Eye on the Jr: History and Fun Facts

Jr. Iditarod 2020 Honorary Mushers Dale and Linda Peterson Setting up the Banner on Knik Lake

This February will mark the 47th year of the Jr. Iditarod.  The Junior, just like the Iditarod, began as a dream.  Joe Redington, Sr. dreamed of a long distance race across Alaska to keep the sled dog in Alaska and the old mail routes on the map.  It was Eric Beeman who dreamed of a distance race for young mushers to help prepare them for the “Big Iditarod.”

Five years after the Inaugural Iditarod, the juniors had their own Iditarod.  It looked quite different than the Jr. Iditarod known today.  In 1978, the first year of the Junior, there were two divisions of mushers.  The senior division contestants ages 15 to 17, ran 10 dogs for a distance of 40 miles including an overnight camping layover.  The Junior division, ages 11 to 14 ran 6 dogs for a distance of 18 miles in a one-day event.

The next year the race was changed to only one division with ages 14 to 17, running 90 miles with a maximum of ten dogs including a required overnight layover.  When the race turned three, the distance jumped to 120 miles running from Knik Lake to Point McKenzie.  On the fifth running of the race, the layover was moved to Yentna Station Roadhouse where it has been ever since except for 2003, 2015 and 2022.   

There have been years when Mother Nature just didn’t cooperate and the start of Jr. Iditarod as well as Iditarod was moved due to overflow, lack of snow or unsafe trail conditions.

In 2003, the race moved to Glennallen, running a 150-mile loop from the Wolverine Lodge to Sourdough on the Richardson and back.  In 2015, the race moved to Cantwell where the teams ran 60 miles out to Alpine Creek Lodge and returned to Cantwell the next day.  In 2022, the race also started in Cantwell due to overflow on the trail to Yentna.  The 2022 race was run as a two day stage race.  The majority of the Junior Iditarod races run in the past 40 plus years have covered a distance of about 150 miles.

Calvin Daugherty Running a Team of Jim Lanier Northern Whites in the 2020 Jr. Iditarod.

Many Jr. Iditarod veterans have gone on to race in the Iditarod.  Calvin Daugherty who raced in 2020 Jr. Iditarod is now a rookie in the 2024 Iditarod.  Other Jr. Iditarod veterans who will join Calvin on the trail in 2024 include Travis Beals, Aaron Burmeister, Jeff Deeter, Jessica Klejka, Jason Mackey, Ryan Redington, Dallas Seavey and Bailey Vitello.

Until 2023, there had never been a Jr. Iditarod Champion that had gone on to claim gold in Iditarod.  Ryan Redington, is the first Jr. Iditarod Champion to claim an Iditarod title.  Redington won the Jr. Iditarod in 1999 and 2000.

Of the past Jr. Iditarod races, six mushers have won in consecutive years.  Tim Osmar is the only musher to win three in a row.  Back to back winners include Lance Barve, Jared Jones, Ramey Smyth, Dusty Whittemore, Ryan Redington, Kevin Harper and Emily Robinson.  Robinson is the first female to capture two in a row.

Books about the Jr. Iditarod are relatively few and far between but Ted Woods tells Dusty Whittemore’s story in Iditarod Dream.  Ellen Redington, a Jr. Iditarod veteran has written a children’s book about perseverance and mushing called “Wiley Wants to Win.”

In the big picture, the boys have dominated the winner’s circle of the Junior with thirty-six champions while the girls have claimed ten.  Females (Christine Delia, Cali King, Ellie Claus, Melissa Owens, Jessica Klejka, Merissa Osmar, Bailey Schaffer, Anna Stephan and Emily Robinson) have won almost 23% of the Junior races.  Compare that to the Iditarod where females (Libby Riddles and Susan Butcher) have won 9% of the “Big One.”

Of the forty-six Junior Iditarod finishes, there have been a handful of really close ones.  In 1993, brothers Ramey and Cim Smyth raced to the finish line with Ramey claiming the victory by just thirty-four seconds to defend his championship of the previous year.  In 2001, thirty-four seconds was again the margin of victory as Tyrell Seavey sprinted beside his team to the finish line just ahead of Cali King.  In 2018, fifty-two seconds separated Bailey Schaeffer and Chandler Wappet at the finish with Schaeffer taking the win.  In 2022 when the Jr. was run as a stage race out of Cantwell, only six seconds separated champion Emily Robinson and runner-up Hannah Wappett.  

The closest finish was in 2008.  Jessica Klejka dropped down onto Willow Lake just a yard or two in front of Cain Carter. With both teams on the lake and within a quarter mile of the finish banner, Cain urged his dogs to pass, “ON BY, ON BY!”  Jessica Klejka urged her team to give it their all, “HIKE, HIKE, HIKE!”  Carter and team closed the gap as they overtook Jessica’s sled and wheel dogs.  Jessica’s dogs were not to be denied.  They added a little more steam and maintained their lead of half a dog team to claim victory by TWO seconds!  The canine athletes knew what was at stake and they were every bit as competitive as their young drivers.  It was a photo finish equally as exciting as the year Dick Mackey bested Rick Swenson by one second in Nome.  Yes, it is the nose of the lead dog that determines the finish.

Over the years there have been eight mushers from outside of the United States.  Thomas Krejci of Czechoslovakia competed in 1992.  In 1998, Kyla Boivin of Dawson City, YT Canada joined the field and ran 3 years.  Guillermo Anton, from Spain raced in 2010.  Annika Olesen of Yellowknife, NWT Canada raced in 2011 and 2012.  In 2017, Logan McCready-DeBruin of Hurlburton, ONT Canada raced.  In 2019, Ida Kohnert represented her homeland of Sweden and returned again in 2020.  Julia Cross from Thunder Bay, ONT Canada raced in 2020.  In 2024, Ylva-li Næss of Meraaker, Norway is joining the race.

The 2024 Jr. Iditarod is sure to be an exciting event.  Follow along as the mushers cover the 150-mile race course at jriditarod.org as well as the Eye on the Jr. stories at Iditarod.com and the Jr. Iditarod Facebook page.  The race begins at 10:00 am Saturday, February 24, 2019.  Check often for race updates and follow the mushers via tracker.