About 1,000 miles, 11 sled dogs, a bout of bronchitis and one Lakewood pickup truck later, the Daabakk team finished its first Iditarod race with tails wagging.
“They’re howling right now,” musher Yvonne Daabakk said of her 21 Siberian huskies this week, 11 of which carried her across the finish line March 15.
Back home at their remote hut in Fairbanks, Alaska, Daabakk shared stories from the trail.
She and her husband, Kenneth, started their adventure in May, leaving their home in Norway to move to Alaska for two years. They planned to race the Iditarod in 2014 and 2015, training while Yvonne studies the physics of the northern lights at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
They weren’t going to leave their huskies, or the team mascot, a shiba inu named Oki, behind in Norway. Which is how they found a friend in Rick Bauer, the Lakewood Ford salesmen who sold them a truck, picked the team up at the airport with a trailer for the dogs and made other necessary arrangements for the Daabakks to start their drive to Alaska.
They used the truck to drive to and from Fairbanks for their rookie Iditarod, which began March 2.
This year’s race was particularly difficult, because stretches of the roughly 1,000-mile race had little to no snow.
“From Rainy Pass to halfway to Nikolai, the conditions were not exactly sledable,” Yvonne said. “It was all ice. Blended with some nice rocks and some nice stumps, that made it a little bit hard to stop. And trees you could meet in person.
“I think I met a dozen.”
That’s her way of saying she hit tree after tree and kept going.
And she wasn’t alone. Veteran mushers dropped out of the race early this year due to the conditions.
“Is this safe? Is this right? Is this OK?” Yvonne said she asked herself after the rough patch. “I decided to go on. Because what are you going to do? You don’t want to scratch without knowing what’s waiting.”
At one point her brake even broke, meaning she had to abandon the sled her husband, a carpenter, had made her, for another. Kenneth flew to visit her in Nikolai along the trail, she said, and even canceled his flight to see her, when she was late getting there.
The rough trail meant five of the 16 dogs Yvonne started the race with went home early. One was older than the rest and started to get stiff on the trail. The other four got minor stresses and strains due to the snowless conditions, because Yvonne couldn’t brake the sled as much as she needed. Everyone is doing well now, she said.
“What you’re afraid of is not yourself,” she said. “You can always jump off your sled and you’re safe. But what you’re afraid of is the safety of your dogs. They trust you.”
As for Yvonne herself, at one point she hit her head when her sled crashed, and she conquered bronchitis in the middle of the race.
She described the crash this way: “I flipped over the sled, and I hit my head. I got up and thought: ‘Yeah, that was cool, I had a helmet.’ It was not a problem at all.”
Then at the halfway point, in Cripple, she came down with bronchitis and worried she might not be able to keep racing. But she saw a doctor a couple of stops ahead in Galena, stayed there a while, and by the time she checked into Kaltag a few stops later was feeling better.
Checkpoints along the trail have volunteers, veterinarians, and places to sleep and eat.
“They put me on antibiotics, because obviously I couldn’t rest as much as I should,” she said. “If you have bronchitis, you’re not really supposed to be on the Iditarod trail.”
Being tough is a prerequisite for racing the Iditarod, as Yvonne showed. She and the others got back to their hut in Fairbanks on Tuesday, and she went in to work on her northern lights research the same day.
The Daabakk dogs, in their first Iditarod, also proved they can run with the best.
Lead dog Snuppa was a star, Yvonne said. She was at the front of the team from start to finish, and for the last 20 miles didn’t have a partner out front.
“She’s just so driven,” the musher said. “She does everything. She finds trails under snow. She doesn’t mind wind. She was actually playing in the lead too, wagging her tail. She’s probably quite a diva by now.”
Not everyone was braving the elements, though. The Daabakks decided, in the end, that it was best for Oki to stay in Anchorage instead of tagging along with Kenneth to the finish line of the race in Nome. Instead, the team mascot got treated to a doggie spa vacation at an Anchorage hotel.
Meanwhile, his family was finishing the race, full speed.
“It was funny, because when they came into Nome they were flying,” Yvonne said of her team. “Wagging their tails. They were actually screaming and jumping. We had run the race conservatively so they would have a good time, and they really did.”
Her team finished 45th out of the 49 teams that finished the race.
She said Lakewood friend Bauer wrote to congratulate them and to say he plans to visit up north for next year’s race.
So the Daabakks will do the whole thing again in 2015?
“I’m there next year,” Yvonne said. “It can’t get any worse. I’ve got 11 dogs to the finish line that know the trail. That’s going to be great fun.”
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268