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Enough's enough: Promising Iditarod musher Jake Berkowitz hangs up his snow hook

  • Author: Ellen Burkhardt
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 28, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minnesota — The Greyhound bus pulled away, leaving Jake Berkowitz stranded on a dirt road in the middle of northern Michigan. A few days earlier, the 18-year-old was celebrating Thanksgiving with his family in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now he was alone, waiting for a stranger to pick him up and introduce him to a way of life that would quickly and permanently redefine him in every way.

Berkowitz was born and raised in the Twin Cities, spending most of his childhood in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of St. Paul. Smart, hardworking and raised in the Jewish faith, he attended a 16-week study program in Jerusalem his junior year of high school and, after graduating, returned to Israel for a year to study at Hebrew University and volunteer as a medic.

Mostly, though, Berkowitz was a student of adventure. From the time he was a young boy, he would accompany his father on camping trips. In his teens, he attended and worked at Camp Widjiwagan, way up at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota, participating in weekslong treks through the region's pristine forest and lakes. He felt most like himself in nature. "Camping, backpacking, canoeing, rafting — that seemed like the perfect fit for me," he said.

When it came time for college in 2005, Berkowitz chose the University of Colorado. It was a logical choice: Mountains were right there, offering ample opportunity for outdoor adventure. But school didn't click with him, and after six weeks he dropped out, moved back home, and took a job at REI as a stopgap until he could figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

Four months later, serendipity stepped in.

'Complete Idiot's Guide'

"One day on a lunch break, I Googled a few things that I really liked: snow, dogs, and expeditions," Berkowitz says. "The first place that came up was Nature's Kennel (Sled Dog Racing and Adventures). I called and asked for a job. They said if I could be there in three days, they'd take me for the season. So I cashed out my last paycheck, used my employee discount to get what I needed, and bought a bus ticket."

He'd never seen a sled dog before, much less guided his own team, but Berkowitz had a feeling this was the right move. "There are parts of my life where I'm very detail-oriented, but other times, I go with my gut feeling and just go with it," he says. To prepare for what awaited him at Nature's Kennel, Berkowitz bought a book to read on the bus: "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Siberian Huskies."

It didn't help much. "They weren't even huskies," he laughs.

Despite his lack of experience, Berkowitz immediately found his way at Nature's Kennel. He had an innate ability to read the dogs, something co-owner Ed Stielstra saw right away. "Jake is the best dog person I've ever encountered," Stielstra says, recalling how impressed he was with Berkowitz's work ethic, positive attitude and almost sixth-sense connection with the dogs. "He's able to communicate with them better than most people can, to establish a bond with them. I didn't really have to do much mentoring; he just soaks things up like a sponge."

Although Stielstra originally hired Berkowitz to lead overnight expeditions for tour groups, he saw potential in the young man as a racer and asked Berkowitz to run the kennel's B team in the 2007 Iditarod. (Racing kennels often have two teams: the "A" team, the kennel's more advanced dogs, and the "B" team, typically made up of year-old and 2-year-old dogs.) The animals bonded with Berkowitz instantly.

"I like to believe I'm good with dogs, but when I took Jake's team out for a run later to check in on them, they wouldn't listen to a word I said," Stielstra says. "For Jake, they were perfect. For me, they weren't even close. He was seen as the alpha; he was their leader. I've only ever seen that once — with Jake."

'I ran an awful race'

After having to pull out of the 2007 Iditarod a month prior to the race due to poor training and trail conditions, Berkowitz signed up for the following year. Finally, in 2008, the 21-year-old Berkowitz and his team set off on the 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, ready to put into practice years of training and hard work.

The result? "I ran an awful race," Berkowitz says of his 65th-place finish. "I made a lot of rookie mistakes and was very fortunate to finish with a very healthy — but very small — team."

Throughout that first race, Berkowitz ended up having to drop nine of his 16 dogs at checkpoints along the trail. He'd attempted to stick to the schedule he'd mapped out instead of reading his dogs, ultimately exhausting them — and himself. But he finished. That was the important part. "If you don't finish your first race, it's hard to get back on the saddle," Berkowitz says. "It was very important for Nature's Kennel, my family and myself that I finish."

Rookie mistakes and dropped dogs aside, Berkowitz's 2008 race caught the eye of veteran racer Zack Steer. Steer offered Berkowitz a job at his kennel in Alaska to train his B team. Once again, Berkowitz packed up his life and moved.

When the 2009 Iditarod rolled around, Berkowitz looked like a completely different racer. He finished 31st, a full 21 hours faster than the year before. More importantly, he completed the race with all 16 dogs — a feat accomplished by only three other racers in the 40-plus-year history of the Iditarod. Berkowitz's success caught the attention of a racing veteran: five-time Iditarod racer Jon Little.

Little approached Berkowitz in 2010 to buy out his kennel. The timing was perfect. "I was already thinking of starting a kennel," Berkowitz says. "It was either buy land and a house, or buy a dog team. I couldn't pass up the opportunity."

Transitioning from six years of being a handler to owning his own kennel was a major step, but Berkowitz says he was ready. He'd learned as much as possible from mentors and racing B teams. It was time to put what he knew into practice with what he called Apex Kennels.

He wasn't alone in the venture. In 2011, Berkowitz met his future wife, Robin. She was watching a mutual friend's kennel down the road from Apex and, every day on training runs, Berkowitz would pass by her. Eventually, he started stopping to talk and the two got to know each other. They moved in together shortly thereafter and married in 2012.

Moving up

The following three years would be the peak for Berkowitz's racing career. He won three major races across Alaska in 2011, including finishing 72 minutes ahead of four-time defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey and a slew of other top racers in the Copper Basin 300.

In 2012, he won the Knik 200, finished sixth in the Kobuk 440, and was awarded Rookie of the Year in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

In the 2013 Iditarod, he took eighth — shaving nearly three days off his 2009 time — and won the coveted Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award for finishing with 15 healthy dogs.

But elements beyond his control were working against Berkowitz's future as a professional sled dog racer. Since 1949, the average temperature in Alaska has risen by 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit, with winter averages increasing by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The world's 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998; 2014 was the warmest year ever recorded to that point. In 2015, the start of the Iditarod had to be relocated from Anchorage to Fairbanks due to lack of snow. It was the second time in the race's 42-year history such a move was required.

During the 2014 Iditarod, trail conditions were so bad that the first 350 miles of the race were nearly snowless or with scant cover. Teams struggled to navigate the rocky dirt and multiple veteran mushers had to drop out due to injuries. In Berkowitz's case, "My sled disintegrated from being dragged across the dirt," he says. "I've never seen anything like that before. Those first 350 miles were all in the Alaska mountain range and there wasn't a single ounce of snow. It was a very scary race."

Being forced to deploy his emergency beacon and be airlifted off the Iditarod Trail was the tipping point for Berkowitz. Already he'd spent the previous three years driving farther and farther north in search of snow on which to train. The added cost, time, effort and days away from his wife and baby girl weighed on Berkowitz, eventually leading him to follow his gut once more and make a huge decision.

In spring 2014, he called Stielstra and Jason Campeau, a musher in Calgary, Alberta, and sold them his team — his A team went to Campeau, his yearlings to Stielstra. That August, he, Robin, and their 8-month-old, Ruby, moved to Calgary.

'Definitely miss it'

"I definitely miss it, but I'm glad I was able to do it for a decade as a young person," Berkowitz says of his decision to swap dogs and 14-hour days tending the dogs for a suit-and-tie job at Maplesoft Group, a technology and consulting firm of which Campeau is a partner. "It was time to build a career and spend time with my family. I didn't want to miss out on my daughter growing up."

Although he's no longer racing, Berkowitz stays connected to that world by mentoring Campeau. Campeau's kennel is just 2 1/2 hours from Calgary — close enough for Berkowitz to go spend time with the dogs he spent years raising and racing. "I wasn't comfortable being mediocre at dog sledding," Berkowitz says, reflecting on his fast rise in the sport. "I gave everything I had and my family gave everything they had, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Even when I wasn't at the kennel, I was thinking about the kennel. The biggest difference now is to not have that lurking feeling. To be more in the moment."

Keeping tabs on his dogs and embracing his mentorship role for now, it would seem Berkowitz has found a new way to channel his love of sled dogs and racing. But he stops short of saying he's done racing for good. "Your highest highs and lowest lows come during a race," Berkowitz says. "One moment it's 3 a.m., pitch black, 40-below, and you're nodding off, not sure if you're even going to finish. Then the sun starts to rise and you remember why you're there."

Whether the sun will rise again on Berkowitz's racing career is unclear, though he'd hardly be the first to give up racing, only to return. But for now he's comfortable knowing the gains he made in 10 years are more than most make during a lifetime of mushing.

Ellen Burkhardt is the associate editor at The Growler magazine in St. Paul, Minnesota. This article originally appeared in The Growler's January 2016 issue and is reprinted with permission.

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