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Generations of Western Alaskans, Rookies No Longer

text by David Dodman; audio by Laureli Kinneen; photos by Ben Matheson

Paul Johnson in Anchorage

Paul Johnson - with an Idita-Rider and a race assistant - in Anchorage on Saturday.

The last time Paul Johnson ran the Iditarod, in 1986, fellow musher Mike Williams, Jr. was in diapers.

The two men are separated by a full generation – Johnson in his early 50s, Williams in his mid-20s – but they’re both running their second Iditarod, hoping to improve on their rookie performances. And, they’re both Western Alaskans, supported strongly by mushing traditions that run in their families.

Johnson is the brother of Iditarod 2010 musher “Middie” Johnson, who’s the mayor of their hometown, Unalakleet, Alaska, a village nestled on the eastern coast of Norton Sound. He’ll be mushing a “core” team selected from Middie’s 2010 dogs, plus a few borrowed from other kennels. Johnson knows the dogs well, after helping his brother train for last year’s race.

In Anchorage, he talked to our trail reporter Laureli about his outlook for the 2011 Iditarod: his strategy for checkpoint layovers, his hopes to improve on his and Middie’s last Iditarod showings, and what’s changed in the race in the past quarter century:

Mike Williams, Jr.

Mike Williams, Jr. at Saturday's ceremonial start.

Mike Williams, Jr. comes from a strong Iditarod tradition: it’s right in his name. Mike Williams, Sr., his father, is a respected Iditarod veteran; Mike, Jr. grew up helping his father train for the Iditarod, and early in his mushing career, he’s already making a strong showing. The younger Williams finished 26th in Iditarod 2010 – his first Last Great Race – and took 2nd place in this year’s Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race, finishing only a minute behind veteran musher Paul Gebhardt.

In Anchorage, Mike Williams, Jr. – of Akiak, Alaska – talked to Laureli about his outlook for the 2011 Iditarod, in which he hopes to be “competitive”:

As of Tuesday afternoon, Mike Williams, Jr. is in 8th position, having arrived into Nikolai at 9:44am with 14 dogs. Paul Johnson is in 44th position; he departed Rohn, also with 14 dogs, at 9:48am.