KNIK – Meredith Mapes walked around Fun on the Run Kennel, talking affectionately to her excited dogs while introducing some of them to visitors.
There’s Hagrid, part of Mapes’ Harry Potter litter. Charger comes from the litter named after sports cars.
A few moments later, she presented a few of the mushing artists formerly known as puppies.
“Prince and Beret,” Mapes said. “We also have Love, Symbol, Rain, Purple and 7. I wanted to name a ‘Prince’ litter so I looked up some terms on Wikipedia.
“Their mom was Raspberry, so it made sense.”
Mapes, 26, said the names of her dogs aren’t predetermined. A theme comes first.
“It’s very important,” she said. “I won’t name them until each dog has a personality.
“The name has to fit. It’s with them their entire life.”
A longtime volunteer and advocate for the sport, Mapes is making a name for herself as her second Iditarod looms.
“She is certainly dedicated to dogs,” said Danny Seavey, who employed Mapes for nearly seven years as a guide for the family’s touring business in both Girdwood and Seward.
Mapes moved from Texas to Alaska with her family when she was 10 months old and she became hooked on sled dogs almost instantly. Her mother, a nurse, often volunteered for the Iditarod, and so did Mapes.
“Some of my earliest memories of helping are opening hand warmers at different checkpoints,” she said.
Today, when she isn’t training and tending to her dogs, Mapes works full time as a veterinary technician in Palmer.
“I applied, got the job and severely disappointed Danny for a brief time when I told him last summer that I was moving on,” Mapes said. “About a week or so later, (three-time Iditarod champion) Mitch (Seavey) shook my hand and told me it was good to see me growing up and getting a real job.”
Mapes’ connection with the Seaveys -- one of the Iditarod’s first families -- runs deep.
“When Meredith first started working for us, her mom shared a photo of (Mapes) at 3 standing on one of our sleds during a tour,” said Danny Seavey, one of Mitch’s sons.
At age 6, Mapes entered the Willow Winter Carnival 1-dog race and won by 0.2 of a second. When musher Sue Allen gave Mapes two more race dogs when she was 12, Fun on the Run Kennel got its start.
Mapes finished 14th in the 2008 Junior Iditarod but was shook up when a snowmachine hit her team later that year, injuring two lead dogs. Despite the setback, Mapes kept mushing and finished 8th in the 2009 Junior Iditarod.
She decided to stop racing once out of high school and went to the University of Alaska Anchorage, graduating in May 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in theater with an emphasis on dance.
Working closely with the Seavey family and showing tourists and Alaskans what sled dogs can do rekindled her mushing passion. It was time to get serious again.
As an Iditarod rookie in 2018, Mapes finished 49th in the 49th state’s biggest sporting event.
“A perfect number, and easy to remember,” she said.
Mapes volunteered on the trail and blogged for Iditarod.com last year. But she couldn’t escape the lure of racing.
“I came to the realization that I’d much rather be out on the trail running my dogs,” Mapes said. “My favorite part now is being with dogs I raised or trained since they were puppies. I know them inside and out and know how they’ll react out on the trail.
“It’s an inspiring thing. I’ve known these animals since they came into the world and now they’re leading me across the wilderness of Alaska.”
Running a kennel and caring for 40 to 50 canines comes with a cost. The expenses are immense and Mapes is enthralled with her veterinary work, so this Iditarod is likely to be her last as a competitor.
“Never say never, but it should be my last one for a while,” she said.
Yet Mapes knows the Iditarod needs mushers like her, younger dog drivers who keep up the traditions of the legends present and past.
“This race is one I need to do,” she said. “I’m running because I’m worried there might not be a race in five years. A deciding factor may be not being able to train out here in Knik. The climate is changing around here. We’re training on swamps and trails that aren’t ideal.
“It’s up in Fairbanks where mushers seem to be getting snow earlier and better conditions for training.”
Mapes is an independent thinker and speaks her mind. She’s a big fan of fun as well as sleep. She jokingly admits she probably hit the snooze on her alarm too many times during the 2018 Iditarod.
“Since I really like sleeping, it was hard to get me out of some of the checkpoints,” she said. “I’ve been around the race long enough to know a lot of people. I’ll tell them they may need to help me getting out of bed. I may curse you, but you’ll have to do so.”
Seavey said such openness from Mapes is fresh and admirable.
“You know how you see these memes floating around the internet asking a boomer about therapy?” Danny said. “Ask a millennial and they’re joking, talking about it. It’s sort of the same thing with Meredith and others like her. They’ll joke about struggles or hardships where you’d ask my dad or Jeff King and they’ll say they never get tired or oversleep. A competitor just snuck out ahead of them.
“Meredith will say or post things that any self-respecting musher from 50 years ago would never admit. It’s a generational thing.”
Matt Nevala co-hosts “The Sports Guys” radio show, Saturdays at 11 a.m. on KHAR AM 590 and FM 96.7 (@cbssports590). Find him on social media at @MNevala9.