WILLOW -- Mary sat on her lawn in mid-June, succumbing to the guilty pleasure of a young adult novel. It was hot, in the 80s. She wanted to soak in the sun, "battle some of the Alaska whiteness and get a little color," she said with a laugh.
A neighbor texted her: "Fire up the highway getting bigger hopefully they will get it under control just be prepared if we gotta go have a plan."
She looked up and saw the smoke. She walked through her house and looked at her things. As a precaution, she packed a small suitcase of clothes, her big, purple parka with the wolf ruff. She grabbed her good, heavy bibs and her two pairs of beaver mitts. She grabbed her wool Lobben boots and then a few Swedish keepsakes. Her grandmother Eleanor's Swedish Bluebird of Happiness glass figurine. Two blankets her great-grandmother Mil knitted for her when she was born. A wooden figurine Grandma Mil wrapped for her 10th birthday before she died. Her Swedish dala horse. Her laptop. A fancy parka made by a dear friend.
"Oh," she remembers, "and my nice dog harnesses, too."
A neighbor came over and said the police just drove by. "They said we need to get out of here now." Mary grabbed her phone and called her friend, Kristin Bacon. As she called, she felt something raining on her. Confused, she realized it was charred spruce needles.
She threw her things into the back of her truck. She loaded her dogs and left the home she bought only 10 months earlier. She left believing that it was going to be fine.
As she drove to Kristin's home, she stopped and helped people along the way. One musher was out of town, so they loaded his sled dogs and got them out. Mary then got to her evacuation home, made her dogs comfortable and went back to Willow to help other neighbors.
"We got 80 dogs out, working until 4 in the morning," she says. "We kept hearing reports my next-door neighbor's house was burning. Jenny spent the whole night mourning, thinking she lost her home. The next day we found out her house was OK and my house was the one that burned." Mary's three-bedroom home was completely gone. All that remained was ash in the pit where her basement was. More than 50 homes burned down in that fire.
'Dogs are my life'
Less than two weeks later, and three years into her beloved mushing lifestyle, Mary Helwig attended a picnic in Wasilla and was the 30th musher to sign up for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race next March.
Her voice is bright. Almost jubilant. She laughs as she always has. "I can't fully explain why I'm sticking with it," she says. "Dogs are my life. Partly, it wouldn't be fair to them if I just … gave up. They've kept me going. They give me purpose. This is what we've been working toward."
One gets the feeling the race is feeding her passion to rebuild. Her dogs need a kennel and she needs a place to take care of them. After all, she knows the Iditarod has the potential to be more than grueling. "If I can get myself through this disaster, I'll feel that much more prepared to handle the difficulties of the trail," she says. "There will be difficulties."
Four weeks after the fire, Mary is focused on cleaning up the ash pit where her home once sat and rebuilding. Her greenhouse remains intact, along with most of the zucchini, butternut squash, bell peppers, Swiss chard and herbs she planted inside. Her sled is also somehow intact. The fire line came right up to it, but nothing was melted or burned and she'll use it in races this season.
Before the serious training season begins, she'll build a garage with an apartment on top, but, "as long as the dogs have a home and water, we're good to go," she says.
And along with her new home, Mary has four more dog houses to build. Five days after the fire, a dog named Cosmo gave birth to four puppies. Mary named the two males and two females the "Sockeye Wildfire Litter." Their dad is Pilgrim, a dog she trained as a leader when she first started mushing in 2012, handling at the Siku Kennel in Unalakleet.
"I plan on getting a few litters out of him over the years," Mary says. "I can't explain why I have such a good attitude about it all. Prayers are being answered," she adds. "I have been experiencing God's peace beyond understanding."
Mary has raced in the Portage 200, Aurora 50/50, Knik 100, Two Rivers 200, Copper Basin 300 and Northern Lights 300 sled dog races. She and 64 other mushers signed up for the 2016 Iditarod. So far, 11 other rookies have entered.
Laureli Ivanoff lives in Nome, where she's raising her two children, Joe and Sidney. They eat a lot of fish and are very proud of their yorkipoo named Pushkin.