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Iditarod Adventures: Tales from Mushers Along the Trail

Iditarod Adventures: Tales from Mushers Along the Trail

by Lew Freedman, Jon Van Zyle (Illustrator)

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In IDITAROD ADVENTURES, mushers explain why they have chosen this rugged lifestyle, what has kept them in long-distance mushing, and the experiences they have endured along that unforgiving trail between Anchorage and Nome.

Renowned sports writer Lew Freedman profiles 23 mushers—men, women, Natives, seasoned veterans, and some relatively new to the


In IDITAROD ADVENTURES, mushers explain why they have chosen this rugged lifestyle, what has kept them in long-distance mushing, and the experiences they have endured along that unforgiving trail between Anchorage and Nome.

Renowned sports writer Lew Freedman profiles 23 mushers—men, women, Natives, seasoned veterans, and some relatively new to the demanding sport, many of whom are so well-known in Alaska that fans refer to them only by their first names. The book also features interviews with administrators who organize the event and make sure it happens every year, volunteers, and others whose connection to the Iditarod is self-evident even if they don’t have an official title.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"All of the stories collected here are personal accounts by participants in the Iditarod dog-sled contest, as reported by Lew Freedman, former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. There are 28 chapters, each one a kind of summary of a musher's personal experience running the Iditarod. The cross-section includes mostly contest winners and top competitors, but also some of the more colorful characters who participate, such as Hobo Jim, a country singer who wrote a popular song about the Iditarod; Jon Van Zyle, who makes paintings of dogs and mushers; Aaron Burmeister, who grew up in Nome and for whom the Iditarod has been a continual part of life; second generation musher Cim Smyth; Newto Marshall, a competitor from Jamaica; and DeeDee Jonrowe, a woman who has finished second twice." —Eithne O'Leyne, ProtoView

Product Details

Graphic Arts Center Publishing Company
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt

Despite owning the last name Mackey and being part of one of the Alaska clans with the longest ties to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, no one saw Lance Mackey coming. One minute he was just a guy who had competed in the Iditarod like so many others and the next minute he was unbeatable.
From also-ran to champion seemed like an overnight journey for Mackey as he accomplished unprecedented feats in long-distance mushing. Until Mackey did it, no one believed that it was possible to win the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest and the 1,000-mile Iditarod in one season. The effort was felt to be too tiring for the dogs – and probably the musher, too. Instead, Mackey showed the back-to-back races were probably beneficial for a top racing team.
Mackey won the Yukon Quest four years in a row between 2005 and 2008 and he became the only musher to win the Iditarod four years in a row between 2007 and 2010. His fourth Iditarod triumph was one of only a few sub-nine-day championship races. Mackey’s accomplishments were all recorded following a life-threatening bout with throat cancer. Mackey’s dog operation is appropriately named “Comeback Kennel.” After his multiple victories in the challenging Quest and Iditarod some referred to Mackey as “the world’s toughest athlete.” For sure he was one of the most inspirational ones.
Cancer treatments alone sapped his strength, ruined his taste buds, and made it difficult for him to remain hydrated. Some side effects continue to bother Mackey today at age 44 and resulted in him taking a leave of absence from competition in both the Quest and Iditarod. In early 2014 it was revealed that after-effects from his cancer treatment were resulting in his losing his teeth and that his medical insurance did not cover his bills. Donations were solicited to help Mackey cope with the costs of his problems.
In-between his illness and the unfortunate turn Mackey experienced, however, the Fairbanks dog driver’s achievements electrified mushing fans and led to his being inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. He also shifted his attention to sprint racing and entered the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous World Championship in 2014, one of the events where his father Dick got his start racing decades earlier. Mackey wrote a book about his life and a forthcoming documentary was expected.
Although Mackey did not enter long-distance races until he was in his 30s, growing up in the dog-oriented Mackey family he said he always thought he would try them. Before he won any long-distance race, the Quest or Iditarod, Mackey endured considerable adversity, from spending years finding his vocation and overcoming a battle with drugs, to his highly publicized fight with cancer.
I tell people I’ve been in mushing since I was in the womb. I was forced into it. My mother Kathi Smith was racing when she was seven months pregnant with me. It’s true.
After that I was handling dogs since I was old enough to mush. I was scooping out dog food for my father’s dogs when we lived in Wasilla from the time I was three or four years old and I raced in the one-dog class at Tudor Track in Anchorage when I was five. Between ages 14 and 17 I entered the Junior Iditarod. But there weren’t a lot of kids’ races and at that point I stopped, from about age 17 to 29. I took a little break.
For a while I was a Bering Sea fisherman and during the Iditarod I would always listen to the race on the radio from the wheelhouse. People were always asking me when I was going to do it and I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t want to make a commitment. I was making good money fishing and I didn’t want to spend it on dogs.
Then I moved to the Kenai Peninsula. I was married with kids and I lived right around the corner from Tim Osmar, who was racing the Iditarod. We had eight or nine dogs and the kids, Amanda, and Britain, liked them. I wanted them to learn responsibility and they liked riding with the dogs on the beach down there. Having dogs had nothing to do with me wanting to do the Iditarod.
But next thing I knew I was going to the Soldotna sprint mushing track and getting to be friends with other mushers. It was starting to rekindle my original interest in dogs from when I was a kid. It was just an easy fit. I bought a sled for $200 and collected some free dogs. By then it was not just the kids and the dogs, I wanted to do it too.
Within a year, by 1999, we had 20 dogs. It was just living in the neighborhood with other dog mushers that rubbed off on me. I started doing well in the short races. These were 10-milers. But invariably I would get the last paying position. Remember, these were all dogs that nobody else wanted because they didn’t think they were fast enough. I wasn’t raising dogs or breeding dogs. I just did a little training with them. I started to think, “What if I put a little effort into this?”
I didn’t have many dogs or much money, but I decided, “I’m gonna run the Iditarod next year.” That was 2001. I was just like any other Alaskan who wanted to do the race. I was going to do it once. That was it. I did the Copper Basin 300 as my first qualifying race. Then I did the Clam Gulch Classic for my second one. I won that one.
So I entered the Iditarod in 2001. My rookie race I finished 36th out of 57 finishers. My thinking was that I was going on a leisurely camping trip to get a finisher’s belt buckle. My thoughts were that “I’m never going to do this again, so maybe I can have some fun and make some memories.” Some people said, “I told you so” that I wasn’t really ready. But all it did was motivate me more. I started thinking that 36th wasn’t bad and “What if I do this and this?” I could finish much better. It wasn’t a realistic daydream at the time. I put everything I owned financially into doing the first one and I won $1,049.
Before long I was dealing with something much bigger than the Iditarod, cancer stuff. When I went into the hospital after the race I didn’t know whether I was going to live or die. I entered in 2002, but that race I was sick and I didn’t finish. I did win the Most Inspirational Musher Award. I did that race with a feeding tube in me. When I was at my sickest, thinking of doing the Iditarod again was one of those things that I could look forward to in order to keep me going. Me doing the Iditarod was something that made my parents proud and it was an opportunity for me to change my life. It was just a familiar family dream.
Everybody tried to talk me out of starting the 2002 Iditarod. I wasn’t very strong. But I learned something about myself. I was pretty stubborn. It wouldn’t have looked good if I had gone out there and passed away on the Iditarod. I pulled out in Ophir. I felt like a complete loser. I had had so much support. I felt like I was letting down so many people, friends, supporters, doctors. I had huge doubt. I sat there at the checkpoint for about two days before I decided I wasn’t going to make it to the finish. In the end I gave Bill Borden, who was from Georgia, my sled. He finished 53rd.
After that I worked on rebuilding my health. I didn’t enter the Iditarod in 2003. I just did middle distance races. I needed to get my health up to par. In 2004 I entered the Iditarod and my brother Jason and I ran together and took 24th and 26th. I was just trying to get better physically and get better as a dog musher.
Hugh Neff was the one who said to me, “You should come and do the other 1,000-mile race.” So in 2005 I entered the Yukon Quest and I won the Quest as a rookie. That just shot everything right up in my thinking. That just built up my confidence in a huge way. I took that same dog team and brought it to the Iditarod and I finished seventh. At that time it was still considered radical to be able to race the same dogs in the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. But that was the beginning of changing the thinking. In a sense I came out of nowhere when I won the Quest and finished seventh in the Iditarod that year.
After that I won four Quests in a row and four Iditarods in a row. It is crazy. No one in the world, including my family and fans would ever have really thought I could do that. It blows my mind sometimes when I think of it. I think of myself as a musher who is not done yet, as someone who has really just started. There are 80 more things for me to learn. Winning those races four times in a row is a fantasy becoming a reality. That’s exactly what it was.
The Iditarod has become so competitive, with so many good mushers who have a chance to win, I still don’t know how I won four times in a row. When I was closing in on winning the first one in 2007, when it started becoming a reality, when it looked like I had a chance, I remember going down the trail on the back of the sled with a big grin on my face. And then when I got a little bit closer to Nome, I just started crying. It was such an emotional high.
I didn’t really think I was going to win that Iditarod until I got to Cape Nome, outside of the city of Nome. I got down on my knees out there and I hugged every one of the dogs. I was laughing and crying. I was with one of my leaders, Larry, and I pointed down the trail to Nome and I said, “I know you know where we’re at. But we’re here first this time.” Larry looked over at me and he kind of smiled and I swear he winked at me, as if he was saying, “I know, dad.” My dogs knew I was going to win the Iditarod. As we came down Front Street Larry was in lead and he just strutted down Front Street, his chest out.
Finishing that Iditarod in first place was one of the greatest moments of my life. It was louder than most moments in my life with the spectators lining the fencing on both sides of the street. My parents were there at the finish and they were crying for me. To be honest, for a long time I did a lot of things they weren’t really proud of (Mackey has publicly detailed some of his drug problems when he was younger) and they were really proud of me that day. That was probably better than winning the Iditarod. I hugged my mom. My thinking was that “Dreams do come true.”
After I won those races one of the neatest things that happened was being voted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame and being inducted at the same time as my dad for his 1978 race against Rick Swenson. In a million years I never thought it would happen that I would be in the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. It was pretty amazing to be recognized by the people like that. I was thinking, “I’m just some guy from Alaska who runs dogs.” It was, “Really? Me?” And again I was thinking that I was pretty young in the sport and that I’ve really just gotten started in the Iditarod.
That’s one of my most recognized trophies in the house. That’s mind-boggling to me.

Meet the Author

Lew Freedman is a veteran newspaper sportswriter and experienced author of more than seventy books. He spent seventeen years at the ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS in Alaska and wrote extensively about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He has also written several books about the Iditarod and had stories appear in ALASKA MAGAZINE and Alaska Airlines magazine.

Freedman has also worked for the CHICAGO TRIBUNE and PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER. A frequent traveler to Alaska, Freedman believes the Iditarod is one of the world’s great sporting events and only wishes the dogs could talk so he could better write their story. www.LewFreedmanBooks.com

Jon Van Zyle has been the official artist of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for more than thirty years and has run the race twice. Jon’s art has garnered him numerous honors, and his prints, posters, and lithographs are prized by collectors. Jon and his wife live in Alaska, where they maintain a dog team of Siberian huskies. www.jonvanzyle.com

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