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3/5/2004 - 2004 Jr. Iditarod
The Jr. Iditarod Race was an adventure again this year. Our currently spring-like weather has caused quite a bit of overflow on the rivers making them messy and dangerous. To compensate, the Race Committee moved the Wasilla start further north to Susitna Landing, Mile 82 on the Parks Highway. The Iditarod Race restart will also be moved north to Willow. There's no word yet about if the teams will travel all the way to Eagle River on Saturday.
This year's Jr. Iditarod entry list was a "who's-who" of offspring of legendary mushers. The race was fast considering they were using teams of dogs trained for the main event.
Twenty junior mushers started this year's shortened course of 136 miles. You can view the trail map and read the biographies on the Iditarod web site at www.iditarod.com -- click on Jr. Iditarod.
I gather that the volunteer trailbreakers did a great job of protecting the mushers from the many moose on the trail. Whether the moose were just spectating or trying to participate, it was a big concern for the weaponless junior mushers (they only carry a knife and axe). Having a number of small airplanes to spot and snowmachines to run interference was a blessing.
As usual, the mushers seemed to have bonded around Saturday night's campfire at Yentna Station Roadhouse. From comments overheard at the banquet, it sounded like a typical slumber party where everyone spent all night talking around the bonfire. Best of all, they convinced a discouraged musher not to scratch, but to finish the race on Sunday. She seemed the proudest to stand at the podium having won her personal emotional battle.
The Master of Ceremonies at the banquet was Karl Clayson. Karl helped organize and competed in the first Jr. Iditarod race 27 years ago. Karl did a heart-felt job of recognizing and honoring the mushers and volunteers.
Throughout dinner everyone enjoyed a digital slide show of images of the 2004 Jr. Iditarod taken by Jeff Schultz and his 15 year old assistant, son, Ben. Jeff is the Official Iditarod Race Photographer and we'll be seeing him often along the trail.
Ellie Claus was chosen as the banquet guest speaker, which totally overwhelmed her. The guest speakers are usually well known mushers. As Ellie wistfully watched the table of young mushers she mentioned she missed joining them by five days. Her eighteenth birthday fell just before the race instead of during it as in past years. Ellie reminded the mushers that they are the ambassadors of their sport and its future.
She, too, being a little nervous about her next big step, up the Iditarod, but also feeling prepared by the experiences and support of her three years of Jr. Iditarods and Jr. Yukon Quest, spoke sincerely and eloquently and started the evening in an upbeat manner.
Later, talkative Tessa King, fresh from her 2004 Jr. Yukon Quest victory, regaled us with stories of her moments in lead near the end of the race. Apparently Nicole Osmar and Dallas Seavey missed a turn and had to backtrack. Tessa was hoping Nicole and Dallas would tire their teams racing against each other so she could stay ahead of them, but no such luck. Nicole reclaimed her lead and Dallas barely held on to second place, finishing just two plus minutes head of Tessa. Tessa fondly bid farewell to all since she'll off to college in the fall. She plans to put her University of Alaska scholarship prize money to good use...thank you University of Alaska College Savings Plan for your generous sponsorship.
Another special incident occurred during the race. Kathleen Blevins took a wrong turn that led her far away from the finish line. Melissa Garrison, race marshall, and the other race officials realized if Kathleen doubled back to the actual finish line, she'd be out all night. Kathleen was in last place, but was determined to finish and had already traveled about the same distance as the other racers, so the committee flew the finish line to Kathleen. The plane landed, they set up the finish chute, had photographers to document it and race officials to greet her as she rounded the trail. Kathleen and her team were then flown back and she was able to join the banquet and other mushers for the awards.
For me, it's the positive incidents like this that make this dedicated group of volunteers and this race so special.
For more information about Ellie and her home at Ultima Thule Lodge you can visit their website at www.ultimathulelodge.com
More information about Ellie Claus can be found on the Iditarod website www.iditarod.com
©2004 Jon & Jona Van Zyle
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