Women-only snowmachine race honors a Northwest Alaska racing legend

Mabel Irene Mitchell, known as “Gunner,” was a natural-born racer back in the ‘80s who beat women and men alike. This year, 30 women participated in the race named after her.

KOTZEBUE — Shylena Lie was going at least 85 mph on her snowmachine around the Kobuk River this week when she hit a big lump and felt her face hitting the windshield.

“I went flying, and then the snowmachine went the other way,” Lie said. She remembered landing on her shoulder and rolling. “I didn’t feel nothing broken so I got up and I ran to the snowmachine.”

Fortunately, the snowmachine started, so Lie hopped on and left.

Lie was among more than 30 women who participated in this year’s Gunner 120 snowmachine race, which goes from Kotzebue to Noorvik and back. While women can participate in any snowmachine race in Alaska, the Gunner 120 is created for women only.

Women took off from the ice around Front Street on Monday afternoon, ran across Lockhart point and Kobuk Lake, onto the Kobuk River and came to Noorvik. Without any layover, the racers fueled up and rode back. The fastest racer, Mary Sue Hyatt, completed the course in 1 hour, 39 minutes and 25 seconds.

“When you watch the footage of them crossing the lake, it is just phenomenal,” said Claude Wilson with the Arctic Circle Racing Association, who has been involved with the sport since the late ‘70s. “They make really good time.”

On a good year, about 10 women sign up for another popular local event, Nome-Golovin Snowmachine Race. For the Gunner 120, it’s not uncommon to triple that number.

“There’s a lot of girls that really like to race,” said one of this year’s winners, Shayla Johnson. In fact, the Gunner 120 was named after one of them.

‘Once she raced with the men, she actually beat the men’

Mabel Irene Mitchell, known by everyone as “Gunner,” was a natural-born racer. Back in the ‘80s, she competed in Kotzebue with women and men alike.

“And once she raced with the men, she actually beat the men,” Wilson said.

“Come to think of it, she just won all the time,” said Mitchell’s brother, Elmer Brown Sr. “There was no gradual trying to beat somebody. … She was always trying to beat her own time.”

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Her competitive spirit started from basketball. Mitchell grew up playing the sport and got her nickname from her ability to shoot the ball from anywhere on the court. Being both left- and right-handed, she made it difficult for her rivals to know which way she was going, said her childhood friend, Siikaurak Whiting.

Mitchell and Brown learned snowmachining together as kids and started racing as teenagers — Mitchell was 13 and Brown was 14.

“She was just a natural,” Brown said. ”Her speed — I believe, nobody has beaten that yet. She was clocked going across Kobuk Lake at 125.”

Wilson said that he was fortunate enough to watch Mitchell as she ran across the lake and said that “her skis weren’t even on the ground.”

When Mitchell competed in a men’s race for the first time, people were impressed, and with time, it became clear that she could win against anyone — men, women, renowned racers or her own brother, Whiting said.

“She was fierce,” Whiting said.

Her wins brought her trophies that she proudly displayed in her house near the TV set, Mitchell’s niece, Paula Octuck, said. And every winter and spring, “racing was definitely in the air,” she said.

“There were no boundaries when it came to the men’s race. If she’s doing it, she’s doing it. There is no question if she can do it,” Octuck said. “That’s the kind of person she was.”

Mitchell’s passion for the sport stayed after she stopped racing. Watching the races became a tradition for her and her family.

Mitchell stayed true to that tradition even after she lost her husband in a traumatic crash.

The couple traveled from Buckland to Kotzebue during a night in the ‘90s. They came across bad weather and overflow on Kobuk Lake, Elmer Brown Jr. said, and their snowmachines sank. Her husband ended up in the water but pushed Mitchell to the ice and told her to walk home.

“He was just not going to survive, and he knew it, so he made her go to Kotzebue without him,” another one of Mitchell’s nieces, Samantha Brown, said.

Mitchell walked to town a good 25 miles, and by the time she reached Kotzebue, her toes were frozen.

“They had to amputate her toes because of the frostbite she endured walking home,” Samantha Brown said. “She lost her husband. She’s pretty tough.”

“But she continued to walk to watch women’s races,” Brown said.

Mitchell died in 2011, but her dedication to things she loved rubbed off on other women around her.

“What I remember is that there are no boundaries in what you want to do,” Octuck said. “If you want to do it, you get up and you do it. You don’t sit and complain. You don’t wish, You just get up and do it.”

‘It’s that adrenaline’

The race was renamed the Gunner 120 in 2017 — it was previously known as the Kotzebue Women’s Race. Mitchell’s friends and relatives got a chance to dedicate the day of the race to think about Mitchell, share stories about her and reflect on what she did in life.

“She brings out the good not only in herself, but the good in other people,” Whiting said, helping them to know that “no matter what, you can do it … It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a guy, you just work hard as you can and you just put your best foot forward.”

Close to Kotzebue on Monday, women zoomed through the sunlit ice road, lifting their skis and getting air on the course.

They all had different reasons for being there. Snowmachining is something all of them have done since young age, and racing is often a part of their family tradition — like for Katrina Carter, who came in second.

“My mom was a racer. My dad was a racer. My brothers are racers. My grandpa was a racer,” said Carter, 31, who has been racing since she was 18, but this was the first time this season she had jumped on her snowmachine. “You know, it was just always in the family.”

For other women, like Johnson, racing is an addiction.

“At the beginning of the race, it’s that adrenaline or excitement of what’s gonna happen,’” she said. “After you go for a while, it just feels like you’re going for a fast ride, but you want to get there first.”

Daily News photographer Emily Mesner contributed reporting to this story.

Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.