Yvonne Daabakk and her team of sled dogs are in the middle of their rookie Iditarod race in Alaska, on a year when limited snow has made the trail especially treacherous.
In May, Daabakk and her husband, Kenneth, traveled to Seattle from their home in Norway with their 22 dogs. They got a truck in Lakewood and headed to Alaska to start a two-year adventure there.
In the process, the couple, both of whom are in their early 30s, befriended Lakewood Ford salesman Rick Bauer, who spent months making arrangements for the whole, howling Daabakk team to fly into Seattle.
He’s been tracking Yvonne Daabakk’s progress in the roughly 1,000-mile race, which started Sunday in Willow, Alaska. The first musher usually arrives at the finish line in Nome between nine and 12 days after the start of the race.
As of Thursday, Yvonne Daabakk had left Nikolai and was last of the 56 mushers left.
“I’m proud of Yvonne,” Bauer said. “She’s hanging in there. There’s experienced people that have already dropped out, and she’s a rookie, and she’s still doing it.”
So far, 13 mushers have scratched. A lack of snow has made parts of the trail a minefield of stumps, rocks and ice that have caused crashes and injuries.
The couple couldn’t be reached by cellphone Thursday but on Tuesday they wrote this about Yvonne on their Facebook page: “She has never been so scared in her life after the trip from Rainy Pass (a race checkpoint). In Nikolai, there is not particularly good mood among mushers.”
They said Wednesday that she decided to stay in Nikolai, the sixth of 21 checkpoints before the end of the race, to take her mandatory 24-hour break. Many of the mushers ahead of her had not yet taken their mandatory stops.
“The dogs are great but need a good rest,” the Daabakks wrote.
Kenneth Daabakk had planned to join his wife in Nikolai. The couple volunteered at the checkpoint in 2011, which is when they decided to race themselves one day.
“That is the place where everything started,” he said earlier this week. “We have to go back there, of course.”
At Nikolai, Yvonne had 14 dogs instead of 16 pulling the sled that Kenneth (a carpenter) built. Kongo, 7, ended his race to rest up after getting stiff on the trail. Snehvit, 2, had some shoulder trouble from the icy trail, which sent her home early.
While everyone on the team is young, 4-year-old Snuppa is a racing veteran, and will spend a lot of time leading, Kenneth said. Svolvær, 3, will be up front often, too.
“She will switch them out quite a bit, because they will get tired to be out in front all the time,” he said. “But of course there are a couple dogs that are the best to have in front.”
Not everybody in the Daabakk family gets to race. The remaining Siberian huskies are being cared for by friends at the couple’s hut in Fairbanks, where Yvonne has been studying the physics of the northern lights at the university there.
They brought one alternate dog, Klut, to the start of the race in Willow in case a dog got injured before the race. He’s staying with Kenneth in Anchorage until the end of the race, along with shiba inu Oki (who doesn’t get to run with the big dogs, but sometimes rides in the sled as they train, and has a plane ticket to Nome to see the end of the race with Kenneth).
“Klut is staying home,” Kenneth said of the 2-year-old pup. “He has to train one more year.”
It’s hard, apparently, to know you’re a second-string sled dog.
“He was so sad that he didn’t get out of the dog box to go,” Kenneth said of Klut at Sunday’s start. “But I will take special care of him.”
He’s been getting to sleep with Kenneth at night. During the day, he was lounging in the sun at an Anchorage park.
While Klut’s kicking back now, the family has been busy in recent months preparing for the big race. In addition to training with the dogs, they had to plan out supply drops for the different checkpoints to last Yvonne throughout the race.
“You have to sit down and think about how much food are you going to give the dogs, how much snacks do you need between checkpoints, clothes for yourself,” Kenneth said. “Everything you need. That is not easy.”
After all the preparation, everyone was ready for the big start Sunday. That meant lots of attention for the team.
“Some of the dogs, of course they are a little bit shy and they don’t want to be around so many people,” Kenneth said. “But some dogs, they are like: ‘Look at me, look at me.’ ”
It was pretty cool for the humans, too.
“That was amazing,” Kenneth said about the start. “It’s such a big event up here in Alaska. It’s really fun to see how many people like to see the dogs.”
For the 2015 race, they’ll have a special supporter up north.
“Next year, I’m absolutely positively going,” Bauer said.
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268