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Call of the wild beckons 67 mushers to 46th running of the Iditarod

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: March 3, 2018
  • Published March 3, 2018

Sixteen-year-old Spencer Bruggeman of Montana got hooked on sled dogs after reading "The Call of the Wild" as a little boy.

He told his mom how cool it would be to have a sled dog team, and 10 years later he was in Anchorage watching his dad drive a team of huskies in the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Spencer practiced patience as he rode the runners of Brett Bruggeman's second sled at Saturday's ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage.

"I've got two years," he said. Two years until he's 18 and can enter the race himself.

The call of the wild beckons men and women, young and old, sourdough and cheechako. It can apply a grip that's impossible to escape even for those who want to slip its bonds.

Sixty-seven mushers are answering the call in the 46th annual Iditarod. On Saturday, they were the reason for a daylong party that started in downtown Anchorage and ended 11 miles later at Campbell Airstrip. Fans gathered downtown and along the short trail to take photos, offer high-fives and maybe collect a dog bootie or two.

On Sunday afternoon, the gaity will give way to game faces. The clock starts ticking at 2 p.m. at the Willow Community Center, where mushers will leave in two-minute intervals as they head into the kind of country that inspired Jack London's tales of the north.

DeeDee Jonrowe waves to people in the parking garage during the 2018 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage on Saturday. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow, 64, is answering the call of the wild for the 36th and final time. One of the Iditarod's most popular racers, she's making one last run to Nome.

A year ago, subzero temperatures and previously frostbitten hands turned her race into a grind, telling her it was time to hang up the harnesses. She knew when she signed up for this year's race that it would be her last.


"I'm really relieved, to be honest," Jonrowe said. "The hardest decision has been, when was it going to be? Last year in Nenana when I struggled with my hands, that was the sign. It didn't really leave any question in my mind. When I signed up in June, that's when the relief happened."

Kelly Maixner tried to mute the call of the wild, but he couldn't.

"Oh, you know. It's an addiction," he said.

A dentist from Chugiak, Maixner started six Iditarods and finished as high as 13th before selling his dogs to John Baker and Katherine Keith in 2016. Now he's back with a bunch of dogs borrowed from famous mushers.

"Lance, Dallas, Mitch, Cim Smyth, Ray Redington," he said, ticking off the names of mushers who loaned him dogs. (This being Alaska, where Iditarod winners are state treasures, last names are not necessary when talking about famous dog drivers.)

Maixner signed up for this year's race an hour before the registration deadline. "I had no for-sure dogs at the time," he said.

John Nanok (left) and Jackie Ivanoff wave as Kelly Maixner drives his team during the Iditarod ceremonial start in Anchorage. (Anne Raup / ADN)

But he picked up a dog here, a dog there, and then one day in January while buying dog food he met four-time champion Lance Mackey for the first time.

Mackey, a cancer survivor, scratched from the 2016 Iditarod and skipped last year's and this year's races for health reasons, but he still runs dogs.

"I got a whole team that's trained," Mackey told Maixner, and at the beginning of February, a dozen Mackey-trained dogs began training with Maixner.

"I wasn't going to be able to run them, and they deserve to go," Mackey said.

Aaron Burmeister of Nome put the call of the wild on hold for a couple of years but always knew he would answer it again.

Burmeister, 42, is the veteran of 16 Iditarods but he sat out the last two races in order to spend more time with his son Hunter, 9, and daughter Kiana, 5.

His brother, Noah, raced the team in 2016 and 2017, but the plan was always for Burmeister to return.

"I'm ecstatic," he said. "I need to take care of some unfinished business between Koyuk and Nome."

In 2015, Burmeister finished third after getting passed in the race's final 125 miles by winner Dallas Seavey and runner-up Mitch Seavey. The lost opportunity still nags him.

"It keeps me driven and focused," said Burmeister, who's been in the top 10 four times. "My goal is to be first to Nome."

The son of Iditarod veteran Richard Burmeister, Aaron grew up in Nome, home of the Iditarod's iconic burled-arch finish line. He's running dogs he raised from puppies that are part of a bloodline going back 20 years to Roger Roberts, the Iditarod musher known as a "the loafer from Ophir."

"I've been focused on Iditarod my entire life," Burmeister said.

So has Ramey Smyth, who like Burmeister is a second-generation Iditarod musher. His dad, Bud Smyth, raced in the first Iditarod and his mom, the late Lolly Medley, raced in the second Iditarod.

Smyth is unsettled by the black cloud hanging over the race, which in the last year has dealt with the aftermath of four dead dogs in last year's race, the loss of a major sponsor, a doping scandal and a demand by mushers that the board of directors rid itself of conflicts of interest.

Saturday's ceremonial race drew protests from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), prompting Smyth to defend the sport.

"This is a really special adventure for these animals. You're with your dogs 20, 24 hours a day, feeling them, petting them, loving them," he said. "These are the luckiest dogs on the planet."

For Smyth, the call of the wild comes straight from those dogs.

"It's a very ancient connection," he said. "Dogs, trail, travel. Everyone understands it at an instinctual, internal level — instincts we all have for adventure and travel."

Spencer Bruggeman first heard the call from the pages of a book, but now he knows it in real life.

He was born with a birth defect that left him with no muscle in his left leg, and he wasn't able to play football like his older brothers. Brett and Suzette Bruggeman looked for a sport their son could enjoy, but Spencer found it himself in the pages of a Jack London book.

About the same time Spencer was reading "Call of the Wild," Brett Bruggeman was reading a non-fiction book about the Yukon gold rush, and from that perfect storm the Skinny Leg Sled Dogs kennel was born.

"It's all me and my dogs," Spencer said. "I feed them, water them and scoop the poop."

And someday soon, he said, he'll take them to Nome.

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