2004 Iditarod Sketch Pad

Jon & Jona Van Zyle's exclusive sketches, stories from the trail

Lighting the way
2004 Iditarod Poster
Jon Jona Van Zyle
Jon & Jona Van Zyle
Sneaking Out
2004 Mush Poster

Visit Jon Van Zyle's Iditarod Art

Main Page Meet Jon & Jona Introduction Bootie Call Drop Bag Delivery Day Vet Check Jr. Iditarod
3/7 Iditarod Restart 3/8 Trail Notes 3/9 Rohn to Takotna 3/10 Takotna a.m. 3/10 Takotna p.m.
3/11 Takotna 3/14 Unalakleet 3/15-16 Unalakleet 3/16 Unalakleet
3/17 Unalakleet to Nome 3/19 Nome 3/20 Nome Finish Line Group Photo
Jona's Reflections

Jona's Reflections

It’s mid-April and I must admit that we’ve been running our dog teams, enjoying the last out our great snowy trails and this excellent winter season.

Today we reach fifteen hours of daylight and the daytime temperatures are warming into the upper 40 degree range. Our super winter is melting into memories, but I’m still mentally re-running Iditarod race images in my head.

The highlights of Iditarod start day, Saturday March 6, 2004, are still vividly etched in my mind. The 5:00 a.m. start to our day, the rush to care for our kennel, grab breakfast, then join the Claus family caravan for the drive into Anchorage.

In a quiet moment we watched the full moon set. With the gleam of the space station visible just below the moon it brought to mind the different frontiers still open for exploration and adventure….I’ll still choose Alaska by dog team.

Next stop was a hurried trip to an open car wash. Ellie wanted her truck and dog trailer to look its very best for the BIG DAY.

Traffic was already building as we approached Anchorage. It was fun trying to identify the different dog trucks as we all moved toward 4th Avenue. Parking downtown is a big problem anyway, with so many streets closed to accommodate the 87 race entrants and their dog trucks and the army of volunteers and spectators parking spaces was at a premium. Luckily, we were still early enough to find space behind Sunshine Plaza, the big bright yellow building near the race start. We only had to hike a few blocks to find Ellie and the dog truck parked in starting position.

The overnight transformation of downtown Anchorage is always magical. An army of people, driving a convoy of trucks and plows, move mountains of snow back on to 4th Avenue and all of the connecting side streets to provide the staging and starting areas for the race. These areas then connect to Anchorage’s excellent recreational trail system.

Your senses are assaulted by the waves of colors, fragrances of reindeer franks and fancy coffees, and moving masses of people, bright banners of the many race sponsors, flags flying the colors of the different countries entered in the race, colorful clothing and packs of fur-wearing spectators jam the staging area.

The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce scored big with temperatures warming into the 20 degree range, bright blue skies and snowy mountain peaks proudly punctuating the skyline. Iditarod is the mushing world's answer to the “Oscars”. Instead of a red carpet, it’s white. It is definitely the place to see and be seen.

For this year’s race we received media passes as well as “handler” passes for helping Ellie. That meant we were part of the show with permission to be inside the snow fencing. Jon was on cloud-nine with his induction into the Iditarod Hall of Fame and he was mobbed by throngs of well-wishers.

Although Ellie was disappointed with her draw of starting position #68, it did have the advantage of having her truck closer to the starting line. I was amazed by the amount of media attention Ellie was receiving and the long lines of school children seeking her autograph. In spite of the nervous frenzy, she took time to speak with and patiently sign every request.

We happily greeted Craig and Maja Seppala Ramsey, who were in Alaska to experience their first Iditarod Race. Maja is Leonhard Seppala’s granddaughter. We had the good fortune to meet Maja and Craig in 2003. Maja was visiting Nome after the death of her mother Sigrid Seppala Hands. Her mother’s last wish for her ashes to be returned to her birthplace in Nome opened a new world for Maja. I don’t think she had realized how highly revered her grandfather was in Alaska and among mushers around the world.

Leonhard Seppala was one of the first mushers to successfully race Siberian husky teams. He was a legendary mushing hero in Alaska and was instrumental in gaining recognition and popularity for the Siberian husky breed.

Since it was Maya and Craig’s first race, I wanted to make sure they had a chance to meet Wayne Curtis and Karen Ramstead, owners of the only purebred Siberian teams entered in this year’s race. Seppala was born in Norway so I figured she’d also want to meet Kjetil Backen, this year’s Norwegian entrant. As Siberian owners, we happily help sponsor our friends Wayne and Karen so introductions weren’t a problem. We’ve also had the pleasure to get to know the Robert Sorlie and Norwegian contingent so getting some time with Kjetil wasn’t a problem either. Maja and Craig were like a couple of kids visiting Disneyland for the first time. This event was alien to their California world of sailing and horses, but they happily and easily joined the festivities.

By the way, Sepp’s vitality and charm live on in his pint-sized, blue eyed granddaughter. Maja has also started an annual financial grant program offering $10,000 to assist Iditarod mushers from the villages who meet the necessary requirements. This new program coupled with Alaska Airlines annual Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award will continue to help keep her grandfather’s spirit alive. We hope Maja and Craig will return next year to follow more of the race.

Ten AM arrives and the 2004 Iditarod Race officially starts. After the time allowed for the honorary #1 team to leave the starting chute, the first team out is #2, Vern Halter.

While we waited for Ellie’s start at 12:15 p.m. we had time to meet Ellie’s Iditarider, Karen Brown. Karen is a school teacher from Banyon Elementary in California. After chatting for a few minutes we realized we had met her a couple of years ago at a pre-race gallery show. As the art patrons wait in line for Jon to personalize their purchases, I started telling these teachers about the Jr. Iditarod race and mentioned that their students might relate to the younger mushers. I also shared our adventures of having Ellie and her dogs winter with us and Ellie’s future Iditarod dreams.

Karen and her students became big fans and enthusiastically followed Ellie’s progress. As a huge surprise for Karen, her students and fellow teachers bid on Ellie’s Iditarider, surprising Karen with the ride of her life. So many incidents in my life seem to come full circle like this.

As Ellie’s starting time drew near, she overwhelmed us with an invitation to drive her sleds to the starting line. He offer was totally unexpected, but a greatly appreciated gift.

Jon drove the first sled with Iditarider Karen, and I took the second sled with Ellie’s 8 yr old sister, Logan, and gaggle of young friends. We were only four blocks form the starting chute but it was a real emotional high. The bevy of beauties in my sled basket practiced their “beauty pageant waves” as we moved past the cheering crowds.

The trucked-in old soft snow that lines the streets is difficult to run in. It’s like running in deep sand so the handlers have a hard time keeping up with the dog teams. Most mushers do the ceremonial start in Anchorage with a smaller 12 dog team instead of using all 16 dogs. The 10 mile run on the Bureau of Land Management buildings is filled with sharp turns, tunnels and huge crowds of people and pets. Usually, the teams run the 13 miles to Eagle River but this year open water on the river crossing was deemed too dangerous.

We reached the starting line and Ellie and her training partner, Maegan Mackey, pried our hands off of the sleds and took their rightful places. I thought I was the only emotional one at the start but when I turned around there were many damp smiles.

We watched Ellie slide down 4th Ave. past the miles of cheering crowds. We walked back to the dog truck, took down the sponsor banners and picked up the drop chains. Part of the crew took the truck to meet Ellie and the dogs and the rest of us headed back home. We still had to pack and prepare our gear for our Monday morning departure. This also gave me some time to spend with our 18 Siberians who aren’t going to understand the sudden end to their running season. I was finding it hard to leave our teams and perfect trails to watch other mushers doing what I love to do… adventure by dog team.

Friday night we reassembled at the Claus home to celebrate Jay Claus’ 15th birthday and the Sunday birthday of Grandpa John Claus. It’s hard to have so many important family events overlapping on the same weekend and not have anyone feel slighted for attention.

After several intense weeks of gallery appearances, daily visitors to our home, sled rides, banquets, auction donations and Iditarod preparations, I was dreaming of getting a solid 5 hours of sleep before the restart…dream on.

Ellie had a new idea on how to improve the boy’s shield protectors on the dog’s wind coats. Some of her houndier dogs don’t have much fur covering their private parts. Frost bite on the sheath is not a happy occurrence and Ellie wanted to make sure the boys could comfortably weather the coastal winds and possible storms.

It sounded like an easy project at 10:00 p.m., just add Velcro strips to both sides of 16 dog coats…no problem.

By midnight I realized I had some problems. The adhesive-backed Velcro gummed up my sewing machine and each dog coat carrying the logo of a sponsoring fire department needed to be changed or adapted.

Needless to say, it was almost 4:00 a.m. when I completed the job. It was enough time for a leisurely shower and a strong cup of coffee before waking Jon for the next event.


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For more information about Ellie and her home at Ultima Thule Lodge you can visit their web site at www.ultimathulelodge.com

More information about Ellie Claus can be found on the Iditarod web site www.iditarod.com

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2004 Jon & Jona Van Zyle
All material in the Iditarod Sketch Pad remain the property of Jon & Jona Van Zyle and may not be reproduced in any manner.