The Northern Lights and the Flying Squirrel: Ten Incredible Stories From the 40th Iditarod Sled Dog Race


The 40th Iditarod Sled Dog Race will be remembered as much for its back stories as for the duel between Dallas Seavey, who became the youngest Iditarod champ in the race’s history; and Aliy Zirkle, who led the bulk of the race and had the best performance by a female musher since Susan Butcher in 1990.

Among the back stories: A musher stopping to help an injured child. A musher dropping out because his dogs weren’t enjoying the race. A musher known as “The Flying Squirrel.” The Northern Lights over the Yukon.

Here’s a list of the top memorable moments from the 40th Iditarod.

No. 1: Three Alaska Natives among the top 10 finishers.

Peter Kaiser, a 23-year-old Alaska Native from Bethel, finished fifth, crossing into Nome March 13 with a final time of 9 days 11 hours 6 minutes 23 seconds. (Winner Dallas Seavey, 25, finished in 9:04:29:26.)

“Our family has always had dogs, and I’ve been mushing since I was a kid,” he said in his race bio. “Watching the Kuskokwim 300 every January sparked my interest in long-distance racing, and a few years ago, I decided that I would give the Iditarod a try.”

Kaiser and his team got good rest and kept a steady pace, 6.3 to 8.7 mph, with a well-timed burst to 10.85 mph between Nulato and Kaltag, to move among the Top 5 finishers, where they stayed. His overall average time was 4.24 mph.

Mike Williams Jr., 26, Yupik, son of noted Iditarod veteran Mike Williams, finished eighth at 9:13:12:18. 2011 champion John Baker, 49, Inupiat, finished ninth at 9:12:19:11. Ray Redington Jr., 36, whose stepmother is Inupiat (she’s the mother of Ryan Redington, who scratched earlier in the race), finished sixth at 9:12:19:11.

Williams Sr. said these mushers are good role models for young Alaska Natives. But he’d like to see more sponsorship support from businesses that are profiting from Alaska’s land and sea resources.

“They need to give back to the communities because they are benefiting from our lands,” he said. “We live in a small tribal village. With the cost of running the race, a lot of Native mushers could not afford it. Mushing has been part of our lives since time immemorial and our dogs are much more than racing to us. If we are going to keep our mushing traditions alive, we need to support our Native mushers.”

No. 2: Two women among the top 10 finishers.

The next movie titled “True Grit” will be about Aliy Zirkle and Dee Dee Jonrowe.

Zirkle, 41, the first woman to win the Yukon Quest, finished a close second in the Iditarod at 9:05:29:10 after leading for 85 percent of the race, something that hadn’t been done by a female musher since the late Susan Butcher blazed to victory in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1990.

Jonrowe, 58, finished 10th at 9:14:43:15, her 15th top-10 finish; she finished second in 1998 and 2003. She’s a triathlete and a bike racer. She’s also defeated cancer and is an advocate for in-state cancer care and treatment.

No. 3: Rookie musher helps injured child.

Channel 2 News in Anchorage reported that on March 11, rookie Pat Moon, 35, helped an injured child in Ruby, the 11th checkpoint after the official start.

According to Channel 2, the child was injured when his sled crashed into a parked snow machine. Aid was reportedly unavailable.

Moon was filling out paperwork scratching from the race when the child’s mother arrived at the checkpoint to ask for help. Moon, trained in first aid, returned to the child’s home, stopped the bleeding, cleaned the cut and put in butterfly sutures.

Moon scratched citing the small number of dogs remaining on his team (mushers start with 12-16 dogs, but dogs are pulled at checkpoints because of fatigue, injury or other health reasons). Moon, a Chicagoan, is a landscaper with a degree in public relations.

No. 4: Two tough but dignified exits.

Josh Cadzow, 23, Gwich’in, and Ryan Redington, 27, Inupiat, had entered the race with as much ambition to win as any other mushers. But they dropped out early, putting their dogs first.

Redington scratched March 8 in Takotna, the eighth checkpoint after the official start. His dogs trained in Montana and raced in Wyoming, but they struggled in the harsher Iditarod trail conditions.

Cadzow scratched March 11 in Kaltag because his team wasn’t enjoying the trip. “He decided to end his Iditarod XL attempt in the best interest of his team,” the Iditarod press office reported.

No. 5: Dallas, not Rocky, the flying squirrel.

“From the air, he looked like some sort of ‘flying squirrel’ on the sled behind the team,” Jill Burke and Craig Medred wrote of Dallas Seavey in the March 13 Alaska Dispatch, “his arms methodically pounding ski poles into the ground to push the sled ahead, a leg kicked out behind as he pedaled between the runners to help the dogs.”

Seavey, a collegiate wrestling champ, put his fitness and youth to work, periodically running alongside his sled to ease his team’s burden and help put additional distance between him and No. 2 finisher Aliy Zirkle.

Another strategy: Seavey arrived at Elim 32 minutes before Zirkle, but checked out immediately and rested 20 minutes outside of the checkpoint. Iditarod spokeswoman Erin McLarnon said Seavey wanted Zirkle to cut her rest time short, thinking he was en route to White Mountain. "He did that more to mess with Aliy's head," McLarnon said.

No. 6: The sexiest mushers.

Fourteen of the 66 mushers in this year’s Iditarod made the Alaska Dispatch’s list of Sexy Mushers. “Swimsuit models can have their day. But we prefer our pin-ups in fleece and Carhartts,” the Dispatch wrote.

On the list:

John Baker (“After becoming the first Inupiat winner of the Iditarod last year, the face of John Baker has been everywhere from Ketchikan to Barrow, endorsing trucks, encouraging good deeds).

Twins Anna and Kristy Berington (“Double trouble! Tall, blonde, athletic and tough …”).

Rohn Buser (“Polite and a little quieter than the boisterous bad boys of the Iditarod pack …”).

Zoya DeNure (“once lived the fashion model's life … rejected it all for a life full of mountains, family and dozens of dogs in Paxson”).

Sigrid Ekran (“A Norwegian charmer with a master's degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (and) oh-so-charming pigtails”).

Matt Failor (“A dog handler we'd all love to have helping out”).

Dee Dee Jonrowe (“… ageless beauty and incredible energy … 27 times across the Nome finish line”).

Pete Kaiser (“Sometimes a little shy, but what piercing eyes, warm smile and sexy goatee”).

Jeff King (“four-time Iditarod champion … manages to pull off a preppy look while competing in some of the toughest races around”).

Ryne Olson (“All that time in the dog kennel hasn't (hurt) at all”).

Dallas Seavey (“If you like classic good looks and great genes, Dallas is your man”).

Mike Williams Jr. (“quiet focus and intensity … bolstered by his good looks).

Aliy Zirkle (“Accomplishment is sexy … Zirkle's big sparkling eyes and big welcoming smile don’t hurt a bit, either).

No. 7: Captured hearts and hopes.

Seavey won the Iditarod. Zirkle’s hang-toughness and persistence captured followers’ imaginations. But Ramey Smyth captured hearts and hopes.

“Ramey is just a wonderful guy, with a wonderful wife and kids,” McLarnon said seven hours before the first finisher crossed the line in Nome.

Before the race, Smyth totaled his truck when it hit a moose. With that and all of the associated costs of competing in the Iditarod, he could have used the new truck and the $50,000 first prize. In addition, he was racing under the banner of abstinence from drinking, smoking and drugs.

“My mother died of colon cancer and my father has cancer. I would like to raise awareness of cancer and encourage people to donate to research and treatment,” he said in his race bio. “I am racing in memory of Brent Cassidy, who died this spring of cancer, leaving a wife, children and grandchildren.”

Smyth finished third at 9:06:04:04, good for $42,900.

No. 8: One champ, but a lot of winners.

While there is only one Iditarod champion, there are many winners, propelled into race history by sheer determination and perseverance. Even the last-place finisher receives an award.

Some 13 awards will be presented at the awards banquet on March 18. Among the honors: Outstanding care of his or her dogs, first to cross certain checkpoints, most inspirational on the trail, having the best improvement over the previous year. Some awards include as much as $3,500 in cash and $3,000 in gold nuggets.

In addition, the top 30 finishers will take home a combined $550,000. Prizes start at $50,400 for first, and end at $1,500 for 30th.

No. 9: Most encouraging advice for young mushers.

As he rested in Nome March 14, Mike Williams Jr. had this advice for young Alaska Natives who want to become mushers.

“It takes a lot of hard work. Keep trying and don’t be afraid of failure,” he said. “You have to take good care of your dogs. If you take good care of them, good things happen.”

No. 10: Guided by the Northern Lights.

Asked for a race highlight he’ll remember, Williams Jr. talked of how his team performed. “I didn’t think I’d finish in the top 10. But they perked up toward the end,” he said of his team. “My dogs did great and they’re all happy.”

Then, after a pause, he told of seeing the Northern Lights as he mushed along the interior to Unalakleet.

“It covered the whole sky and was moving in waves,” he said. “It was really beautiful.”