Reporter’s Notebook – Galena – March 10, 2012

The Things They Left Behind

After the first few mushers come through a checkpoint, the Iditarod begins to feel more like a parade or a traveling circus than a race.  And like all parades or circuses, there is lots of stuff left over when the show is over and the action has moved on.   Someone has to clean it all up and figure out what to do with it.

Obviously, there’s the dog poop.  They tend to distribute that along the first mile of trail leading out of town.  It seems that after a rest, a clearing of the bowels is the first order of business before the team gets rolling again.

Then there’s dog food and snacks.  Mushers tend to ship out way more dog food than they need to each checkpoint, and what they don’t dish out or pack with them stays behind.  Local dog owners get to claim it.  I even saw some cat food in a musher’s leftovers today.

This is a pile of fish snacks that accumulated in just a few short hours on Saturday.  There were other piles of beef steaks, chicken, and other strange fatty or fleshy cutlets.

Iditarod spends thousands and thousands of dollars on straw each year.  Straw is not typically reused after a dog team is finished using it for bedding.  This helps prevent transmission of the many doggy illnesses that get passed around during the race.

Volunteers rake the straw in piles, load it onto sleds, and transfer it to a mother pile.  In Galena, this straw is coveted by gardeners for use in compost piles or put straight onto garden plots.  In other villages, it is simply dragged onto the river or ocean ice and left until breakup takes it away.  Other places burn the used straw.

But the most exciting and unpredictable Iditarod castoffs are the vacuum-sealed musher meals.  Mushers tend to ship a variety of food choices to each checkpoint, not knowing what they will be hungry for when they get there.   Menu choices range from the very bland (i.e. plain white rice) to the very rich (shrimp linguine in alfredo sauce), and everything in between.

The musher food pile is magical to me.  First, it offers an almost infinite variety of exotic and hard-to-find food items.   Caribou stew.  Muktuk.  Pecan waffles.  Chicken tetrazzini.  We either can’t get that stuff here, or I don’t know how to make it.  You never know what you will find in there.

Second, each meal is in a flat and packable container.  If we manage to score some musher food after the Iditarod is over, my wife and I like to take it with us on winter travel adventures.  My wife has a particularly fond memory of breaking open a musher pack of broccoli cheese soup made with heavy cream at a cabin between Galena and Ruby.  She was traveling by two-dog team, and had the kind of appetite that Iditarod food was designed to fill.

Mushers don’t scrap everything that doesn’t fit into the sled when it is time to leave.  Each musher can fill a “return bag” with valuable gear like sled runner plastics, dog booties, batteries, clothes, and whatnot.  I just hope they don’t stash any shrimp linguine with alfredo sauce in there when they leave Galena.