The Iditarod: A Different Sort of March Madness
When five-time Iditarod finisher Jeff Deeter asked me how I got interested in the Iditarod, I blamed Winterdance, Gary Paulson’s 1994 book on his 17-day run to Nome. But really, it seems like at least a small awareness of the Iditarod was always around. Maybe that’s just what happens when you’re raised by wolves.
For the uninitiated, the Iditarod is a 1,000+ mile dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome, dubbed, “The Last Great Race.” Mushers set out alone, with up to 14 dogs, a pile of gear and a dog sled. They stop along the way at checkpoints where previously-packed drop bags refill their supplies. The dogs are the athletes, the mushers the coaches.
The race was first run in 1973, which means this year is the 50th running of the Iditarod. Before planes and snow machines, dogs were how people got around in Alaska. Joe Redington, the “Father of the Iditarod,” wanted to preserve the tradition of running sled dogs in Alaska, and that’s how the race came to be, as an homage to sled dogs.
Last year, when I went to Alaska, I hadn’t initially planned to visit any kennels. In retrospect, this seems ridiculous. I am a super fan of few things, but one of those things is definitely the Iditarod. That’s why I booked a last minute visit to Jeff King’s Husky Homestead in the literal last hour I had in Denali. I was so short time, I almost missed my shuttle.
I met sled dog puppies, and then, Amanda Otto, running her rookie Iditarod this year with Jeff King’s dogs, gave us an introduction to the dogs and the basics of running a dog sled team. It was August and snowing, big fat, fluffy flakes falling all around us. It was picture perfect.
After Amanda’s intro, we went inside to to hear from the legendary Jeff King.
I listened, rapt, as he talked about sled design, female Iditarod winners, sleep deprivation and dog care. The thing is, Jeff King was winning Iditarods when I first started paying attention to the Iditarod. He won his first race in 1993 and followed that up with wins in 1996, 1998 and 2006. He’s a big fucking deal.
When Jeff finished his talk, when he encouraged people to come up and say hi, I shoved some kids out of the way and ran to him. Then, I fangirled.
“Hi, hello,” I said. “It’s so nice to meet you, you’re a legend, this is such an honor.”
I might have squealed, I don’t know. I blacked out a little.
“Do I know you?” Jeff asked.
“No, I’m just a huge, huge fan,” I gushed. “Thank you for all that you’ve done for the sport, and also, can I get a selfie?”
In Fairbanks the next day, my last day in Alaska, I completely trashed my original plan. I was going to hike. Maybe visit the hot springs. But I was tired. I’d been going and going and going and so, instead of hitting a trail, I hit a brewery. A good one.
Beer in hand, I schemed. Who, I wondered, were the Fairbanks-based mushers? I scrolled through Instagram, looking through the mushers I already followed, trying to remember, and there, of course, was Black Spruce Dog Sledding, home to Jeff and KattiJo Deeter. I looked at their tour options, checked my flight times and realized an evening husky hike with a pack of puppies and the Deeters would make the perfect capstone to my Alaskan adventure.
When I got there, a dog named Fierce helped guide my car into the parking area and there was Jeff Deeter, waving me in alongside KattiJo. Jeff is a serious up-and-comer. He’s improved his standing every year he’s run the race and finished in the top 20 the last few years, placing 12th last year.
I spent two hours there. First, we met the puppies. Then, we went for a walk in the woods. We talked about the dogs, about their upcoming races, about training, about Alaska, about how they met, about all the things, really. They gave me book recommendations and told me to consider volunteering for the Iditarod, a thing I really want to do.
Right now, we’re a few days into the 50th running of the Iditarod. Leaders will finish in around eight days, give or take, with the back of the pack rolling in over the following days. After visiting Alaska, after meeting mushers and, most especially, after meeting dogs, I’m probably even more obsessed with the Iditarod than I was before.
There’s just something about it. It’s people, mere humans, in the wild with a team of dogs, some stuff and some things moving forward despite the odds, despite shit weather, bad trail conditions, wildlife encounters and sleep deprivation. It’s a special sort of magic, a special sort of toughness, a special sort of reliance on the best of friends.