Alaska News

Weeks after accident, Iditarod musher Hendrickson races forward

Four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finisher Karin Hendrickson is up and walking around, but admits that after breaking parts of her back in a training accident, anything other than lying down is "pretty difficult."

"For somebody as active as me, this has been harder than anything I've ever done," said Hendrickson, who's started six consecutive Iditarods, with a best finish of 36th place.

Hendrickson is recovering from an accident last month along the Parks Highway, when a vehicle lost control on an icy patch of road and slammed into Hendrickson and her 14-dog team. None of the dogs were seriously injured, but the incident left Hendrickson, 44, with severe bruising and three broken vertebrae.

However, Hendrickson, known for her upbeat, spunky attitude on the trail, is moving forward. While she won't be racing in the 2015 Iditarod, her friend and fellow race veteran Bryan Bearss is taking over her team so her dogs can run. Bearss is a longtime friend she has known since they both worked as handlers for mushers in the Chugiak area, and she suggested he take over her team this season.

Bearss, an early literacy coach at Abbott Loop Elementary, said he was honored by the trust she had in him.

"I'm not a doctor, I can't fix her back," Bearss said between training runs Monday. "But I can keep her team trained up."

Hendrickson said she'll do her best to help Bearss with race support. Bearss works full time, and admitted it's been a challenge commuting between Anchorage and Hendrickson's Willow kennel on weekends. But he's getting to know the dogs, including all their names, traits and personalities. He knows he has a lot of work to do before the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race starts March 7, but he's confident he'll be prepared, especially with Hendrickson's involvement. She's already involved in drop bag and race planning.

Since the accident, Hendrickson has had limited interaction with her dogs, only able to see them one at a time in what she calls "visiting sessions." While the accident didn't require surgery, she has to wear a removable torso cast she calls her "turtle shell." She expects to wear that for eight to 12 weeks, though she admitted that the recovery would take much longer.

She's also seen a tremendous outpouring of community support. Hendrickson hasn't been able to return to her job at the Department of Environmental Conservation full time. However, thousands of dollars have been donated to her recovery effort through a GoFundMe campaign that was started just after the accident to help cover bills while Hendrickson recovers. Yummy Chummies donated 2,000 pounds of salmon to feed her dogs. The Alaska Cycle Center even donated a new four-wheeler to replace the one Hendrickson lost in the accident.

"Dog mushing is what I do. It's what I care about," Hendrickson said. "It's what's gives my life meaning. I know that sounds a little over-dramatic but it's true, and I don't have that right now. It's hard. But people all over the world are helping out and sending encouragement. It's really wonderful."

Suzanna Caldwell

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