Today Alaska celebrates the start of another Iditarod sled dog race. It is a gruelling challenge through mountain passes, across frozen rivers, and over snow buried tundra. It is a contest of stamina and strategy — timing is everything. And back in 1985 I volunteered to be the computer operator at the restart point.
Using a borrowed Apple IIc, it was my job to dial into another computer, run a script and print out the results. Then I was to radio the numbers to my mother, who was the coordinator of the event, at the restart line, two miles away.
The race starts in Anchorage, Alaska and goes through checkpoints, which are sometimes villages, until the race ends 1049 miles later in Nome. It’s as close as racing fans get to the former Soviet Union. The race has been won by both man and woman “mushers” and thousands of fine-tuned sled dogs — usually of the Husky variety, though one year a guy did manage to enter using Poodles.
Because there is not enough snow between Anchorage and the third checkpoint, Wasilla, the teams have to pack up the sled and dogs and drive. They are given exactly two hours to make the 45 min. drive to checkpoint 3, unpack, and restart their race.
Except this year the race times, recorded down to the second, where going to be delivered via computer instead of the tried and true phone call. All setup and with 10 minutes to go before the first team would arrive, I entered the modem commands used to dial-up the other computer, and nothing happened. I tried again, nothing. Again, nothing.
I felt like such a failure. The race, dependent upon accurate timing, had just been stopped by a Jr. High kid with an Apple IIc and a Hayes 300 baud modem. This could not happen! I was in Jr. High! I had used computers since 5th grade when I made pictures of castles using HLIN and VLIN basic commands. I was to be a valued asset of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race instead I became a dead weight.
Did I mention the frantic calls from my mother who was also dealing with tangled dog teams, in-the-way-spectators, and the film crew from ABC Sports?
That Saturday took so long to end. No matter how many times I tried nothing worked and back then nobody knew a thing about computers so it wasn’t like I could just ask Joe Public if he knew anything. I tried anyway, nothing. Defeated, I packed up the very nice computer and trudged down the hill to the starting line.
My mother, though very busy, took the time to say it was alright and we later went for pizza after the last dog team took off in the cold unknown.
To learn more about the Iditarod of sled dog racing please visit your local library or click here.