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Iditarod racer and dogs get warm thoughts, snow boots

Surrounded by the deep blue glaciers of America’s Last Frontier, photographer Ansel Adams opined that “Alaska was an experience best saved for life’s golden years, so the world’s other landmarks didn’t seem so underwhelming.”

The land is so captivating that vacationers have been known to return home, quit their jobs, sell their houses and head north. Take Kim and Randy Cummins, for example.

Kim, who grew up in the Spokane Valley, got the Alaska bug six years ago while on vacation in coastal Seward.

The Aqua-Velva blue glaciers and the snowy peaks erupting 4,000 feet upward from Seward’s seashore reminded her of Glacier National Park, where her grandfather was a ranger.

“I told my grandmother it was like Glacier National Park, except I saw whales today,” Kim said.

Soon, Kim was searching for an Anchorage real estate agent and giving notice back in Spokane at Rockwood Clinic where she was a registered nurse. She wasn’t married to Randy Cummins yet.

Randy, a doctor in Rockwood’s Urgent Care clinics, hadn’t seen Alaska. But when he flew to Anchorage for a visit around the time of Alaska’s epic sled dog race, he too was enraptured.

“I came up, and I watched the start of the 2002 Iditarod,” Randy said. “We went down to Anchorage to watch it and that was the beginning of the end.”

Randy abandoned medicine, moved to Alaska in 2003 and became a full-time musher with more than 40 sled dogs. The Cumminses now reside in ultra-rural Big Lake, where they live “off grid,” meaning there are no power lines connecting them to the electrified world. In urban terms, their home is best-described as a spacious studio cabin with just one privacy door, the one leading to the bathroom. They do have phone service, but they have to fire up their gas generator before turning on their computer to surf the Internet.

Sounds like the Cumminses have reached the point of no return as far as Spokane is concerned – except they haven’t. Randy, at age 49, is racing in his first Iditarod on Saturday, and though the route takes him ever northward, it also has placed him in the center of attention at Tim and Betty Foley’s home in Veradale. The Foleys are big Alaska fans, whose summer vacations in the Last Frontier soon turned into winter trips to the Iditarod.

Betty Foley took her interest one step further and volunteered to sew dog booties for this year’s Iditarod. The booties keep the dogs’ paws from becoming caked with snow. Each 16-dog team needs at least 1,000 booties to complete the race. The Iditarod relies on a national “Bootie Brigade” of seamstresses to shoe the dogs.

Foley sewed 419 pairs of booties for this year’s race, and by chance, the Cumminses received the bulk of them.

“It was weird,” Kim said of the chance connection. “She did a great job. We need at least 1,200 pairs of booties to run this race. They wear out. Sometimes a toenail breaks through. Any little hole can let in ice, which is like having a pebble in your shoe when you’re trying to run.”

Mushers hand out worn booties to the audience at the ceremonial start of the race in Anchorage. Randy could be handing an old bootie to the Foleys, who plan to be on the sidelines.

If Randy completes the race, both couples will be celebrating. The race is a grueling battery of frost, distance and sleep depravation. Many first-timers fail to finish. Those who quit are considered rookies until they get the job done in some future Iditarod.

The last person across the finish line gets a “red lantern,” symbolic of being so far behind you need to light your way home. That would be OK for the Cumminses, an assurance that when it comes to Alaska, the shoe fits.



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