ANCHORAGE - Beverly Nelms sums it up succinctly: "Why would a 67-year-old woman from Texas want to spend a weekend in ice and snow, with dog poop flying in her face?"
The answer, she tells unbelievers, is simple. She enjoys Alaska and being part of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. That's why she bids thousands of dollars each year to ride with a musher's sled for the first 11 miles of the 1,100-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome.
Nelms, an elementary school nurse from Fort Worth, has been going north for the short ride since 1995. That's when the Iditarod Trail Committee launched the Idita-Rider auction to help raise funds for the event.
The auction has since evolved into a popular venue for urban adventure seekers craving a taste of the Alaska mystique.
"This is not something you would find in Texas," said Nelms, who discovered the auction in a two-paragraph travel blurb in The New York Times. Since then, Nelms has experienced a tipped sled (no injuries), skirted tangled dog teams and figured out that wearing four pairs of socks only make feet colder.
For her ninth venture on the trail, she is bidding $2,000 to ride with veteran Willow musher DeeDee Jonrowe, who is currently battling breast cancer. If Jonrowe isn't able to compete when the race begins March 1, Iditarod organizers would find a seat for Nelms among several other mushers, said auction coordinator Deby Trosper. About 75 mushers are expected to compete in the 31st running of the Iditarod.
Idita-Rider bids close for the general public at noon Friday. At 2 p.m., registered bidders can make their final offers through an auction conference call at race headquarters in Wasilla. Dozens of bidders from across Alaska and the rest of the country participate in the call-in session.
"It gets a little crazy toward the end, but I calm it down," Trosper said. "I tell people that if I can't hear anybody, we all lose."
So far, 73 offers have come in, raising nearly $60,000 so far. When they sign up, bidders are assigned special codes to protect their identities.
Opening bids must be at least $500 and can be designated for a specific musher or for the general pool. To bump someone from a slot, competing bids must be $100 higher than the original. Bidders may reclaim a sled with an additional $100. It takes $7,500 to guarantee a slot.
Marcheta Long, a third-grade teacher from Battle Creek, Neb., is staking $713 on Paul Gebhardt, a top contender from Kasilof. In her eighth year as an Idita-Rider, Long feels a certain kinship with Nelms, her Texas counterpart.
"We joke that we'll be doing this until they haul us to the nursing home," Long, 61, said. "But we're not there yet!"
Another regular participant is Nancy Livingston, an education professor at San Diego State University who is about to run her third Iditarod start. She bid $925 on veteran musher Mike Williams of Akiak. Her husband, Roy, is also a fan, bidding $700 on another veteran, Vern Halter of Willow.
For Nancy Livingston, the ride through snow-covered streets and spruce-lined trails is thrilling on its own. But she's equally intrigued by the history of the race, which commemorates a 1925 run from Nenana to Nome to deliver diphtheria serum.
"It's one of those miraculous moments when you feel bonded with nature," she said. "And it's a tiny taste of the serum run, a secondary embryonic experience."
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