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March Madness? Some Might Say Iditarod

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RALEIGH, N.C. — As March Madness begins for millions of basketball fans across the country, the most avid of whom could live here along Tobacco Road, it is coming to an end for a smaller yet equally as enthusiastic faction of sports fans in and around the Arctic Region.

Musher Mitch Seavey was closing on the Iditarod championship Tuesday in Alaska, arriving at the White Mountain checkpoint in first place. He was ahead of 86 other mushers and their teams of sled dogs in a grueling event known as the Last Great Race.

Though perhaps not as well-known or closely followed as basketball is here in the Southeastern United States, the Iditarod is no less exciting than the Final Four for people like Joe Delia, a resident of the Alaska wilderness and an Iditarod fixture. It is their version of March Madness, an eight-day spectacle on ice and snow.

Racing across 1,150 miles of perhaps the roughest, most beautiful terrain anywhere, the mushers and their teams of 12 to 16 dogs must traverse jagged mountain ranges, frozen river, dense forest, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast.

Add to that biting cold temperatures that drop far below zero, winds that can make visibility difficult at best, long hours of darkness and little sleep, and that is the Iditarod -- a race many argue is only possible in Alaska.

Before coming to WRAL, TV news reporter John Bachman covered the 2002 Iditarod for KELO TV in Sioux Falls, S.D. Even after covering his first Super Bowl this year for WRAL, Bachman -- also a basketball fan -- said the Iditarod remains one of the highlights of his career.

Here is a column Bachman has written for WRAL.com, recounting his Iditarod experience and offering a unique perspective of the Last Great Race to people who may not be familiar with it.

2002 Iditarod: A Reporter Reflects On Last Great Race

An old gray-bearded musher told me the


is the world's longest camping trip. It is much more than that. It is an endurance test, a survival challenge far too extreme for any reality TV show.

Even the hardiest natives of the upper Midwest, where I come from, do not know snow and wind chills like the Iditarod mushers experience in Alaska. The Last Great Race is grueling for the dogs, and for the men and women dedicated to driving them. They train all year.

Dog sledding is a way of life in Alaska. Until snow machines (snowmobiles, where I come from,) were invented, dog sleds were the only mode of transportation. When I visited in 2002, my bush pilot told me as we took off from the Talkeetna Airport and flew over the highway that it was the last road until Russia.

The Iditarod Trail is all wilderness with no roads, or runways. Our small Cessna had skis for landing gear. As we touched down at the race's first remote checkpoint, Skwentna, I took in the full Iditarod experience.

The pilot taxied down the frozen lake to the airport. It was a shack that doubled as a weather station. I hopped out of the plane and into the middle of nowhere. The pilot took off again, leaving me to fend for myself in the Alaskan wilderness where roads do not reach and cell service is a foreign concept.

Skwentna is where the Iditarod really gets going. The mushers escape the commercialized start in Anchorage and enter the harsh realities of the race: sleep deprivation, 50-below wind chills, and the first hunger pains.

Skwentna is also where Joe Delia lives 365 days of the year.

Delia lived a troubled, vagabond life in the lower 48. After years of abuse and hardship, he sought the solitude of Alaska's wilderness.

Some 50 years ago, he landed in Skwentna much like I did. He survived by learning to trap wild beasts. When I visited, he had

half a dozen eight-foot wolves hanging from his log cabin.

Delia settled in the tiny village, opening a post office, which he still runs today.

He is the communication center for hundreds of square miles.

Little in Skwentna has changed. Every year, Delia is there to greet the mushers racing through his village. For one day, his quiet little village is the epicenter of excitement.

It is a Super Bowl-like atmosphere as journalists come in from around the world to witness a living history lesson.

Each year, the Iditarod becomes bigger, faster, stronger. From Anchorage, in south central Alaska, to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast, each team of 12 to 16 dogs and their musher covers about 1,150 miles in 10 to 17 days.

Each year, Delia teaches the younger racers and reminds the older, gray-bearded mushers what the Iditarod really means.

The finish line is in Nome. But the experience lies in places like Skwentna, and with people like Delia -- a reminder that just surviving is victory.


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