A rookie is defined as a musher who has never finished the Iditarod before. There are 17 mushers entered in this years Iditarod as a rookie. That still leaves a wide range of varying pre-race experience possible. Some musher like Cody Strathe from Fairbanks, is a rookie in Iditarod, but not a 1000 mile rookie. Cody has finished the Yukon Quest. Running 1000 miles is not entirely new to him. Cody and his partner in crime, Paige Drobny, both finished the 2016 Quest in 14th and 15th places respectively. Now they are both running Iditarod, of which Paige is a veteran. Talk about a logistical challenge, having to prepare 4 – 1000 mile food drops. I wonder if they will ever do that again? That is about 8000-10000 lbs. of supplies right there. The other day I met them in Fairbanks, going to a chiropractor… I wonder why? Kristin Knight Pace is another musher who is a rookie in Iditarod, yet has 1000 mile experience with a 15th place Yukon Quest finish in 2015; notably she finished that run 12 dogs strong.
Then there is a rookie like Norwegian Lars Monson. Rookie is really not the proper description for Lars. He has been mushing for 26 years. Just not on the trail to Nome. One of his close friends is Iditarod Champion Robert Sorlie. Lars has finished the Femundlopet 600 eight times and the Finnmarklopet 1000 five times. Besides racing his background is in expeditions, like a 10 month long Alaska Expedition or a year-long Norway crossing. Rookie? Not quite! Rookie of the Year in Iditarod 2016, quite possibly. Another Norwegian, Dag Torluf Olsen has also been mushing since the early 90s and most likely will try to beat his fellow countryman, Lars, to the punch.
Geir Idar Hjelvik is no stranger to racing and mushing either, having started all the way back in 1987. He is running a team from Dallas Seavey. Depending on what plan he and Dallas have hashed out, Geir could be seen quite a ways up front. Just look at Dallas’ second team last year, finishing 15th run by Christian Turner from “ Down Under“. Do we see a Rookie of the Year from Norway this year? Quite possibly.
I would be surprised to not also see Robert Redington trying to pull of a well-placed finish, wanting to uphold the Redington mushing legacy. Pushing hard can have dire consequences, as this year’s CB 300 outcome showed for Robert, who made it to the last checkpoint of Mendeltna Lodge, but not quite to the finish line with 6 dogs. Robert will have to compete with those weathered Norwegians, who have a lot more miles under their mushing belt.
Other rookies like Patrick Beall, Elliot Anderson or Tim Pappas have worked for established kennels, either the Seavey or Happy Trails Kennels. They have a wealth of knowledge and support at their disposal. That does not guarantee success, as Elliot pulled out of the 2014 Iditarod, oh so close to the finish line, in Elim. I remember stopping in Unalakleet on my way back to Anchorage and visiting with Elliot as the only remaining team in the dog lot, at the time his spirits upbeat. Elliot is not the only one entered to “ finish unfinished business”; so is Kim Franklin who tried her hand at the 2008 Iditarod. She also has the support of an experienced musher, as she is working with Dean Osmar.
For others like Kristin Bacon the Iditarod has been on the horizon for a few years. She had hoped to run as early as 2014, but qualifying was not that easy, as due to weather many of the qualifying races had been cancelled. Kristin is now partnered up with Jeff King, jokes like “ Bacon – King “ have been making the rounds, and Kristin made it to the finishing line in this year’s very difficult Kusko 300. Whoever can survive the Kusko in tough conditions should be ready to make it to Nome.
Now a pattern starts to emerge. Either mushers already bring a wealth of experience to the table, or they have a mentor, if they are relatively new to the sport.
Real rookies are hard to be found in the Iditarod lineup. One closer to that definition is Larry Daugherty. He used to work with Jim Lanier and is now working with Mitch Seavey. Tom Jamgochian from Nome has Aaron Burmeister to tutor him. Matter of fact Tom moved out of Nome for about three and half month to train out of Aaron`s Nenana property bringing his whole own team along. That means a lot of time away from his family and work . Distance mushing is all-consuming and that is a specially hard lesson for a rookie to learn. Nothing can substitute the long hours on the runners. Yes, it can be done for a while after work and on weekends, but the closer it gets to actual race time, the more impossible that becomes. Talk about the logistics of the food drop alone. When I got into racing, that was one of the most daunting tasks of all. It was key to obtain a food drop list form another musher, to at least get an idea, of what to send out. Now 14 thousand milers later, I have pretty detailed excel spreadsheets for each race and often return the favor by handing out the sheets.
There are a few more rookies I have not mentioned yet. Noah Pereira. Noah is only 19 years young and he won the Jr Iditarod with a Seavey team in 2013. He was the first non Alaskan to do so. His biggest supporter is his dad and having and having learned from Dallas Seavey did not hurt. Noah is now training with up and comer Wade Marrs. Sarah Stokey is the partner of Travis Beals. It will help their kennel in the long run, fielding 2 Iditarod teams. That means more Iditarod finishers to pick from for the future. Mirian Osredkar operating out of Willow has teamed up with Yukon Quest and Iditarod finisher Joar Leifseth Ulfom, which means she can get plenty of good advice. Once leaving the starting line, it is all over with advice. First trip to Nome. There is nothing like it. The nice part about that first trip, there usually is no pressure to do well. No huge expectations, other than wanting to make it to Nome.
Mary Helwig is most likely one of the truest rookies in the sense of being a rookie. She has handled for experienced mushers before, like Dee Dee Jonrowe , yet she is all on her own with her kennel. Losing her belongings and home in the Sockeye Fire sure did not help matters. Yet Mary is determined to make the trip. It might be the undeterred focus which helped her though a difficult time.
I hope I did not forget any rookie. As one can see, even though these mushers have not run to Nome before, most of them bring plenty of experience to the table. A few of them will try hard to be Rookie of the Year. A one time shot! Accomplished mushers like the current Yukon Quest Champion Hugh Neff started out their Iditarod career that way. Hugh came in 22nd place in 2004 in 10 days and 16 hrs 21 minutes. During last year’s race, 11 years later, Thomas Waerner took the Rookie of the Year honor with a 17th place in 9 days 18hrs and 10 minutes. Almost a full day faster. 9 day times like that used to be a winning time not so many years ago. Competition is deep these days, the race has sped up a lot and even the competition for Rookie of the Year has become a tough one.
I finally have my iron dog loaded up. Finding a snow berm high enough to load it on the truck is getting tricky here in Fairbanks. Even all the way up here, we have had to contend with above freezing temperatures. I would not be too surprised, that if this year’s race will hold some of the same challenges as the 2014 Iditarod held during its first couple of hundred miles. Happy trails to all, specially the Rookies!