ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- It figures. After flying thousands of miles and writing 1,000 or so words about how he wanted "to escape the city life" and "breathe calmly while surrounded by the Alaskan snow," Police Athletic League essay contest winner D'Antoine Webb found himself in a traffic jam yesterday morning.
A traffic jam of dog sleds, that is.
But 15-year-old D'Antoine wasn't complaining about the backup, as he and Baltimore racer Dan Dent waited their turn to ride past a crowd of well-wishers for the ceremonial start of the 1999 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
"It's great up here," D'Antoine said.
An orange cushion tucked behind his back, a camp stove and other supplies at his feet and goggles on his face, the Baltimore teen was shoehorned into the pouch-covered sled and so bundled up he was barely identifiable but for the grin and the PAL flag he waved every time the sled moved.
For Dent and the other 56 Iditarod competitors, the real race -- a roughly 1,100-mile endurance run to Nome -- doesn't begin until 11 a.m. today in Wasilla, a small city that's about a 40-mile drive north of Anchorage. Nevertheless, the ceremonial start, held in Alaska's largest city, draws scores of fans who line the streets and cheer as each musher is announced and rides by.
For D'Antoine, the first 11 miles or so of the ceremonial start -- a distance that wouldn't even get him out of the city of Anchorage -- was the whole point of his 3,300-mile journey from Baltimore.
Last month, the teen won a Baltimore-wide essay contest designed to promote PAL and motivate its participants, about 7,000 children in the organization's 27 after-school programs.
The contest certainly motivated D'Antoine. When he heard the first-place prize was a trip to Alaska and a ride in the sled of Baltimore Iditarod rookie Dent, he got to work. His "about two hours" of writing effort got him to his goal.
Accompanied by Baltimore PAL police officer Roderick Henry, he arrived in Anchorage on Monday for a week of sightseeing that culminated in his ride. Henry also got to hitch a ride with a musher.
As had been the case throughout D'Antoine's visit, the conditions were perfect for a visitor new to Alaska's beauty. The sun shone brightly, the snow-covered Chugach mountain range was outlined against a clear blue sky, and the temperature was a balmy 22 degrees above zero.
The teen has captured the hearts of many during his brief stay in the northern city. Although about 250 others have ridden as mushers' guests, called "Idita-riders," most of them get their chance by winning the spot in an auction. This year, celebrity Joan Rivers was among the riders.
According to organizers, D'Antoine was the first who'd earned his ride by writing an essay.
Iditarider coordinator Wrex Diem said he was impressed with Dent's "ground-breaking" idea to use his quest to inspire an inner-city teen. "This will rocket a young man that has a great deal of potential and it will propel him into points unknown."
In his time here, D'Antoine has been treated like a star. After an article about him ran on the front page of an Anchorage paper, some children in the city wanted to find out how to be his pen pal, and local families and businesses wanted to offer him gifts or invite him to join in their Iditarod celebrations.
Former Silver Spring residents Lisa and Paul Cooley, who moved to Alaska about eight years ago, said they made sure they were out on the trail yesterday morning to cheer the two on.
"We yelled, `Go Orioles,' " said Lisa Cooley.
They also invited D'Antoine to a family cookout. The teen couldn't make their party, but the Cooley family did manage to slip him a hot dog at the end of his ride.
"It was just neat to see his enthusiasm," she said.
At a banquet for mushers held the night before the race, Dent brought D'Antoine up with him for his few moments before the cameras. After telling about his sponsor, PAL, Dent introduced D'Antoine, calling him "an early winner in the '99 Iditarod."
As the audience applauded, D'Antoine beamed, then left the stage with Dent to sign autographs.
Also at the banquet, D'Antoine met the legendary musher who founded the Iditarod, Joe Redington, whom he refers to as "a very honorable person."
The accolades and the meeting with a famous musher have given D'Antoine some ideas. Now, in addition to entering the CIA or FBI, the teen has some other plans. Next year, he said, he's going to publish a book about his adventure. And after that?
"I'm going to come back," he said, "and I'm going to race."
Pub Date: 3/07/99