Pelted with snow flurries falling inexplicably from a sunny sky, Jessie Royer rolled into Nome behind eight good-looking huskies on Friday to claim 14th in the 2001 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The accomplishment might have appeared merely respectable but for two facts:
No. 1, Royer is a rookie. No. 2, she is only 24 -- young for a sport dominated by people in their mid- to late-40s. The average age of the top-10 finishers this year was 48-1/2.
And if a strong showing by one young rookie wasn't enough, only three places behind Royer across the finish line came 18-year-old Andy Moderow of Anchorage. The two had been swapping positions ever since the Yukon River, but Royer grabbed a lead out of Unalakleet and hung on.
Not since Doug Swingley showed up out of Montana nine years ago has the Iditarod Trail seen a rookie class like this one.
Swingley -- who Wednesday won his fourth Iditarod and third in a row -- drove to ninth in 1992 to lead three rookies into the top-20.
Since then, the best finish by a rookie has been 17th by Ramy Brooks of Nenana in 1994. Brooks is heir to a rich mushing tradition that traces to grandfather Gareth Wright, a former winner of the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Sled Dog Race and one of the state's most respected dog drivers.
Moderow, who matched Brooks' rookie showing, has no such pedigree. The son of a corporate lawyer, he is a quiet, almost shy, student who spent this year working as a dog handler for three-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser of Big Lake.
As for Royer, she is -- get ready, Alaska -- another hardworking Montanan born and reared, just like Swingley. In fact, Royer got her early training from the Swingleys -- Doug and brother Greg.
She ran a team of their dogs to victory in Montana's biggest sled dog race -- The Race to the Sky -- at the tender age of 17 before beginning a tour of Alaska sled-dog kennels that served as something of an apprenticeship. Royer has worked for both four-time Iditarod champ Susan Butcher of Manley and three-time Iditarod champ Jeff King of Denali Park.
She first attracted public attention in Alaska last year when she charged to the front of the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race and nearly hung on to win the popular mid-distance challenge. This year, however, while training in the Big Lake and Trapper Creek area, she was little noticed and little mentioned.
Most of the pre-Iditarod attention focused on Aily Zirkle of Two Rivers, the winner of the 2000 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. She was considered something of a shoo-in as Iditarod rookie of the year. Zirkle, however, was still on the trail Friday, while Royer was celebrating in Nome.
She sprinted behind her team down Front Street to the delight of spectators.
"I was afraid Jon Little (of Kasilof) was behind me," she said.
"I'm pleased," Royer said. "I didn't expect to be up this high. It's quite a pleasant surprise."
If her finish was a surprise, Moderow's had to be a shocker.
A veteran junior musher, Moderow had long ago shown himself competent at handling dogs, but he'd never appeared much of a competitor. He was something of an also-ran in several Junior Iditarods, and in this race, everytime someone pointed out how well he was doing, he observed simply: "That's pretty funny."
It probably wasn't quite as funny for other mushers, however, when he passed by. He caught boss Buser on the Bering Sea coast and then out-dueled veteran Iditarod mushers and Quest champs Charlie Boulding of Nenana and Tim Osmar of Ninilchik for 17th.
Boys just wanna have fun. Ditto for young women.
"It was a tough Iditarod," Royer said. "(But) I decided no matter how tough it got, I would have fun. I think I had a pretty fun race."
Outdoors editor Craig Medred can be reached at email@example.com. Lew Freedman contributed to this story.