NOME -- Using trail markers as ski poles for the last 70 miles to ease the load for the six dogs remaining in harness, Iditarod rookie Melissa Owens headed home Thursday morning, just in time for breakfast.
Exhausted while driving her team down Front Street, she sauntered slowly up the snow ramp, guided her lead dogs Yoda and Kiwi through a mob of people and passed under the burled arch to become the first woman from Nome to complete the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
"Come on, bring 'em home," Mike Owens yelled into the microphone to cheer for his 18-year-old daughter.
Still in high school, Melissa Owens also became the second youngest woman to finish the Last Great Race. She turned 18 on Feb. 18, just 13 days before leaving Willow Lake for an adventure across the wildest reaches of Alaska
She finished her rookie race in 30th place to take home $1,800. But she'll deduct about $30 of that for breakfast this morning at Fat Freddies, a local restaurant.
Outside Elim on Wednesday morning, Owens and Ed Stielstra of McMillan, Mich., talked about placing a bet on who would cross the finish line first. Owens pulled into the village on the coast of the Norton Sound eight minutes ahead of the 37-year-old who lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
But Stielstra passed Owens on the way to Golovin and cruised into White Mountain with a 2-hour, 24-minute lead with nine dogs. Despite the big gap, they put the finishing touches on the friendly wager.
Catching Stielstra's canines was nearly impossible, so Owens focused on getting her dogs home safely onto Front Street and into her family's maroon Chevy truck. Piko limped coming out of White Mountain and ran out of gas on the ice.
So Owens loaded Piko into her sled and gave him a ride home.
The team's arrival was heralded by the city's fire siren, which sounds each time a musher enters Front Street. Hundreds of people lined Front Street and dozens filled the finishing chute, a scene that matched -- if not surpassed -- the arrival of two-time defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey.
Mike Owens, wearing a snowsuit and answering his cell phone with people asking for her estimated time of arrival, sat with legs crossed and leaned against the burled arch. A reporter asked Owens how long he'd been waiting there for his daughter's arrival.
"Thirteen days," he laughed.
Owens wasn't concerned about his daughter travelling 1,100 miles from Willow to Nome. He ran the Iditarod in 1987 and 1990 and raised his daughter with hopes that some day she could accomplish the same thing.
"This has been a dream come true," he said.
Melissa's parents know her as the food drop baby. While Mike prepared to run the 1990 Iditarod, his wife Pat was pregnant with Melissa. But Melissa's due date nearly coincided with the food drop deadline. Despite the discomfort that comes with being pregnant, Pat helped Mike put together his food drops.
"You can't have that baby until we get these food drops done," Mike said.
Melissa arrived in this world 24 hours later, just in time to attend the Iditarod banquet in Anchorage with her daddy, who held 11-day-old Melissa in his arms while he drew his bib number.
He finished a career-best 23rd that year, a painful one after the loss of their 31/2-year-old son, Verdry, who died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in February 1989.
Melissa arrived a year later.
"She was a special little bundle to us," Mike said.
Melissa grew up watching the end of the Iditarod, interacting with some of its biggest names.
She helped take booties off DeeDee Jonrowe's dogs when the dogs were taller than Melissa and has worked closely with Jonrowe for years. Since then, Melissa has slowly built herself a kennel of long-distance and sprint dogs. Five of the finishers on Thursday came from sprint kennels.
"This wasn't a matter of, 'Let's run a team and do it,' " Mike said. "These are her dogs, her family and friends. Bless her heart; she comes that way genetically."
As Kiwi and Yoda led Melissa along the final stretch on Front Street, the 18-year-old was shocked to see how many people came out to greet her -- perhaps an Iditarod attendance record for the arrival of the 30th-place musher.
Owens parked her sled and listened to Leo Rasmussen, a long-time Nome businessman who talked over the loudspeaker, with media and dozens of fans surrounding her team.
"Coming in at 10 days, 20 hours, 21 minutes, and 14 seconds, give a warm hearty welcome home to Melissa Owens," Rasmussen said.
Resting atop her sled were two trail markers -- one broken from miles of using it for an extra push. Owens used the wooden laths in place of two ski poles she busted between Willow and Koyuk.
"They're going to be souvenirs now," she said about the trail markers.
With eyes sagging and arms fatigued, Owens remembered her bet with Stielstra, an Iditarod veteran who finished a career-best 29th.
"We made it," Owens said. "Now I gotta find Ed and (pay for) breakfast."