Jan Steves brought her story of competing in the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to Edmonds Saturday morning, and enthralled the audience with what she called “the challenge of a lifetime” – racing a team of sled dogs 975 miles across Alaska.
The 55-year-old Steves, a long-time Edmonds resident who graduated from Edmonds High School in 1974, was already an avid skier, hiker and snowshoer. Sled dog racing allowed her to combine her passion for the outdoors with her love of dogs, she said.
During a presentation to a capacity Edmonds Theater crowd, she recalled her first race when she trained with Perry Solmonson in Eastern Washington in 2007. The sixth day of training turned out to be the first day of a sled dog race, the Cascade Quest. “I was hooked,” she said. “I had the time of my life. The dogs were just magical.”
She spent the next three winters training in Alaska, and ran her first Alaska race – the Don Bowers Memorial – in 2009. “You have to have 700 miles of races to qualify and one of the things they qualify you on is sleep deprivation,” she said to audience laughter.
Finally, in September 2011, Steves and her training partner, long-time Iditarod racer Bob Chlupach, packed up their car and drove the Alaska-Canadian Highway to Willows, Alaska, where they spent six months preparing for the 2012 Iditarod, otherwise known as the “Last Great Race on Earth.”
Shortly after arriving, their first order of business was to build the kennels – “basically 25 dog houses,” she said – necessary to house the sled dog teams – one for Steves’ team and the other for Chlupach’s.
Before the snow started falling, Steves and Chlupach trained their teams on dry land, using four-wheelers. From feeding dogs to scooping their waste to carrying water, “the work is long and hard,” Steves said. The workload increased when the snow came and they faced a never-ending process of unburying themselves and the dog kennels each morning. “I’d get up in the morning and ask, ‘Was there any more snow last night and if so, how much,’” Steves recalled. “Then we’d get out and start digging.”
It was clear from Steves’ narrative how much she cared about her dog team, and how well the dogs were treated, both during training and during the Iditarod race itself. Because the weather was particularly cold during the Iditarod this year, the dogs wore coats most of the time. They also wore booties to protect their paws from the snow and ice – in fact, Steves purchased 6,000 dog booties prior to the race.
And the dogs were clearly excited to be pulling the sleds, jumping up and down, spinning around and barking as if to say, ‘Choose me,’ whenever Steves came out to hook them up for training runs, she recalled.
At one point during their training sessions, Steves and Chlupach came across a moose that had taken up residence on the trail. The dog teams were “stomped” three times, meaning that the moose “came right through the middle of the team, legs flailing,” Steves said. “The dogs are so agile, they were able to dodge the hooves,” she added. But to avoid further risk of injury, Steves and Chlupach decided to transport the dogs by truck to another location to train, adding four hours a day to their training regime.
As they got closer to the race, they enlisted the help of volunteers in preparing food that could be shrink-wrapped and frozen, then reheated in hot water in a alcohol-fueled cooker on the trail for both the mushers and their dogs. A typical frozen meal was French toast and sausage or oatmeal with berries for the humans; beef, lamb and salmon for the dogs.
From packaging food to sewing leggings for the dogs and neck warmers for the mushers, “we had an army of volunteers that helped us get ready for Iditarod,” Steves said. Because a limited amount of equipment would fit in the dog sleds, Iditarod racers were allowed to drop bags of supplies at race checkpoints, including food, and dry clothing.
Race Day was March 3 in Anchorage, which Steves called “the best moment in my life,” with miles of crowds lining the roads. On the first day, the mushers travel the first 11 miles to Willow, carrying with them a rider who had made the highest bid to ride in each musher’s sled for the first leg of the journey. On day two, March 4, mushers line up again for the race “restart” in Willow – and the official journey begins.
The mushers stop when the dogs are ready for a break, generally four to eight hours on the trail, followed by the same amount of sleep. “The dogs tell you when to quit,” Steves said.
Volunteers make chutes in the snow, which are lined with straw, for the dog teams to lie down on. After they are fed and watered, the dogs sleep hooked together. “When you wake up, you just drive away,” Steves explained.
Upon arriving at a checkpoint, mushers spread straw, take the dogs’ booties off and “cook food as fast as we can,” she said. All gear and clothing that is wet or otherwise no longer needed is placed in a “return bag” that is eventually sent back to the mushers.
While she showed a variety of impressive photographs of scenery and her dog team along the trail, Steves apologized for not having more photos to share, thanks to the difficulty of operating a camera in 50-below temperatures “Many times I couldn’t bear to take my hands out of my gloves,” she said.
Steves finished the race in 14 days, 11 hours, 57 minutes and 11 seconds, in last place out of 53 mushers and earning her the coveted Red Lantern award. According to the Iditarod website, the award “has become an Alaskan tradition. It started as a joke and has become a symbol of stick-to-itiveness in the mushing world.”
At the end of the presentation, she thanked her brother Rick, whose company Europe Through the Back Door was a major sponsor of her race team, and she also introduced her father, Dick, who came to hear the presentation.
Steves recalled the day a few years ago when she was eating breakfast with her father at Claire’s in Edmonds and told him that her dream was to run the Iditarod,. His reply: “If anyone can do it, you can.”
“Normally my mom would be sitting right next to my dad, “ Steves said, gesturing to the chair next to his in the theater. “She passed away on Dec. 29 (2011), so I ran this race I memory of her.“
At the end of Steves’ presentation, she invited all youngsters in the audience to come to the stage for a special present — one of the dog booties worn during the race.