52 mushers running the 2019 Iditarod participated in the Ceremonial Start in downtown Anchorage on Saturday before the race clock officially began Sunday at the Willow restart. In addition to the field’s hyper-competitive slate of five past champions, nearly one in five Iditarod mushers this year is new to the race.
The 10 rookies each set out on the trail with a deep range of skills and experiences.
21-year-old Martin Apayauq Reitan is coming off a Yukon Quest in which he took home Rookie of the Year honors. But he had a tough time managing his sleep during the race: something he wants to improve on in his second 1,000-mile race.
“(It’s) mainly to have a good time. We’ll see if I’m able to race or if I oversleep again and then I’ll have to adjust my expectations, but I’ll try my best and have fun.”
Reitan lives on the North Slope in Kaktovik, where, among other things, he guides polar-bear-viewing expeditions. After the race, he will skip the jet and instead mush his team north to Kotzebue, where his dad will run the Kobuk 440. After that, it’s hundreds of miles more north and east to Kaktovik — the same epic trip he made two years ago with his father.
Mushing is also a family affair for Jessica Klejka, who grew up the oldest of seven kids, running dogs in Bethel on the Kuskokwim River. Her passion for mushing also overlaps with her professional life: she’s a practicing veterinarian. But Klejka says her professional knowledge can cause her to overthink things with her dogs.
“I toss him a piece of fish, and if he doesn’t eat it right away, I think, ‘what’s going on, why doesn’t he want to eat the fish?’ I’m smelling the fish… is it ok? For the most part, I think it’s advantageous. I get a lot of calls from mushers the last few weeks before Iditarod asking a lot of questions. It’s kind of fun. Even some of the top mushers in the sport have a few questions, and most of them are questions your veterinarian knows the answer to, so it’s kind of fun.”
For more than two decades, Ed Hopkins from Tagish, Yukon Territory, has been running the Yukon Quest, notching several top five finishes. But after watching his wife, Michelle Phillips, race the Iditarod several times in recent years, he says the Iditarod temptation became hard to ignore.
“Eventually you get the itch. And I got the itch.”
His team has already completed a 1,000-mile race this year. Phllips ran the team to a fourth place finish in the Quest last month. Hopkins says his race-hardened dogs know more about the trail than he does.
“I’m a rookie in a lot of senses; I don’t know some of the little, hidden things. I’m just going to go and do my own thing.”
Norwegian Niklas Wikstrand has worked with Pete Kaiser in Bethel for a few years and gotten his race experience in brutal, Kuskokwim River conditions. He’s on a specific schedule to get the dogs the right racing experience.
“Go a little slower, rest enough: that’s our main goal. Rest and run quite conservative and make sure that as many dogs get to Nome. Just keeping the dogs happy and healthy.”
As the rookies navigate the race’s most technical and steep sections in the first couple days of the race, they will be one step closer to joining the elite club of Iditarod finishers.
Image at top: Jessica Klejka at the 2019 Iditarod Ceremonial Start in Anchorage on Saturday, March 2. Photo: Ben Matheson, KNOM.