Ask me when Iditarod begins and I’ll reply, “The last Saturday of February.” Ardent Iditarod fans might attempt to set me straight with, “Don’t you mean the first Saturday of March?” But no, I stand firm. Iditarod begins with the Jr. Iditarod and that happens the last weekend of February. The young mushers that run the 150-mile junior race are the future of Iditarod as well as the sport of mushing.
Take time on the worst weather day of the year when an Internet search is as close to going outside, as you want to get and compare the archives of the junior race and the Iditarod. Looking at the list of the mushers heading to the start in 2019, there are eight who’ve made the run out to Yentna Station Roadhouse and back as Jr. Iditarod mushers. The list includes but isn’t limited to (just incase I didn’t count right), Travis Beals, Aaron Burmeister, Lance Mackey, Wade Marrs, Ramey Smyth, Jeff Deeter, Ryan Redington and Jessica Klejka.
There has never been a Jr. Iditarod champion who has gone on to become an Iditarod champion. If that were to happen in 2019, it would be up to Ramey Smyth, Jessica Klejka or Ryan Redington. Smyth won as a rookie in ’92 and made it a duo in ’93. Ryan Redington scored a pair of victories in ’99 and ’00. Jessica Klejka won her final Jr. Iditarod run in 2008 by a slim 2-second margin over Cain Carter.
This February will mark the 42nd running of the Jr. Iditarod. Just like the Iditarod, the Jr. Iditarod began as a dream. Joe Redington, Sr. dreamed of a long distance race across Alaska to keep both the sled dog and the old Iditarod mail trails from becoming extinct. Eric Beeman dreamed of a distance race for young mushers to help prepare them for the “Big Race”. Beeman shared his dream with his young mushing friends while on winter camping trips with their dogs. As the young mushers sat around the campfire listening to Eric’s idea of a junior length Iditarod, the concept grew in their minds and took on energy.
The folks working hard on the “Big Race,” had little if any time to lend their hand in organizing a junior race. When the kids themselves brought Beeman’s dream to Joe, Sr., he like others was intrigued and supported the idea with encouragement. The kids carried Joe’s words, “Go for it,” in their hearts as a blessing to continue the pursuit of their dream. With the help of parents and mushing enthusiasts, Eric’s dream developed into a first class junior mushing event.
A long time volunteer for the Jr. Iditarod praises the 14 to 17 year old mushers, “The kids have astonished me year after year with their abilities and dedication to the race and their dogs. They demonstrate good judgment, maturity, resourcefulness, preparedness and excellent sportsmanship.
Follow the Jr. Iditarod, meet the mushers, learn about the history, check the archives, enjoy photos and read Jr. Iditarod news at www.jriditarod.com.