The Iditarod Trail may be fraught with peril for mushers, but for families left behind, it can be a bit of a dog's life on the home front too.
As their loved ones on the trail zero in on Nome, "Idita-spouses" only have Internet updates and the occasional phone call from the trail to keep tabs on the status of the race. The rest of the time, all they can do is wait -- and wonder. And for both the veteran and first-time Idita-spouse, the wondering is never easy.
"The first year obviously was the most stressful because neither of us knew what to expect," said Evy Gebhardt, wife of Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt, who is racing for the fifth time. "It definitely doesn't get easier. But it's not more difficult either."
She said by the time the race rolls around each year, she and her 15-year-old daughter Kristin already are accustomed to being without their husband and father. And the 10 days or so that he is gone actually are the end of the months of being without him.
"Training for this race starts in August for this family. In November I saw (Paul) five days," Evy Gebhardt said. "After this (week) we get to be a family again."
The Gebhardts have had much to cheer about this year. Paul followed up a best-ever sixth-place finish last year with a quick start in Iditarod 2000, leading the race all the way to Takotna, before taking his mandatory 24-hour layover and yielding to current leader Doug Swingley.
And despite the stress of wondering how her husband and dogs are doing on the 1,150-mile wilderness trail to Nome, Evy Gebhardt said that the community support on the Kenai Peninsula eases the stress of waiting alone.
"The better he does, the more recognition there is. It makes it a little harder to buy a loaf of bread or stop and get gas," she said. "But it's exciting to see (Paul's success) touches people's lives. They are pushing for Paul and happy for us. That's thrilling."
Donna King, wife of three-time champion Jeff King, also said that having the support of the community is helpful during the race. The Kings live in Denali Park, which boasts four entrants in this year's race -- King, Bruce Lee, Dave Sawatzky and King handler Shawn Sidelinger.
"Around here he's just Jeff King. The community looks at Jeff as one of the neighbors," she said. "That support system is tremendous."
But Donna King said her husband's 10 trips up the Iditarod Trail have done little to lessen the stress she feels in his absence.
"No, it doesn't get easier. I was talking to Kathy (Chapoton, wife of three-time champion Martin Buser) earlier and I asked her, 'Do you still get all icky inside (during the race)?'" she said Saturday. "We can't stop it."
Most of the race-week stress comes not from worrying about the dangers of being in the wilderness far from civilization, but, rather, from wanting the best for her husband, Donna King said.
"The things to worry about don't change. I don't worry at all about his physical well-being. He's very capable out on the trail," she said. "It's more like watching your kid on the balance beam. You don't want him to fall off."
Still, she said, the Kings and their three daughters, Cali, 15, Tessa, 13, and Ellen, 8, wouldn't trade their way of life for anything.
"Any spouse you talk to (will say) the race is just a part of it. This is a lifestyle we enjoy," Donna King said. "It's almost a communal lifestyle here at our house. The kids have grown up with it. As a family we gain a lot of enjoyment from what the race brings. It's an incredible sport and an incredible lifestyle."
She may not have years of involvement in dog mushing to draw on, but newcomer Bree Krosschell also noted the attraction of the sport. The girlfriend and chief handler of second-year Iditarod musher Jon Little of Kasilof is spending her first winter in Alaska but already has embraced the lifestyle.
"Mushing is a whole scene in itself," Krosschell said. "The attitude, the people -- they're very relaxed, comfortable. Whatever you do, it works for them. ... It's a fun crowd."
And her favorite musher is exceeding even his own expectations in this year's race. Little, who finished 36th in just under 13 days in his first race last year, said his goal for this year is to finish in the 11-day range. As of Saturday night, his goal was well within reach. As a plus, Little has found himself in or near the top 20 for most of the race, ahead of some of the sport's more high-profile and experienced mushers.
"I think part of him is a little, 'Wow!'" said Krosschell, who enjoyed three phone calls from Little during his 24-hour layover in Takotna on Thursday. "He said it's amazing running close to the front and seeing all the great teams."
Krosschell said following Little's progress on the Internet has been a bit nerve-wracking at times, since she never knows for sure how he and the dogs are doing. She also said she has stayed up later than usual waiting for the most recent update to be filed on the Iditarod Web site.
But Krosschell said all the anxiety will be worth it when she goes to Nome on Monday and begins her wait for Little at the finish line, where she will share in the celebration of completing the arduous trek.
"I'm a little nervous because I don't know too many people," she said. "But Jon said (finishing the race) you're just so proud of the dogs and that you can't believe what they've done. That's what I'm looking forward to the most -- seeing Jon's face and seeing the dogs' faces."
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