Even in corridors of power, the Iditarod intrigues

Devin O’Brien of Ketchikan is one of the Murkowski staffers who update the Iditarod map outside Sen. Murkowski’s Washington, D.C. office. (Photo by Liz Ruskin/ Alaska Public Media)

As the mushers race to Nome, their progress is tracked in various elementary school classrooms. It’s also tracked in the halls of the U.S. Senate. One hallway, to be specific. Here’s the scene from just outside Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s door in the Hart Office Building.

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Just after lunch, a crowd had gathered in the hallway leading to the offices of Murkowski and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. Right between their doors, Murkowski staffers have put a map of the Iditarod Trail. It’s mounted on poster board, sitting on an easel.

A group from Chicago didn’t know what to make of this map, with its neon arrows and a leaderboard with unfamiliar names. They were with the National Association of Postal Supervisors, waiting to meet with Duckworth. Most said they’d never heard of the Iditarod.

But after a little explanation, the postal supervisors were intrigued. They had questions about dog care, and how the mushers feed their dogs on the trail. They pondered the board, showing Norwegian Joar Ulsom was ahead in Alaska’s Last Great Race.

“How would you let someone come in from Norway? How does that happen?” one asked.

“Yeah,” another said. “How does that happen?”

The drama of how Ulsom claimed the lead took place Monday, on the Bering Sea ice. And right about then, a few thousand miles away, Murkowski staffer Devin O’Brien took the poster board down to update it.

O’Brien logged on to Iditarod.com and pulled up the GPS tracker. She noticed something curious. It looked like Nic Petit of Girdwood had hardly moved since the last update. He was No. 1 on the Iditarod leader board at that moment, but the GPS suggested a different story.

“It looks like Joar is actually ahead,” O’Brien said. “So I’ll move his arrow on our map ahead along the route.”

O’Brien would soon learn this was a pivotal moment in Iditarod 2018, when Petit had gone off-course and had to backtrack, giving the lead to the Norwegian.

Murkowski Press Secretary Hannah Ray said the tracking map builds camaraderie in the office, where much of the staff is Alaskan.

“Even other offices are asking us about it. ‘Well, have you updated it today? What are the standings?'” Ray said. “People who probably didn’t know anything about the Iditarod before this was out are buzzing about it.”

Ray said she’s talked to people who only know the story of the 1925 serum run to Nome through the animated movie “Balto.”

“I had someone say they had no idea that was a true story,” Ray said. “So to hear them coming to ask about Alaska history is really cool.”

Murkowski’s office intends to keep the map up until the last musher reaches Nome.