Chattanoogan Runs Into Team Headrick In Far-Off Alaska At The Start Of The Iditarod

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 - by Evan Thibaud

In a weird twist of fate, I happened to meet and snag some photos of a Chattanooga sponsored Iditarod team.


After a business trip 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, I arrived in Anchorage, Alaska during a winter festival called Fur Rendezvous. I decided this is a unique opportunity worth taking a few vacation days to experience and explore Alaska.

Next thing I know, I am renting a car to go dog sledding in Talkeetna and driving six more hours through the Denali National Park under the northern lights. After a soak in Chena Hot Springs and a night on the town in Fairbanks with a friend from five years ago, I bolted back to Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Dog Sled Race and for the Running of The Reindeer.


I grabbed my camera and headed downtown from the hostel to the sound of barking dogs. While being the complete tourist I am, I walked right to where the action was without regard to the crowds or security. And, because I was happy to see so many dogs, I wasn’t paying attention. So there I am surrounded by over a thousand dogs in the main street of Anchorage taking as many photos as possible.


Teams from all over the world travel to Alaska to get a chance to compete in “The World’s Last Great Race” where one musher and his/her 16 best dogs traverse across Alaska’s treacherous conditions for 1,000 miles. A musher usually trains anywhere from 30-60 dogs in order to pick the 16 with the ideal personalities to take the journey. Once in Anchorage, you can feel the energy and anticipation. You can also hear it because the dogs will not stop barking until the second they are turned loose to run.


I took notice to one team in particular for two reasons. First was obvious, you couldn’t miss her. Monica Zappa of Team 58 is sporting the flashiest sled and snow suit of all the teams. Watching her and her helpers prepare for their start time was entertaining because they were so happy to be there to share the experience with everyone. The second reason was also obvious, the eyes of one of the lead dogs. While this blue-eyed leader was waiting for his team to be strung behind him I had a chance to grab some photos. Turns out, his name is Blue Steel, fitting for a tough dog to have in the lead.


Not every dog is a lead dog. Mushers must decide which dogs to bring based on their age, muscle build, and personalities. For example, if you put a non-lead dog in the front of the line, it will simply sit there no matter how many other dogs in the back try to run. Another example of working with a dog’s unique personality is the tendency for some dogs to run towards one direction. If one dog likes to run slightly to one direction he may hug the snow drifts and could add speed to the team, but this might not be a good thing if you are in Siberia where the snow blows a different direction from the sea. In addition, if the lead dog wants to run faster than the ideal pace, this could end disastrously in a long distance race where endurance is key. The ideal pace is 9 mph and, if the team is not prepared, any additional speed positive or negative could mean you end up not finishing. The goal is all about the team and knowing the limits of each of the members.


Meeting Monica and her dogs was a quick and nice experience. I snagged a few photos and soon realized I was the only person not wearing a special armband. The entire morning I had been photographing and meeting mushers while being the only person without a special handlers or press pass with access to the teams. It appears like I knew what I was doing because no one said anything to me and Monica herself happened to get out a sign and pose for some photos with Blue Steel.


Later that night, I boarded my flight back home to Chattanooga and posted a few photos to Facebook. My little cousin’s class in New York happens to be following the race. I told him I would post pictures of my favorite team. When I went to find out how Team 58 was doing in the race I could not believe my eyes. An article from the Chattanoogan about Team 58 and Team Headrick was the first thing to pop up in the search. Two local doctors from Chattanooga had decided to sponsor Monica and her dogs for the 2017 Iditarod.


It is a small world we live in and great opportunities will find you if you seek them. Dr. Headrick and Dr. Portera decided Monica and her team were ready for a great challenge just like the challenges they face every day practicing medicine. I was lucky enough to have a chance to meet the team in a serendipitous encounter. Good luck to Team 58 and Team Headrick for representing Chattanooga. Remember Monica, if you look like a winner, you are a winner.

-Evan Thibaud

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