Clear and cool, no wind, twenty-three degrees – it was absolutely perfect for the start of the Jr. Iditarod. The race start was moved from the traditional location on Knik Lake out to the Willow Community Center in search of snow. While not an abundance, it was certainly adequate. The ten top-notch teen mushers were parked in the parking area south of the Community Center. When it came time to move to the starting line, Handlers lead the dogs, the musher rode the sled brake and a snow machine attached to the rear of the sled kept everything lined out and under control.
At exactly 10:00, honorary musher Stan Hecker was called to the trail for recognition of his selfless volunteerism over many years. Hecker has done countless jobs for the Jr. Iditarod since about year 2000.
Rookie Bailey Schaeffer wearing Bib #2 took to the trail at 10:02. Born in Anchorage, Bailey is of Inupiaq descent. She was raised outside of Kotzebue in primarily a subsistance lifestyle. Now, she attends Mat Su Central as a sophomore and participates in soccer. Outside of raising and training sled dogs, Bailey enjoys cooking and art.
Wearing Bib #3, veteran Marianna Mallory left the starting line at 10:04. As a youngster, Marianna used to watch the Iditarod finish in Nome which was her motivation to try the sport when she was three years old. In her first Jr. Iditarod run, Marianna was chosen by the veterinarians to receive the Humanitarian Award. Not surprisingly, Marianna says the most important thing about mushing to her is the care of the dogs.
In Bib #4, Katie Diets returns for her second Jr. Iditarod. She began her race at 10:06. Her mentor musher, Christine Roalofs, watched as Katie prepared for the start. Christine commented on how much growth she’s seen in Katie’s mushing and dog management. Katie is very proud to run Christine’s “City Slicker” dogs. I love the dogs and I have a lot of fun with them. She has her eye on staying connected with animals hoping to become a Veterinary technician.
Departing at 10:08, wearing Bib #5 was homeschooled Andrew Nolan. He’s a high school junior who enjoys running, trapping, hunting and fishing. Nolan is back for his third Jr. Iditarod. As a rookie he placed 5th. In 2015 he crossed the finish line in third place and was voted by his peers to receive the sportsmanship award.
Denver Kay Evans from Skagway left the finish line at 10:10 sporting bib #6. She’s from Skagway and has been training with Ryan Redington. She got into mushing after she adopted a sled dog and wanted to give her the opportunity to do her job. Denver has had an article published in Mushing Magazine. The junior at Skagway High School is the only musher in her family and has her eye set on running the Iditarod someday.
Bib #7 was worn by defending champion Kevin Harper as he departed the start at 10:12. Harper, a senior at Wasilla High School has completed the Jr. race twice. In his first run he placed third and was chosen to receive the sportsmanship award. He earned Jr. gold on his second attempt in a close race to the finish. Harper over took the leader just two miles from the finish line and claimed victory by two minutes.
Rookie Chandler Wappett from Fairbanks took to the trail at 10:14 in bib #8. He says he’s been watching the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod for his whole life and wanted to learn to mush. Chandler, age 15, intends to pursue a career in medicine. Based on his interests – fishing, snowmachining, hiking and hunting, it may be wilderness medicine. For extra curriculars, Chandler likes cross country running, cross country skiing and soccer.
In bib #9, Rose Capistrant departed Willow at 10:16. Rose who has one Jr. Iditarod behind her says she’s been mushing before she was born. Rose has trained her dogs since they were puppies. The 10th grade home schooled student participates in ballet, and likes to read, garden and do crafting.
Dakota Schlosser, age 17, wearing bib #10 hit the trail at 10:18. Dakota Started mushing when he was five. Schlosser finished his rookie Iditarod as rookie of the year claiming fourth place. He builds hot rods and is driving a sled that he designed and built. Rumor has it that it was just finished the evening prior to this race. Dakota, lived in Wisconsin when he first took up mushing.
The final musher to head onto the trail was Joan Klejka from Bethel. Wearing bib #11 and taking to the trail at 10:20, Joan returns for her second Iditarod. Joan is a senior in high school who began mushing when she was very young. Jr. Iditarod has been a family tradition. Five of the seven Klejka siblings have run the Jr. Brother Jeremiah and sister Jesica have claimed Iditarod gold. When not on the runners, Joan enjoys cross country, choir, theater, art and reading.