NOME — Hunter Keefe didn’t want the race he’d been dreaming about for most of his life to end.
Keefe grew up in central Michigan, where he fell in love with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race so early and so thoroughly that in the fourth grade, he dressed as a musher for a Midwestern Halloween. He’d moved to Alaska as soon as he could, immersing himself in the world of mushing by living and working with the storied Redington family.
And now, at age 23, he was attempting his first Iditarod. It was the fulfillment of not just a childhood dream but the only plan he’d ever had for his life. “I don’t have a backup plan,” he said. “Dog musher is it.”
The race had been going smoothly, with a strong team of dogs from the Redington family helping to put him among the leading rookies in the race. One of his mentors, musher Ryan Redington, had won the race.
On Tuesday evening, Keefe was at White Mountain, only 77 miles from completing the nearly 1,000-mile journey. His partner Jessi Downey estimated he’d probably cross the finish line in the early morning.
But a ferocious windstorm kicked up, changing his plans. In an area near the Topkok Hills, between the checkpoints of White Mountain and Safety, snow blew so hard that even some veteran mushers said it was among the worst windstorms they’d seen.
[‘Enough to blow me off the trail’: Top Iditarod mushers contend with fierce winds to reach Nome]
Keefe was finding it hard to see, and a long night stretched out before him and his dog team.
“I was having a hard time staying on the trail,” he said.
When he and his team made it to an emergency shelter for travelers, staying there for the night “just seemed like the right move,” he said.
“We had a beautiful night,” he said.
So Keefe spent an unexpected last night of his first Iditarod taking shelter with his dogs in a tiny cabin. A family from Elim snowmachining to a basketball tournament in Nome took refuge with him.
It turned out to be the finishing touch on a rookie Iditarod that Keefe said was a “joyride all the way.”
Keefe mushed into Nome at 2:39 p.m. Wednesday, in 11th place. It had taken him 18 hours and 46 minutes to get from White Mountain to Safety.
Standing in the finishers chute, feeding his team salmon and meat snacks and embracing the circle of mushers and friends who had gathered to see him in, he seemed elated.
“I knew Hunter was gonna do good because he’s happy and he’s got a really good dog team,” Redington said. “I knew this was his dream, and you could just look at him and see — he’s happy every step of the way.”
[Photos: Top Iditarod finishers race into Nome]
Keefe saw a teenage boy standing by the fence and rushed down to him.
“Hey!” he said. “You were in the cabin last night!”
The boy, Terrance Takak, 16, had come to watch Keefe finish the race.
“They say it was probably blowing 40 to 50 below between here and Topkok cabin,” Takak said.
Race marshal Mark Nordman said Keefe’s finish felt special. It was so clear how much he relished being on the trail, completing the race he’d been preparing for so long. And just how much fun he seemed to be having.
Nordman had spotted Keefe a few miles from the finish and shouted to get his attention.
“He says — ‘I just wanted to spend another night on the trail,’ ” Nordman said. “And off he goes, laughing.”