The Iditarod came to Fairbanks this year. It’s a big deal because the 1,000-mile race doesn’t usually begin in Fairbanks, but thanks to shifts in climate (or not), the race was moved northward to the land of ice and snow.
While I cannot claim to know the mind that compels a person to stand on a sled for hundreds of hours in environmental conditions that even David Attenborough would probably define as “sucky”, apparently it’s something that some humans like to do. For the rest of the world, or at least the rest of Alaska, it’s certainly a source of entertainment, gambling, and 6 MPH drama.
While puffy bunches of grape-like tourists and locals alike were packing into a shuttle to go watch the start of the famous race, my attention drifted toward a highly unattractive beige building. “Fairbanks Curling Club” was written in standard blue cursive on the side, and a reader-board spelled out the big news: The “masters of curling” tournament was being held inside for three days only.
In no universe could I pass up to see masters of anything in favor of watching cold dogs slowly loping off into the snow.
“Let me see these masters.” I said to myself.
Master and Secret Masters
Curling Club Audio Profile
The scene in the very 70’s curling club was decidedly Alaskan, by which I mean vaguely faded and in need of paint. There were stairs going up to a pub/viewing deck that looked down over the chilled-competitors, and stairs going down to the subterranean expanse of curling-club lockers, seating, a small kitchen, and more seating. The entire far wall in the rectangular room was composed of windows, occasionally punctuated by squeaky old doors that curlers used incessantly to go in and out of the rink. If it’s called a rink.
I was glad I was wearing my Carhartt hat, or I would have probably been immediately ejected from the club, as I quickly assessed that this bunch of players and spectators was composed of only Alaskans. I can be fairly certain of this because all coats and pants were stitched, accessorized with generous strips of duct-tape, and generally faded from spending too much time with old man winter. As I drifted through the small crowd, I could smell vague traces of sawdust, petrol, and dog-hair. The Alaskan trinity. I overheard the purest and most ancient form of communication: complaining about visitors and tourists who “just don’t understand”. In this case they were taking jabs at visitors who came to watch a bunch of dogs slowly traipsing through deep snow, bearing humans and food for nearly 1,000 miles.
Of course we, tourists, don’t understand. It’s a weird thing you guys are into.
But I wasn’t here for the scorn of Alaskans, I was here to watch some top-shelf whatever-the-hell curling is. Of Scottish origins, curling basically involves sliding very heavy, polished stones over ice to land them in the “house”. It’s like shuffleboard except you are not allowed to be drunk while you’re doing it because of the high likelihood of prematurely terminating your life.
There are presumably other rules and other interesting aspects of the game and history that would surely make for a gripping narrative, but those are not the things that I care about. What I care about is the two gentlemen who had preposterously large beards who were out on the ice bearing very strange accessories. While multiple teams were engaged in competition so white-hot that I’m frankly baffled the ice wasn’t melting, these two guys were walking from match to match, one with a giant broom that was so wide and ungainly that he wore a harness to push it forward along the ice, and another wearing what looked like a ghost-busting backpack of some kind.
I am not a winter-sports expert, and I have only seen curling on TV a few times, but I can’t recall ghosts being involved in any way. I peered from frosty corner to frosty corner out on the ice, and as I was unable to detect any phantasmagorical presence at all, I think it’s safe to assume he was not busting ghosts. On the other hand, his backpack did have a hose leading to a sort of hand-held cylindrical buster-like apparatus, so I really don’t know what to believe. After some additional recon (and also asking people), I came to learn that he was peppering the ice with de-ionized water.
“Right,” I said knowingly”you have to keep all those ions away from the ice.”.
The woman nodded at me, wondering if I had adult supervision.
“And they DON’T really even use those to catch ghosts, right?” I said, chuckling in attempt to get her to level with me.
“Often.” I corrected myself, trying to judge her response. “They don’t use those to catch ghosts OFTEN, I mean, right?”
She did not respond.
While he peppered water onto the ice, the broom-master made long, latitudinal passes up and down the space in between the houses, (the target-looking things where throwers try and get the stones to stay put). Like unruly teens, the “parents” had to throw these stones into the house, but they never seemed to want to stay there, because there were concerts they wanted to go to, and drugs they wanted to experiment with, probably.
The broom swept across what we can call “the ice bridge”, though I have only made this term up right now. At the end of each pass, he would heft his broom into the air where a man with a smaller broom (regrettably, the man himself was regular-sized and not tiny) would give it a quick brushing down with a WHOLE NOTHER BRUSH, cleaning the surface before the broom-master turned and made yet another journey to the other end of the ice bridge. In this way, the two men cared for the ice like two doting gay fathers; one to sweep away the pain and detritus that life brings, and one to spray de-ionized water at the child.
Were they paid, the broom-master and water-fellow? Did they go to school to study ice-care? Or was this just instinctual ice-care, something that one is qualified for simply by logging a certain number of years below 32 degrees, Fahrenheit? These are questions I do not have the answers to, because I did not ask them because I was fairly busy asking everyone if I could go out on the ice, just for a minute, and being told “no”, over and over.
No Pomp, No Circumstance
I was not able to stick around to witness the undoubtedly gripping finale to the curling tournament, because as I have described in previous entries, I am bound to drive Chinese tourists around until all my karmic debts have been erased. But I found the phone number for the Curling Club when I got home and gave the manager, Christine, a call.
“How is it decided how many trophies the broom-guy and water-guy get? Is there a committee, or are they just guaranteed a certain number of gold-medals for their valor?” I asked.
“I’m sorry?” She responded, obviously not understanding the question, though it seemed fairly straight-forward to me.
“I just wanted a bit more insight into the award ceremony involved with the broom-master and the water-fellow, and sort of how that all comes together.” I said, trying to be as clear as possible.
“Who is this?” She asked. “Is this a joke?”
“Is ice-care a joke to you, Christine? Do you think it’s a closed-system that magically curates itself? Or are you, too, lost in the dazzling spotlights of Big Curling, and you’ve forgotten all the bodies you had to climb over to reach your lofty throne? Forget it!” I said, ending the call. There was no receiver on cell-phones to slam down, punctuating a fiery end to a phone call, so I slammed my fist down on a stapler. But the staple flew off into the carpet, and I had a heck of a time finding that thing.
I was disappointed with the apparent lack of ceremony for the curling maintenance division, but I guess that’s life. There are no janitorial olympics.
For the curlers’ part, I can’t really recall which team won, nor do I even really understand if curlers want to get more points or less. Or really what curling is, for that matter. Something to do with rocks, I guess.