Ask me when Iditarod starts and I’ll always answer, “The last Saturday of February.” That’s for a couple of reasons. Over the years, many of the Jr. Iditarod mushers have gone on to compete in the Iditarod. Also, the festivities of the Jr. Iditarod occur one week prior to Iditarod and it seems that the Jr. Iditarod sets the ball rolling for the big race. The upcoming race in 2021 will mark the 44th running of the Jr. Iditarod.
As the sun rose on the last Saturday of February, nine teenage contestants readied their teams on Knik Lake just a short distance from the Redington homestead for the 2020 Jr. Iditarod. The field, ages 14-17, included four veterans returning from their rookie run in 2019 as well as five newcomers. Participants from the 2019 race included Bjorn Keller, Anna Coke, Ida Kohnert and Cassidy Meyer. The newcomers included Julia Cross, Calvin Daugherty, Kristal Hanson, Sam Paperman and Nicolas Sousa.
As the teams covered the 70 miles to Yentna Station Checkpoint, partly cloudy turned to cloudy and the temperature rose into the teens above zero. Cross, Wearing bib #2 drove the first team into Yentna followed by Sousa, Coke and Kohnert. The trio of Daugherty, Hanson and Meyer arrived later within 11 minutes of each other. Paperman and Keller followed.
Snowfall overnight, 15 inches worth, slowed the homestretch run from Yentna Station to Willow. Julia Cross led all mushers out of Yentna for the 75-mile run. Nicholas Sousa passed Julia on the trail about halfway to Willow and claimed victory as he stretched his lead to nearly 30 minutes and 4 miles over Cross. Following Cross for the first half of the return run, Sousa’s dogs stored up energy for a push to the finish. In placing second, Cross claimed the best finish for any Canadian in the Jr. Iditarod. Nicholas’ father, Gerry, has finished Iditarod eleven times.
Anna Coke claimed 3rd place and was the only veteran to finish in the top five. Kristal Hanson earned a 4th place finish. Hanson and her father are now both veterans of the Jr. Iditarod. Calvin Daugherty, behind a team of Jim Lanier Northern Whites, finished in fifth place. Calvin’s father, Larry, is a three-time Iditarod finisher.
The Celebration of Success for the 2020 Jr. Iditarod was held in the Willow Community Center. While the trail was slower for the inbound run, the mushers and dogs handled it well. To quote Ida Kohnert, “To be out in nature with my best friends is the greatest thing in the world.” You notice, she doesn’t specify trail conditions. It’s about being out in nature and the bond between musher and canine athletes.
The Sportsmanship Award, voted on by the mushers, went to Julia Cross. Her fellow mushers said she was always smiling and encouraged everyone. Cross is a two time Jr. Beargrease champion who intends to pursue a career in Veterinary medicine and has her eye on running Iditarod in 2025.
The Humanitarian Award, voted on by the Veterinarians, went to Cassidy Meyer who claimed 6th place. Meyer aspires to a career in Veterinary medicine and was pleased to receive this recognition. She feels it’s the best award a musher can receive.
Red Lantern honors for perseverance went to Ida Kohnert. The award is given to the final finisher prior to the completion of the banquet. Ida, born and raised in Sweden, claimed 7th place. She has handled dogs for her father in the Yukon Quest and intends to run the Quest in 2023.
The Blue Harness Award went to Earhardt, a leader for Julia Cross. Earhardt of Redington and Schouweiler bloodlines is 18 months old, led the entire race and broke trail for 120 miles until Sousa passed Cross. Julia said, “Earhardt is a strong dog with a strong head who works hard all the time.”
The final two mushers, Sam Paperman and Bjorn Keller, completed the race after the banquet concluded. Sam is from Seward. He began mushing with his neighbor and Iditarod veteran, Travis Beals. Bjorn grew up in McCarthy and now lives in Wasilla. His father, Jeremy, is an Iditarod veteran. Bjorn and Jeremy work together in training their team.
Following the Jr. Iditarod is an excellent warm up for following the Iditarod. Teachers can use the race to help students understand many race concepts such as start procedure, differential, lay over and awards. Jr. Iditarod provides race archives, musher biographies, race information, GPS tracking, race updates and award recipients at www.jriditarod.com.