WILLOW — Just north of town, down a zigzag of gravel roads with names like Tranquility and Serenity, is the charcoaled driveway leading to Mike and DeeDee Jonrowe's place. Other than the blackened bones of dead spruce and a forest floor carpeted in scorched earth, the devastation of last summer's Sockeye Fire has been shoveled up, sifted through, chain sawed, bucked up, bulldozed and hauled away.
Last June, the Jonrowes became one of many heartbreaking Sockeye Fire stories when their home of nearly 30 years, their two-story, cedar-sided house furnished in a lifetime of memories and sled-dog racing history, burned to cinders. As did eight of their nine outbuildings — the quintessential Alaska workshop, the heated dog barn and clinic they called The Roadhouse and the handler's cabin were among them — plus three Conexes, one storing 12 tons of dog food and other kennel vitals. They also lost 6 tons of frozen meat, the Silverado, the Expedition, the tractor, the skid-steer, the four-wheelers, the snowmachines, the dog sleds, the doghouses, the chicken coop, the bird feeders. One could go on and on. The 1953 cherry-red Ford convertible in mint condition that DeeDee's father left her when he died. Every last keepsake from Mike's family except his mother's wedding ring, which was on DeeDee's finger. Irreplaceable this, sentimental that. All of it was burned to a crisp by a debris-pile fire 4 miles up the road that snuck off into the woods, scrambled up tinder-dry spruce, exploded in the treetops and dashed toward Willow with the wind.
Along with insurance policies, it's taken a monumental, community barn-raising effort to bring this place back to life. Once again, it's raucous with the euphony of excited dogs and ecstatic puppies. Once again, retired sled dogs stroll freely about. And there's a new addition to the pet-dog branch of the family, symbolic of their effort to rise from the ashes, a spirited and mischievous yellow Lab pup named Phoenix.
Despite all they lost, the Jonrowes consider themselves fortunate. Blessed. While some of their neighbors are still wrestling with their insurance companies, and others had no insurance at all, they recently moved into their new, six-star energy rated house, built with its back turned on the blackened, blistered landscape, its floor-to-ceiling living room windows facing a stand of deciduous trees the fire overlooked in its haste to devour as much as quickly as it could.
If losing everything was yet another test of DeeDee's Jonrowe's will, whoever's in charge needs to give it up. She's never going to quit. Not even when, a month after the fire, her heart was broken into even tinier pieces after she lost her mother to breast cancer.
"My mom, she was my very best friend," DeeDee said of her role model and confidant, Peggy Stout, a retired teacher who was happiest helping others, a 40-year Iditarod volunteer who was working toward a doctorate when she died at 86.
There's a hole in DeeDee's heart all the way to China. But she's running the Iditarod.
34th trip to Nome
If DeeDee were the give-up type, her first race would have been her last. That was the 1979 Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Women's World Championship, a three-day event she ran equipped with more enthusiasm than experience and a borrowed team of hot-headed dogs that started brawling the first day, then bolted off the trail, knocking her sled sideways and dragging her across Tudor Road on her face. After only 4 miles she was out. Living in Bethel, working as a fisheries biologist at the time, she vowed to do it right. She bought and trained her own team, and ran her first Kusko 300 and Iditarod the following year, arriving in Nome 24th out of 36 finishers.
This year's Iditarod will be DeeDee's 34th. Only five-time champion Rick Swenson has entered the race more often. DeeDee has 16 top-10 finishes, two of them as runner-up. One of her best, fourth in 1997, came after one of the most painful years of her life.
"So this could be a very, very good finish," she said of this year's race.
When it comes to ranking hardships, there's some heavy competition in DeeDee's life. That horrific car accident in 1996 when an oncoming pickup lost it on the icy Nenana River Bridge and slammed into her Subaru, killing her grandmother and leaving her and Mike with lifelong injuries. The breast cancer diagnosis in 2002, the double mastectomy, chemotherapy, complications and more chemotherapy that followed. The cancers that went after her mother in 2010, killed her father in 2013, then two years later came back to finish off her mother.
And then along comes this fire that takes everything she loved that didn't have a heartbeat, the only exception being a retired 15-year-old lead dog named Python who was deaf and couldn't hear her calling as she scrambled to save her 52 sled dogs.
For some, maybe even most, taking a year off to regroup would seem a reasonable option. But she's running the Iditarod. Even though she lost all of her sleds (at least 30) and all of her Iditarod gear. Even though, before her mother died, she was running so ragged going back and forth between her place and her mom's in Anchorage she fell asleep at the wheel, rear-ended a semi on the Glenn Highway and totaled her minivan. Even though she lost her major sponsor, Shell Exploration and Production Co., after its Arctic drilling plan didn't pan out. Even though her two handlers quit in December. Even though Mike has been laid up, first with a knee replacement, then a wrist fusion, and hasn't been able to help much.
Only those who know Mike, who really know him, realize how behind the scenes and vital he is to DeeDee's career. This is the first winter since that fatal car accident 20 years ago that he hasn't been able to help her train dogs. And this is a man who did not marry a dog musher, DeeDee points out. This is a man who married a biologist with a black Lab.
"This is the hardest year I've ever had," she said, tearing up. "I've never lost everything. Everything. This was our lifetime's work.
"I've cried a lot. I've cried really a lot. And people say, 'Why do you even try to run the Iditarod?' Like when the handlers quit. So they quit, so they just made it that much harder. Well, I know hard. I can do hard. It hurt me, but it made me that much more determined.
"I need this. I need to go, because it's the only thing that's positive. The positive is getting on the trail with 16 of my very best friends.
"And you know, I'm going to do the very best job I can."
Dogs came first
The day the wildfire erupted, June 14, Mike was 70 miles offshore commercial fishing in Bristol Bay and DeeDee was 35 miles down the road at Happy Trails Kennel in Big Lake, where she'd just finished helping four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser host busloads of tourists. She was walking her pet dogs — three yellow Labs and a Pekingese — when she got the news. The instant she heard, she had one thought: "My dogs!"
She raced up the Parks Highway toward home as an ominous gray cloud billowed ahead. A couple of miles short of her turnoff, she ran into a roadblock.
"The troopers were stopping traffic and they weren't letting anybody in," she said. "I saw (a trooper) talking to someone from the Hatcher Pass Road, and so I just went right around it. I didn't care."
By the time DeeDee pulled into her driveway, neighbor Justin High had already hooked her trailer up to her dog truck so it was ready to go before dashing home to save his own dogs. (He would also lose his place to the fire, a particularly cruel blow since he and his wife, Jaimee, were rebuilding after their house burned down the previous winter.) Another neighbor, Andrea Hambach, was waiting to help her load. As quickly as they could, they unchained the sled dogs one by one and hoisted them into dog-truck boxes, two per box. When those were maxed out, the remaining dogs were staked out in the trailer.
"It was kind of a struggle," Hambach said. "When you've got race dogs and retired dogs and puppies, it's hard to organize what's going to go where."
Midway through the job, Buser's wife, Kathy Chapoton, and others showed up to help, part of the charge of fellow mushers, neighbors and friends who, amid the confusion, risked being trapped to help one another evacuate and move hundreds of sled dogs and other animals out of harm's way.
Beyond those 52 dogs, DeeDee didn't have much time to think about what else to save. By then it was smoky and ash was falling.
"It was just too hot to have that many dogs jammed up like that. I had to get them out of there."
She grabbed what cash she had at the house, passports (expired, it turned out), three of Mike's firearms and fled, heading back to Buser's Happy Trails Kennel, which became a refuge for mushers and hundreds of sled dogs throughout the ordeal. DeeDee got her dogs settled in. Then she waited and prayed.
Homecoming of ashes
The Sockeye Fire, the nation's top firefighting priority at the time, burned 7,220 acres, or more than 11 square miles, and destroyed 55 homes, according to Alaska Division of Forestry spokesman Tim Mowry. At one point, 773 people were working it from command to the trenches, with aircraft fighting it from the sky and 500 firefighters battling it on the ground. Caswell Fire Department Lt. Garret Davidson was one of them.
"It was a big wall of fire, probably ranging close to 200 feet tall, moving pretty fast toward us," he recalled of the fight to save his community. "We'd stand our ground and do what we could to save a home. A helicopter was keeping an eye on the fire, and then they'd radio you: 'Get out! Get out now!'
"As soon as the fire would pass, you'd go back in there to find a total loss. There were times you just felt useless. It was a pretty sad and dramatic time for a lot of us."
Davidson knew the Jonrowes' place before it was reduced to ashes. He'd taken his kids trick-or-treating there every Halloween for years. After the initial, two-day blast, as crews went property to property hitting hot spots, he and local firefighter Marika Carey helped save the one outbuilding still standing at the Jonrowes' place, a two-story cabin called The Ponderosa, a dog clinic with a handler's apartment above. Its backside beams and posts were burning when they arrived. They pulled a freezer out of the way, put out those fires and watered down the area. When two more crews arrived, they fought small fires flaring up all over the property.
Once residents were allowed to go home, as DeeDee drove down that zigzag of gravel roads, she saw swaths of green trees and houses still standing. She felt hopeful. But that faded the closer she got to home.
"Then we got to our driveway, I'm not kidding, it looked like Armageddon. It was un … unbelievable is all I can say. Melted aluminum, pools of metal. The fire came at us from two directions. We were ground zero."
Mike, who'd received word via satellite phone in Bristol Bay, turned his boat over to his crew and made his way home. Joanne Rehn, a friend and veterinarian, was there when he arrived.
"He just walked around and walked around and looked and walked around," she recalled. "And you're just speechless. Where do you even begin when you lose so much, where do you even start?"
'No sounds of life'
As soon as she heard, Brenda Crim of Cooper Landing, a longtime friend and executive director of the Alaska Missions and Retreats, mobilized a team of volunteers, rounded up equipment and supplies, and took off for Willow. The property was still smoldering when she arrived, and one of the conexes was belching toxic smoke.
"When I came on the scene, Mike and DeeDee were afoot, running about between the hot spots with 5-gallon buckets of water, running to a neighbor's to get water because everybody's water pumps were burnt (and) there was no way to get water out of the ground.
"Those first few days were just really strange because there were no birds, absolutely no sounds of life. I saw burned carcasses of squirrels on the ground. It was the 'Twilight Zone.' "
Crim's mission team, members of the Jonrowes' Big Lake Baptist Church, friends and other volunteers pooled their talents and resources to help clean up the colossal, sooty, nasty black mess.
"There certainly was a lot of effort by a lot of good-hearted people," Crim said. "It was a beautiful thing to see Alaskans rise up. It gave me lot of faith in humanity."
With loaned and rented heavy equipment, Mike crammed contorted roofing, snowmachine skeletons and other metal debris into the burned-out Conexes, then dragged them out to the road for pickup by a salvage company. Meanwhile, volunteers started in on the 3-foot pile of ash, all that was left of the Jonrowes' house, sifting every inch through screens, one shovel full at a time. "DeeDee was looking for some rings," Crim said. "She was looking for the gold she'd won, several things. We sifted for a week to find everything we could to give her something to cling to."
Among the precious few recognizable items found in the ash was the finisher belt buckle DeeDee earned after her first Iditarod in 1980.
DeeDee didn't have time to grieve. Two years earlier, her father, retired Army Lt. Col. Ken Stout, former head of Alaska's Republican Party and one-time Anchorage assemblyman, died of cancer. Now her mother was slipping away.
"I couldn't stay paralyzed because I've got dogs back at Martin's and I've got my mom dying in Anchorage. My mother was getting sicker and sicker, and I was between Martin and Kathy's and my mom's pretty much every day. So I couldn't think about this. It registered much, much later."
Contrary to earlier reports, DeeDee's chickens escaped the fire.
"We didn't know it for several days, and then we heard the rooster crowing and thought, 'Well just the rooster made it.' But all of them did. I couldn't believe it. Their chicken coop was absolutely dust.
"Unfortunately, because of lack of help, I had to give them away. I didn't want to, but I gave them to a family with little boys, and they're not going to eat them. They're going to teach the boys about chickens, eggs and things."
And her cat, also thought perished, eventually came home. Only her home was no longer there. Several days after the fire, Crim saw the gray, longhaired Miss Kitty sitting where the porch should have been.
"My cat survived," DeeDee said, "but, but, but …"
The first snow of the season she heard an awful commotion. A loose dog, not one of hers, had attacked Miss Kitty.
"I couldn't get to the vet in time. I was holding her in my arms and just thinking, 'How much do I have to see die?' "
It's been eight months since the fire, seven since DeeDee held her mother's hand for the last time. The new doghouses are painted forest green to match the outbuildings that have been replaced so far. And the Jonrowes are settling into their bright, sunny single-story house with ground-source heating and LED lighting inside and out. Earlier this year, Crim led a blessing of the new place.
"We asked Brenda to help us dedicate the house, the kennel and the fresh start to the Lord in this next stage in our life," DeeDee said.
With the blessing came a sense of peace. But still DeeDee's days are headless-chicken hectic.
She finally has a new handler. But she's still getting up at 5:30 every morning, running here, running there, caring for dogs, caring for Mike, training dogs, training more dogs, preparing for food drops, fundraising, public speaking, meeting fans and otherwise cramming into a day all that's required of a Hall of Fame Iditarod musher with a race date breathing down her neck before falling face-first into her pillow at night. She's still trying to replace gear burned up in the fire. She's still trying to find ways to pay for it all, especially after losing Shell as her main sponsor and realizing that contents insurance didn't cover all they lost. Not even close.
Determined as she is to run the Iditarod this year, she even launched a GoFundMe campaign, a route she never expected she'd have to go.
As hard as it sounds, this 62-year-old, trial-and-tribulated cancer survivor, this offseason marathoner and triathlete who could probably bench press a Hummer, will be at the Iditarod starting line. Hard is what DeeDee knows.
"I'll be there," she said, "in pink."
"She needs to do this Iditarod," Crim said. "She works through her stuff, her life stuff, out on the trail. She needs the Iditarod more than ever this year."
Debra McKinney is a longtime Alaska writer and co-author of "Beyond the Bear." She lives on Lazy Mountain near Palmer.