Alaska News

18-year-old rookie is learning fast on a frigid Iditarod race trail

RUBY -- Subzero temperatures and a bitter wind chill got the best of rookie musher Ben Harper's nose Thursday morning along the Iditarod race trail. It was frostbitten, white and peeling. Harper covered it with a thick coat of Vaseline for protection and to help it heal.

Despite the gnarly appearance, the 18-year-old musher insisted his nose was fine. What bugged him more were the blue jeans he wore under his snow gear. They provided little insulation against 20- to 30-below-zero cold.

"I'm never wearing these again," he told mushers gathered in the Ruby checkpoint, laughing when ribbed about rookie mistakes.

Harper, the youngest musher in this year's race, isn't your average rookie. He's a bit of a racing wunderkind. He's been runner-up in the Junior Iditarod and Knik 200. He placed an impressive fifth in the Copper Basin 300 this year against a competitive field of 45 mushers.

He's not alone in his early racing success either. Younger brother Kevin won the Junior Iditarod weeks ago. The two have been sharing dogs, and 10 dogs from Kevin's team are making the trip to Nome with his brother.

But despite his impressive resume, Harper insisted Thursday he's no candidate for rookie-of-the-year honors.

"That would be cool (to win it)," he said. "But I don't know what I'm doing out here."

Harper shrugs off any success he's had in mid-distance races, noting that they're only a few hundred miles. You can go fast in those, he said, because the end is always near. But the Iditarod's 1,000 miles is a lot longer. Go too fast early, and you might not make it to Nome.

Still, he's been busy prepping. He trains out of Ray Redington Jr.'s kennel, and with Redington constantly talking Iditarod, it's been easy for Harper to absorb his race knowledge.

Harper graduated from Wasilla High School last May and said he's always been a "dog person" but didn't consider racing until he moved to Alaska with his family in 2011. He said that on the drive up from his former home in Port Townsend, Washington, he saw a few teams training along the Alaska Highway and happened to read a magazine article about mushing.

That was all it took for him to catch the bug. After his family settled in the Knik area -- known for its mushing history -- they met Redington. Harper began handling for the veteran musher at age 14.

Harper said his team this year is composed of dogs from several kennels -- including those of Redington, Jessie Royer of Montana, Sonny Lindner and Abbie West of Two Rivers as well as young Jay Cadzow of Fort Yukon.

Harper said his goal is to gain experience this year before taking a break. He plans to spend next year building his kennel and taking an airplane mechanics course at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

He may be absent from the Iditarod next year, but he won't be gone for long. Despite rookie mistakes, he loves the challenge of being out with his dog team and revels in the obstacles mushers face as long-distance racers.

"Out here I don't have to worry about anything but my dogs," he said. "It feels really good."

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.