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Willow musher who lost home to fire claims Iditarod's Red Lantern

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 20, 2016

Iditarod rookie Mary Helwig, who lost her home in last summer's Sockeye wildfire, claimed the Red Lantern award as the race's last-place finisher when she crossed the finish line just before midnight Saturday night.

Helwig, 32, drove her team of 11 dogs under the burled arch on Nome's Front Street at 11:51 p.m. She was the last of 71 finishers in the 1,000-mile sled dog race, which began March 6 in Willow.

Helwig was one of four mushers to finish Saturday, a day that produced one of the race's closest finishes when Kim Franklin beat Kristin Bacon of Big Lake to the finish line by 2 minutes, 16 seconds to win an all-rookie battle for 68th place.

Franklin, a United Kingdom musher, spent hours early in the race walking the trail when she lost her team and sled between the Rohn and Nikolai checkpoints. Some 17 hours passed before she was back on her sled runners and driving her team toward Nome.

Finishing about four hours after Franklin and Bacon was Minnesota musher Cindy Gallea, a 64-year-old who completed her 12th Iditarod by crossing the finish line at 6:46 p.m. Saturday.

Helwig's finish came nearly five days after Dallas Seavey of Willow captured his fourth Iditarod championship in record time early Tuesday morning. The race began with a field of 85 mushers; 13 scratched and one was withdrawn.

Helwig, who grew up in California, moved to Alaska to work for Covenant Youth of Alaska after graduating from the University of Chicago in 2006. Her work eventually took her to the Iditarod checkpoint of Unalakleet, where she got her first taste of sled dog racing in a short women's race organized by the Norton Sound Sled Dog Club.

Helwig settled in Willow a couple of years ago and began forming her own dog team. Five days after her home burned to the ground, her dog Cosmo gave birth to four puppies that she called the "Sockeye Wildfire Litter."

About a week later, she signed up for the Iditarod.

"If I can get myself through this disaster," Helwig said in the aftermath of the fire, "I'll feel that much more prepared to handle the difficulties of the trail."

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