Friday, March 29, 2013

I nominate Dorado and May sled dogs of the year!

3/27/13 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser
Mitch Seavey 2013 Iditarod  winner and dogs (Internet Photo)

My previous column on the history of the “Last Great Race On Earth” began Mar. 3 in Willow, Alaska. Dogs happily barked, nervous drivers checked their rigs and on-lookers cheered as sixty-six teams of sled dogs and mushers began the 1,000 mile harrowing race across the frozen landscape to Nome. Nine days later, Mitch Seavey, 53, claimed his place as a two-time (and oldest) winner in the 41-year history of the event. Last year, his 25-year old son Dallas won.

I followed the race via the Internet with fear and trepidation. I am not a fan of events where people or animals die. And for years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), has released statistics about the dog death rate of this particular race. According to their records, at least 136 dogs have died under horrible conditions.

Last year, a column in the Alaska Dispatch newspaper, accused PETA of spreading misinformation and falsehoods about dog mushing and how poorly dogs were treated for the purpose of fooling the media. In the same column, the author validated PETA’s concerns with this statement:

 “Every time you lodge a protest, mushing figures out a way to remove the causes of your concerns. Mushing is much less cruel today: fewer dogs die or are injured; veterinarians outnumber mushers; dog booties are everywhere; and even the oldest among us can’t recall the last time they saw a musher carry a bullwhip or axe handle because everyone’s found a way to discipline teams without looking mean.”

Well. That’s interesting. I don’t know about you but I think putting on dog booties and not wielding axe handles is a good thing. In fact, it seems to me that whether they know it or not, both sides are cooperating in the best interests of the dogs—a win, win situation.

Unfortunately, once again, according to an AP story, the strange and possibly preventable death of another dog is raising hackles among handlers and PETA. From the outside looking in, it appears that this death could have been prevented.

Five year old, sled dog Dorado, died after being removed from the race on Mar. 11 because he was moving stiffly. He and other dogs were left in a lot set up to care for dogs left behind because of illness or injury. Most of those 135 dogs spent the night inside two airport buildings. Dorado and others slept behind a building that handlers believed would protect them from the elements. Instead, Dorado was buried by drifting snow during a severe windstorm and died by asphyxiation. Others survived.

Dorado’s death was the first incident of its kind and has sparked changes in the way dogs dropped from the race will be handled. Those include construction of shelters at two major checkpoints. Race officials have declined to assign blame to anyone including the volunteer veterinarian who checked the dogs at 3 a.m.

Dorado’s team went on to finish 34th in the race under Iditarod rookie, Paige Drobny of Fairbanks. Her husband, also a musher, said, “We thought our dog was being cared for. That’s the race organization’s responsibility. We, as mushers, trusted them.” Charges are pending.

In contrast, according to the Anchorage Daily News, another dog lived to race another day. On March 7, Newton Marshall, a Jamaican musher, stopped to help a fellow musher repair her sled. Somehow, May, an experienced, 9-year old race veteran, got loose and headed for freedom! (Newton ultimately withdrew from the race.)

May was on loan from another Iditarod Musher Jim Lanier. His wife posted the situation on Facebook and flew to Alaska to help in the cold search. May was spotted near checkpoints but eluded capture and it was feared that coyotes or wolves would attack her.

But May was on a mission. She wasn’t running to Nome, she was running back to the starting line, just miles from her home; scavenging food leftovers from other teams as she bypassed checkpoints.  There were lots of sighting reports of her but she wasn’t going north. She was heading south.

Her story was on television but the guys who found her were just as surprised as she was grateful. They were on machines. She was on foot and had been on the run, alone, in the Alaskan wilderness seven days. She had traveled 300-400 miles, subsisting on scraps; was skinny, limping with a bloody paw.

“We had just pulled over…and about 100 yards away a dog was trotting down the trail. It was coming at a pretty slow pace and we were waiting to see if someone on a four-wheeler or snow machine was with her,” said Matt Clark.

“I stopped my sled and got off and went to the ground and she came right up to me. She sat in my lap the entire trip back to Big Lake,” Kaitlin Koch said. “I’m still in utter amazement at how far she got.”

“It’s not so far-fetched for May. She’s a sled dog. She has completed the Iditarod numerous times,” according to Smith. “Everybody who has a dog has a tendency to think these sled dogs are Poodles or something and they’re not,” he said. “These are absolutely incredible athletes and they have the internal drive of an athlete.”

Like many traditions, the Iditarod will go on. It is a living part of Alaska history. It combines historical memories of the Great 1925 Race of Mercy with Alaskan’s love of mushing over machinery.

So here’s to Dorado and May, sled dogs of the year. One paid the ultimate price for running this race and the other lived. Neither won the race but both demonstrated before the world the qualities that endear all canines to humanity:

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

Celebrating the Great 1925 Race of Mercy

3/13/13 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

Photo from the Internet
The so-called “Last Great Race On Earth” is held in Alaska every year in the month of March. This famous week long, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has always been somewhat of a mystery to me. Sixty six musher teams each led by 13-16 sled dogs, run a grueling 1,000 mile trek from the town of Willow through the punishing frozen wilderness to the gold rush town of Nome on the western coast.

It gives me chills just thinking about it. But when asked why they do it, one race organizer responded, “We do it because it’s important; because we love the dogs, the race, Alaska and this sport. We do it because there is history and this is the Last Great Race on Earth.”

Yes, there are prizes: bragging rights, first place is a 2013 Dodge Ram truck and a $50,400 cash prize; plus other prizes including $3,000 in gold nuggets. However, most of the mushers say that whatever prize money they win is barely enough to feed their stable of dogs (some have over 100), let alone pay their other bills. BTW: the last musher to finish extinguishes (and wins!) a red finish lantern.

Why do they really do it? They do it because they love it.

The most common sled dog breeds are Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies. The dogs appear well cared for. Photos show them being fitted with booties for the day’s run, fed, resting on piles of hay, checked by veterinarians and loved on by support teams. Still, the weather, ice and sheer stamina needed to run the equivalent distance from Cottage Grove to Los Angeles in horrific weather, takes its toll. Over the course of 40 years, several dozen dogs have died.

The Iditarod Race was originally conceived in 1973, as a way to celebrate Alaska’s centennial as an American territory, it eventually came to include a lifesaving mission by mushers and their sled dogs in 1925. In fact, there was even a movie made about it that I didn’t see. So if you didn’t see it either, here’s the story…

It was Jan. 25,1925, when Dr. Curtis Welch discovered an outbreak of diphtheria in a village outside Nome that could kill the region’s population of 10,000 people. Soon this upper respiratory disease killed three boys. Welch didn’t have enough antitoxin to save the rest of the villagers from this highly contagious disease. Anchorage had a supply but it was nearly 1200 miles away and un-accessible in winter.

Nome’s ports were blocked by ice for the winter. Transportation options were few. The engine of the primitive aircraft that was available was frozen and wouldn’t start. The nearest railroad was 674 miles away and would take 30 days to reach by dog team. The only way in was overland, via the Iditarod/Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail that ran from Seward to Nome, along the Bering Sea.

Dr. Welch pleaded for help via telegrams and ordered quarantine.
Alaska’s Territorial Governor ordered the serum put on a special train and picked up in Nenana. A relay of the 20 top mail carrier mushers (sled dog drivers) would take it from there. The dogs delivered mail in 15-20 days. But could they get the serum to Nome in time?

Here, the facts get a little fuzzy. When the train pulled into Nenana at 11 p.m. on Jan. 27, the temperature was 40°-below. A man of (formerly) dubious character named Wild Bill, loaded the serum and headed down to the frozen Tanana River, where the temp would dip to minus-62. He covered 52 miles by 5:30 a.m. The physical cost was high. When they stopped, Bill’s face had frostbite; blood was dripping from the mouth of his dogs; two others would die from frozen lungs and more dogs would die before the race was over.

Wild Bill handed off the serum and the race to Nome was on! Miraculously, one-by-one, in relay fashion, through whiteouts, blizzards, and impossible conditions, connections were made. On the final leg, the musher had snow blindness and was unable to see. Balto, his magnificent Siberian Husky, unerringly led the team to Nome and became a legendary hero. The Great Race of Mercy was completed in 5 days, 7 hours.

The serum was delivered to Dr. Welch at 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 2. It arrived with only 12 hours to spare. He thawed the frozen serum, administered it to a patient and it worked! Each musher was paid $18.66 plus a $25 trail bonus from the Alaska Territorial government. Four of them would die within two years on the trail.

By the time you read this, we will all know the winner of the 2013 race. His or her incredible skill, courage and stamina will be celebrated. I, however, will be congratulating those amazing dogs. I think of how blindly obedient they are and how confused they must be as they run across the treacherous Alaska wilderness. After all, they don’t know about the Great Mission of Mercy of their predecessors.

Balto is honored with a statue in New York’s Central Park. A male Siberian Husky, he was born in 1919 in Nome, Alaska, (that’s why he knew his way home!). He died in Cleveland, Ohio, after being rescued from a humiliating life on the vaudeville circuit by George Kimble, a Chicago businessman. The statue’s plaque says:

“Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925.


As a dog lover, I can only say, “Amen!”

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Good news: People are still helping people

2/27/13 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

It’s time for a good news column to chase away the gloom and doom of dreary winter days, How about some news in which humanity brightly shines? We’ll start out with a headline that looks like anything but good news.

“Widow, 91, Sells Everything to Bury Husband.” The morning of Feb. 16, this ABC News headline jumped right off my Yahoo homepage and stabbed me in the heart. A photo of a sweet lady, nearly penniless, mourning her husband’s recent death, accompanied this story from KOMO News Seattle:

“A 91-year-old Arlington, Wash., widow is selling all of her belongings so she can afford to bury her late husband. Elsie Smith told she is hoping that by selling all of her possessions through an estate sale, she can bury her husband in the same cemetery as their family members in Snohomish, Wash.

“Smith had been married to her late husband, Joe Smith, for "46 and a half years," she said. Joe Smith passed away at the age of 88 on Feb. 5. For the past two years, he had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

"I loved that man more than anything in this whole wide world," she told KOMO. Smith has a total of $9 to her name and she thinks it will cost about $3,000 for the funeral." "I would like to get some help in any way that I possibly can," she said. Everything is up for grabs in Smith's apartment when the sale takes place, except "her makeup and her clothes and her husband's clothing.”

The story was followed by 1,110 online comments. All of them positive and sympathetic. People wrote of the toll Alzheimer’s takes not only physically and emotionally but financially. Some were amazed at how long she and her husband were married. Others wondered why our nation doesn’t take better care of our elderly.

Many were looking for a link to help her financially. James said, “This is one cause I would donate to.” Robert agreed. He said, “If 3,000 people could give her a dollar we could all help. Come on, people!”

Well, it turns out that there was a link and it was on the newspaper’s website. “Anonymous” gave instructions: Google ABC Seattle page, click on Problem Solvers, click donate and put her name on top of the page. Well, it was a beginning. But by the time I got there contributions weren’t needed. Elsie’s husband’s funeral was paid for and she had a little extra money to boot.

The good news was heralded in another news story on Feb. 18: “Generous KOMO viewers step up to help Arlington widow. ‘It's completely unbelievable. We get donations from our viewers all the time, but I have never seen anything like this in the entire time I've been here,’ said News Director Holly Gauntt.

Donations and well wishes were pouring in even as Elsie was having her estate sale, even as people who had seen her story were looking at her things, wanting to help in some way.

Elsie's story was picked up and shared on websites all over the world, and KOMO got calls from all over the country. People offered cemetery plots, a minister offered to preside over Joe's funeral, and there were donations big and small.

One man and his wife donated $3,000. "My wife and I are doing well, and there just comes a time in life when you have to do something for someone else. It was just that compelling," he said.

The following Monday, KOMO was able to present Elsie with a check for $12,000.  "I don't know what to say. I'm just dumbfounded," Elsie said. "I'm just overjoyed," she said.

Elsie and a friend visited with an attorney on Monday to figure out how best to handle the money and the upcoming funeral. She recently moved full-time into the Regency Care Center in Arlington, and thanks to the generosity of KOMO viewers, she will now be taken care of.”

Now if that doesn’t warm your heart, I don’t know what will. But maybe you’re thinking, ‘I’d like to help, but I don’t have much to give.’ Let me tell you about the Shoe Shine man at the Children’s Hospital in Pittsburg, PA. The hospital is his charity of choice and he has donated over $200,000 to their patients—shining shoes!

Albert Lexie began shining shoes in 1957 and has been shining shoes at the hospital for 32 years. A shoeshine costs five dollars but his customers are big tippers. “Most of them give $6, some of them give $7,” he told WTAE-TV News anchor Wendy Bell. At Christmas a doctor gave him a $50 bill. That’s some tip!

The money goes to parents of sick children who can’t afford to pay medical costs. Dr. Joseph Carcillo says, “He’s donated over a third of his lifetime salary to the Children’s Hospital Free Care Fund. He’s a philanthropist, is what he is. He’s an entrepreneur.”

So I did the math. A lifetime total of $200,000 divided by 32 years of donations equals $6,250 per year. Assuming that Mr. Lexie takes Sundays off and maybe a two-week vacation, that means he works about 288 days a year. That is an average of $21.70 per day that he is able to give to the hospital. Amazing!

Most of us can’t save that much money but I know from experience that it is possible to save something every day just by dumping change in my piggy bank.  My conclusion is that if we can’t help everyone…we can help someone. If we like, we can chose to be mini-philanthropists and bring a ray of sunshine into someone’s life—even in February.

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

The movie "LINCOLN"

2/13/13 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

Thanks to  Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie “Lincoln,”, there has been a huge resurgence of interest in Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. Lincoln was born 204 years ago on Feb. 12. Although that was a long time ago, the story of his life and service to our country as played out on the screen, are still fresh and relevant.

As the lights go down, the movie draws you into the life of our country’s most beloved president. Each scene feels so historically accurate that you seem to be an eye-witness to history. In fact, the movie is based on the 994 page book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The 2-1/2 hour long movie moves at a fast clip so there’s no time to doze off between scenes.

The film is perfectly cast. Daniel Day Lewis, an English actor, was cast as Lincoln. And the moment he appears on the screen there is no doubt—he is Lincoln. He is tall, well-spoken and haunted by the horrible war he has drawn the country into—driven by the need to abolish slavery. And he is not above playing the political game to get the job done. Even if that includes stretching the truth about the whereabouts of the Southern peacekeepers or buying votes with political favors to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed.

Sally Fields does a magnificent job as Mary Lincoln. She takes Mrs. Lincoln’s reputation as a raging maniac into the realms of reality. She is real—not a caricature. She mourns the deaths of her sons, answers the critics of her spending habits and confronts her husband with his aloofness in such a manner that the source of her so-called craziness is understandable.

Tommy Lee Jones is riveting as the nasty, radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. An ardent abolitionist, he was feared and hated by opponents on both sides of the aisle as he fought for abolition. He and Lincoln were on the same side but had diametrically different ways getting to their goal.

In the movie, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is exactly as I pictured him. He is thoroughly human, intelligent and compassionate but calm almost to a fault. He reminds me of other self-educated country boys that I have known. His plain exterior hides a brilliant lawyer’s mind; he has a sense of humor; he appreciates poetry and has a self-sacrificing heart.

The movie covers the final four months of Lincoln’s life. It begins shortly after his second inauguration in 1865 and ends with his assassination in the Ford Theatre. He was 56 years old and the first of four American Presidents to be assassinated.

A look at his life before the presidency (not shown in the movie) gives a glimpse into the person that he became but certainly no hint of future greatness.

He spent his early years in rural Kentucky. Growing up on the frontier, he spent less than 12 months in attending regular classes in school.  He was poorly educated but well read and ambitious. He studied and passed his law exams after running for the state legislature. He is the only president to have a patent. Issued in 1849, the patent was for a devise to free ships that had run aground in shallow water.

There were lots of interesting firsts in his life. He was the first president to be born beyond the original 13 states. He was the first president born in Kentucky. His first dollar was earned ferrying passengers to a steamer on the Ohio River in 1827. He was the first president to sport a full beard. He and Lyndon Johnson tied as tallest presidents—6 ft 4 in. but he was first! 

He had many nicknames. “Honest Abe” is everyone’s favorite but no one knows its origins. I say that it just described the character of the man. Others say that it had to do with his honesty in judging horse races. Still others say that he would charge little or no legal fees when he knew his clients were poor. “The Great Emancipator” refers to his issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and strong support of ending slavery. “Father Abraham” refers to his leadership during the Civil War.

Lincoln and his parents never owned slaves. In fact, his parents joined a Baptist congregation that had separated from another church in opposition to slavery. Other family members owned a few slaves. Mary Todd Lincoln’s father owned several slaves but she was very opposed to the idea. His views against slavery were formed while working on the Mississippi River.

There’s one more thing we know about Lincoln. He and his father were estranged but he loved his mother. It is reported that he said of her, “God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her.”

The Civil War (1861-1865) took its toll on the entire country. With the population still divided, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The battle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution banning slavery was fierce and close. The Senate vote passed easily but the House vote was only accomplished with arm-twisting and promises. Finally, it narrowly reached the 2/3 majority and passed the bill by a vote of 119 to 56. On Feb. 1, 1865, the document was signed.

“Lincoln.” It’s a great movie. It will inspire you to appreciate this country and all those who have served to make it great. Go see it.

 Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.