Mike Williams Jr. carries on family legacy of Iditarod racing

Special to the Daily NewsFebruary 25, 2014 

AKIAK -- As the dripping rain fell, Mike Williams Jr. ignored it, protected by Visqueen and prompted by urgency. He hammered nails against the clock, rushing against the calendar to construct his new house. The 32-foot by 24-foot wood-frame structure grew up from the tundra on property his family owned across the dirt road from his parents' house.

For a dog musher, the short summer of long daylight provides opportunities unavailable in winter when the dogs demand so much time. By August there was a roof over the house. Progress. Mike Jr. did it all on his own except when friends or relatives stopped by to aid with heavy lifting.

Mushers melt away from the limelight as the snow they race on melts away across the Great Land, disappearing into their own worlds of family and off-season jobs as a respite from their demanding winter sport.

In the far-flung family of racers, contact is sporadic and long distance until the next mushing season dawns and everyone catches up on gossip and news. This year, the season of Iditarod 2014, no one had more to report than Mike Jr. He might as well have published his own newspaper.

Actually, that was just about all Williams didn't do. He built a house. He married his girlfriend Phyllis. Then on Nov. 15 the couple became parents to twin boys, Kohle and Daniel. He also acquired a stepson, Paeton, 3.

"It's crazy and busy," Williams said, reflecting on what has transpired in his life since he finished the 2013 Iditarod in 23rd place. "It's kind of hard to believe. It's kind of weird -- a wife and kids and my own house." There are also 50 dogs in the kennel. "At 18 I would feel sorry for myself. I'm proud of my boys and proud of my wife."

It all reminds him that at 28, he is really an adult.

"You go through changes in life and naturally change," Williams said. "Yes, I am grown up."

IDITAROD FAMILY LEGACY

Mike Jr. is a second-generation musher. Father Mike Williams Sr. has competed in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race 15 times since 1992, but at 61 and as active as he is fishing to feed the dogs and helping to train them, he believes his effort last year may be his last competitive foray.

In four Iditarods Mike Jr. has twice outdone his dad's best finish of 18th, including an eighth-place finish in 2012.

"I'm a proud poppa," said Mike Sr., "and a proud grandpa, too. He grew up a lot in less than a year. Big life changes."

Mike Williams Sr. is famed throughout Alaska for his Iditarod travels. His brothers -- Mike Jr.'s uncles -- all died from alcohol-related incidents, and for many years Mike Sr. has traveled the trail carrying paperwork consisting of thousands of signatures of Alaska Natives pledging sobriety.

Aniak, the Yup'ik village of about 350 people where Mike Jr. was reared, is a satellite community of Bethel, but it is remote and removed from the state's road system. Mike Jr. grew up with the huskies that his father was racing, taking on feeding chores at a young age. He thinks he may have entered a one-dog sprint race at age 5. He knows he competed in a three-dog race by age 10.

FRIENDLY RIVALS

When Mike Jr. graduated from high school a decade ago, he attended vocational school in Seward for a year, learning construction, facility maintenance, plumbing and electrical work. He always knew he would build his own house someday. For him construction seemed a smart career choice because it was seasonal and wouldn't interfere with mushing. Not that he knew he would become an Iditarod regular.

"I was mostly into shorter races, 40 or 50 miles," Mike Jr. said. "I used to think one of these days I wanted to run the Fur Rendezvous and the North American."

For many in the region, the Kuskokwim 300 each January in Bethel is as important an event as the Iditarod is in March. It is local and seems more within reach because it takes fewer dogs to compete well and it doesn't involve major transportation costs.

It was in regional races that Mike Jr. and Pete Kaiser of Bethel, whose fathers had known one another in the dog world for years, first met and began competing against one another.

They became friendly rivals.

"We've always been back and forth," said Kaiser, 26, who made his Iditarod debut in 2010, same as Mike Jr. "The dogs were the connection. It's where we live. We're family friends."

Kaiser said they don't talk about racing against one another, but they do talk about dogs. He admires Mike Jr.'s abilities. "I'd rather not be anywhere near him at the end of a race."

QUIETLY COMEDIC

Mike Jr. became an Iditarod musher on fairly short notice. Mike Sr. asked him if he wanted to do the race in 2010 and he said yes. The dogs were trained, but they swapped mushers.

"I said, 'Sure, I'll try it,' " Mike Jr. said.

Mike Jr. is slightly built, of average height at around 5-foot-8. His black hair is cut very short and when he first showed up for the Iditarod if he uttered a sentence longer than five words it was a speech.

He still chooses his words carefully, but he has become more outgoing. On Facebook, he for a while posted almost day-by-day photographs of his babies and he often posts jokes that go on for paragraphs, not one-liners.

"People see me as being serious," he said. "So I make them laugh. Actually, I am still a pretty quiet guy."

Mike Jr. finished 26th in that rookie Iditarod and while he certainly never bragged, he said that version of his self was fairly cocky because of all the years he had put in helping with the dogs.

"I was an expert back then," Mike Jr. said. "I thought the old people didn't know what they were doing. Now I know I have a lot to learn." Is someone more humble now? "I think so."

RACING FOR THE WIN

The tasks in the dog yard, situated several hundred yards from the Williams' homes overlooking the Kuskokwim River, have not changed. Now it is Mike Sr. helping Mike Jr. prepare for this 1,000-mile race.

"Things are reversed," said Mike Sr. "I'm helping him develop into a real competitive musher. He learned a lot over the years. He's helped me from grade school on."

Mike Jr. and Mike Sr. have the same Iditarod goal.

"His goal is to have the Williams kennel come out on top one of these years," Mike Jr. said. "Overall, I think I've done better than what I've expected. Naturally, I want to do better."

Mike Williams Jr. has one other goal he would like to see fulfilled soon.

"My house is missing a porch for summer," he said.

The hammer will come out again as soon as the snow melts.

 

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