Dropping Off Drop Bags

One of the last hurdles mushers must overcome on their way to the starting line of the Iditarod is to complete and deliver the drop bags to the Iditarod Trail Committee. It isn’t an easy chore. “Having done it three times,” remembers musher spouse Maureen Morgan, “I can guarantee it takes a lot of time, planning and organization. What goes in what bag and where is important.” Once the bags are packed, of course, mushers must deliver them to the ITC. Some, those not within easy driving distance, choose to ship the bags, bags that are then delivered to central checkpoints. Others deliver them in person.

Here’s a look at that process. Each bag that arrives is packed with something different. Each checkpoint demands different things, just as each musher’s run/rest schedule has an impact on what will go into each checkpoint’s bags. If they’re going to be staying awhile, the bag or bags will be fuller. If they only expect to be passing through, the bags will be fewer and hold only essentials. Maureen Morgan remembers packing these bags. “Imagine your living room or even your driveway completely covered by large bags,” she says. Every spot is covered, if not with bags, with the items to go into them. Karen Ramstead, standing right in the middle of her drop bags as they wait outside to be packed into her dog truck for deliver to Anchorage would probably agree.

It’s a huge undertaking, one Karen reports took about five hours to complete. Morgan remembers spending days in the kitchen just preparing her husband Bob’s food bags. “Each item was cooked, frozen and then put into a food saver, airtight bag,” she says. On the trail, the musher will “take these bags and drop them in the cooker as he is melting snow for water for the dogs. Yes, they share the same cooker.” Besides food items for the musher, of course, the bags will contain dog food, supplies needed at checkpoints such as snaps, extra ganglines, and more. In the photo right, taken by Donna Quante in 2007, Karen stands beside her bags as they wait to be loaded into her dog truck for deliver to Anchorage. These are the bags that are delivered to the Iditarod Trail Committee.

For mushers in the Anchorage area, the procedure starts with a drive to the shipping point. Once there, they back their truck up to the door and then the volunteers take over. Karen is shown arriving at the warehouse in 2004 to drop off her bags. Volunteers quickly unpack the bags from the truck, moving them toward the front of the area. There, they will be claimed by more volunteers, weighed and then taken to a designated pile for shipment later to that checkpoint. The different colors and different colored lettering is designed to make the bags easier to sort. Occasionally, mechanical help is used, such as when large packets of bags are unloaded from semi-trucks. Once they reach the front of the room, volunteers weigh each bag, calling out the weight so those sitting at nearby tables can record the weight for the eventually tally. Here the bag is being set on the scale (built into the floor) to be weighed. This volunteer calls out the weight, then those at the adjacent table write down the total as part of a running tab. At the end of the process, mushers will step up to the table to learn how many pounds they’ve shipped and what the cost to them is. Here, the bags have been weighed and are being passed back a line of volunteers to be taken to the proper checkpoint location. Karen Ramstead, black jacket right, watches with interest in 2007.

It’s the combined weight that will determine the cost to her. Once weighed, the bags make their way to the proper pile. Those savvy enough to read the bags can perhaps read something into a musher’s planned run/rest schedule based on the size of the bags, but for most the bags tend to blend together. Note that by 2007, standing name posts were being used to mark the site for each checkpoint’s bags. In 2004, checkpoint names were simply on tape beside each stack. It’s a process that is repeated and repeated throughout the day as musher after musher arrives. Hard work? You bet it is, but the volunteers have fun, too, which is why most of them come back year after year to help with dropped bag. During lulls in action, I caught a group playing an impromptu game of volleyball with one of the air-filled bags that comes with the shipped dropped bags to protect them from being crushed.

As tempted as I was to join the game, I restrained myself, but can tell you that the bag seemed to be made of the same sort of paper a paper feed sack might be contructed from, but was sealed and air tight. They made great volleyballs! Moments later, it was back to work. The line constantly moves forward, one bag per volunteer so that no one person winds up carrying countless bags one after the other. This photo was taken from behind the table where totals were being tallied, looking out across the expanse.

My hunch is that these bags are some of those that mushers most look forward to being reunited with, those bound for Nome. Jessie Royer’s bags were on top of this 2004 stack.

Interestingly enough, right beside it, seen behind the volunteer above, is an empty stack. That one is reserved for any bags being shipped to Safety. Since few mushers stay long at Safety, they are not required to ship bags there. Few do. Should extra bags be needed in case of a break or spill, they are available. Mushers can also simply turn an extra bag for, say, McGrath, inside out and use it for White Mountain simply by writing the designated checkpoint on the now blank side of the bag.