By Julie Muhlstein Herald Columnist
Crowds watching Saturday’s ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will see a mother-daughter reunion, two intrepid women on the streets of Anchorage. Only one of them, race veteran Jan Steves, plans to go the distance — about 1,000 miles to Nome.
The 2014 race will be the third Iditarod for Steves, 57, of Edmonds. Alaska’s showcase sporting event kicks off with a ceremonial start at 10 a.m. Saturday in downtown Anchorage. The race officially begins Sunday afternoon in Willow.
Steves has been traveling north for years to train and race in sled-dog events. Her grown daughter, Nicolina Johnson, had never been to Alaska until flying there Wednesday from Vienna.
Johnson, a 2000 graduate of Edmonds-Woodway High School, is an artist who lives in New York City. She is the founder and director of the nonprofit Free Art Society, based in New York’s East Village, which aims to help communities by making art accessible to all.
Through her Hearts of the World international art project, she travels abroad bringing art to children living in poverty.
“She is following her dreams,” Steves said of her daughter.
On Saturday, Johnson will be her mom’s “Iditarider.” She will hitch a ride on Steves’ sled as nearly 70 Iditarod mushers make the run from downtown Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip. The 11-mile route, the Iditarod’s ceremonial start, takes racers and their passengers past cheering crowds. For the real race, mushers and their dogs go on without the Iditariders. Johnson will leave Alaska on Monday, her mother said.
“It’s going to be an incredible reunion. I haven’t seen my daughter for two years,” said Steves, whose brother Rick Steves runs the Edmonds-based Rick Steves’ Europe travel business.
Her daughter grew up around dogs, but Jan Steves said Saturday’s experience will be “a real eye-opener.”
“Nicolina does not like the cold,” she said. Yet this winter has been mild compared to most in Alaska. “It’s been in the 30s,” Steves said.
That’s nice for some visitors, but for racers a warm winter is a problem. For the first time, Steves plans to wear a helmet for parts of the run, because of icy conditions and other hazards caused by a lack of snow.
Because of weather, race officials considered moving the start from Willow to Fairbanks, which is farther north. The Iditarod has started in Fairbanks just once in its 41-year history, in 2003. In mid-February, according to The Anchorage Daily News. Iditarod’s board of directors decided to stick with the traditional start at Willow. The Feb. 17 article said trail grooming equipment will grind up icy areas to create snow.
Steves said conditions have recently made mushers “a little nervous.”
She has run the Iditarod twice before, but only finished once.
“Last year was tough. I had a knee injury, I got sick on the trail, and I was treated for pneumonia,” said Steves, who made it to Eagle Island but didn’t finish the 2013 race. She ended up in a Nome hospital.
In 2012, Steves’ first Iditarod, she stuck it out, completing the race to win the Red Lantern Award. That prize goes to the last musher on the trail. It took Steves and her dogs 14 days, 11 hours, 57 minutes and 11 seconds to be the 53rd and last-place finisher. “That was a win. My goal is to make it to Nome,” she said this week.
Steves will race with either 14 or 16 dogs — she hadn’t decided by midweek. She will miss several “old-school” dogs from previous runs. “I retired two of my really nice dogs. You could count on them through anything,” she said, adding that strong winds truly test a dog. “They were 9 and 10 years old. Not all leaders are created equal. Different leaders have different strengths.”
Because of the expense, Steves said this will likely be her last Iditarod. What won’t end is her drive to use the sled-dog race for education. Visiting schools is a passion. “I love it,” said Steves, who wants to launch a “mushing for literacy” effort.
“The Iditarod has an amazing educational component. In classes I visit, those kids are just on fire,” she said.
She has traveled around Washington and the country sharing her Iditarod experiences. Iditarod-related projects teach geography, reading and math.
“They learn military time, how long it takes from checkpoint to checkpoint, weather, terrain and miles per hour. And they’ll read every book they can about the Iditarod,” Steves said. “It’s dogs and adventure. Kids ask me about moose and wolves.
“Other things they say crack me up. They hope I win,” Steves said. “I hate to burst your bubble, guys. I’m not going to be the winner. But me finishing — not at the front of the pack — I’m a winner when I have a healthy, happy dog team and have given it my all.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is 10 a.m. Saturday in Anchorage. The 1,000-mile race to Nome officially begins at 2 p.m. Sunday in Willow, Alaska. Information about the race, including a map, checkpoints and musher profiles, is at: www.iditarod.com
Learn more about Jan Steves at: www.jansteves.com