Eye on the Trail: St. Patrick’s Day – Page 2

Gerhardt Thiart in 26th Place (Photo: Insider Video)

“One year Later,” is what Gerhardt Thiart repeated numerous times as he shook hands in the chute this afternoon on Front Street.  Bridgett Watkins likely had the same thought on her mind as she followed Thiart by 8 minutes to the arch.

They were only 60 miles from Nome last year when winds through the Blow Hole made sledding impossible. The two decided to take shelter and were later assisted by snowmachine back to White Mountain where they scratched.  Thiart reported only a gentle breeze in the Blow Hole this year.

Thiart is the first South African to complete Iditarod.  He earned 26th place with a time of 11 days, 21 hours and 26 minutes.  As far as memorable portions of the trail, Thiart thought that the run for Iditarod to Shageluk with all the hills and trees was extremely fast.  When asked about adversity experienced on the trail, he laughed and replied, “We don’t have enough time.  Around every turn there was some adversity.” 

Thiart was running the Mitch Seavey “B” team this year as he was last year but it wasn’t the same “B” team as last year.  The dogs he trained last year advanced to the “A” team this year and were part of Christian Turner’s team. 

Before coming to the United States, Thiart owned Siberian Huskies and participated in the sport of dry-land mushing.  He’s a decorated champion in the two-dog scooter race circuit of South Africa.  When he arrived in Michigan his challenge was to transfer his experience behind two-dogs to a larger team of 14 dogs, switch from a two wheeled scooter to a two runner sled and glide over snow covered trails rather than gravel trails.  Working as a handler allowed him to become familiar with the aspects of running dogs on snow, caring for dogs in the cold and winter camping.

Bridgett Watkins with her dogs Razz (left) and Jefe (Photo courtesy of Bridgett Watkins/ Alaska Public Media)

Bridgett Watkins of Fairbanks finished in 27th place with a time of 11 days, 2 hours and 8 minutes.  She was met at the arch by family and two Alaska State Troopers.  Watkins hadn’t exceeded speed limits along the trail of done anything else illegal.  They were there to honor her and the precious cargo she delivered to Nome.

Watkins carried the ashes of Court Service Officer Curtis Worland who was fatally injured while on duty last December during a muskox attack near Nome.  A KOAH Facebook post says, ”His wife Kamey is an avid musher in Nome and a friend of Bridgett Watkins.  During her journey from Anchorage to Nome, Bridgett carried CSO Worland’s ashes with her to honor his memory.  During the Ceremonial run in Anchorage, Kamey drove Watkins’ tag sled. 

Bridgett was tearful but elated when she arrived in Nome.  Accomplishing her goal of finishing Iditarod was a long time coming after the Blow Hole storm of 2022.   When asked about carrying Worland’s ashes she replied, “Curtis kept me on the trail.”  There were times when she wondered about continuing but she was carrying Curtis to Nome so that’s what she would do.       

Bridgett moved to Alaska from Arkansas with her father, Allen Moore, when she was five.  Shortly after, she acquired her first sled dog and started down the trail doing sprint races in Alaska and Canada.  At the age of 13, Bridgett raced in the Arctic Winter Games claiming a gold and two silver medals in the 6-dog race for the state of Alaska.  From there she took up mid and long-distance racing with a pair of the most revered mushers in the sport as coaches, Allen Moore and step-mom Aliy Zirkle. 

Watkins stepped off the runners long enough to earn her nursing degree, marry her high-school sweetheart and raise a family.  Her husband worked for Wells Fargo Bank in Nome and Bridgette worked at the regional hospital.  Living under the burled arch for six years, Bridgett’s passion for mushing was re-ignited.  The family now resides in Fairbanks at Kennel on a Hill, also known as KOAH.  Husband Scotty is a Yukon Quest Veteran.  Bridget completed the Covid shortened Summit Quest of 2021.

She helped her parents at SP kennel for many years and assisted the SP team in training and racing.  Since 2018, Watkins has been working toward her dream of running Iditarod and experiencing the trail from the runners to have her own stories to share at family events.  The year was going to be 2022 but things didn’t work out that way until “One Year Later.“

Jed Stephensen in 28th Place (Photo: Insider Video)

Jed Stephensen completed his rookie run in 28th place in 12 days, 0 hours and 44 minutes.  Jed grew up in Germany where his father served in the US military.  He was inspired to become a musher through reading books about the sport written by Gary Paulson and Jack London.  After setting his snow hook under the arch Jed was greeted by his wife and twin sons.  One of the boys backed off and said, “Daddy, you have icicles on your mustache.” 

Jed traveled a great deal of the trial with Jason Mackey.  When asked what it was like running with a guy from a storied mushing family, Jed teared up saying, “The Mackeys are probably the toughest family on planet earth.  There were moments out there I thought he was done but that was foolish on my part.  Nothing was going to stop Jason.” 

Stephensen resides in Idaho and trains in considerably different weather than Alaska offers during Iditarod.  Jed said there were times he felt like a fish out of water, especially while on the sea ice during the storms. Coming into and leaving Shaktoolik during the wind and ground blizzard was the greatest challenge of the race for him.  He called it “pretty intense.”  

After departing Safety, Jed missed the intersection where the trail veers to the right and goes up and over Cape Nome.  He continued on the snowmachine trail that goes around, rather than over the cape.  That trail brought Jed back to the marked trail but he missed out on the view from the summit.  Jed was not the only musher to miss that intersection the year.  Mille Porsild did likewise but she turned around and made the climb over the cape thus having the longest time from Safety to Nome, 6 hours and 6 minutes.  Jed has dreamed of doing the Iditarod since he was nine years old.  When the going got tough, he kept on going and accomplished his dream.