Unalakleet's mushing mayor on trail

Kyle Hopkins
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

UNALAKLEET -- As mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race chased blowing straw to bed their dogs in roaring coastal winds Sunday afternoon, Aurora Johnson stood inside a quiet nearby home, slicing bacon with a homemade ulu.

Forty miles up the trail, Iditarod champs Lance Mackey and Jeff King dueled for record-breaking victories with a small pack of frontrunners at their heels. Aurora was thinking of the 43-year-old rookie who isn't likely to arrive in Unalakleet until today.

Her husband, the city's mayor, William "Middy" Johnson.

"I said to myself, 'I'd never marry a musher,'" said Aurora, who grew up tending dog lots and occasionally mushing herself in the Kobuk River village of Noorvik in Northwest Alaska. Living next to the stinky spring thaw of a dog yard as a grown woman? No thanks.

But mushing, and the Iditarod, is in Middy Johnson's blood.

The youngest of 12 siblings, his brother Henry "Gus" Johnson finished 20th in the 1980 race. Six years later another brother, Paul, placed 24th.

Johnson's grandfather, Henry Ivanoff, was one of the 20 mushers who relayed diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925 -- the famed "serum run" that inspired the 1,000-mile Iditarod in the first place.

"Middy's really been trying to get dog mushing started back in Unalakleet," said Johnson's sister, Bumsie Sager of Anchorage.

With about 720 people, the flat, windy village serves as an Iditarod checkpoint where the race moves to the Norton Sound coast in a final push for Nome. It's also wolf country.

"We had wolves actually killing dogs in lots," Middy Johnson said a couple days before the race began. His brother, Harry, had a dog swiped from its chain.

"I know there were two pups missing and two other dogs were taken right in the lots. Luckily they were able to take the wolf the day after," Johnson said. A young Unalakleet hunter got it, Aurora said Sunday, pulling out her cell phone to show a picture of the kill. Part of a small pack, the wolf had a dog paw in its stomach, Aurora said.

Middy credits one of his sled dogs -- shy and protective Sneak -- with guarding the team at another dog yard.

By Sunday night, Johnson was in 33rd place among the 58 mushers still on the Iditarod trail. Another 13 competitors had already dropped out of the race. At a checkpoint days earlier, Johnson said he's enjoying his rookie Iditarod run, but "got a little excited" in the beginning of the race, running the dogs too long in warm weather and later taking extra rest to recover.

When Johnson's dog team reaches Shaktoolik, halfway up the coast, he plans to let 8-year-old Sporty lead the team. Johnson's oldest dog, Sporty came from a retiring musher in the village. "I think he will be tickled pink if he sees Sporty come through," Johnson said.

But first stop: Unalakleet, where hoodies that say "Mush Middy Mush" are seen all over town and Johnson will receive a hero's welcome

A few blocks from the local Iditarod headquarters, Aurora finished frying bacon for a broccoli salad she was planning to serve at a potluck in the race checkpoint when her husband arrives.

Part Yup'ik and Inupiaq, Middy grew up in Unalakleet, Aurora said. His old classmates at now defunct Covenant Church high school plan to meet him at the checkpoint too.

"The alumni are going down when he comes in, all dressed in their fancy parkas and they're going to sing the school song and also "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," she said as oriental chicken cooked for the feast.

Family photos circle the walls of her home: The dozen Johnson siblings. A sepia tone print of Henry Ivanoff. A book of snapshots from the time the couple's 10-year-old son, Sikulik shot his first oogruk, or bearded seal.

Sikulik has been helping around the dog yard, Aurora said.

"He's asking his dad to do Junior Iditarod," she said.

Kyle Hopkins is blogging from the Iditarod Trail: adn.com/sledblog. And tweeting: twitter.com/iditarodlive.

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