‘A heart as big as Alaska’: Unalakleet throws a retirement party for DeeDee Jonrowe

UNALAKLEET — In the memorial hall Sunday night, Mayor Leona Grishkowsky cut a cake frosted with an image of a musher in a pink parka riding a sled behind two black dogs.

"Thanks DeeDee," the pink lettering said. "Unalakleet Loves You."

The 2018 Iditarod was DeeDee Jonrowe's 36th and also her last. It got cut short, about 150 miles in, when the 64-year-old Willow musher got sick and dropped out.

"I just retired earlier than I wanted to, but you know what, I haven't been sorry for that," Jonrowe said.

Jonrowe wore a purple ribbon tied in her braided hair and a kuspuk with sled dogs on it that the community gave her. She carried a crayon drawing from a child, and she got hugs from many of the roughly 300 people who cycled in and out of the building for the retirement potluck planned by residents.

"DeeDee has a heart as big as Alaska," Mayor Grishkowsky said. "She's a wonderful person. She's kind to everyone. She takes time for people. She makes time to make you feel special. And she's just so well loved here."

Unalakleet resident Jeff Erickson said he has known Jonrowe for about 40 years. When he heard she scratched from the 2018 Iditarod, he said, he started to make arrangements for her to come to Unalakleet for a party.

The Iditarod has become so fast, he said, there's not as much time as there used to be for mushers to visit people at checkpoint communities. Jonrowe competed in her first Iditarod in 1980. A potluck, he decided, would be a great way to celebrate the iconic musher.

"It's hard not to cheer for her and cry with her and then she's not just somebody, but she becomes a friend," he said.

Just down the road, mushers continued to come and go from the Unalakleet checkpoint. On Sunday morning, Jonrowe, dressed in her trademark pink parka, hugged the first three mushers into the Bering Sea town.

As for what's next, Jonrowe said she's not sure yet but it will probably involve training dogs.

She said she was overwhelmed by Unalakleet's kindness in organizing a potluck.

"Our family biologically is very small," she said, "but this family has adopted me and I've experienced more strength and heartaches with them than any place in the world."