Eye on the Trail – Musher Sign Up and Volunteer Picnic

Grill Masters Chas St. George, Mark Nordman, and Stan Foo prepare hotdogs, burgers, and salmon.

Annually, the final Saturday of June marks the first chapter of the up coming Iditarod.  Mushers, volunteers, sponsors and ITC officials gather in Wasilla at Iditarod Headquarters to celebrate the service of volunteers and the first sign ups for Iditarod and the Jr. Iditarod.  The day dawned bright, clear and warm, a perfect day for a picnic.

Sign up for Iditarod XLVIII began promptly at 9:30.  Laura Neese of McMillan, MI was the first to complete her paperwork on Saturday morning. Neese is a veteran of Iditarod as well as the Yukon Quest.  Growing up in Ohio, she followed the Iditarod as a home school project and soon began dreaming of sled dogs and racing.  Laura who holds a degree as a Veterinary Technician, moved to the UP of Michigan to work and train with Iditarod Veteran Ed Stielstra and pursue her interest in long distance mushing.

Meredith Mapes followed Neese at the registration table.  Mapes, also an Iditarod veteran, saw the southern route in 2018 and looks forward to running the northern route in 2020.  Meredith began her mushing career at the age of 6 behind one dog. That grew to ten dogs for the Jr. Iditarod when she turned 14.  She’s completed the Jr. Iditarod four times.  Mapes took time off from the sport to earn a degree in Theater Arts – Dance. Meredith operates Fun on the Run Kennel and is excited to be fielding her Iditarod team with dogs from her own kennel.

Gabe Dunham of Willow, AK completed the initial trio of mushers to sign up at the picnic.  As a teenager, Gabe lived in Valdez, AK. After seeing sled dogs in action at a race, she knew the direction her life would take.  With a neighbor’s dogs, she ran her first race at the age of 18. While living in Darby, Montana, Gabe built her own kennel and operated a winter tour business. She ran the Eagle Cap Extreme, the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge and the Rocky Mountain Triple during the winter of 2019 to qualify for the Iditarod.  In the qualifiers, Gabe and team covered enough elevation to climb Mount Everest three times. As a rookie, Gabe was the only female to finish all three races. 

Redington Brothers – Ryan and Roberts sign up for 2020 at the picnic.

Via mail, fax or in person, a total of 40 mushers signed up on opening day and will be in the “first draw.” Mushers entering after the picnic will be in the second draw for start positions.  At the Thursday evening Musher Banquet scheduled for March 5th, Ryan Redington will lead all mushers in being the first to draw his starting position from the ever-famous mukluk.  Six rookies and thirty-four veterans will be in the first draw.  Rookie, Kaci Murringer, of Willow, AK will lead the mushers in the second group to draw for start positions.

Current Champion, Peter Kaiser of Bethel, AK, will be on the trail with former champions Joar Leifseth Ulsom (1), Mitch Seavey (3), Martin Buser (4) and Lance Mackey (4).  Together these racers have thirteen championships. Racers who are returning from the 2019 top-ten include Champion Peter Kaiser, Runner up Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Jessie Royer, Aliy Zirkle, Travis Beals, Ramey Smyth, Mitch Seavey and Aaron Burmeister. These are very experienced and high-octane contestants.  Stay tuned to see who joins the field for 2020 prior to the cutoff on December 2, 2019.

Jr. Iditarod has its first two contestants.  A pair of 1-year veterans attended the picnic and signed up for the 43rdrunning of the celebrated junior race.  Bjorn Keller and Johanna Badalich both participated as rookies in the 2019 Jr. Iditarod.  Bjorn lives in Wasilla and shares a dog team with his father, Iditarod veteran Jeremy Keller.  Johanna earned Red Lantern honors in the 2019 Jr.  From Anchorage, Johanna started mushing with a kick sled and house pets. She’s worked at Jeff King’s Husky Homestead and has trained with Meredith Mapes.

ITC CEO Rob Urbach, Board Member Danny Seybert, and Musher Martin Buser

The Iditarod Trail Committee introduced the new CEO, Rob Urbach.  Urbach, who has a background in sports management, comes to Iditarod from Colorado where he recently directed USA Triathlon.  Iditarod Board of Directors President, Mike Mills said this in introducing Urbach, “Rob embraces our vision of an Iditarod that is committed to the priority of canine care both on and off the trail.  In addition to his extensive credentials, Rob has proven himself to be a nimble and strategic leader and we’re looking forward to Rob taking the helm of the Last Great Race on Earth®.”  Urbach holds an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and is a graduate of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky.  Rob has completed 80 Triathlons, including the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.  The new CEO will commence his duties on July 29, 2019.  Welcome Rob!

Brian Hickox, 2019 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail ™ passes the Sleeping bag to Kelly Villar

2019 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™, Brian Hickox ended his yearlong tenure by passing the sleeping bag on to Kelly Villar.  Villar, a second grade teacher from Connecticut, officially took over the duties as the 2020 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ at Iditarod Summer Camp for Teachers held the week prior to the picnic.  Kelly describes herself as an active outdoor person who volunteers for American Lab Rescue.  Kelly has her father to thank for introducing her to a “cool sled dog race.”  In 2000 she became hooked on Iditarod and the value it plays in motivating students.  The sleeping bag that is passed from teacher to teacher holds a patch representing each of the twenty-one teachers who have served in the position.  Kelly will soon be designing and adding her patch.  Villar’s lessons and posts can be found on the Iditarod EDU page.      

The moment everyone waits for at the picnic comes late in the afternoon, the DRAWINGS!  John Cooper of Kipmik Products donates booties, a ladle and dog bowls for a musher drawing.  Three lucky winners depart the picnic with supplies for the kennel.

Entry Fee Winners – Mitch Seavey and Gabe Dunham

Two complimentary entry fees are given out by ITC to mushers who have registered for the race and are present at the picnic for the drawing.  Rob Urbach, the newly announced CEO, drew the names from the bowl and longtime Iditarod employee, Joanne Potts, announced the lucky winners.  These grand prizes went to veteran musher and former champion, Mitch Seavey and to rookie musher, Gabe Dunham.  Both Seavey and Dunham were happy to start the 2020 Iditarod with the gift of the entry fee.   

Well, there you have it, a summary of the volunteer picnic and first day of musher sign up for both the Jr. Iditarod and Iditarod along with a preview of what’s to come in 2020. Enjoy the photos and check back often to see who joins the field for both races.