Across frozen Alaska

by PA1 David Mosley

Late in the year of 1897, an urgent letter was dispatched to Capt. Francis Tuttle, commander of the Revenue Cutter Bear. Tuttle and his crew had just returned to Seattle following a long summer spent operating in Alaskan waters, when the letter was received informing Tuttle that eight whaling vessels and 265 crewmen were trapped in the ice of the Arctic Ocean near Point Barrow.

Tuttle along with an all volunteer crew turned the ship around as soon as it was resupplied and headed for the ice bound north. Speed was a crucial factor; every day lost meant that the ice would be further south, adding days and miles to their efforts to reach the whalers.

When the cutter encountered heavy ice in the Bearing Sea, it was determined they could go no further north than the vicinity of Nome. It was here the desperate plan to use dogsleds on an overland rescue would be started, and it is here where the first ever Coast Guard sponsored musher, competing in the 2010 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, crossed the finish line in 4th place.

The Iditarod, which follows another great historical story of delivering life saving small pox vaccines to Nome, challenges mushers and their teams against nature, against the wild and sometimes treacherous Alaska wilderness. The Iditarod race is a 1,049-mile race that extends from its ceremonial start in Anchorage across Western Alaska to the gold sands of Nome.

The 2010 Iditarod was the 38th running of the race, with 71 teams entering the field. The race places men and women mushers on the same playing field, with 16 women running this year’s race.

Teams have come from all over the world, from across the United States, Canada, Scotland, Belgium and even Jamaica, each braving the late winter Alaska weather and striving to cross beneath the burl arch finish line in Nome.

“This is the one event that galvanizes Alaskans,” said Stan Hooley, executive director, Iditarod Trail Committee, as he addressed a crowd at a pre-race meeting.

With the unifying strength of this race in mind, Cmdr. Darryl Verfaillie, commander of Marine Safety Unit Valdez, approached Coast Guard Recruiting Command about sponsoring a musher and his team in the race.

“The Coast Guard has a proud history here in Alaska,” said Verfaillie. “In our early history here in Alaska, dog sleds were used to help perform pivotal rescues of trapped whaling ship crews. We are proud to pay respect to a rich Alaska Coast Guard history by participating in this great race.”

Once having received the green light by Recruiting Command, Verfaillie approached the Education department of the Iditarod, asking them for a recommendation of a musher to sponsor. The Education department helps school teachers use the race to teach and promote school studies to students across North America and around the world.

According to Iditarod.com, thousands and thousands of students, preschool — through university level complete Iditarod related school projects, practicing their skills in math, science, social studies, reading, writing, technology, and other curriculum areas.

Preschool teachers use the race to help develop beginning math and reading skills, university professors use the race to inspire students to use real time math data from real events to gain skills in statistics class, and all curriculum areas in between, help students build basic skills through the Iditarod activities.

The education department responded to Verfaillie’s request and suggested Ken Anderson, a nine-time veteran of the race.

“It is an honor for me to be able to team up with the Coast Guard and help support a great organization,” said Anderson about his sponsorship.

Anderson, who owns Windy Creek Kennels just north of Fairbanks has finished the race as high as fourth and has had two top five finishes. The 2010 race was his 10th time running the grueling marathon.

“It is exciting to be sponsored by the Coast Guard,” said Anderson. “I think it is kind of a neat relationship, that we share some similarities. In the Iditarod (like in the Coast Guard), it doesn’t matter the weather, it doesn’t matter the conditions, when you are called out you go.”

The Coast Guard has a long proud history of working in Alaska, and as the summer Arctic ice melts further and further north, the Coast Guard finds its self once more focused north.

“This is a great opportunity for the Coast Guard to partner with the Iditarod as the Coast Guard continues its outreach into the north,” said Verfaillie. “What better way to get the word out than to join forces with the Iditarod.”

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