
In crimson and gold, and grow dim,
Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming,
And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop;
And I’ve thought that I surely was dreaming,
With the peace o’ the world piled on top.
Parents need a break from routine and kids need new stimulation in the middle of winter. School programs need funds, and everybody needs an opportunity to see how old and young alike are faring in the cabin fever doldrums after the Christmas holidays.
Activities were invigorating as hundreds of Alaskans participated in this state-sanctioned event. Willow Lake was a perfect venue for the Earl Norris Sled Dog Race, Frostbite 5k Run, Kids Sled Dog Races, and the Ladies 5 mile/5 dog Twilight Sled Dog Race. Bikes with fat tires, snowshoes and cross-country skis were in use everywhere. The last day, February 2, featured Vintage Snow Machines on display and in races including a snow machine poker run.
The first day’s Royal Flush Outhouse Race was comical.
Homesteader Games of skill over two days using axes, handsaws, and chainsaws drew crowds on the shores of the lake. The bowling ball return was made of highway guardrails, and MTA featured a Telephone Toss.
Activities were continuous inside the Willow Community Center. Vendors provided a variety of wares for sale, and the main stage focused attention on events ranging from square dance demonstrations, Teeland Middle School Jazz Band and the Pilot Bread Band. A no-hands Ice Cream eating contest capped the last day.
The winter! The brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum.
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ‘em good-by—but I can’t.

There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody recons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land—oh, it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back—and I will.

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.
I have heard enough people who have left Alaska and longed for the opportunity to return here. This poem sums up why I will never leave.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Iditarod Teaches Lessons in Georgia


March 7, 2019 (2019©

The mystique of Alaska’s annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race is worldwide, but one deep-south Outside venue celebrates it year-round in a particularly public manner.

In the Atlanta, Georgia suburb of Kennesaw, a large community park celebrates dog mushing, the intrepid souls who race in the Iditarod, greatest race on earth, and one of their own residents who ran and finished it in 2002, Bill Borden. In fact, Borden is the first person from Georgia to finish the Iditarod.
“We had to learn everything from scratch before thinking about running the Iditarod,” explained Borden in a strip mall restaurant near the park. “The community of mushers and supporters is inviting to participants, but nobody can tell you everything you need to know to do it.”
This Kennesaw Iditarod dog park and interpretive walk are named after Borden’s lead dog, Fisher King. With Borden’s direction, his sled crossed under the burled arch in Nome after 1,151 miles of wilderness trail. Longtime landowners, the Swift-Cantrell family, would later contribute the land for this popular park. Each of seven education signs around the walkway features a vocabulary word at the top, with a themed content discussion of some aspect of character required by the Iditarod race.
Ultimately Borden finished 53rd on his rookie attempt.
Fewer than 50 percent of Iditarod racers finish the race on their first attempt: “I could have finished a little higher, but it was more of the experience. I spent the last night in a safety cabin with a musher who had completed the first Iditarod; he was very cold and frozen, so we built a fire, and I chose to stay and listen to wonderful stories by a Native Alaskan.” Instead of finishing in the dark, Borden was able to reach Nome by daylight so his wife could take memorable photos.
An Atlanta Realtor team, Borden and his wife Brenda, self-financed this venture through their company, High Caliber Realty, and turned other money contributed to their effort into Cool Dreams Foundation, a non-profit 501(c)3 corporation. The signs in this park are part of their educational outreach which interfaces with Iditarod lesson plans. In addition, Borden talks and shares his Iditarod experiences.
The trail markers are clear in their messages: “Bill and Brenda Borden first met Fisher King when he was the star of a sled dog kennel tour. Little did either know that in only a few years, the quintessential sled dog they met that day would lead Bill’s team to the finish line,” states one.
“You can see this sign is about guidance because it has the map,” Borden explained.
Another sign described the courage necessary for the Iditarod, and another talked about accomplishment: “Upon Fisher King’s retirement from racing his last Iditarod, he and his teammates continued to promote education and awareness of this northern sport in local schools and senior centers, spreading the word that through proper planning, perseverance, and faith in God anything is possible.”
“This is my favorite,” shared Borden as we approached another marker.
“Perseverance—When Fisher King led Kennesaw’s Bill Borden on their Cool Dreams running of The Last Great Race, the run was a culmination of three years of research, training, and preparation that became a test of faith full of excitement and danger. Breaking his gangline just over 200 miles into the race on the Happy River Steps was just one of many tests of Bill’s conviction during the 1,151 mile Iditarod.
After the accident on the steps, Bill was left alone in the remote Alaska wilderness with a broken rib, fractured kneecap, and only two dogs. Calling on his faith and determination, Bill did the only thing available to him; he said a prayer with each step he took, putting one foot in front of the other, making forward progress no matter how small the progress was it was still forward progress. To not have tried, to not have persevered, would have been giving up, and giving up would have been failure.
Bill excruciatingly traveled 12 miles of the trail with just his two wheel-dogs, Lookout and Stroke, to retrieve Fisher King and the rest of the team who had continued down the trail under Fisher’s leadership. It was an adventure full of events worthy of book, television and newspaper coverage, such as a broken sled not once but three times as well as Bill’s own broken bones, open water overflow, temperature extremes to 60 below zero and a coastal snowstorm.
Kennesaw’s Bill Borden persevered to finish the longest sled dog race in the world in just 14 days, 4 hours, 10 minutes and 14 seconds with 13 happy dogs. Bill attributes his success to his faith in God, a very supportive wife, Brenda, a helpful son, Jordan and his resolve to always finish what he starts. We in Alaska may take the Last Great Race for granted, but far away, in the lower 48, hundreds of thousands of school children learn life’s lessons taught from racing on the Iditarod Trail.”
We in Alaska may take the Last Great Race for granted, but far away, in the lower 48, hundreds of thousands of school children learn life’s lessons taught from racing on the Iditarod Trail.
Author’s note: Learn more about Bill Borden and the Cool Dreams Racing Team at

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