Teenage mushers find adventure and friendship at the Junior Iditarod

The race gives teenagers space to be taken seriously as outdoorspeople, dog mushers and problem-solvers.

YENTNA STATION — When Emily Dinges, board president of the Junior Iditarod, first ran the race herself in 2010, everything went wrong. “I lost the team, went the wrong way on the Yentna River and set myself on fire,” she recalls, laughing. But the musher whose dogs she was running, Ryan Redington, let her enter the race again — and the next year, she placed third.

That’s a big part of the Junior Iditarod: giving teenage mushers the freedom to learn from their mistakes.

The race was founded in 1978, and over the decades, with the exception of a few low-snow years, it’s followed roughly the same course: a 66-mile trek from Knik Lake to Yentna Station Roadhouse, followed by a 10-hour layover and a long run to Willow Lake. Racers are between 14 and 17 years old and, just like Iditarod mushers, must complete the challenge without outside assistance. Jean Gabryszak, co-owner of Yentna Station, has watched the race evolve. “Kids used to be running their daddy’s dogs,” she says. “Now they’re true mushers. They train and race their own teams.”

On Friday night, this year’s nine mushers, along with their families and mentors, gathered in Iditarod headquarters for a pre-race meeting. They were quiet, solemn even, as race marshal Micah Degerlund went over the rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no phones, no firearms — and though they’d be camping outside the warm and cozy Yentna Station, they weren’t allowed to go inside. Most importantly: no parents. Even if families traveled to the roadhouse, they weren’t allowed to speak with their kids. “We could never go out there,” said James Cross, whose daughter, 17-year-old Julia Cross of Thunder Bay, Ontario, was running her rookie race. “Julia would kill us, and then she’d be disqualified for murder.”

The teams hit the trail Saturday morning, and at 5:21 that evening, Julia pulled into Yentna first with 10 dogs still barking to run. The trail was great, she said, except for a punchy stretch before Eagle Song lodge. She was 90% sure she’d seen a wolverine, a “fuzzy black brownish thing that stopped in the middle of the trail. I was like, I don’t wanna mess with that with a dog team.” All that winter, she’d driven an hour and a half each way, four days a week, to run dogs with Ryan Redington — the same musher who gave Emily her start a decade before.

Twenty-three minutes later, 17-year-old Nicholas Sousa of Talkeetna, whose hobbies include electrical engineering and mixed martial arts, crested the riverbank with one foot on the brake, followed shortly by 16-year-old Anna Coke of Wasilla, who plans to pursue mission work after high school. The mushers parked their teams in a grove of spruce and cottonwood, lighting their cookers as snow began to fall. They fed their dogs, tucked coats and straw around them, and wandered over to a clearing to start the race’s traditional bonfire as more teams rolled in. Their firewood was damp.

Julia, Anna, and Nicholas huddled over the logs together. They had kindling but no tinder, and their matches kept going out. Snowflakes melted on Nicholas’s bare hands as he cupped a coal. It was dark now.

Julia scraped wood shavings from a log, and Anna arranged the slivers in a pyramid.

“Are there any dying spruce around here?” said Nicholas.

Like magic, race marshal Micah’s deep voice sounded from the trees. “If you guys want, I can show you where some dead spruce is.” Anna followed him and came back a minute later with an armful of dry sticks, and 15-year-old Kristal Hanson, a straight-A student at West High in Anchorage, crawled over a snowbank with a box of fire starters. Soon, together, they built a steady flame, and Micah disappeared back into the darkness.

This teamwork illustrates the beauty of the Junior Iditarod: adults teaching without telling, keeping things safe — relatively speaking — without making things easy. The race gives teenagers space to be taken seriously as outdoorspeople, dog mushers and problem-solvers. “For me,” Dinges said, “the Junior Iditarod gave me faith in myself. I wasn’t good at sports. I was not very athletic. I found a lot of independence through it. It changed my life.”

Before long, more mushers gathered around the crackling bonfire with snacks and sleeping bags. They held steaming gloves over the flames and talked about how many knives they’d packed and who wore what size shoes (Nicholas wears a size 14) and who had the greatest tendency to oversleep (17-year-old Calvin Daugherty from Eagle River, a varsity wrestler who hopes to attend West Point) and who drank the most coffee (Anna brought four servings of coffee, she said brightly, and it was light roast, which had the most caffeine). In a few short hours, the mushers would feed their dogs and pack their sleds and put on booties, then head out into the wilderness with their teams, running 74 miles through fresh snow to Willow Lake. But for now, the kids talked in the firelight until they fell asleep.

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The winner was Nicholas Sousa with a time of 18 hours, 23 minutes and 30 seconds. Other finishers: 2nd place: Julia Cross; 3rd place: Anna Coke; 4th place: Kristal Hanson; 5th place: Calvin Daugherty; 6th place: Cassidy Meyer; 7th place: Ida Kohnert; 8th place: Sam Paperman; 9th place: Bjorn Keller.

Blair Braverman

Blair Braverman completed her rookie Iditarod in 2019, and will be contributing stories to the Daily News during the 2020 race. She is the author of "Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube" (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2016).