For Fairbanks musher Kailyn Davis, running the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a lifelong dream.
The 29-year-old remembers conjuring up an imaginary dog team as an elementary schooler on the playground. Upon graduating from high school, she emailed several mushers, asking for a job and eventually working for Anchorage’s Christine Roalofs.
This year, Davis’ dream became a reality. On Sunday, she left the starting line as musher No. 41, and late Thursday morning, she and her 12 dogs pulled into the checkpoint of McGrath, joining fellow back-of-the-pack mushers Yuka Honda of Healy and Lisbet Norris of Fairbanks.
When Davis set out on the trail this year, she decided to take a unique dog as her leader: Zeke, who she adopted from a Fairbanks shelter in 2015.
At the time, Zeke had a stress reaction and a bad case of mange. He’d lost his fur and was covered in bloody, itchy scabs.
“I ran into him in town and was curious because he looked so terrible, and heard his story and decided to adopt him,” she said.
I can't go this whole season and not mention the amazing story of my special lead dog, Zeke 😭 When I first adopted Zeke...Posted by Kailyn Davis - Iditarod 2022 on Tuesday, February 22, 2022
Davis brought him over to veteran musher Al Eischens’ house. It looked like Zeke had been in a fire — “the ugliest thing you ever saw,” said Eischens, who is a friend of Davis’. He wondered what Kailyn was doing, and why she was taking on the dog.
“She’s that type of person,” Eischens said. “She finds one that’s down and out and she will pick it up and rehabilitate it.”
After adopting Zeke, she started taking him out to skijor, just to get him out of the house. And she noticed that whenever he ran, he was relaxed — no itching or discomfort. Between running and his medication, Zeke soon got better.
He healed so well that Eischens eventually asked if he could take the dog to train with him for the Iditarod in 2017. Reluctantly, she let him go.
That year, Eischens finished with all 16 dogs in harness, including Zeke. Davis came up to Nome for the finish, and Eischens said he found out later that she snuck out of the Iditarod awards banquet to feed Zeke the prime rib they were served.
“She just spoils those dogs,” Eischens said. “She’s just amazing with them.”
Zeke turns 8 years old this month and has been living on Davis’ couch, she said, so she wasn’t sure if he’d want to run the race this year.
“But when I was starting the training season, he hated being left behind,” she said.
Davis started taking him on shorter runs, and he never wanted to stop. And that’s how Zeke ended up on her team this year.
On Wednesday night, Eischens said he was about to send Davis a mushergram that simply said, “Chop chop chop,” harking back to what his wife, Tanjala, would say to him in mushergrams when he raced. Eischens would spend a lot of time chatting at checkpoints.
“Kailyn would laugh at it, so I thought, ‘I’m gonna send her a mushergram that just says chop, chop, chop,’ ” he said.
Updates from her musher Facebook page say Davis has so far had to contend with challenging trail conditions, chasing off moose and bison and running through heavy, wet snow. She told Alaska Public Media that her dogs began barking at the bison and scared them away.
At Sunday’s official start in Willow, Davis told Iditarod Insider that both she and her dogs were ready and excited to race.
“This has been a lifelong dream,” she said. “And I never thought I’d actually be here — but here we are.”