May 25, 2019

Eye on the Trail: Jr. Iditarod Celebrates Success

Anna Stephan, winner of the 2019 Jr. Iditarod poses with her leaders Rocky and North at the finish line in Willow, Alaska. Sunday February 24, 2019
Photo by Jeff Schultz/ (C) 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

While some might think that when the Finisher’s Banquet has concluded and the Red Lantern has been awarded, the race is over.  I suppose that “officially” speaking that may very well be true but in the case of the Jr. Iditarod, the Finisher’s Banquet and the awarding of the Red Lantern is the beginning for new and great mushing experiences.

Jr. Iditarod Honorary Musher, Barb Redington, recalls being on the trail with her two close friends during her participation in the inaugural Jr. Iditarod in 1978.  At the Finisher’s Banquet held in Willow last evening, Barb emphasized the importance of friendships established in mushing. Race Marshall, Cim Smyth, echoed Redington saying that nearly 30 years after his Jr. Iditarod races, many of his competitors are still close friends.  The friendships created in the Jr. Iditarod will last a lifetime.

The field of contestants for Jr. Iditarod XLII consisted of one veteran and six rookies.  It was an opportunity for all to learn from one another and from the adult volunteers who support the Jr. Iditarod.  Being camped in close proximity to each other, bedding, feeding, booting and packing routines could observed.  If you see something that looks like it would work better than what you’re doing, go ahead, “borrow and tweak!”

The Jr. mushers, parents, families, friends, volunteers, local mushers and mushing fans enjoyed the celebration of success held in the Willow Community Center.  Jr. Iditarod Board president, Greg Parvin was the Master of Ceremonies.  Julia Redington, a former Jr. musher, was the featured speaker.  Julie ran the race three times and received the humanitarian award in her final race of 1991.  Redington congratulated the kids on their excellent performance and being an engineer herself, encouraged the mushers to consider careers in engineering.

The Iditarod Trail Committee generously sponsors the Jr. Iditarod and provides funds for Scholarships and special awards.  These scholarships can be used towards higher education or special training. Scholarships are awarded to the top 5 finishers – 5th place receives $1500, 4th place receives $2000, 3rd place receives $2500, 2nd place receives $4000 and 1st place receives $6000.  In addition, the recipient of the Sportsmanship Award receives $2000, as does the winner of the Humanitarian Award.  Without Iditarod’s unwavering support, this race would not be possible.

As the banquet was winding down, Red Lantern Award winner, Johanna Badalich finished her race.  It’s really quite a thrill to see a musher’s headlamp bobbing across the frozen lake on the way to the finish line.  The banquet room emptied quickly with folks grabbing coats and heading out the door to the finish banner.  Johanna crossed the lake to loud cheers from family, fellow mushers and volunteers. Johanna’s inbound time was 13 hours 25 minutes and her outbound time was11 hours and 17 minutes.

Just prior to the evening banquet, Bjorn Keller brought his team down onto the lake then followed the well-travelled snowmachine trail across the lake to the finish.  Bjorn earned a hand crafted fur hat donated by Arctic Midnight Furs.  When interviewed during the awards ceremony, Bjorn said that he really enjoyed the trail especially because he thought it was going to be more difficult than it was.  He enjoyed the race and hopes to return next year. Keller’s run to Yentna Station took 10 hours 39 minutes.  His inbound time was 11 hours 17 minutes.

Cassidy Meyer was the third of a trio of mushers who crossed the lake to the finish line right around 16:00. Meyer comes from a mushing family in Fairbanks who rely on dogs for hunting and camping.  The Blue Harness Award went to Cassidy’s Sadie.  She plans to apply her scholarship money to veterinarian school.  Cassidy’s outbound run time was 9 hours 51 minutes.  She clocked a return time of 10 hours 11 minutes.

The meat and cheese of the sandwich like trio, was Ida Kohnert who placed 4th. Kohnert lives in Sweden and has been in the United States many times to handle for her father, Torsten, who’s completed the Yukon Quest six times.  Race officials presented Ida with the Humanitarian Award.  Mushers often say that receiving this award is more significant that winning the race.  “Receiving the award was a complete surprise.  I didn’t do anything special.  I just took care of my dogs the way I always do,” said Ida.  Ida’s outbound run took 10 hours 1 minute. Coming in, her run time was 9 hour 52 minutes.

Claiming third place was Grace Hill.  She came across the lake leading the trio of mushers.  It’s a photographer’s dream to have mushers finish within a few minutes of each other.  In her bio, Grace claims to have started mushing as a way to exercise her two St. Bernard puppies.  Her spirited team contained Alaskan Huskies; the St. Bernards were at home on the couch. Grace received the Sportsmanship Award. Race Marshal, Cim Smyth, presented the award with stories recalling his own Jr. Iditarod participation and how important mushing friendships are.  Grace was chosen for the award because she was constantly helping and encouraging her fellow competitors.  Grace had outbound and inbound runs of 9 hours 56 minutes and 9 hours 47 minutes respectively.

Anna Coke made the Willow finish line in second place.  If Anna began mushing for the adventure, she certainly had adventure in the Jr. Iditarod. If Anna likes being out of doors, she was out of doors from the beginning to the end of the Jr. Iditarod. If Anna likes meeting new people, she certainly had that opportunity in the Jr. Iditarod.  Mushing and the Jr. Iditarod seems to fit Anna like a glove.  Anna’s run time out to Yentna Station was 9 hours 21 minutes.  Her return time was 9 hours 36 minutes.

For Anna Stephan, her third Jr. Iditarod was a charm!  Anna crossed the finish line shortly before 13:00 with ten dogs.  Her run time out to Yentna Station was 8 hours 30 minutes.  Her inbound run was 8 hours 8 minutes.  Any number of factors could contribute to the faster inbound run – better trail, running earlier in the day with cooler temperatures, etc.  As the Jr. Iditarod Champion, Anna received a Jason and Melissa Stewart sled/sled bag combination.  Sleds crafted by the Stewarts are first class racing sleds. The sled bag was packed with nearly every piece of mushing equipment imaginable.  Anna also received a fur hat from Arctic Midnight Furs.  Even though this is Anna’s final Jr. Iditarod, she is well equipped for mushing in the future.

The list of Jr. Iditarod prize/auction supporters and sponsors for 2019 covers an entire page in the finisher’s banquet program.  Merchants of the Mat-Su valley and mushing enthusiasts support the Jr. Iditarod generously.  Each of the finishers went home with a 5-gallon bucket filled to the point of overflowing with gifts and mushing gear.  In addition, outside the buckets were coolers, sleeping bags, sleeping pads and other gear.

Mushers compare outbound times to inbound times looking for the “flattest” time.  In other words, the run out to Yentna Station and the run in from Yentna Station, being they were of comparable miles should be nearly equal. It’s a big challenge for these young mushers to hold their team back when the dogs are excited and raring to go. Running the first seventy-five miles too fast affects the performance of the dogs on the inbound run.  Over all the mushers did a good job or making the two run times come out close to equal or even a little faster on the inbound leg.

The seven teenage mushers did an outstanding job of racing and caring for their dogs.  Race veterinarian, Dr. Phil Meyer, praised all the contestants for their dog care.  Race Marshall Cim Smith complimented the racers on attention to detail in the checkpoint and along the trail in managing their run.  Ann Meyer praised the kids saying she was proud of everyone for finishing and persevering through the ever-present challenges of the trail.  Barb Redington noted that the mushers were blessed with nearly perfect weather, which always makes the race more enjoyable.