‘Mushergrams,’ special pizza deliveries await mushers in Unalakleet
Communication has come a long way since the telegram, but on the Iditarod Trail, texting and social media are not usually available to mushers headed to Nome. If you want to send a message to a musher mid-race, you send a “mushergram.”
Inside the Unalakleet checkpoint, stacks of handwritten notes are laid out on a pool table. Each one lists the musher it’s intended for, their bib number, the sender’s name and a short message.
“It’s so fun,” said volunteer Nan Elliot, as she organized the messages, “and I’m sure it’s great for [the mushers] too, once they have a few hours of sleep.”
Mushergrams come to checkpoints by way of a volunteer-run phone room in Anchorage. Fans, friends and family can call in and relay a message to a volunteer. The Iditarod Trail Committee then does its best to get the message to a checkpoint ahead of the mushers.
The first four front-runners to reach the coast – Nicolas Petit, Peter Kaiser, Joar Leifseth Ulsom and Jessie Royer – blazed through the checkpoint Sunday, with only Petit stopping long enough to come inside.
Blair Braverman is a rookie toward the back of the pack, but she has the lead in mushergrams.
“Everybody else’s we count, hers we weigh,” joked volunteer Rob Johnson.
Johnson said mushergrams have been around for a while, but not in this quantity.
“This year, it has, I would say, gotten out of hand in a positive way,” he said.
He estimates there were several hundred mushergrams at the Unalakleet checkpoint, and attributes the large number to the power of social media.
“[Braverman] has like 6,000 followers,” Johnson explained. “Somebody kinda made a nasty comment about, ‘Go back to your ugly dogs,’ and kinda upset those other 5,999 followers, to the point that they have flooded her with a ton.”
As of 6 p.m. on Monday, Braverman had 71,000 followers on Twitter.
Sunday, Braverman’s large stack of mushergrams stood out from the rest.
“Oh my gosh,” Elliot said with a chuckle, “This is the new age of dog mushing on the Iditarod Trail.”
According to Johnson, the group used social media to encourage people to send messages of support and encouragement to other mushers too, and even sent doughnuts to the Anchorage volunteers taking the calls.
After traveling 737 miles of trail to the coast, words aren’t the only way to send a message in Unalakleet.
At Peace on Earth, a restaurant known for its pizza, Bret Hanson spent the day taking orders over the phone and watching mushers on a GPS tracker.
“I don’t even remember how it actually started. Somebody called and they were following mushers and they just called and asked if we could deliver a pizza,” he explained. “Now it’s just become a regular thing. It’s been years now since the beginning.”
During Iditarod time, he takes pizza orders from across the planet. He says the memory of one particular delivery to a musher in the past inspires him to keep the service going.
“Just the glow on his face makes me realize how it can change in a second, the feeling you have when somebody who cares about you, and you care about them, all of a sudden out here after six or seven days on the trail, says, ‘Here, we love you,’ and it’s somethin’ else to see it. I love it. It’s fun. It’s the highlight of the year actually, to see helping people that much and making them feel that good, even if it’s only for a moment,” Hanson said.
Sometimes they take orders from multiple people for one musher. Once, they delivered 10 pizzas to a single musher.
This year, the team went above and beyond to deliver. Jessie Royer, the first musher to come through with a pizza order, was back on the trail in a matter of minutes, so they caught up with her by snow machine to hand off the pizzas.
Jessie Holmes, another musher whose fans ordered pizzas, showed up Sunday evening and decided to stay and rest for a while.
Davida Hanson took his pizza to the checkpoint, then walked down to the sled to make sure he knew it was waiting.
“This is like the best place to eat on the whole trail,” Holmes told her. “I think it’d be pretty hard to blow through here.”
After caring for his dogs, Holmes went inside where two boxes of pizzas awaited him. He didn’t recognize the senders but was grateful for the gesture and shared his pizza with the local children inside the checkpoint.
Then Johnson handed him a stack of mushergrams.
“That’s so cool,” Holmes said, reading the notes.
With less than 300 miles to go, his stop in Unalakleet will help him push on to Nome.
“It’s awesome,” Holmes said. “I think, you know, you just really look forward to coming to Unalakleet. You got about 250 more miles of the race to go, everybody’s really excited for the race here, and to have one of my fans buy two pizzas to where I could share it with everybody is super nice.”
Inside the kitchen, Bret’s list of orders grew throughout the day. Each ticket had a note on it from the customer that gets written on the box before delivery.
“I keep these,” he said, pointing to the tickets, “So I know what happened and who it went to and all that kind of stuff. Just history, but cool history, you know?”
You can call 907-248-MUSH (6874) to send a mushergram, and 907-624-3373 to order a pizza for a musher who has yet to arrive in Unalakleet.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to accurately show the number of followers musher Blair Braverman has on Twitter.
Copyright 2019 KTVA. All rights reserved.
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