This past weekend, the 2019 Iditarod rookie musher meeting took place. When I looked up the word “rookie”, the definition given was “someone in his/her first full season of a sport”. Not so with Iditarod. These mushers are running in their first Iditarod, yes, but they are far from being in their first full season of the sport.
Iditarod rookies are mushers who have not yet completed an Iditarod. Mushers will have rookie status each year until they do. The 2019 field happens to be all rookies that haven’t yet attempted the Iditarod. But the experience of these rookies is quite impressive.
Some are running under the mentorship of seasoned Iditarod veterans. For example, Alison Lifka has learned a lot from working with Lev Sharts and Linwood Fiedler. Niklas Wikstrand, handler for Pete Kaiser for 3 years, will be running some of Pete’s dogs. Niklas said the meeting gave a lot of good information, and he is ready to get back to training to put it to use.
A handful have completed other world-class long distance races. Sebastian Dos Santos Borges and Richie Beattie have both completed the Yukon Quest. Richie, a 2 time YQ finisher, says he is most looking forward to the coast section of the race as a test for his team. Mikael Jutila has completed the Finnmarkslopet, 1,200 km (about 745 miles), 10 times, yet he says Iditarod has always been a dream of his.
Two rookies are from the Bethel area, an area rich with mushing ties and opportunities. When she is not working in village dentistry, Victoria Hardwick is home enough to keep her training schedule going. Jessica Klejka, the 2008 Jr. Iditarod champion, is now a veterinarian in the Big Lake area with special interests in sled dogs and orthopedics.
Blair Braverman learned to mush dogs on a journey she took to Norway as a teen. And as is the case many times, she started with someone else’s dogs and now owns her own kennel. She said she can’t believe she has finally signed up for the Iditarod and in just a few months it will be a reality.
At the rookie meeting, Ed Hopkins received some good-natured hassling from the veteran Iditarod personnel because he has been involved in every aspect of the race for years, from trail-breaking to handling and on, so “all” he has left to do is run it.
And Martin Apayauq Reitan may have the some of the most unique mushing experience of all. After the 2017 Iditarod race, Martin mushed his dad’s team back to the village of Kaktovik, where they live in the summer, moving from previously unvisited village to village, meeting new friends, and running the Kobuk 440 along the way.
All in all, these first-time Iditarod racers are bringing a vast amount of mushing experience with them to the trail. It would not be surprising for them all to finish on this, their first attempt at The Last Great Race.