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Mushing with a message: Iditarod competitor Monica Zappa won't be cowed from being loud

  • Author: Jenny Neyman
  • Updated: February 19, 2017
  • Published February 19, 2017

Kasilof-based Iditarod musher Monica Zappa cuddles with one of her lead sled dogs, Dweezil, during fishing season. She and longtime musher Tim Osmar fish a setnet site in Cook Inlet. (Monica Zappa photo)

KASILOF — Monica Zappa is hard to miss. At this year's ceremonial start to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, she'll be the one in the bright yellow, pink and geometric-patterned parka, bibs and sled. Florescent yellow and pink, actually. As in visible-from-space yellow and pink.

She'll also be the one with a flag celebrating wild salmon and opposing the proposed Bristol Bay Pebble mine. Her activism is as loud as her outerwear.

"I'm really proud of the activism. I'm really proud of what we've been able to do for the cause," she said.

Zappa, 33, started mushing in 2011, and when she saw her first Iditarod in 2012, she not only wanted to race, but to do so in a way that was about more than herself.

"I just wanted to have a bigger purpose. Something to talk about, to raise awareness about," she said. "(In the Iditarod) I have a voice that I wouldn't necessarily have had before. More than anything, I hope to inspire other people."

Zappa's primary issue is salmon. Since moving to Alaska six years ago, she's spent summers commercial setnet fishing in Cook Inlet and Bristol Bay. It's a livelihood, a way of life and the preferred food of the 50 sled dogs in her and fellow Kasilof musher Tim Osmar's kennel. The animals eat about 2 tons of fish a year — mainly plentiful pink salmon, remains from processors or freezer-burned donations.

"Salmon is people's life in Alaska, and I'm just wanting to educate people about that," she said.

She advances a couple of sled dog-related causes, as well, like encouraging people to donate fish they'd otherwise throw away to mushers, and encouraging spectators to not bring their dogs to the start or finish of sled dog races. But her main focus is sustainable salmon.

Monica Zappa shows off the bounty she hopes to protect by using the Iditarod to promote wild, sustainable salmon. (Monica Zappa photo)

Iditarod gag rule

Zappa distributes information at checkpoints. She does speaking engagements in the Midwest. She's written op-ed articles in Alaska publications. All of this occurs under the specter of the Iditarod's "Rule 53" personal conduct policy, which forbids mushers from making "public statements or engaging in any public conduct injurious to and in reckless disregard of the best interests of the race" or its sponsors from the time they sign up until 45 days after the last musher completes the race. The executive committee of the Iditarod board of directors judges whether someone violates the policy and what sanctions might be imposed. Disqualification or the forfeit of entry fees are possible.

At first, Zappa didn't realize the rule passed in April 2015. From May 2016 to when sign-ups for this year's Iditarod opened June 25, she wrote several opinion pieces about her activist causes and the rule itself. She still shares articles on salmon, mining and other environmental issues on social media, though she is more restrained in any comments she makes. In the fall, she was a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.

She hasn't been reprimanded by Iditarod organizers for her activism and says she asked specifically about her opposition to Pebble and was told it wasn't a problem.

"In the midst of this gag rule so may people thought, 'You can't take a political agenda or a stance,' and I was like, 'Why not?'" she said. "That was also why I put articles out this summer — to clarify things for the public, clearing up some of the misconceptions that this gag order had created, and to show the race you can't make me be quiet. I'm not going to just shut up. You can write all the rules you want."

Musher Mike Williams' cause

Using the Iditarod to advocate for a cause isn't new. Well known for doing just that was Akiak musher Mike Williams Sr. Starting in 1992, he used his 15 Iditarod runs to raise awareness about issues affecting health in the Native community, particularly advocating for sobriety. The Iditarod gave him a platform he otherwise wouldn't have had.

"It was kind of a good fit because everybody focuses on the Iditarod and they think about all the racers," Williams said.

He took pledges from people along the trail that they would stay sober, sometimes carrying as much as 10 pounds of papers into Nome by the end of the race. He parlayed his Iditarod notoriety into platforms at Alaska Federation of Natives conventions and regional events, and took his healthy lifestyle message to classrooms.

"Running for the cause … really worked," he said. "It got a lot of attention."

Williams said the race committee and other mushers supported his mission. Of course, he was advocating for a noncontroversial issue.

"I think if it's a health issue, I think it's a little different than a pro-development or non-development issue," he said. "Who can go against advocating for sobriety?"

Williams said he thinks mushers should be allowed to advocate for their causes.

"The Iditarod committee … should stay out of their way and let (mushers) do whatever they want to do," he said.

Acquainted with sleds early

Zappa is good at disregarding rules, at least those that impact her. She was born and raised in Cumberland, Wisconsin. Her parents spent five summers fishing in Kodiak before Zappa was born and they wanted to move to Alaska, but Zappa didn't want to leave her friends, school and electricity behind.

"Never in a million years did I expect to be in Alaska," she said.

Her family ended up living an Alaska-esque lifestyle anyway, doing a lot of subsistence hunting, gardening and dog mushing.

"They built a box for me in the basket of the sled. They'd stick me in there with straw and we'd go out for a three-, four-hour run. I had a coloring book. There was a little window. So I spent a lot of my childhood looking at dog butts," she said.

Zappa ran dogs on the trails around the house but her parents sold the team when she was 12 so she didn't race. Her dad died in a plane crash when she was 15. She plodded along the education track, getting a bachelor's in meteorology, a master's in geography and taking a job at the National Weather Center in Oklahoma while starting grad school, seeking a doctorate in geography.

She was a year into this latest step along an academic path when she found an abandoned dog on the side of the road.

She desperately wanted to keep the dog but couldn't in her tiny apartment. But it made her suddenly aware of how much she missed having dogs in her life, something college housing and city apartments didn't allow.

"I'm really outdoorsy, and it's flat and windy, there's no mountains, lakes or trees, so I had a hard time being there," she said.

Monica Zappa leaves Takotna on Wednesday, March 9, 2016, during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Marc Lester / ADN archive 2016)

Alaska was just what she needed.

"I met somebody who fished in Alaska and so I was hearing all these stories from him. It sounded like my parents' story (and) it just kind of inspired me," she said. "I was like, 'I can't believe I've lived this long without a dog. I'm really missing out on a lot of things.' "

Then she noticed a classified ad for a dog handler in Kasilof. Her plan was to commercial fish in the summer, be a dog handler and find another job to fill the gaps — she ended up at Kasilof Mercantile. All she had for transportation was her bike, which she rode south from Anchorage. It was a rainy summer, and a neighbor ended up giving her frequent rides.

The neighbor was Tim Osmar, from Kasilof's extended mushing family. Swedish homesteader Per Osmar started running dogs to help a neighbor check a trapline in the 1950s. Tim's dad, Dean, won the Iditarod in 1984. Tim grew up mushing, too — winning the Junior Iditarod three times, the 2011 Yukon Quest and completing 23 Iditarods. He's seen a lot of handlers over the years. The ones who stay have a real love for dogs. That describes Zappa.

"I've seen a lot of people come and go. Usually, they go because they like dogs but they don't love them. Either it's a lifelong commitment or a year or two. If you genuinely do care about them and fall in love with them, that makes a big difference," Osmar said.

"I fell in love with the dogs pretty quickly," Zappa said.

"That was my ace in the hole, see," Osmar said.

Musher Monica Zappa hugs her team dog, Moto, in Ophir. The remote checkpoint of Ophir hosted a few Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race mushers on Thursday afternoon, March 10, 2016. (Marc Lester / ADN archive 2016)

Yet to cry during Iditarod

Zappa moved to Tim's operation and eventually decided she'd give racing a try.

"My first race was the Tustumena 100. I cried, like, 80 percent of the way. I got lost. It was kind of a rough experience. But racing … has made me a lot mentally stronger, and now I can say proudly I have yet to cry on an Iditarod," she said.

Her first two Iditarods were challenging — lots of ice and not much snow in 2014, and a relocated start to Fairbanks a year later that included temperatures colder than minus 40.

"Just learning how to deal with that and managing the team in those kinds of conditions was a huge challenge. But last year … I had a team that was experienced and a lead dog that just kept going. Those things helped a lot. I had a blast," she said.

Zappa placed 47th in all three of her Iditarods. The first year she was third from last, but so many other mushers scratched, she still finished in the top 50. The next year was more competitive but so was she, shaving a day off her previous time to finish 47th in a field of 66. Last year, she was yet another day faster but the field was again more competitive, putting her 47th out of 71.

This year?

"If I finish 47th … four years in a row, I don't know what I'm going to do," she said. "As long as we keep improving our time. I'm going for another day faster this year. I really hope we can get to around 10 days."

The dogs are better prepared, due to much better training conditions this winter.

"In 2015, I don't think we were able to run on sleds but one week, maybe, at our house. We were driving all over the state, and even went down to Wyoming that year," she said. "This year we've had good snow since early December so we haven't had any extended periods of time off. The dogs have been able to train pretty steady, four to five days a week since December."

Her main leader in the last two Iditarods, 5-year-old Blue Steel, will definitely reprise his role.

"Each year we have learned more and more about each other. He tries to mess with me, and I try to be one step ahead of him. For example, when we leave checkpoints he likes to try to go visit all the houses along the way and run up on the porch. But once we get going down the trail he's really good," she said.

Dweezil might make the cut, too. He became a house dog after a mysterious illness nearly killed him. But he would not be deterred.

Monica Zappa holds her dog Dweezil. Dogs and mushers representing 85 teams ran through Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday, March 5, 2016. (Marc Lester / ADN archive 2016)

"He ended up paralyzed for a few weeks. We thought he wasn't going to make it, and even if he did, the vet said that he wouldn't be a sled dog," Zappa said. "Well, this dog has proved to be more determined than you can imagine. When he was sick, he would crawl around on his elbows to get next to you. So we could tell through that recovery that he was just super determined. He turned out to be … the best lead dog ever."

He's still a little fragile, Zappa said, mainly because he pushes himself so hard.

"As long as I can get him through that first 100 miles and get him calmed down so he's not thinking he has to pull the team all by himself," she said. "That would be an absolute dream come true. I'm so proud of him."

Wouldn't that break her no-crying-in-the-Iditarod rule?

"They'd be happy tears," she said.

Not that she minds showing a little emotion. One benefit to being outspoken is it has connected her with sponsors with similar views. Musicians United for Bristol Bay sponsored her first two Iditarods. This year her two main sponsors are Kenai Spine and Alaska Surgical Oncology.

"Fortunately, by branding myself the way I have and having my agenda right out there, it has attracted the right kind of sponsors," she said.

One in-kind sponsor knows plenty about being visible. Deborah Ives of Posh House, in Ninilchik, creates Zappa's distinctive outerwear. At first, being unable to pay for new gear, Zappa borrowed a regular-hued yellow parka from Ives.

"She said, 'Oh, yellow looks so great on you.' It wasn't something I walked in and said, 'I need yellow.' It has progressed, but it started as just yellow," Zappa said.

For her new bibs and parka, Ives took Zappa to pick out fabrics.

"She got the neon yellow and she said, 'You need to be seen.' And it just all came together," Zappa said. "Once you have a theme going, you might as well do everything like that."

Kenai Peninsula musher Monica Zappa yells to her dogs in the starting chute of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race in Kasilof on Jan. 28, 2017, where she finished ninth. She’ll be tough to miss in neon as she runs her fourth Iditarod this year. (Jenny Neyman)

She even got Osmar — who hasn't raced an Iditarod since placing 46th in 2009 —  sporting some loud colors. "We're pretty loud in many forms. I didn't really choose the neon, it chose me, but it has worked quite well with our platforms," she said.

That sums up Zappa's philosophy of life since moving to Alaska.

"I've had no plan, I just kind of like take what comes. Sometimes you just have to follow whatever path opens up for you," she said.

And be loudly, vibrantly yourself along the way.

"I feel really proud of that. I feel like, as a woman in this sport, there's power there," she said. "Traditionally, mushing has been a bit misogynistic as a sport, and I guess I feel a little bit that I am a challenger of that. And so it is, to me, empowering."

Jenny Neyman is a Soldotna-based freelance writer who edited the Kenai Peninsula newspaper Redoubt Reporter for many years.

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