Houseman trip not just ‘mush’
Gisela Houseman was checking the Internet Tuesday.
Lance Mackey was in the lead, but she was rooting for Sebastian Schnuelle, whose sled she rode at the start of Alaska’s annual race on March 7.
What began as a quaint little journey had some unexpected events.
Turns out Alaskans – especially those in the media, and a former vice presidential candidate – wanted to find out as much about Texans as Houseman did about them.
“My daughter’s family and I went on an Alaskan cruise last August,” Houseman says. “And in Juneau, one of our excursions was to take a helicopter up the top of a glacier to do dog-sledding. I didn’t know it at the time but it turned out this was Sebastian’s organization. We flew up there and they have a few dogs up there, and spent about an hour-and-a-half with the dogs; and the man running things said you could bid on being an ‘Idita Rider.’”
Houseman says she and late husband Tony had been interested in the Iditarod since 1988, the year a woman won. After that, a private joke between them was, “Alaska: where men are men and women win the Iditarod.”
“In December, they had an auction where you could bid on the mushers, and so I researched [them]. There were 67 of them that had signed up for this year’s race and I read about them, and he (Schnuelle) looked like he would be interesting. He had a history of being in the race and the fact that he was from Germany was intriguing, so I picked him. I started bidding on him and won.”
The money goes to the competition, which certainly has expenses covering two weeks and more than 1,000 miles. Each musher also has to put up an entry fee hoping to win the big prize money.
Accompanied by daughter Debi Means and a family friend from Kansas City, Houseman met Schnuelle, a previous winner of the Yukon Quest (an event similar to the Iditarod). After lunch, she watched the musher – famous for eating vacuum-packed McNuggets while racing – draw numbers for his starting place.
“It was the strangest thing,” she says. “On Saturday … all the ‘Idita Riders’ started on Fourth Street in Anchorage and you ride for 20 miles. And it was absolutely fabulous. There were people along the streets and rooting everybody on.”
Houseman briefly met Mackey, who late Tuesday was the expected winner. Mackey, who also won in 2007 and 2008, pulled a fast one last year against rival Jeff King. As they both came into one of the final checkpoints, Mackey pretended to sleep; so after King started snoozing Mackey jumped up, readied his dogs and took off.
Late Tuesday, the Anchorage Daily News predicted Schnuelle as runner-up. He was tired and resting his dogs – realizing he was too far back. This year’s weather was said to be particularly rough, and worse than previous years. The News said Tuesday two dogs had died and one musher was airlifted from a trail.
“I left the [ceremonial start] and lo and behold, there was Gov. Palin,” Houseman says. “I told her I was from Texas and how much I like her … and I was standing there at the sled and here she comes again with her family and says, ‘Oh, there you are again’ and asked me about riding.”
The next day (March 8), Houseman finished breakfast and trekked to the official racing start, just outside Wasilla. She says she’s “ … never been to anything so exciting.” (And this from a woman who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro a few years ago, assisted by experienced guides).
“Those dogs are so ready to go. They’ve got handlers there holding them, and holding the sled and they count down. And when they get to ‘One, Go!’ those dogs take off. They are so ready to run. Those people take better care of their dogs than most people take care of each other.”
After Houseman was interviewed by the ABC station in Anchorage, she discovered a photograph had run on CNN – and just about everywhere else. It shows a bundled-up Houseman with sunglasses riding with Schnuelle. A family member called her cellphone and told her she was on Yahoo.
“I have no idea,” she says, “why out of 67 riders they picked me.”
There are many more mysteries about the Iditarod that intrigue Houseman, however, the question of whether to return is solved.
“I hope I can lay off enough time to be at the start of the race, but also go to one or two of the checkpoints and then be in Nome when they finish.”