Iditarod docudrama excites race communications coordinator

September 23, 2008

By David Hayes

Issaquah resident Bernadette Anne, communications coordinator for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, shows the snow parka and hat she wears while in Alaska. Photo by David Hayes

Issaquah resident Bernadette Anne, communications coordinator for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, shows the snow parka and hat she wears while in Alaska. Photo by David Hayes

Bernadette Anne has participated in all but two Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Races in Alaska since 2000 as a volunteer at some level before ascending to communications coordinator this year.

The Issaquah resident has worked several checkpoints along the more than 1,000-mile route and has flown the course by charter plane to follow the action.

But even Anne has not seen or experienced all that the mushers and their dogs survive to make it from Anchorage to Nome.

Until now.

Anne is highly anticipating a new docudrama produced by the makers of the Discovery Channel’s show, “Deadliest Catch.” Premiering at 10 p.m. Oct. 14 is “Toughest Race on Earth: Iditarod.”

“If you’ve seen ‘The Deadliest Catch,’ then you’ll understand how it’s filmed the same way,” Anne said. “During this six hour series, you can watch this year’s race as it happened.”

The Discovery Channel flew a crew of 20, including support personnel, to the remote location and followed more than 10 teams to chronicle their struggles to navigate a route that isn’t even there the other 11 months of the year. (Anne explained the route is nothing more than satellite markers dropped in between remote villages, with snow machines usually no more than a day ahead of the race leaders, packing down a safe path.)

Anne said a record number of dog-sled teams signed up to participate this year — 114. Of those, 96 actually started the race and 78 finished. She’s pretty sure the Discovery Channel lucked out and one of the teams it followed won.

She said after seeing the preview trailer on Discovery’s Web site (http://dsc.discovery.com), she can’t wait to watch what else the cable channel’s cameras witnessed.

“From the trailer, it looks like they captured the beauty of Alaska that you just can’t see from the air yourself,” she said. “No one has ever done such an intense study of the race before.”

It was getting a taste of that intensity that hooked Anne back in 2000. The former Microsoft financial analyst and a coworker signed up to participate in the IditaRide program that lets regular citizens ride along at the start of the race out of Anchorage. She said a little known fact about the race is after this first phase, actually staged for the tourists, television cameras and other race fans, the Iditarod has a second start 10-12 miles down the line without all the hoopla.

“It was a fun trip. I was absolutely hooked,” Anne said of the first leg. “The five days I spent there was an amazing time. We said we need to come back some day.”

With plans to return in 2001, an unfortunate skiing accident in the Austrian Alps left Anne with a torn ACL and out of action until 2004.

Having worked for the Humane Society and with her sister on her graduation project at Issaquah High School on greyhound racing, Anne wanted to see for herself how safe the Iditarod was for the dogs participating in it. So, she hired a bush pilot to take her along the route to follow the action by air.

This was also her first chance to be one of the more than 2,000 volunteers who are the backbone of the race, much like those who help behind the scenes making sure Salmon Days operates smoothly (which Anne has also done). She jumped in doing whatever was needed when an official volunteer wasn’t available.

She returned in 2005 as a official volunteer, one of many from around the world. In 2006, she was a trail communications coordinator, then the overall communications coordinator in 2007 and finally was a paid staffer this year.

“The position doesn’t have anything to do with the press or media,” Anne explained. “Rather, I’m in charge of all the technical means of communications during the race.”

She tells the 100 or so volunteers working for her that their job is a combination of Radar from “MASH” and Tattoo from “Fantasy Island.”

Anne said she’s amazed how far communications have come since her time there. This is the first year that a cell phone worked in both Anchorage and Nome, that she didn’t have to rely upon ham radio for communications and Internet service was available throughout the route.

“We set up new cell towers in villages and, with cell phone in hand, were literally saying, ‘Can you hear me now?’” she said.

Anne now spends more than two months a year in Alaska fulfilling her duties as communications coordinator. Over the years, she’s grown attuned to the weather conditions, knowing which are ideal for the race.

“This year was actually too warm,” she said. “Between 30 and 40 degrees makes the snow mushy, cornmeal like. That’s not good for running dogs. It also grounds some airplanes.”

The ideal conditions are around zero degrees.

“I’ve grown used to the sub-zero temperatures. I can walk outside first thing in the morning in zero-degree weather and say, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a beautiful day.’” Anne said, adding she has to then quickly run back inside and bundle up.

Even though the Iditarod headquarters is in Wasilla, Alaska, Anne said for the record she’s never met or ran across Gov. Sarah Palin, current GOP vice presidential candidate.

“Although, while stationed at one of the villages, I may have seen her husband, Todd, whip by on a snow machine during one of the Iron Dog races that precedes the Iditarod,” she said.

Anne said she figures she’s attained the perfect position for her involvement in the race, actually a tribute to the lengths locals had to go years ago to get the mail delivered by dog sled from Anchorage to Nome.

“You see and appreciate the beauty and grace and peacefulness of the dogs and realize it wasn’t always a sport but their mode of transportation,” Anne said. “It’s wonderful to behold.”

Reach Reporter David Hayes at 392-6434, ext. 237, or dhayes@isspress.com.

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