For the women who mush almost 1,000 miles across frozen Alaska in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, it's all about grit.
On June 27, 2015, DeeDee Jonrowe, 61, signed up for the 2016 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, just as she has done nearly every year since 1980. This year, though, committing to the grueling race took even more fortitude than usual: Less than two weeks earlier, a forest fire had reduced her home in Willow, Alaska, to a pile of smoldering ash and an 8-foot hole.
“When I heard about the fire, I ran the roadblock the state troopers had set up,” Jonrowe says. “I’d let all my possessions burn if it means saving my dogs.” Her husband, Mike, was hundreds of miles away commercial fishing in Bristol Bay. Fortunately, a neighbor had gotten there in time with a trailer to help her take her dogs to safety.
These aren’t your average beloved dogs Jonrowe was willing to risk life and limb for. They’re her sled dogs and her partners in her passion for running what’s called The Last Great Race on Earth: the legendary Iditarod. Jonrowe has participated in 33 of them.
Traversing nearly 1,000 miles of sheer wilderness from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, dog mushers race each other across a harsh landscape of spruce forest, tundra, mountain passes, and frozen rivers while dealing with blizzards, whiteout conditions, and gale-force winds. Wind chills have reached 100 degrees below zero.
Although dog-sledding was seen as a man’s sport when the race was inaugurated in 1973, the Iditarod saw its first female participants and its first woman finisher, Mary Shields, in 1974. Libby Riddles caught the attention of the world by becoming the first woman to win the race in 1985. The next year, Susan Butcher won it, claiming the first of her four victories.
When Jonrowe entered her first Iditarod in 1980, she was one of only six female entrants. By 2015, 25 intrepid women, including Jonrowe, were racing on the Iditarod Trail; the race’s website put the number of women competing in the 44th annual race this March at 26 out of 86 mushers as of press time. Jonrowe has been the runner-up twice and has placed in the top 10 an impressive 16 times, including in 1988, when bad weather forced her to hole up in a shelter cabin with three other racers. With very little food among them, they melted snow for drinking water to survive until the storm let up.
Jonrowe grabbed national headlines in 2003 when she entered the race only three weeks after completing chemotherapy for breast cancer. She knows how to wage a battle with her body and has paid a heavy physical price for her racing: She has had back surgery, frozen her shoulder, broken her hand, and suffered severe frostbite to her fingers, cheeks, and nose. “I’ve also had whiplash and concussions,” she says. Even training for the race presents hazards: “Now and then, a moose will charge us.”
Jonrowe was working as a state biologist in the remote Yup’ik town of Bethel when her interest in dogs was sparked. Her job was to go from village to village conducting a regular census of area wildlife. “[Guide, kennel owner, and future Father of the Iditarod] Joe Redington was trying to raise awareness on dog-sledding at the time because it was dying out in the state then,” Jonrowe says. “I decided to get a small team of five dogs and use them to go from village to village for my work.”
Dog-sledding had once been so much a part of village life that every home might have five or six dogs — that number had dwindled to nearly none. Redington wanted to revive dog sled culture, but it was the idea of Dorothy G. Page — called the Mother of the Iditarod — to commemorate the centennial of the United States purchase of Alaska from Russia as well as the 1925 serum run to Nome. Also known as the Great Race of Mercy, the historic event occurred in a crisis. Diphtheria antitoxin needed emergency transport by dog sled relay across Alaska, then still a U.S. territory, with about 150 dogs crossing nearly 700 miles of wilderness in order to save the children of Nome from an imminent plague. The mushers made it in 127 hours, with only a few hours to spare. The press hailed them — and their dogs — as heroes, and the event became as much a statement of Alaska grit as The Alamo is for Texas.
The race Redington eventually created followed the old Iditarod mail route from Anchorage to Nome. He raised a big purse to be divided among the mushers, and the Iditarod race was born.
Inspired by Redington, Jonrowe found herself falling in love with her dogs, sled racing, and the Native culture it sprang from. “The culture and their history are so interesting,” she says. “Their ability to do a lot with a little is a fascination with me.” Within nine months of obtaining her small dog team, Jonrowe was entering dog-sled races. More than 35 years later, she’s still at it.
Iditarod resembles gold fever. It infects people from all walks of life. Take 36-year-old Zoya DeNure. A Wisconsin native and former fashion model, DeNure had been a regular at Shanghai Fashion Week and on Milan’s runways. After modeling came to an end, she found herself working at a mortgage firm. Backing up a statement to coworkers that she wouldn’t be behind a desk by the time she reached 30, she answered an ad by an Alaskan musher looking for a dog handler for his kennel in Nenana.
The move changed DeNure’s life. She started a rescue kennel for injured dogs and began gravitating to dog races in the area. “I was attracted to the idea that less is more,” she says, “After having lived to the extreme of city, travel, and people nonstop, I was now interested in a different lifestyle with nature, dogs, and space.”
She really put down roots after meeting her husband, John Schandelmeier, at a dog sled race in the nearby mountains. A trapper and commercial fisherman, he had his own dog teams. The two hit it off and were soon married and raising a family in the Alaska Range.
But being a mother didn’t dissuade DeNure from pursuing mushing. She trained hard and placed 53rd out of 96 in her first Iditarod race in 2008. During it, she spent four hours in a gorge repairing her sled’s brakes. After developing a mastitis infection from weaning her daughter from breast feeding, she had to scratch from the race in 2010. The following year, she scratched again when her 8-year-old lead dog collapsed in the harness and she had to give mouth-to-muzzle resuscitation; DeNure had made it a couple of hundred miles to the Rainy Pass checkpoint but withdrew out of concern for the dog’s health. And she was compelled to pull out in 2012 at the Cripple checkpoint halfway through the race when she couldn’t boot her dogs for protection against horrific low temperatures.
In addition to those disappointments, she’s had her share of close calls. “I fell into [the Maclaren River] while racing [the Taiga 300], sled and all,” DeNure says. “My team made it across the open lead, and when I called to my leaders and team, they pulled me up onto the ice.”
It’s not the life you’d associate with a former fashion model. The dog musher’s day begins at 8 a.m.: feeding the dogs, cleaning the yard, harnessing the dogs, hooking up teams for training runs, dog walks, gear and equipment maintenance. All the while, DeNure is also taking care of her two children, 7-year-old Jona and 2-year-old Olivia.
Why does she do it? There’s the sense of surmounting great obstacles, sure. But it’s also about the beauty and the exhilaration. “[It’s amazing] being out in places you can only get to by dog team, racing under a full moon and the aurora,” DeNure says, recalling last year’s Gin Gin 200 race, which found her streaking across a white landscape lit by a full moon and a dazzling aurora borealis for two nights.
Dog-sledding also holds DeNure’s fellow Wisconsin natives Anna and Kristy Berington in its thrall. Tall and athletic with flowing blonde hair often in braids, the 30-year-old twins moved to Alaska in 2007 and have been getting attention since their first Iditarod race in 2010. They’re favorites with photographers covering the spectacle.
“Being identical twins is definitely a sideshow in the Iditarod,” says Kristy. “A lot of kids like to meet us because many of them have never met or seen twins before in some of the remote villages.” The twins’ trademark long blonde braids make them a popular subject for those elementary students to draw. Entire classes have come out to see them in villages like Unalakleet and Elim to get photos and autographs. (You can actually tell the Berington twins apart now that Anna has a 1-inch scar on her left leg from a snow hook and her toes have shortened from frostbite from a 50-below night on the trail.)
Two tough, attractive single women in Alaska are bound to get the attention of older fans as well. “We both have been proposed to on the Iditarod Trail by complete strangers,” Kristy says. “Groups of half-naked men spelled out our names across their chests in the dead of winter!”
Beauty and brawn might get the proposals during the Iditarod, but it’s brawn and true grit that win the race. The physical strength of the women of The Last Great Race on Earth was underscored last year when a 36-year-old female spectator from California challenged then-45-year-old champion musher Aliy Zirkle to an arm-wrestling contest shortly after Zirkle came in fifth in the Iditarod. Ten seconds into the match, Zirkle — mother of two and winner of the Iditarod Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award for exemplary care of her dogs — accidentally broke her opponent’s wrist.
The 2016 Iditarod race begins March 5. From the February/March 2016 issue.