On grueling journey, Edmonds musher finds triumph
Dan Bates / The Herald
Jan Steves of Edmonds successfully competed in the Iditarod, the grueling 1,100 miles sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome in early March.
Musher Jan Steves with Amber before the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in downtown Anchorage in March.
Jan Steves of Edmonds at the ceremonial start of the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska.
Jan Steves with Tok, left, and Jack on the Serum Run in Alaska in 2011. Both Tok and Jack were lead dogs on Jan's 2012 Iditarod team.
Courtesy of Jan Steves
Jan Steves sits on top a pile of dog food, part of the logistical preparation for running the Iditarod.
Jan Steves collects water to cook food for her dogs while at a checkpoint during the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Jan Steves with her dog team on the Serum Run in Alaska in February 2011.
Musher Jan Steves, of Edmonds, finished last in this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. For this she earned the Red Lantern award.
It's well below freezing and Steves is deep into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the famous 1,100-mile trek across Alaska from Anchorage to Nome.
More than a dozen huskies are barking their displeasure at this unexpected break.
Steves' sled is teetering perilously at the top of a rise.
"The team was essentially hanging down a hill," said Bob Chlupach, 63, a friend who ran his own sled in this year's race in March.
Here's what caused this unplanned pause: One of Steves' snow hooks, a type of anchor used by mushers to secure a sled during rest stops, bounced free from its stowage and grabbed the ice. The pull of the dogs set the hook deep in the snow.
It's a small miracle that Steves, a solid 5 feet, 9 inches tall, didn't fly forward like a rock in a slingshot.
"Oh, wow," the Edmonds native remembered thinking. "How am I going to get out of this one?"
Working with an axe, she chipped away enough snow to loosen the hook's grip. Then, one hand on the sled, the other on the hook, she eased the anchor free.
Her dog team barreled forward, dragging her on her back, her body bouncing and bruising.
"The minute they felt the snow hook pull, they were gone," Steves said.
The incident was one of many dangerous moments Steves encountered during the race. There were mean moose, gale-force winds, twisting trails, temperatures that sank south of 50 below.
After being dragged down the hill, Steves stopped her team and got back into position riding the rails.
"Ready," she shouted to the dogs.
They stood, eager to keep going.
"All right," Steves ordered, and off they went, 56 paws gripping the icy track.
The bruises on Steves' back became badges of honor, reminders of her time on the trail.
A month after the race, the bruises have faded, the last bits of frostbite all but disappeared. Her toes are still a little numb, but her heart swells with pride.
At 55, Steves finished the 2012 Iditarod Dog Sled Race in 14 days, 11 hours and 57 minutes. She placed dead last, the 53rd competitor to complete the grueling course.
She was more than five days behind Dallas Seavey, who at 25 became the youngest Iditarod winner. (For the record, Steves is hardly the oldest to compete. Two men in their 80s have finished the race. At least one woman older than Steves, Dee Dee Jonrowe, 58, has placed consistently among the top competitors.)
Crossing last doesn't diminish Steves' accomplishment, said Linda Cline, a friend who also knows Seavey.
"She wasn't the loser," Cline said. Cline described her two friends as "the first one in and the last one in."
For being "the last one in," Steves was awarded the coveted Red Lantern Award, the medal given to the final finisher.
"You can come in last place and win," Steves said. "Finishing this race is a huge win."
The lantern symbolizes the kerosene lamp that hangs at the finish line until the final competitor finishes. It harkens back to the days when mushers delivered mail, medicine and other goods. Lamps were hung along the way until the musher found safety.
Steves grew up in Edmonds (Her brother is travel guru Rick Steves, whose columns run in The Herald every Saturday), where she developed a passion for the outdoors.
As a kid, she skied, boated and soon started scrambling to the top of local peaks. Her family kept dogs, but they were mutts, not huskies.
For a quarter century, she worked as a ski instructor, her three children following her tracks to teach snow sports as well.
Then, at 50, she combined her three great passions: dogs, mountains and snow.
"I traded in my ski runners for a sled runner," she said.
Self-employed managing properties and doing other manual work, she was able to save up during the summer to spend winters in Alaska.
In 2008, she volunteered at the Iditarod, the greatest of all sled dog races and the biggest sporting event in Alaska.
"I wanted to experience everything and anything I could that would expose me to mushing," she said.
She searched out dog mushers and started training, learning the subtleties of working with a dog team amid the myriad logistical concerns of keeping the dogs fed, happy and going.
"The first time I was on a sled with dogs in front of me, it was incredible, it was magical. I was hooked," Steves said.
Dog sled races are a combination of endurance, athleticism, logistics, luck and mastering the fine art of dog whispering.
Steves ran 14 dogs in her first Iditarod. Along the way, almost every musher sends some dogs back to the kennel for a variety of reasons. Steves reached Nome with nine dogs, well exceeding the minimum to finish, six.
Dog care and support is the most important part of sled dog racing, Steves explained. Each animal is intimately cared for. A vet checks the dogs at each rest stop. Mushers are responsible for the mundane but crucial task of changing booties over and over. Then doling out snacks. Then checking for injuries. Then cooking dog food. Then doing it all over again.
Think about carrying booties for more than four dozen paws. Changing them. Washing them. Worrying about forgetting them.
During the Iditarod, the day doesn't start in the morning. The day never ends. Mush, rest, mush on. Winter in the land of the midnight sun and there's not much sun. A headlamp is a crucial piece of equipment.
Steves wore several layers of clothing. She ran in tennis shoes covered by her own booties. Every task is a challenge in the dark cold. Training is essential.
Chlupach, who has raced in about 11 Iditarods since 1977, said no amount of training prepares rookie mushers for the physical and mental strain of the big race.
"Jan got exposed to everything the Iditarod could offer," he said.
She was prepared for wind. During the race it blew gales.
Steves expected snow. Blizzards obscured the trail.
Her dog team had broken trail before, but never had they met the fierce conditions of the Iditarod trail.
"I'd never seen what these dogs were capable of," she said. "I was just amazed."
Now, back in the lower 48, Steves beams with accomplishment. She's in debt, owes thousands in vet bills, and still is trying to figure out how to bring Tok, one of her dogs, down to Edmonds. She thinks he'd be great to show to schoolchildren who followed her journey.
As she was crossing Rainy Pass, the treacherous "rip-snorting" mountain pass conquered in the first third of the race, she wondered, "Can people do this more than once?"
Now, she chuckles at the thought. Would she run the Iditarod again?
"I would love to," she said.
More about Jan
Learn more about Jan Steves at her website, www.jansteves.com.
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