by Terrie Hanke…
Iditarod has many legendary figures. Most have stood on sled runners and coached dog teams from Fourth Avenue in Anchorage to Front Street in Nome. Jan Newton has never run a dog team in The Last Great Race but her contributions to the race are remarkable and have elevated her to a position of legendary prominence as an Iditarod volunteer.
She’s referred to as the Queen of Takotna checkpoint but in reality Jan’s role over the past 40 years has been anything but royal. She’s never been waited upon, spoiled or served by anyone. Instead, she was the person extending the royal treatment to everybody who entered the checkpoint – mushers, race volunteers and spectators. All are welcome and treated like royalty at the Takotna, courtesy of Jan Newton.
Forty years ago Jan and husband, Dick, arrived in rural Alaska and have called the small village on the north bank above the Takotna River home ever since. Back in Idaho the ambitious young couple ran a café, hotel and bar frequented most often by miners. Takotna has a rich history as a supply point for miners in Alaska’s gold rush days. Perhaps it was that connection that lured them to Takotna. In the early years of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Takotna wasn’t designated as a checkpoint but a neighbor of the Newton’s suggested they make a few meals for the mushers passing through. From such a simple beginning of moose stew and chili, the Newton’s role in The Last Great Race has grown to major proportions.
Running a checkpoint is not a one or two-person operation. Every man, woman and child residing in Takotna has a job during Iditarod. The school shuts down as the race comes through and the kids all have duties. Relatives and friends of Takotna residents from all over the United States migrate to the checkpoint during March to help with the race. The women cook, the men park dog teams and heat water while the kids clean up. It’s a great deal of work to organize and coordinate a checkpoint let alone feed hungry mushers, spectators and race volunteers. Jan not only had her figure on the pulse of the checkpoint, she was the heartbeat of the operation. It was her goal to make everyone feel special and feel at home.
As Iditarod’s Teacher on the Trail in 2006, I was dropped off on the Takotna River by bush plane then made my way up the bank to the checkpoint. Jan came out of the kitchen to greet me, not with the usual words of welcome but by asking how I’d like my moose steak. Medium-rare I replied. Jan returned to the kitchen, took two cherry pies out of the oven, put some frosting on a cake and began preparing my steak. That’s one of the things that Takotna is famous for – every musher gets a steak but when folks rave about the quantities and variety of delicious food dished up at Takotna, Jan’s pie tops the list.
Jan would begin producing double-crusted fruit pies several weeks before the race. The crème pies went into production a couple days before the race and continued daily during the race. Take your pick – blueberry, cherry, peach, apple, pumpkin, banana cream, coconut cream, butterscotch, lemon meringue and pecan, they are all to die for. In route over Takotna, Iditarod Air Force Pilots often land briefly to purchase a pie and bring it to another checkpoint on the trail. By the time the last musher departs Takotna, 75 – 80 pies would be a delicious memory.
Jan always tried to provide every musher with what they wanted. All one had to do was ask and if Jan had the ingredients, it’ll be served up shortly. Years back musher, Sonny King, commented on all the delicious pie Jan had made and then asked why she didn’t make his favorite – pecan. The answer was short and sweet – we don’t have pecans. Sonny took care of that by sending a case of pecans to Jan from his home state of South Carolina. When he walked into the checkpoint the next winter, Jan handed him his very own pecan pie and he ate every bit of it. Five-time Iditarod Champion, Rick Swenson prefers coconut banana crème. Jan always had one ready for him.
Not only did Jan strive to make every visitor feel at home but she also emphasized that what is done for one musher, is done for all. Thanks to Jan’s coordination and direction of the busy checkpoint, water is heated 24/7 for the mushers to use in preparing food for their dogs. It’s no wonder that so many mushers choose to take their required 24-hour layover in Takotna that’s become known as the friendliest little checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail. Ed Stielstra of Michigan says, “Jan helped make the 24 rest in Takotna a 24 feast. Her energy was contagious and by the time I arrived in Takotna, boy did I need some energy. Want a couple of double cheeseburgers and fries to go as Ryan Redington did a couple years back? Place your order and it’s handed to you as you pull your snow hook to leave the checkpoint. If you’ve taken your 24-hour rest at McGrath and are passing up the steak meal and pie at Takotna, don’t worry, you won’t go hungry. There’ll be a sack lunch ready for you to take along on the trail. All of this, courtesy of Jan Newton.
The school kids are organized into crews for heating water and then cleaning up straw after teams depart the checkpoint. The shifts are twelve hours long. As it was getting late in the afternoon, the day cleanup crew was very low on energy and losing enthusiasm for raking and bagging straw. They decided to take a break inside the checkpoint. As soon as Jan saw the kids inside, she asked if ALL the straw was ranked and bagged. It wasn’t. Jan might have ordered the youngsters back outside until the job was complete or maybe she bribed them with some of her fantastic baking but more than likely, it was her own example of energy, enthusiasm and diligence that inspired the kids to head back outside and work with a smile until the end of their shift.
While hosting an Iditarod Checkpoint is a task of mammoth proportion, Jan always said she loved doing it. Jan told a reporter from the Juneau Empire, “Winter is long and the race gives us something to look forward to. With cabin fever and all, it’s nice to see a lot of different faces.” Over the years she’s came to consider the mushers as family. She’s known them as young people and now as older people who have kids and grand kids of their own. It’s her favorite part of the race, meeting and talking with the mushers.
Everyone who has attempted Iditarod and has made it as far as Takotna knows who Jan Newton is and what she has done for the race. Pam Flowers from Talkeetna tells about her experience in 1983. “My dogs and I arrived in Takotna in the early evening. I went inside the community center to find the checker and was greeted by a small, enthusiastic group of people. I was running in the back of the pack and was surprised not only by how welcome they made each musher feel but also amazed at the huge array of food they had available. They invited me to stay and eat but I explained that I was anxious to get back on the trail while there was still light. Jan looked so disappointed and said something like, “Everyone is rushing through this year. We have all this good food. Won’t you just stay for awhile and eat something?” Well, since I was in the back of the pack and these people had obviously worked very hard to provide us with hospitality, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave right away. So, I sat down and had a huge and delicious meal. I remember how happy this made them. Takotna was a small checkpoint but like Jan, big on generosity.”
Mark Nordman, Iditarod’s Race Marshal, met Jan Newton in 1983 when he was running his rookie Iditarod. Here’s a very young man from Minnesota following his dream – running a race in far away rural Alaska. He said that the welcome at Takotna made him feel like he was really someone special, made him feel right at home. Mark soon realized that in Takotna, every musher is somebody special and right then, Takotna is home.
Jan and Dick Newton were inducted into the Iditarod Hall of Fame in 2008. In the Anchorage Daily News story announcing the honor, Nordman says, “They’re just the salt of the earth of rural Alaska, the lifeblood of the Iditarod, good people.” The Newtons are unsung heroes of the Iditarod and have been the heart and soul of the Takotna checkpoint since Iditarod’s inception. Recently Nordman remarked that everyone knew Jan and knew what a heart of gold she had. She made Takotna a very special place for the mushers. Without people like Jan in rural Alaska, there wouldn’t be an Iditarod. Speaking for himself and on behalf of the Iditarod Trail Committee, Nordman said, “My heart goes out to Dick, the Newton children, their extended family and Jan’s friends as well as the whole village of Takotna.”
Jan’s life, her warm heart, generosity, talent as a cook and pie maker along with her ability to organize, inspire and energize will continue to be celebrated each March as Iditarod mushers pass through Takotna. Her spirit, good deeds and exceptional talents will be very evident at the checkpoint as a legion of dedicated co-workers carry on the tradition she started back in 1974. Jan will keep an eye on things from above. Thank you Jan for all those wonderful pies and for making everyone feel special and at home in Takotna.