BOWERS A MAN OF MANY PARTS
The inscription Don Bowers wrote for me in his mushing book read, "We're all crazy in some way up here (some more than others, I guess). See you on the trail."
The book, "Back of the Pack: An Iditarod Rookie Musher's Alaska Pilgrimage to Nome," came out in 1998, but Bowers never stopped writing down his mushing adventures. He also never stopped trying to figure out a faster way to cross Alaska by dog team.
Bowers was one of those Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race junkies who never contend for first-place cash but who keep coming back. He would have been joyously delirious to make the top 20.
He never did in five Iditarod tries.
And he never will.
The Montana Creek musher died at age 52 last week, along with three other people, when the small plane he was piloting went down in a fiery crash southwest of Mount McKinley. The accident occurred only a few days before Bowers planned to sign up to race the Iditarod for a sixth time in 2001.
The last time I saw Don Bowers was in March in Nome. He energetically, enthusiastically, passionately discussed the Iditarod Trail and his worry that it was being chewed up by snowmachines.
That was Don. Opinionated, vocal and trying to fix the problem.
Though I knew Bowers from the Iditarod, he was a man of many parts: pilot, schoolteacher, writer. And he had a wonderful sense of humor. One of Bowers' involvements was the Talkeetna Bachelor Auction.
Every year Bowers put himself up for sale. It was a ritual for Bowers to troop into the hall in mushing gear and announce he was fresh off the trail. Then he unzipped his overgarment, and - voila - there he stood in a tuxedo. He was short but powerfully built and wore a thick beard. A few years ago, Linda Billington of Anchorage offered the $40 winning bid on Bowers at the auction.
Billington's investment bought a drink and a dance with Bowers. And a friendship. When a pal of hers from St. Louis visited Alaska, Bowers took the woman for a dog sled ride at minus 20 degrees. It was the highlight of her friend's trip, Billington said.
Bowers first competed in the 1,100-mile race between Anchorage and Nome in 1995. He scratched. In 1996 he was 48th, in 1997 40th. In 1998, he scratched again, and in 1999 he was 44th.
In McGrath during that race, Bowers joked, "I've got the world's greatest 81/2-mph dog team." Then he reconsidered and upgraded to 9 mph: "They'll go faster at night."
Fast enough to record his best time of 13 days, 15 hours, 37 minutes, even if he was way slower than the leaders.
Bowers signed up for the 2000 race but withdrew, instead using his dog team to join Norman Vaughn's 75th anniversary re-creation of the Serum Run between Nenana and Nome.
Last Monday, only a few hours before his plane crashed, Bowers phoned Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla, according to race executive director Stan Hooley. As he hung up, Bowers said, "See you Saturday."
Saturday was sign-up day for 2001, but instead of seeing Iditarod officials and fellow mushers that day, Bowers was being mourned. On a table set up next to the headquarters rested framed color pictures of Bowers and a memory book. Friends wrote comments in the book that will go to Bowers' family.
Bowers recorded his own Iditarod commentary in a feature called "Iditarod Trail Notes" on line. It apparently had quite a readership. Hooley said between 50 and 100 condolence e-mails came to the Iditarod from around the country when word spread about Bowers' death.
"I'm amazed how many people contacted us," said Iditarod Trail Committee president Rick Koch. "He must have corresponded with hundreds of people."
Saturday, at an Iditarod members meeting, Koch read several messages. In part they read:
"I was saddened to hear of this tragedy. I will miss Don's writings about the Iditarod. He made everything come alive for those of us who live far away and who don't get to experience the Iditarod first-hand."
"Ohmigosh, I'm in shock. I just can't believe he's gone."
"Mr. Bowers was my connection to Alaska and the Iditarod, mainly due to his wonderful book. It was because of Don that I became a member of the Iditarod Trail Committee."
Willow musher Juan Alcina said he also admired Bowers' incisive trail notes.
"He knew he wasn't going to win the race," Alcina said. "But he did a lot for the race. I read it a lot. I kept using it. It was to share with people."
In midafternoon Saturday, members of the Iditarod Air Force - Bowers' initial Iditarod connection - conducted a flyby in his memory. Mushers, officials, volunteers and fans gazed at the heavens for a moment of silence.
Race officials made Bowers co-honorary musher for the start of next year's race. But that won't make the words scrawled in my book come true - sadly I won't be seeing Don Bowers on the trail again.
This column is the opinion of Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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