Who Are Those Crazy Iditarod Mushers Anyway?

Iditarod Blizzard

Who would be crazy enough to mush dogs over 1100 miles in freezing, unpredictable weather, across difficult, sometimes dangerous terrain, for a purse that, by American sporting standards, is relatively small? And who would spend years breeding, raising, and training dogs, at great personal expense, to enter such a grueling race, not once, but many times? For some, many, many times?

It helps to be Alaskan. It’s not necessary, but it helps. And even if you’re not Alaskan, after racing several Iditarods, there’s a good chance you’ll become one. You also have to love the wilderness–the bitter cold wilderness. And, of course, you have to love huskies. You have to love them because it’s the only way–even after all the breeding, raising, training, and fitness regimens–that they’ll pull you a thousand miles through inclement weather across a sometimes difficult-to-find trail.

The musher-dog bond is a mysterious one.

You also have to like being alone–or, at least, alone with the dogs–for days on end. In her book Race Across Alaska, written with Tim Jones, 1985 Iditarod champion Libby Riddles describes stopping on the way to the Elim checkpoint to rest and give her dogs and herself a snack. After feeding her dogs lamb and eating some trail mix and moose jerky herself, she contemplates the still night.

Then I sat on the sled with the light off, enjoying the darkness and the silence. A part of me wanted life to be like this always: just me and my dogs, alone in this vast, silent country, our goals always sure, living out of the sled day after day. This was the most seductive feature of the Iditarod, the reason I would come back time and time again, despite all the suffering that went along with it: this intimacy I had with those fine animals…and with the magnificent land of Alaska.

And so these mushers come back, time and time again, and along with them come the rookies, some of whom will, perhaps, learn what they have learned and come to feel what they have felt, the inextricable bond between the musher, the dogs, and the land.

Below, in alphabetical order, are some of the most notable mushers in Iditarod history. An “x” preceding a name indicates a musher entered in the 2013 race.

John Baker

x-John Baker: Fifty-year-old John Baker was born, and currently lives in, Kotzebue, Alaska. Of Inupiat descent, Baker won the 2011 Iditarod with a record-breaking time of 8 days, 19 hours, 46 minutes, and 39 seconds, besting Martin Buser’s previous record by three hours. He is the first native Alaskan to win the Iditarod since Jerry Riley took first place in 1976. Since completing his first Iditarod in 1996, Baker has finished 13 races. He has placed in the top ten in all but three of them. His website can be found at www.teamjohnbaker.com

Martin Buser

x-Martin Buser:  Martin Buser was born in 1958 in Winterthur, Switzerland. He is a four-time Iditarod champion, winning in 1992, 1994, 1997, and 2002. Buser moved to Alaska in 1979 to train and race huskies. He entered his first Iditarod in 1980. With his 2002 win, he held the fastest finishing time of 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, and 2 seconds until John Baker broke his record in 2011. Following his 2002 win, Buser became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He owns Happy Trails Kennels in Big Lake, Alaska.  The website can be found at www.buserdog.com

Susan Butcher

Susan Butcher: Susan Butcher was a four-time Iditarod champion, winning in 1986, 1987, 1988, and 1990. With her 1986 victory, she became the second woman to win the Iditarod. She then went on to dominate the race in the late 1980s. Butcher was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and moved to Alaska in 1973. She was diagnosed with leukemia in 2005 and died in 2006 at the age of 51. In 2008, Governor Sarah Palin signed a bill making the first Saturday in March in Alaska “Susan Butcher Day,” coinciding with the Iditarod’s ceremonial start.

Carl Huntington

Carl Huntington: Carl Huntington mushed to victory in the second Iditarod in 1974, becoming the race’s first native Alaskan winner. He finished in 20 days, 15 hours, 2 minutes, and 7 seconds. Born in Galena in the Alaskan interior, he is of Athabaskan descent.

DeeDee Jonrowe

x-DeeDee Jonrowe:  One of the Iditarod’s most popular mushers, DeeDee Jonrowe is a  three-time Iditarod runner-up. She holds the fastest time for a woman, completing her 1998 race in 9 days, 8 hours, 26 minutes, and 10 seconds. She has finished 28 Iditarods and placed in the top ten 15 times. Born in 1953 in Frankfurt, Germany, her father was a United States Army officer stationed overseas. Her family moved to Alaska in 1971. Jonrowe competed in her first Iditarod in 1980.

Part of what makes Jonrowe so popular with fans is her remarkable resilience on and off the trail. In 1996, she survived a car accident outside of Fairbanks that killed her grandmother and injured her and her husband. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, underwent a double mastectomy, and went on to compete in the 2003 race just four weeks after completing chemotherapy. She is married to Mike Jonrowe. The couple lives in Willow, Alaska. DeeDee’s website is  at www.deedeejonrowe.com

Jeff King

x-Jeff King: Jeff King belongs to the elite group of four-time Iditarod champions, winning in 1993, 1996, 1998, and 2006. He also won the Yukon Quest, another 1000-mile-plus sled-dog race, in 1989. With his 2006 win, King became, at age 50, the oldest musher to win the Iditarod. The 57-year-old King was born in North Fork, California. He moved to Alaska in 1975 and began racing in 1976. He lives in Denali, Alaska. The website for his Husky Homestead Kennel can be found at www.huskyhomestead.com

Dick Mackey

Dick Mackey: Dick Mackey competed in the first Iditarod in 1973. He won the closest ever Iditarod race in 1978, beating Rick Swenson by a mere one second. His winning time was 14 days, 18 hours, 52 minutes, and 24 seconds. He is the father of Iditarod champions Lance Mackey and Rick Mackey.

Lance Mackey

x-Lance Mackey: Forty-two-year-old Lance Mackey holds the record for consecutive Iditarod wins, with four in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. He also won four consecutive Yukon Quests in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. In 2007, Mackey became the first musher to win both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. He did it again in 2008. These stunning accomplishments happened after Mackey was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2001. He scratched from the 2002 Iditarod and took a year off to recover before coming back to train for, and eventually dominate, the race. His father is Dick Mackey. His half-brother, Rick, won the 1983 Iditarod. Mackey lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. The website for his Comeback Kennel can be found at  www.mackeyscomebackkennel.com

Emmitt Peters

Emmitt Peters: Emmitt Peters was born in 1940 in the interior Alaskan town of Ruby. He is of Athabaskan descent. While still a rookie in 1975, he became the second native Alaskan to win the Iditarod, breaking the previous speed record by six days. His winning time was 14 days, 14 hours, 43 minutes, and 45 seconds. Peters earned the nickname “The Yukon Fox” because, according to him, “I’d sneak away from all my competitors and have five or six teams chasing me.” He completed 25 Iditarods.

Libby Riddles

Libby Riddles: In 1985, Libby Riddles became the first woman to win the Iditarod, with a finishing time of 18 days, 20 minutes, and 17 seconds. Facing some of the worst weather in Iditarod history, she won by mushing alone into a fierce blizzard on Norton Sound. Riddles was born in 1956 in Madison, Wisconsin. She moved to Alaska at 16. Her website is at  www.libbyriddles.com

Dallas Seavey

x-Dallas Seavey: Dallas Seavey is the youngest Iditarod champion, winning the 2012 race at the age of 25. His winning time was 9 days, 4 hours, 29 minutes, and 26 seconds. He is the son of Mitch Seavey, the 2004 Iditarod champion, and the grandson of Dan Seavey.

Dan Seavey

Dan Seavey: Dan Seavey competed in the first Iditarod in 1973, finishing third with a time of 20 days, 14 hours, 35 minutes, and 16 seconds. He was instrumental in helping Joe Redington Sr. organize the first race. He is the father of Mitch Seavey and the grandfather of Dallas Seavey. Last year, at the age of 74, Seavey ran in his fifth Iditarod wearing bib number 100 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Iditarod Trail. He is originally from Red Wing, Minnesota.

Mitch Seavey

x-Mitch Seavey: The son of Dan Seavey and the father of Dallas Seavey, Mitch Seavey won the 2004 Iditarod with a time of of 9 days, 12 hours, 20 minutes, and 22 seconds. He competed in his first Iditarod in 1982 and has run every race since 1995. In 2008, he won the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, setting a new record with a time of 74 hours, 14 minutes, and 37 seconds. Seavey lives in Sterling, Alaska.

Mary Shields

Mary Shields:  In 1974, Mary Shields became the first woman to complete an Iditarod, placing 23rd. Today she gives tours of her home and her huskies in the Goldstream Valley, north of Fairbanks. www.maryshields.com

Robert Sorlie

Robert Sorlie: From Hurdal, Norway, the 52-year-old Sorlie is the only non-American to win the Iditarod, coming in first in 2003. He won again in 2005.

Rick Swenson

Rick Swenson: Rick Swenson is the winnningest musher in Iditarod history, with five wins in 1977, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1991, earning him the title “King of the Iditarod.” He is also the only musher to win in three separate decades. Until Dallas Seavey’s 2012 victory, he was the youngest musher to win the Iditarod at the age of 26. Swenson has completed 26 Iditarods. In 1978, he came in second in the closest Iditarod finish ever, losing to Dick Mackey by one second. Swenson moved to Alaska in 1973 from Willmar, Minnesota. He currently lives in Two Rivers.

Doug Swingley

Doug Swingley: Doug Swingley has won the Iditarod four times, in 1995, 1999, 2000, and 2001. He is the only winner from the lower-48 states. He lives in Lincoln, Montana. He married Melanie Shirilla under the Burled Arch in Nome in 2002.

Dick Wilmarth

Dick Wilmarth: A miner and trapper from Red Devil, Alaska, Dick Wilmarth won the first Iditarod in 1973. His winning time was 20 days, 49 minutes, and 41 seconds. His part of the purse amounted to $12,000. Wilmarth later said that first race was not really a sled dog race but “a time to enjoy the Alaskan wilderness with friends.” He never competed in another Iditarod.

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