There's not a musher in the Northland whose kennel or career hasn't been impacted by Jamie Nelson. The 68-year-old sled-dog veteran could roll out of her Togo home onto hundreds of miles of trails intersecting with her wooded property, and she's widely known to let others do the same.
But a crash last fall while training dogs on a four-wheeler led to back surgery and the reality that, while she still will be able to train puppies, she'll never race again.
"I can't go bushwhacking like I like to," Nelson said. "It was a lifestyle, not a career, and it's been very good to me."
On the mend from surgery to fuse three vertebrae, tracking the local mushers competing in this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska will suffice for now for Nelson, who won four of the 18 John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathons she entered locally in addition to completing three Iditarods.
With 72 mushers set to compete in this year's Iditarod, including several with local ties, Nelson will have plenty to watch for when she refreshes her Internet browser throughout the race next week. The Iditarod begins in earnest next Monday, charting a 968-mile course from Fairbanks to Nome running west across Alaska.
The ceremonial 11-mile start in Anchorage on Saturday will mark the fourth consecutive race for Nathan Schroeder, 39, of Warba, and the first for defending Beargrease champion Ryan Anderson, 35, of Ray. Between them, Anderson and Schroeder have won the past seven Beargrease races.
Schroeder arrived in Alaska early, about two weeks ago, and is staying outside Anchorage, in Willow, in a cabin formerly owned by Nelson. Standing in 25th place at the final checkpoint of last year's Iditarod, Schroeder fell ill and off the pace. The one-time Iditarod rookie of the year tumbled to a 45th place finish as he parked his team and struggled to get well enough to finish. He said he'd be happy to regain his mojo and finish in the top 25 this time around.
"I'm a little bit nervous about getting to the (Bering Sea) coast," Schroeder said. "That's where things fell apart for me last year."
As of late last week, it had snowed every day he'd been there, "from a dusting to 8 inches," he said.
Schroeder has fallen hard for a 2-year-old husky named Buffy, for which "stopping is out of the question," he said. "She's a natural leader. I haven't seen a dog like her in all my life."
It'd been just Schroeder and the dogs, he said last week, and he'd been putting them through light paces in advance of the race.
"There are endless trails around here," he said, "and plenty of moose. You've got to be careful. There are rumors they will charge the dogs. We've run into them and you have to wait 5-10 minutes. They just stare at you."
Schroeder bought a flare gun "in case worst came to worst," he said.
Meanwhile, Anderson arrived last weekend, in plenty of time for Monday's electrocardiograms of his dogs. Anderson spent the summer studying times between checkpoints on the traditional Iditarod trail - an exercise that became compromised when race organizers altered the race course earlier this month, cutting out the rugged Alaska Range between Anchorage and Fairbanks that received paltry little snow compared to the rest of the course.
"I had to redo it all over again," Anderson said of his analytics. "But I feel more than ready to go. All I need to do is get out on the trail and do what I do."
Anderson will take his dogs on a single 15-mile jaunt midweek, but isn't planning on more than that. He's intent on keeping his team isolated from any of the others, wanting to avoid risk of the "first-day-of-school" bugs and viruses that might be carried from kennel to kennel.
Anderson is staying in Wasilla outside Anchorage with the same family he stayed with in 1999, when he ran the Junior Iditarod. The full Iditarod has long been a dream for Anderson, who delayed entering the race while his wife, Missy, finished her veterinarian residency.
"It's been a lifelong, childhood thing," he said of the race. "I'm not looking to set any records. I just want to make it to Nome."
The race has been dominated by 29-year-old Dallas Seavey, of Willow, in recent years. The four-time winner lives along the Iditarod trail and has grown up competing with his father, two-time Iditarod winner Mitch Seavey.
"They've done their homework and became very competitive when they started to put both of their brains together," said Nelson, who was pleased to hear Schroeder had arrived early in order to commune with his dogs.
"He has a tendency to race a little too hard," she said of Schroeder. "We know he can do it; he just has to come to grips with the early part of the race."
Of Anderson, Nelson had fewer worries.
"Ryan has a really good handle on things," she said. "He'll run a smart race."
Other local mushers at the Iditarod
In addition to Schroeder and Anderson, this Iditarod will be the second for Duluth's Gunnar Johnson, 49, and 10th for Alaska native Ryan Redington, 33, who now lives with his wife in Herbster, Wis.
Combined with twins Anna and Kristy Berington, 33, who grew up in Port Wing and now live in Alaska, and it gives the 72-musher field as much of a Northland flair as the pre-eminent sled-dog race has likely ever had.
"There's a lot happening in the Midwest," said Linda Nervick, spokesperson for Mushing Midwest, a new iFan Sports Network website and Facebook page that works to track the litany of sled-dog races throughout the Lower 48.