From Yentna Station early on Sunday morning, all the Jr. Iditarod mushers are on the trail heading for Willow. The first musher to leave Yentna Station, Anna Stephan, departed at 04:48. Winds were calm, skies were clear and the temperature was 9 degrees below zero. Stephen is the only veteran in the 2019 Jr. Iditarod. She knows the trail back to Willow and holds a sizable lead. Based on her run out to the halfway checkpoint with an average speed of 7.5 miles per hour, her arrive at Willow should be between 14:30 and 15:30 this afternoon.
Second to depart Yentna was Anna Coke at 05:33. Coke averaged 6.59 miles on the outbound run. Anna, a rookie in the Jr. Iditarod, is relatively new to the sport. She began mushing because she loves adventure and felt called to the dogs and the sport of mushing. Anna is running dogs from Iditarod Rookie, Jessica Klejka’s team.
The next three teams departed in a cluster just 5 minutes apart. As it was getting closer to sunrise, the temperature had dropped to 13 degrees below zero, the wind remained calm and the sky remained clear. What an incredible day for the 78-mile run to Willow and the finish line.
Rookie, Cassidy Meyer, left the checkpoint at 06:07. Cassidy is from Fairbanks. She began mushing with her family on backcountry trips between cabins and camping places and while hunting caribou. Meyer’s average speed on the outbound leg of the race was 6.28 miles per hour.
Rookie, Grace Hill, guided her team down to the Yentna River at 06:11. The Jr. Iditarod is her second race. She completed the Willow JR 100 earlier in February. Grace began mushing to help her two St. Bernard puppies burn of some energy. Grace average 6.12 mph out to Yentna.
Rookie Ida Kohnert began her journey to Willow at 06:13. She was the picture of purpose and efficiency in preparing her team for the homebound run. Not surprising as her father, Torsten, has completed 6 Yukon Quest runs and Ida has helped handle during his Quest runs. Ida lives in Sweden with her family and happens to be just the fifth musher from outside the United States to compete in the Jr. Iditarod. She has her eye on the Yukon Quest in 2023. Kohnert average speed to Yentna was 6.45 mph.
Bjorn Keller was eligible to depart Yentna Station at 06:51. Bjorn’s life with dogs began when he was just six-weeks old, riding in his grandma’s arms. Growing up on a subsistence farm with goats, pigs, chickens, geese and ducks, Bjorn is no stranger to animals. His connection with his dogs was very apparent when he booted and prepared to leave Yentna checkpoint. Bjorn averaged 5.56 mph on the way to Yentna.
The final musher to leave Yentna Station was Joanna Badalich. She called her dogs to their feet and pulled the snow hook at 07:56. By then the sky was bright blue and the temperature was still minus 13 degrees. As the sun rose, so did them temperature. By noon there was a 20-degree swing to the positive side of zero. Johanna is new to distance racing but has participated in sprint racing since she was eight years old. Johanna is running dogs from Fun on the Run Kennel owned by Iditarod veteran, Meredith Mapes. Johanna’s team averaged 5.26 mph on the way to Yentna.
Weather for the Jr. Iditarod was just about perfect. There have been years when it’s been very warm and sunny. There have been years when it’s been very cold (minus 30) and sunny. There have been years when it’s been snowing, making for a very slow trail. There have been years when the race has been moved in order to find snow and trails.
One of the craziest years though came back in 2012. The area was having a banner snow year. More than 130 inches of snow had fallen previous to the Jr. Iditarod at Yentna Station. Weather service reports warned of a blizzard for the Jr. Iditarod weekend. As the mushers arrived at Yentna around 16:00 on Saturday, so did the snow. It snowed all night and by the end of the ten-hour layover, 14 inches of new snow was on the ground. Teams followed trailbreakers on snowmachines as they lead the way to Willow. When it was all said and done at noon on Monday, the storm had produced 36 inches of new snow. The volunteers who had flown out to Yentna Station with the Iditarod Air Force enjoyed an extended stay at the checkpoint. The runway had to be packed and then set up overnight before planes could land on Tuesday.
Rather than snow and extreme cold, Mother Nature gave the young mushers a spectacular view of Denali and near perfect conditions for Jr. Iditarod XLII.