Hitching a ride in the Iditarod

Contest: Baltimore Police Athletic League sends young essayist to Alaska for his own little place in the famed dog sled race.

February 03, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

D'Antoine Webb dreams of one day joining the CIA. Or maybe the FBI.

But first the 14-year-old North Baltimore boy is going to ride on a dog sled, in Alaska, for the start of next month's 1,100-mile Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome. And that's no dream.

D'Antoine, a student at Pimlico Middle School, was the winner last night of the Baltimore Police Athletic League's "I Did It for PAL" essay contest.

At a crowded and stifling, but very happy ceremony last night at Baltimore Police Headquarters, he was chosen from among 121 contestants for a free trip to Anchorage and a place on a dog sled to be driven by musher and PAL board member Dan Dent.

He'll be escorted by Rodrick S. Henry, 33, an officer at Webb's Central Rosemont PAL Center.

Dent, 57, a Baltimore investment adviser, has clocked 900 miles of competitive dog sled racing in the past two years.

He hopes his adventure will raise $500,000 in sponsorships, all of which will go to PAL. He is paying all his own race expenses and PAL's travel costs.

A jubilant D'Antoine said he has never been farther north than Baltimore. He wanted to go to Alaska, he said, "to escape the city life."

Besides, he added, "I'm expecting it's going to be fun, entertaining, exciting and more than likely educational."

His mother, Annette Belin, a nurse at Sinai Hospital, and brother Gerimi, 11, were beaming. "I'm proud. I feel good," Mrs. Webb said.

Officer Henry, who's been as far north as New York City, said that when he told D'Antoine about the contest, "he took it and ran with it. At that moment I knew he would win."

The contest's runners-up were Brandon Kanion, 10, and Daria Buie, 11, both fifth-graders at Waverly Elementary.

The city's 27 PAL Centers serve more than 7,000 boys and girls. They are supported by $1.3 million in charitable donations each year. Taxpayers cover only the salaries of the PAL officers.

PAL provides city children with safe places to go after school. There, they can develop caring relationships with responsible adults and authority figures, and receive help and encouragement on their schoolwork. The centers set firm standards and expectations for behavior, and provide the children with a variety of educational, cultural and athletic opportunities.

The "I Did It for PAL" contestants read three books about the Iditarod, Arctic exploration and Alaskan dog sled racing, all provided by the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Each then wrote an essay touching on three topics: "The reasons I want to be an Idita-Rider"; "Who was the greatest lead dog ever?" and "Who was the greatest Maryland musher and arctic explorer?"

James E. Henson III of Ellicott City, a grandnephew of the Maryland-born, African-American arctic explorer Matthew A. Henson, helped with interviews of the 10 finalists, and with the selection of the winner.

"What you mind can conceive, you can achieve," he told the PAL kids.

In his winning essay, D'Antoine said he wanted "to escape the city life and to breathe calmly while surrounded by the Alaskan snow. I want my heart to pound with excitement as I race along ... I want to look danger in the eye while it calls my name."

In real life, he and Officer Henry will fly to Alaska together on March 1 and stay at the Regal Alaskan Hotel. With the Anchorage Police Department serving as hosts, they will attend the traditional Musher's Banquet the night before the race.

On March 6, D'Antoine will climb aboard Dent's sled, and 16 Alaskan huskies will rocket them down Fourth Street and out of town in the ceremonial first leg of the race.

Officer Henry will ride with former trapper and Iditarod veteran Dario Daniels.

The Idita-riders will climb off after just 8 miles of the first-day's 20-mile run to Eagle River. But they will be driven the next morning to watch the re-start of the race at Wasilla, at the edge of the Alaskan wilderness.

D'Antoine and Henry will then return to Baltimore, where they'll join other children at PAL centers as they follow Dent's progress via the Internet (www.iditarod.com or www.dogsled.com).

The 60 mushers and their dogs will brave Bering Sea winds, angry moose and cold that can reach minus-40 degrees or worse. But mostly they'll be tested by the unexpected as they glide down windswept trails and frozen rivers, stopping at lonely checkpoints with names like Rainy Pass, Shaktoolik and Safety. The slowest teams may need two weeks to reach Nome.

The Iditarod commemorates events in 1925 when mushers teamed up in a cross-country relay to deliver medicine to the isolated city of Nome, where children were threatened by an outbreak of diphtheria.

The Iditarod "has a long tradition of helping children in distress," Dent said.

Launched on a shoestring in 1973 by Alaskan legend Joe Redington Sr., the race now attracts big crowds, national media and corporate sponsors. Professional mushers pursue a top prize of about $50,000.

Dent's age and size -- 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds -- are seen as handicaps. And his entry has become something of a running joke in Alaska, where sports columnists refer to him as "some guy from Baltimore."

But Dent is no longer a novice. He finished two 300-mile races in Alaska last year, and raced again in last month's Copper Basin 300, finishing 20th under difficult snow conditions that forced 13 other mushers to quit. His Iditarod goal, he has said, is simply to finish "next-to-last or better."

More important than winning, Dent believes, are the lessons he hopes Baltimore's PAL kids will learn from tracking his adventure.

"They will learn that it's OK against all odds to seek a goal which others think is beyond one's reach," he said. "And perhaps it's okay to fail if that goal is sought with honesty and passion."

Pub Date: 2/03/99

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