Martin Apayauq Reitan, Inupiaq, had a formidable audience – polar bears – as he and his dog team trained in fall in Kaktovik, Alaska for the 2019 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Reitan and his father, Ketil, operate Kaktovik Tours, leading excursions out to polar bear country in Alaska’s North Slope. Tour season ended in mid-October when it started to freeze up. Then, training for the Iditarod began.
“The bears are still around so I like to go where there are less of them,” Reitan recounted to Indian Country Today via social media. “But they usually don't bother the dogs. They are flabbergasted and don't understand why 14 dogs are in a line together running in front of a side-by-side.”
As if training within sight of the top of the food chain isn’t moxie enough, Reitan is going all out in preparing for his first Iditarod. Sheep hunting in the Brooks Range with his dog team was great practice for the dogs, he said; "they crossed open streams and navigated barely visible trails and glare ice." Later, they trained at Prudhoe Bay and Two Rivers. Then, the big pre-Iditarod test: The 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, which began Feb. 2 in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory and ended Feb. 13 in Fairbanks, Alaska.
At the Yukon Quest, Reitan proved to be the rookie to watch in the 2019 Iditarod, which begins March 2 in Anchorage: He placed 14th in his debut Yukon Quest and won Rookie of the Year, outdistancing 16 other mushers – among them 16-time Iditarod finisher, Jim Lanier.
Reitan, 21, is one of five Alaska Native mushers in the 2019 Iditarod. Each presents a formidable challenge on a roster that features five Iditarod champions, including defending champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom. All told, there are 53 mushers and teams signed up for the race.
In addition to Reitan, the other Alaska Native mushers in the Iditarod are as follows:
- Richie Diehl, Dena’ina Athabascan. He and his team finished sixth in the 2018 Iditarod and on Jan. 20 placed seventh in the Kuskokwim 300, a highly-regarded mid-distance sled dog race.
- Peter Kaiser, Yup’ik. He finished fifth in the 2018, 2016 and 2012 Iditarods, and is a four-time champion of the Kuskokwim 300 (he placed second this year).
- Robert Redington, Inupiaq. A grandson of Iditarod race founder Joe Redington, he finished 22nd in the 2017 Iditarod. He and his team finished seventh Jan. 14 in the Copper Basin 300, another respected pre-Iditarod test.
- Ryan Redington, Inupiaq. Robert’s brother, he finished 14th in the 2017 Iditarod and went on to win the 2018 John Beargrease Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. He and his team placed second Jan. 20 in the Klondike 300.
Notable 2019 Iditarod absences include: John Baker, Inupiaq, the 2011 champion who has retired to concentrate on his business ventures; and Mike Williams Jr., Yup’ik, a seven-time Iditarod veteran who finished eighth in the 2012 race. He is competing this year in mid-distance races.
More competitive, and faster
Alaska Native mushers are prominent in the Iditarod’s history, and three of the four earliest Iditarods were won by Athabascans, to include: sprint and distance musher Carl Huntington, 1974; Emmitt Peters, “the Yukon Fox,” in 1975; and Jerry Riley, in 1976.
The Iditarod is the most prestigious and has the largest purse of any long-distance sled dog race, and thus draws the most competitive field. That presents challenges for rural Alaska Native mushers, who go up against mushers who live in more populous areas with road networks that provide easier access to training grounds and sponsorship money.
Dog breeding and racing tactics have become more strategic, and today’s teams are increasingly faster: Dick Wilmarth won the first Iditarod, in 1973, in 20 days, 0 hours, 49 minutes, 41 seconds. Joar Leifseth Ulsom won the 2018 Iditarod in 9 days, 12 hours even.
Reitan is not showing his cards regarding his Iditarod strategy, but allowed this as he prepared for the Yukon Quest: “My race strategy is based on what my brother did on Quest last year and what dad did in Iditarod,” Reitan said. His brother, Vebjorn, finished fourth in the 2018 Quest as a rookie; their father, Ketil, finished 14th in the 2018 Iditarod and is a seven-time Iditarod veteran and a top-10 finisher.
Part of that strategy involved becoming familiar with the tough conditions he would encounter on the Yukon Quest, Reitan told the Yukon Quest website. During training, he mushed “more than 1,000 miles through mountains and over frozen rivers” as his father broke trail on a snow machine ahead. Such training also helped him build endurance; the longest race he participated in before the Quest was the Kobuk 440.
“I am hoping with the [mandatory rests] that I will be able to recover a little from sleep deprivation, though you still have to take good care of the dogs on your long rests,” he said to Indian Country Today.
The strategy served him and his team well. Reitan was the 10th musher to leave the starting line at Whitehorse and kept a steady pace throughout the race. He and his team dropped early in the race to 17th but climbed back up to 11th. Five checkpoints from the finish, he slipped into 14th where he stayed for the duration despite blowing snow and, at one point, whiteout conditions.
Not just about the race
The Iditarod is set apart from other long-distance sled dog races by the route’s stunning beauty and challenging terrain – mountain ranges, dense forests, frozen rivers, desolate tundra, dense forests, and windswept coast. But for Alaska Native mushers, participating in the Iditarod has deeper significance. It’s about the interdependence between musher and dog as they travel the way of the ancestors.
“We’ve hunted and camped with our dogs for thousands of years,” veteran musher Mike Williams Sr., Yup’ik, said in an earlier interview with Indian Country Today. “We want to continue to keep that culture alive, to share our culture … We do it for more than competing.”
Kaiser told Alaska Public Media in 2018: “It’s really not a hobby or anything else, it’s a lifestyle.”
Reitan told Indian Country Today that he feels like he is continuing an important tradition when he is mushing, though racing, “is a very different style,” he said.
“Inupiaq dogs would pull a heavy sled at a walking pace. Now, the dogs run 6-9 mph – or faster for the top teams – and they need booties and covers when it's cold,” he said. “But I enjoy that, in some ways, it is the same as it always was – a human and their four-legged friends traveling in the great north. I love traveling with my dogs. They are such great friends to me.”
Racing 1,000 miles in nine days is tough for musher and dog, so expect an Alaska Native musher to scratch at any time in the best interest of the health and welfare of the race team; Ryan and Robert Redington each dropped out in 2018 and 2016 out of concern for their dogs’ health.
Dropping out can be as tough for the dogs as it is for the musher, Reitan said, “I would like everyone to know how much these dogs love what they do. If they have a little shoulder issue or we are running a small team due to trail conditions, they are barking like ‘Aww, why can't I go?’”
The 2019 Iditarod begins March 2, in Anchorage, Alaska.
Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, is a correspondent reporting from Anacortes, Washington.