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Making a Race
Jack Niggemyer makes the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race happen each winter
By Kerry Brophy
Sled dogs head down the trail in the 2003 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
© 2003 Jeff Schultz/AlaskaStock.com

What do you get when you toss together 1,100 dogs, three cell phones, 25 small airplanes, a couple thousand volunteers and then—just to make things interesting—throw in the biggest mountain range in North America and temperatures that plummet to 50 degrees below zero? For former NOLS instructor Jack Niggemyer, what all this adds up to is the longest, most grueling sled-dog race in the world. It also adds up to a whole lot of work.

Niggemyer is race manager for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1,000-mile epic journey from Anchorage to the tiny winter haven of Nome, Alaska. For 16 years, he has worked behind the scenes to orchestrate what amounts to a NOLS course of epic proportions.

“It’s like building a road across Alaska every winter,” Niggemyer says. A self-professed behind-the-scenes kind of guy, Niggemyer got some practice with tricky logistics at NOLS, where, after his 1972 Prince William Sound Sea Kayaking course, he went on to work both in-town and in the field as an instructor. “I had no desire to be the guy in front of the camera, I wanted to be the guy who understood how everything worked,” he says of his years at NOLS.

When you consider all the planning involved in the Iditarod, it’s hard for Niggemyer to remain in the shadows of modesty. Long before the dogsleds slice through Alaska’s frozen wilderness each February, Niggemyer’s race is just beginning.

It starts with the trail. Niggemyer has to maintain what amounts to a snow-covered highway that’s safe for the 65 dogsled teams that run the Iditarod each year. The intense work usually begins in December, when the route’s various water crossings freeze over. Some stretches of the trail will take up to two months of work. Last year Niggemyer had to fly in to clear out a section ravaged by fire during the summer.

In these parts, far from any roads, small planes are the fastest way to get around. “It’s basically like I have my own airline,” he says of the 25 planes that shuttle him and his volunteers all over Alaska during the year. He also logs about 5,000 miles a year on his snowmobile, which allows him to get a closer look at the trail’s condition.

But the trail itself has always been for dogsleds. Long before airplanes or snowmobiles, the Iditarod Trail was a mail and freight route for gold miners and remote villagers traveling to and from Nome in the early 1900s. Other parts of the trail have been used by remote native communities for much longer than that. Today dogsleds are still an important mode of winter travel for these people who live along the Iditarod Trail—they’re not just racing when they pile onto a dogsled, they’re going to buy groceries, or visit a neighbor.

Maintaining a 1,000-mile trail is a challenge anywhere, but in Alaska it’s even more daunting. The trail not only crosses the biggest mountain range in North America—the Alaska Range—but it also travels several hundred miles down the middle of the formidable Yukon River. The weather along its path can range from warm and wet, says Niggemyer, to the north side of the Alaska Range, where extremely cold temperatures dip to 50 degrees below zero. Next there’s the Bering Sea Coast with its arctic conditions. Out here, says Niggemyer, “there’s nothing to hide behind. When you get on the coast you have to mark the trail because you often can’t see five feet in front of your face.”

Just when the trail’s ready for racers Niggemyer takes to the air and starts flying like crazy. There’s so much to do, especially at the more than 22 checkpoints set up along the route. There are tents to set up, camps to establish, gear to be flown in and out (including 75 tons of dog food), 1,600 bails of straw to stash, dogs to transport, and communication stations to establish in some of Alaska’ most remote places, including satellite phones, radios, lap top computers and satellite dishes. And everything has to be done on time.

Then there are all the people. Over 2,000 volunteers help put the race on, including 25 pilots, 35 vets, more than a dozen trail workers, communications staff, check-point volunteers, and up to ten people who just move dogs around. “It’s like having 2,000 employees, none of which I can fire,” admits Niggemyer.

Jack Niggemyer juggles cell phone calls during the 2003 race.
© 2003 Jeff Schultz/AlaskaStock.com

Over the years, Niggemyer has been surprised at the number of NOLS faces to appear in the crowd of Iditarod participants, mainly as volunteers. NOLS Instructors and veterinarians Lannie Hamilton and Nene Wolfe help out with the dogs at various check-points. Former NOLS Instructors Darren Rorabaugh, Larry Lynn, Andy Elsberg and Michael Dietzman are all mushers who help the racers handle the dog teams. Grad John Cooper makes dog booties and coats, and NOLS Instructor Lisa Jaeger is a volunteer, along with NOLS Alaska Director and musher Don Ford.

When the nine-day race finally begins in March, Alaska is ready. The Iditarod falls at the end of another long, dark Alaska winter. “I don’t care how tough you are,” says Niggemyer, “Alaska winters are hard.”

With a telephone stuck in his ear, Niggemyer basically gives up on getting any sleep when the race begins. “During the race,” he says, “everybody’s problem is my problem.”

On 4th Avenue in downtown Anchorage, where the race starts, Niggemyer describes the scene as “organized mayhem,” with 1,100 dogs on the street yelping so loud you can barely hear yourself talk, mushers finishing last-minute preparations, and thousands of people cheering for their favorite team. With a purse of $60,000 (the winner gets $60,000 and a $40,000 pickup truck), and coveted dog-food sponsorships on the line, there’s an edge of competition in the chilly air. But Niggemyer says, over all, the people involved tend to be friendly, albeit passionate. “Like NOLS, these folks come from all over the world—they’re doctors, lawyers, miners, trappers, mushers, business people, little kids. And they’re all getting along just great because we’ve got this one common thing—the race.”

Niggemyer thinks the first part of the trail is the hardest for racers. “You need all your skill in driving your sled to get over the Alaska Range,” he says. As the mushers push off from Anchorage, the Alaska Range looms large in the distance. Denali, says Niggemyer, sits there looking at you like a big old chunk of rock and ice.

“When you add it all together,” he says, “it is a very physically and mentally strenuous undertaking.” As the racers bounce down out of the snow and rock-covered Alaska Range and out toward the Bering Sea, they’re not getting any sleep either. The racers, says Niggemyer, are running all night long, only stopping to feed and rest the dogs.

Meanwhile, Niggemyer races back and forth between checkpoints. He remains in Nome until the very last racer comes in. Niggemyer tried to run the race himself many years back but had shoulder problems. “It’s a grand adventure,” he says. “There are very few things like it in the world. If it wasn’t challenging it wouldn’t be fun.”

After all his years behind the scenes at the Iditarod, it’s obvious that for Niggemyer the race still has the same allure it did back in 1985. That’s when he first got to go out to a checkpoint and watch a friend come out of nowhere on her way to victory. “I just fell in love with it,” he remembers.

Sometimes, during the hardest days of race planning, when he hasn’t slept a full night in weeks and his cell phone won’t stop ringing, he wonders if it’s all worth it. But then, he says, “You stand on the sled runners on a moonlit night…” Niggemyer’s voice drifts off, his thoughts no doubt pushing off somewhere far down the trail.

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