In March of 2012, 29-year-old Jaimee Kinzer will race 1,100 miles between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. The snow will be deep and Kinzer and her 16 or so canine companions will face fierce freezing temperatures as they travel on a sled the same way the first competitors did in the first official race in the 1970s.
But the Idaho native is ready. In February this year, Kinzer participated in Alaska's 300-mile Willow Tug race, and her finishing time qualified her to participate in the last great race on earth: the Iditarod.
Now residing in Willow, Alaska, Kinzer first became interested in dogsled racing when she was about 13 years old and growing up in Boise. After watching the movie Iron Will, Kinzer decided she would race in the Iditarod.
"It was one of those 'I'll do it someday' things," Kinzer said. After running races as a teenager and young adult, her dream was put on hold when she was involved in a car accident at the age of 20.
"After that, racing seemed totally out of the picture," Kinzer said.
Still, she journeyed to Alaska with a group of friends to watch the beginning of the 2008 Iditarod, where her traveling companions joked that she would be on the starting line within five years.
"I thought of it as a challenge," Kinzer said.
After meeting DeeDee Jonrowe, famed dog musher who holds the record for the fastest time ever recorded by a female racer in the Iditarod, Kinzer went to work at Jonrowe's kennels in Willow, where she cares for about 100 huskies on a 5-acre lot. The dogs each have a house at the kennel, which Kinzer says is "their bedroom." They share play areas and enjoy chewing on bones during the off season.
While there may not be enough snow to run a sled during the summer months, Kinzer certainly hasn't been taking it easy. She wakes at 6 a.m., feeds the dogs a mixture of kibble and beef, lamb or pork fat, and water that she calls "nasty, gooey soup stuff," readies teams and goes for runs.
"When you're out with the dogs, you're training as well," Kinzer said. "And with more than 20 pounds of gear, you get in shape quick."
The Iditarod requires a great degree of trust and a strong bond between mushers and their canine counterparts. Races generally require a team of 16 dogs, and selecting a strong lead dog is crucial. For Liz Stanaitis, member and event organizer for the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club, the connection between human and dog is critical.
"It's something to do that they [the dogs] love and you love. And especially to be outdoors together--there's just nothing better than that bond with your dog."
Organizations like the PSDC work to connect fans of the sport, educate newcomers and make sure that everything is done according to the standards set by Mush With PRIDE (Providing Responsible Information on a Dog's Environment).
Stanaitis has been involved in the dog-sledding community for about 20 years and organizes an annual summer camp out for racers and their dogs. She frequently runs sprints with a team of four to six dogs, but she says she can't imagine preparing for something as daunting as the Iditarod.
"I'd be afraid that I'd get lost and die," Stanaitis said, laughing.
Getting lost is also on Kinzer's list of fears, alongside having a moose run through her team, running into open water or encountering exceptionally dismal weather conditions. While running the Willow-Tug 300 race in February, Kinzer came across a team with a dog down. The musher feared his dog was dying, and Kinzer put the pup in her sled. After being given an IV and some rest, the dog was recovered and wagging his tail by dinner time.
While it's necessary to be watchful of the dogs' health, Stanaitis said. "It's people that get more injured than dogs usually."
Still, mushers need to be part-veterinarian. While working as a dog handler, Kinzer has learned to give stitches and shots while on the trail.
"Ultimately, you can't be afraid of what'll happen," Kinzer said. "The dogs are a lot stronger than we give them credit for."
The trail of the Iditarod may provide mushers with a plethora of challenges, and the sign-up process is perhaps equally as rigorous--and expensive.
"The paperwork alone took me two weeks to finish, and I worked on it daily," Kinzer said.
Entrants are also required to have 750 qualifying race miles completed before signing up. Entry fees total $3,000, and transporting a dog team generally costs $10,000. Add in gear and supplies, and the last great race easily becomes the most expensive. Kinzer recalls handing in her materials and officially being put on the list.
"I wrote a check, handed it in, and said, 'OK, we're doing this.' I'm personally really scared, and can't believe I'm only a few months away."
The Timberline High School alum will return to Boise on Friday, Aug. 12, for a few informal events to help her raise money and to answer questions before returning to Alaska to prepare for the Iditarod, which kicks off on March 3, 2012.
"I just want to let everyone in Boise know there's a girl from Idaho who's actually doing this, and I hope they'll want to come find out more," Kinzer said.