2012 Portland Urban Iditarod: Things Get Weird in the City of Roses

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What’s a typical Saturday in Portland, OR? Shopping carts dragged through the streets by Power Rangers. 

For weeks, the shopping cart stockpiles of Albertson’s, Fred Myers and Safeway stores across Portland had been mysteriously dwindling. Was it a recall? A conspiracy? A guerrilla marketing campaign devised by Steven Spielberg for a forthcoming sequel to Super 8? Ask any local After Hours Athlete, and we’ll tell you the explanation behind this annual occurrence.

On a rainy, chilly morning in late February, the 2012 Portland Urban Iditarod kicked off under a highway overpass on the east bank of the Willamette River. Fuelled only by beer and their own madness, costumed teams of five (one musher and four “dogs”) raced shopping carts through urban spaces in this spin on the Alaskan winter classic.

San Francisco may have hosted the first known version of the “Urban Iditarod” back in the early ‘90s. But since 2001, Portland has mastered the event. They say “Keep Portland Weird” for a reason, right? Well, things got weird.

Officially, event organizers set the participant limit to 130 teams and a total of 600-650 people (with each team made up of one musher and up to four “dogs”). Unofficially, there were nearly 1000 costumed “racers” parading through the streets. (Which makes sense, considering that online registration filled only eight minutes after opening.) Officially, there were rules. Unofficially, not many of them were followed, although one “musher”, who will remain anonymous, admitted to having to ask a supermarket employee for permission to borrow a cart--she didn't have the nerve to steal one. She even promised to return it after the event.

At the first stop, in a parking lot adjacent to the Grand Cafe, the mass of “dogs” and mushers mingled, admired other team's work and exchanged costume and prop pieces. From there, the day disintegrated beautifully. Although someone was supposedly keeping track of who finished first, the real competition was for who had the best themed cart.

From the topical (Team RIP Whitney) to the 80s-nostalgic (Team Ghostbusters), teams treated the Urban Iditarod like Halloween on steroids. When the dust settled, the winner of the “Best Theme” went to the team “Pope Billy and his Choir”. Their cart was built to resemble a church altar, and the two huge DJ speakers attached to the cart bumped dance music throughout the afternoon. The setup may have been powered by God himself…or maybe just a car battery.

As one member of Team Ghostbusters described it, the day wasn’t an escape from everyday life for Portlanders, but an extension of it. With police cooperation and the support of the whole community (those in trapped vehicles actually smiled and waved at the curious throngs and never blared their horns in anger), the Iditarod shows what our weird little city can do with a little imagination, a lot of beer and 130 shopping carts.

Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of William Chapman-Hale