Being the 2006 Wells Fargo Teacher on the Trail™ was a life changing experience. The appointment as Teacher on the Trail™ is for one year but it’s an experience that lasts far into the future. Truly, I was as excited for musher signup this year as I was in the summer of 2005.
After being on the trail in 2006, I couldn’t imagine being in Wisconsin while the race was going on so I returned to work comms in 2007 and continued working at Skwentna for 10 years. A couple years later, they needed a starter/timer for the Jr. Iditarod. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to go out to Yentna Station for the Jr. Iditarod again?
In 2010, while still working comms and the Jr. Iditarod, I was asked to write stories about the back of the pack. Big media was only following the top 10 mushers and people wanted to read about the other 60 or more teams. Thus, the Eye on the Trail blog was born. Iditarod LII will mark the 15th year of the Eye on the Trail blog that appears on the front page of Iditarod.com.
For me, Iditarod starts on the last Saturday of February when the Jr. Iditarod mushers head out on the 150 mile (give or take) trip to Yentna Station Roadhouse – the home of the Gabryszak family. Iditarod truly does start with these young mushers as they build their mushing skills while participating in a top quality junior race. Many have gone on to participate in Iditarod. Never has there been a Jr. Iditarod Champion who has gone on to win the Iditarod until this past year when Ryan Redington, Jr. Champion in 1999 and 2000, claimed 2023 Iditarod Gold.
In 2006, twenty-one junior mushers headed to Yentna from Willow on a snowy Saturday. Planes were grounded. Race personnel rode snowmachines to the half-way point at Yentna where the mushers would take their required layover. Back in Willow on Sunday, when all was said and done, Micah Degerland of Fairbanks placed first followed by Rohn Buser, Ellen King and Daniel Wilbert. The top four teams made the finish within 43 minutes of each other. Claiming the Red Lantern was Charlie Allison.
Of that group, Rohn Buser would run Iditarod as a high school senior. Other finishers of the 2006 Jr. Iditarod – Melissa Owens, Jessica Klejka, Jeff Deeter and Cain Carter are all Iditarod Veterans.
On the first Saturday of March, lots of excitement surrounded the 2006 Iditarod. Would Doug Swingley match Rick Swenson’s five wins? Would Jeff King join the ranks of four time champions – Butcher, Swingley & Buser? Would legally blind musher Rachel Scdoris earn the coveted Iditarod finisher’s belt buckle? The field of 83 mushers was the second largest (87 in 2004) in the 34 year history of the race.
Jeff King and leaders, Salem and Bronte earned gold with a time of 9d 11h 11m. Doug Swingley came in second and Paul Gebhardt earned third. With the win, King joined the ranks of the four-time Champions. For winning the 2006 Iditarod, King received $69,000 and a new Dodge truck. The top 30 finishers split a pot of $795,000. Another $40,000 was divided between the remaining arrivals in Nome. My how times have changed!
Between Kaltag and Unalakleet, what looked like a great race and potential win for King, was nearly derailed after he dozed and fell off his sled. Quickly he was on his feet and regained his sled but something didn’t look right. There was a dog running out in front of his leaders. Taking a quick inventory of the team, King saw that it was a wheel dog who was loose and enjoying the scenery up front. Jeff stopped the team and set his snow hooks, grabbed some tantalizing snacks and headed after the loose dog. He knew he had his work cut out for him as this particular dog was a real trickster, the kind who would let you get almost within arm’s reach and then take off. Eventually, Jeff did catch the dog but there was a lot of whistling and “come here boy” in the process. King’s team thought he was calling them. They pulled the snow hooks and caught up with Jeff. While Jeff was holding the wayward wheel dog his team trotted right on by him heading toward Unalakleet. He had no choice but to watch them go by. If he set the dog he was holding down, he’d likely never catch him again. King called out to Salem, “Whoa Salem, Salem Whoa!” As his team crested a small hill and disappeared, King figured he’d be walking to Unalakleet but he kept on calling, “Whoa Salem.” When King crested the little hill he saw that his fine and loyal leader Salem had stopped the team. King’s race was back on!
Rachel Scdoris had been mushing since she was three years old. She had a long list of racing accomplishments and wanted the opportunity to try the Iditarod. Rachel is legally blind. Her vision is 20/200, she is completely color blind and extremely light sensitive. In 2003, Rachel’s request for using a visual interpreter was granted by the Iditarod Trail Committee. Scdoris completed her Iditarod qualifiers in 2004 and entered the 2005 Iditarod. She scratched that year citing the health of her dogs. In 2006 she was back on the trail guided by Tim Osmar. Finishing in 57th place, she became the first legally blind musher to finish Iditarod. Rachel would return to the Iditarod trail again in 2008 and 2009. Her best finish was 45th place in 2009.
Sportsmanship stories abound in Iditarod. Here’s one involving two top contenders. Paul Gebhardt, leading the field at the time, was approaching the Farewell Burn when his sled hit a stump and his gangline snapped. Gebhardt stood on the back of his motionless sled and watched his team trot down the trail gaining speed as they went. He called for his leaders to stop but his team kept going. Paul began running after the team but it was useless – he’d never catch up to them. He slowed to a walk and hoped another musher would come along soon. Doug Swingley, seeking his fifth win, came upon the abandoned sled. Seeing the boot prints going down the trail, he knew what had happened. Shortly he saw a lone person walking. As he pulled up beside Gebhardt, he invited him to get on the runners. Doug transported Paul several miles to the Buffalo Camp in the Burn where hunters were camping. Gebhardt was able to borrow a snow machine to catch up to his team then retrieve his sled. There is an unwritten rule on the trail – ALWAYS help your fellow musher even if it might slow you down!
Mike Jayne, age 23, of Fairbanks earned Rookie of the Year Honors with a time of 10d 13h 7m. Mike trailed rookie Norwegian mushers Tore Albrigtson and Tove Sorenson leaving White Mountain by nearly 50 minutes. He passed the Norwegians on the way to Safety, become the first rookie to Nome, claiming 25th place. Mike’s goal for the race was to have fun, do well and finish. Mission accomplished for Mike.
Jim Lanier had a significant mission while on the trail in 2006. He carried and scattered the ashes of his mentor and friend, Colonel Norman Vaughn who had recently passed away a few days after celebrating his 100th birthday. Vaughn was an adventurer, author and dreamer who, as a young man, signed on with Admiral Richard Byrd as a dog driver for a 1928 expedition in Antarctica. Vaughn ran Iditarod 13 times and in 1987 at the age of 83, earned the most Inspirational Musher Award as the oldest musher to run Iditarod. If you take time to research the life of this colorful action hero, you won’t be bored or disappointed.
The Sportsmanship Award went to Kotzebue musher Tollef Monson. Between Ophir and Cripple, Tollef came upon a spot on the trail cluttered with debris from sleds. He quickly realized the culprit was an almost invisible stump right in the middle of the trail. He stopped his team and chopped the stump out, creating a better safer trail for the teams behind him.
Tove Sorenson was honored by her fellow mushers with the Most Inspirational Musher Award. A couple of weeks before the race she was hit in the face by a low hanging branch while on a training run. She had surgery to repair an eye injury. In time, normal vision and depth perception would return but not in time for Iditarod. She decided to tackle the trail anyway. Then while on the trail Tove learned that her mother had passed away. She continued and finished the race.
The Red Lantern went to Glen Lockwood of DeForest, Wisconsin who made the burled arch in Nome, claiming 71st place in 15d 18h 8m. Lockwood was one minute behind 70th place Steve Madsen. Several mushers at the back of the pack were caught in a storm between White Mountain and Safety. They took shelter in a safety cabin and sat the storm out, missing the Sunday evening Finisher’s Banquet. They were honored a day later with their own banquet.
The line on the map is the same for every race but the journey is always unique. It’s what goes on as the mushers travel the route the sets each race apart. The same is true for the Teacher on the Trail™. There have been twenty-four teachers who have served on the trail – each has had a unique life changing experience. Kate Newmyer, the 25th Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ will have her own life altering adventure during Iditarod 2024!