How The Internet Changed Reporting On The Great Iditarod Race

Mar 8, 2018

Iditarod National Historic Trail between Kaltag and Unalakleet.
Credit Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management, Alaska

I spend my day on the computer looking at a map created by the electronic global positioning system instruments carried by sled-dog teams on the trail during the Iditarod race. With a few clicks I can see who is where, and whether they are racing or resting. Another click gives me access to the official list of current race standings. There, I can even watch tiny clips of video interviews done with some of the racers. In my cabin in Anchorage I work this information into little updates concentrating on the three local mushers from the delta of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers in this year’s race, and email it to KYUK, the radio station in Bethel, which is physically much closer than I am to the mushers on the trail as they come out of the Alaska Range and head to the Yukon River. They air my words minutes later in their local news. This type of interconnectivity is the norm for the younger generation, but I remember covering the race before all of this was available.

It was 1997, the year of the Hale-Bopp Comet, and the Alaska Public Radio Network had decided not to invest its resources in organizing statewide coverage of the race. I was working for one of the state’s tiniest public radio stations: KTNA in Talkeetna, a community which was, and in many ways remains, a center for mushing in the valley of the Matanuska and Susitna Rivers. We decided to organize the coverage ourselves and rely on our listeners, some of whom were volunteer pilots for the Iditarod Trail Committee, to help us. Another young reporter at KCHU in Valdez, Dan Bross, an avid athlete who was deeply interested the sport of mushing, decided to help. We pooled our resources and shared a plane with a reporter from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. That way we could use two planes and be able to be in the front and back of the pack at the same time, getting different angles on the thousand-mile race to Nome.

Covering the race in those days meant that you had to send stories back on the phone or by persuading a pilot, who was flying a small plane carrying dropped dogs back to caretakers in Anchorage for the Iditarod, to take a cassette tape with them and then call the network to tell them when to send someone to the landing strip or airport, often a frozen lake, to pick it up. It also meant sending scripts and instructions for mixing and editing the final piece from the cassette you provided. To produce that cassette, I brought two small machines, as well as clip-leads and cables, to both record and dub off the sections of tape for my story. You would get an announce track, followed by rough unedited sound, followed by another voice track, etc. The engineers had to dub it all onto reel-to-reel, adjusting the level, and then splice it together using a razor blade and a splicing block, a carefully tooled piece of metal so your razor blade would always cut the exact same angle, and then use splicing tape to stick the good bits together.

Brian O’Donoghue, the Fairbanks reporter sharing the plane with me, was trying a whole new system. He would use his computer to send stories and audio on something called the Internet. I remember watching him trying to “upload” (we didn’t even use that word then) a small audio clip; it would take him more than a half hour, and it still would not go through properly. He was stubborn and determined and would try over and over again. Some nights he did not get much sleep. I kept using the phone and the planes when available.

Any time we arrived at a village checkpoint we would head to where officials were checking in the teams and ask for a copy of the recent standings. They were hesitant to give them to us because it was a pain in the ass to make the copy or print it out, but I came prepared. I had a box of homemade chocolate truffles made by a chef in Talkeetna. Food in these remote communities was not the best. I would take out this lovely dark ball of wonderfulness and offer it to the Iditarod volunteer gatekeeper, and he would drool and enjoy every bite and slide across the piece of paper with the information I needed. I often thanked him with an additional truffle.

By the way, that year Martin Buser won the race by over 12 hours. He was so far ahead of the other front runners that mushers joked that the Hale-Bopp comet was Martin’s headlamp leading them into Nome.