12/4/2013 12:44:00 PM Chetek woman runs with the reindeer
Ruth Erickson Chronotype staff
Always ready for an adventure, Diane Fjelstad of Chetek took part in this year's Running of the Reindeer in Anchorage, Alaska. She and her son, Eric, who is an environmental lawyer in Anchorage, were among a crowd of participants from all over Alaska and across the globe. The event is a fundraiser for Toys for Tots and is a fun way to brighten the lives of little Alaskans. "I believe the registration brings in tons of dollars," Fjelstad said. While her son did not dress up, many runners don goofy costumes to add to the challenge of outrunning the reindeer. Fjelstad showed off her Packer pride with her jersey, scarf and cheesehead. It was a good choice. The bright gold headpiece shows up on some YouTube videos of the race found online. Runners sign up for one of four races or "herds." Out- of-state visitors go first, followed by male singles, then female singles and, lastly, couples or groups. While Fjelstad could have started in the first group, she ran with her son in the last group out of the chute. Runners are given a head start, then a half-dozen male reindeer in heat are released. "The only way to get them to the end of the race is to have a female waiting for them," Fjelstad said. "We got about two blocks down the route when they let them go," she said. "The snow was really mushy, really deep," Fjelstad said. "I ran a few yards, then slowed to a jog," she said. Because the course is snow covered, it is quiet. "You don't hear them coming," she said of the reindeer. "You have to look back all the time." Fjelstad said the reindeer are not vicious, but it requires some caution to run with them so as to stay clear of their sharp antlers. "Other than you don't want to get poked by them, they were very gentle," she said. Many runners would reach out to pet or stroke them during the run. Although the reindeer run is just for fun, it is a popular attraction. "It is just a huge, huge race," she said of the sixth annual event held March 4, with a temperature in the mid-30s. Eric commented, "There are people everywhere running down the street curb to curb and most in costumes, including people running in shorts, and bare-chested! The reindeer are right in the middle of all of this, racing down the street to get to the end." As soon as the race on the snow-covered half-mile course is over, the reindeer are put back into pens and the road is immediately cleared of all hoof prints and footprints.
Dogs, then reindeer "The history of the Run with Reindeer race is interesting," said Eric. "It was the brainchild of a couple of local DJs who wanted to stem the decline in participation to Anchorage's winter celebration called Fur Rondy. They came up with the idea of the race, modeled on Running of the Bulls. It was a hit from the first minute, and is huge today, drawing thousands of spectators." The reindeer run takes place on Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage during the afternoon following the send-off of the Iditarod sled dog race. Fjelstad said road crews begin bringing in the snow after the close of a business day on the day prior to the race and continue trucking it in and preparing the course all night long. By morning, when the mushers and dogs are ready to start the world-renowned sled dog race, the course is ready. "I've watched the start several times," Fjelstad said. "It's just a riot. Those dogs just want to run. They are leaping and jumping in the air just wild to go." She said that the first time she watched the start, she called her grandkids on her cell phone so they could hear the dogs, who yip and yelp with excitement until the start of the race. "I think the dog handlers just release a brake at the end of the countdown," she said. "The dogs take off when they feel the brake released as they're just bounding to get started."
Spirited events In addition to the sled dog race and reindeer run, Anchorage's 3-day Fur Rondy Festival features attractions for all-a fur auction, blanket toss, carnival, parade, men's snowshoe softball and more. The festival, which is nearly 80 years old, began in mid-February 1935 to coincide with the time that miners and trappers came to town with their winter's yield. Sports tournaments, a children's sled dog race, bonfire and torchlight parade were part of the festival's early years. The world championship sled dog race debuted in 1946 and has become the cornerstone event of the festival, attracting teams of sled dogs from all over the world. In addition to the Running of the Reindeer, other newer events that have been added to the festival to showcase the frontier spirit are the Frostbite Footrace, Snow Sculpture contest, Family Night Skate, Dog Weight Pull, Miners' and Trappers' Charity Ball and Multitribal Gathering.
Frontier fever "I've had Alaska in me for a long time," said Fjelstad, who taught English classes at Chetek High School from 1970-1999. "The first time I went to Alaska was in the 1970s," she said. "I took a group of students from Chetek on a Domestic Exchange to an Athabascan Indian village of 185 people in the bush country in a town called Nondulton." The trip was memorable because the group got snowed in and had no access to telephone communication to inform the parents of the students that their arrival in Seattle would be delayed. Finally two missionaries with a ham radio were able to reach someone in Rice Lake, who relayed the message to the anxious parents. "A few years later, I took another exchange group to an Eskimo village in Newhalen." Since then, many trips with family members have ensued. "I was the first in my family to go to Alaska," said Fjelstad, an avid traveler, whose family soon caught the frontier fever. When her ex-husband, an ardent fisherman, heard of the prime fishing to be had, he headed there. Their two sons and grandchildren have followed into The Last Frontier. Her oldest son, Koll, settled in Pulaski and is working in partnership with the cooperative education service agency in Green Bay, on a program funded by businesses for seniors who want to go directly into the workforce. After graduating from Marquette University, Eric went to Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland and took his first job as an attorney in Ketchikan-Alaska's first city known for its salmon and the world's largest collection of standing totem poles. "He loves to fish," said Fjelstad. "He was in his glory." After a few years, when a more diverse opportunity to practice environmental law came up, Eric accepted a position in Anchorage at Perkins Coie, an international law firm ranked first in environmental law. While renowned as a top-ranked environmental attorney, Eric hasn't forgotten his roots. "He is down to earth," said his mother. "He hasn't lost track of his roots in Chetek. He comes home every October for a week to hunt grouse. The brothers hunt together. It's an annual thing."
Many hobbies Fjelstad is not home much even when she is home because the retiree has so many hobbies and pastimes. As a ballroom dancer with her partner Doug Riley of New Auburn, she teaches swing dance lessons and rumba through the Chetek Community Education program. New classes start in January. As a bicyclist, Fjelstad has taken part in many bike tours, most recently with a girlfriend in Lanesboro, the bed and breakfast capital of Minnesota. As a volunteer, she helps with the Red Cedar Environmental Institute, a charter school for Chetek-Weyerhaeuser middle school students. As a Supreme Court appointee, she is on her last term with the Office of Lawyer Regulation, which investigates complaints against attorneys in this district. She has enjoyed taking part in the investigations, even when they have taken her to maximum security prisons to interview prisoners.
No place like alaska Since retiring from teaching, Fjelstad has traveled the world over-Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, six Eastern European countries, all of the Scandinavian countries, New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Greece and the Spanish island of Mallorca as well as Israel and Egypt. Despite all she has seen and experienced, Fjelstad has no favorite place on earth and has found that every place has its own charm. Yet she returns to Alaska time and again when on the look out for adventure. As a high school graduation gift, she took granddaughter Nikoll on a trip to Alaska. On a tour through Denali National Park, they got to see the peaks of Denali and "the big five"-moose, caribou, wolves, grizzlies and mountain goats-along with a variety of small animals. They also rented bikes and went on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail and visited the glaciers. Fjelstad said they used to call it the 27 Glaciers Tour, but there are no longer 27 glaciers. She commented, "Three times I've done the tour and each time there are fewer glaciers and you could just see melting going on. I have walked on the Portage Glacier, which doesn't even exist anymore." Last year Fjelstad visited her son in Alaska in late winter and her sister in Hawaii in the spring. Folks told her she should have taken her trips the other way around. However, the adventurer had her reasons for going to Alaska in late February/early March. She wanted to be among those who have run with the reindeer, a once-in-a-lifetime experience she will never forget. The 2014 Running of the Reindeer event is March 1. Visit the website, "www.furrondy.net" for further details on it and other Alaskan adventures.