Mackey takes red lantern as Iditarod comes to an end
By Megan Gannon
Just after 5 p.m. on Friday, March 17, with the still bright spring sun shining down on Nome, Jason Mackey ran toward the burled arch in Nome with ice frozen to his chin, five dogs in harness and a cheering crowd of onlookers lining Front Street.
He was the last of the 29 finishing mushers of the 2023 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, and his arrival marked an emotional end to the event.
On that clear and chilly evening, Mackey put out the flame of the widow’s lamp that hangs on the burled arch, marking the finish line in Nome. During the days when sled dogs were the fastest way to get across Alaska in the winter, mushers would extinguish the widow’s lamp at a roadhouse to signal that no others remained out on the trail. As the last one into Nome, Mackey was awarded the red lantern.
“I wasn’t expecting to get a red lantern this year, but that’s the way it worked out,” Mackey said later at the banquet hosted at the Nome Rec Center on Sunday night. “My wife brought it to my attention at the end of the race when I got this that it was meant to be. I was supposed to put the flame out for my brother. So that’s pretty special.”
His brother, legendary musher and four-time Iditarod winner Lance Mackey, died in September of cancer, at age 52. Lance was named the honorary musher in this year’s race and Jason carried his ashes along the trail. “What a day,” Mackey said upon arriving at the finish line. “So, there’s a little story about Lance—there’s always a story with Lance.” He explained that he accidentally left the remainder of Lance’s ashes he was carrying on the river in White Mountain.
As soon as he secured his snow hook, Mackey hugged longtime race marshal Mark Nordman, until his wife Lisa Mackey cut in, saying, “Me first!” Mackey was informed that his granddaughter was born a day earlier—at 6 lbs and 13 ounces. “Lucky 13,” Mackey said. Three members of his family won previous Iditarods with 13 as their bib number, including Lance.
This was Jason’s first Iditarod since 2017 and his first after he restarted his kennel in Knik. Several dogs in his team got diarrhea early on in the race, and he said, it went through the team, causing him to drop down to the minimum of five dogs by the time he left Elim. While mushers at the front of the pack had their share of strong winds in the Topkok hills and along the coast, those toward the back also faced some nasty conditions, especially along the coast, and were stranded at checkpoints longer than they planned.
High winds made for a tough journey from Eagle Island to Kaltag on the Yukon River. Mackey told the crowd at the finish line that the checker in Eagle Island said it had been calm the entire time they were there, but just as Mackey was about to leave, it began to blow like hell for the next seven-and-a-half hours. “At that point I was wondering what I was doing,” he said. He came into Shaktoolik during an “absolute” blizzard, stayed there for 14 hours and then headed out on the sea ice with six dogs “bucking 30 to 35mph winds.” Again, he asked himself what he was doing. “But it’s just what we do. We don’t give up. You got five dogs busting their butts for me day in day out, so you put your head down and go to work and join them,” he said. Asked by checker Nicolle Wiesniewski if the fact that he was carrying Lance’s and his mother Kathy’s ashes figured into the decision to keep going, he responded: “Eh, no. I guess it’s in our blood. It’s in every musher’s blood. We don’t give up.”
Ryan Redington already won the race last Tuesday while Mackey was sleeping in Unalakleet, the hometown of Redington’s mother Barb. “I heard the place go crazy out there and it woke me up in tears,” Mackey said. He still had a fourth of the trail to go in his own race, and he left Unalakleet in a whiteout.
“I've ran in blizzard conditions, but I've never ran in blizzard conditions where I couldn't see anything,” he said. “I mean, it was literally like staring at a white wall. I just kept going—I didn't know where I was going, but I kept going. I figured I'd run into Shaktoolik eventually.” He credited Lance’s nine-year-old lead dog Rad with getting them to the finish line.
Mackey waited out the storm in Shaktoolik before heading across the sea ice to Koyuk in whipping winds, and other mushers described how he looked out for them on the trail. Bridgett Watkins was the last to leave Shaktoolik and faced a “scary moment” where she thought she might have to scratch.
“I was in the middle of an ice patch, and I had no traction,” Watkins said. “My dogs would not go. Everybody was gone. There was nobody coming behind me.” She said she thought her race was over until Jason mushed past her and parked his dog team. Watkins said she was crying and then Jason very calmly said, “Well, I wasn’t gonna just leave you out here.”
Watkins, who is a nurse in Fairbanks and a former Nome resident, had her own moving arrival on Front Street just a few hours before Mackey. She was one of seven mushers to finish the Iditarod for the first time. Watkins came close to Nome last year, but she and five others had to be rescued during a severe ground storm in the Topkok Hills. This year, the motivation to finish was fueled by coming so close in 2022 but she had a additional reason to make it to the burled arch: She was carrying the ashes of Nome’s Curtis Worland, an Alaska State Troopers Court Services Officer who was killed by a musk ox near his dog kennel off the Teller Road in December. A procession of emergency responder, police and Alaska State Trooper vehicles led Watkins from the sea ice down Front Street and to the burled arch.
“He kept me on the trail even when I didn’t think I was going to be able to sometimes,” Watkins said when she arrived in Nome. She was later given an award for emulating the attitude of Herbie Nayokpuk, the “Shishmaref Cannonball,” during the race.
When Idaho musher Jed Stephensen crossed the finish line soon after Watkins, he got choked up when he was asked what the last few days were like traveling with Mackey.
“The Mackey family is probably the toughest family on planet Earth,” Stephenson said. “There were moments when we were crossing the ice when I was wondering if he was going to make it, and that was just the silliest thing to think because there’s no way that anything's going to stop Jason. He’s tough as nails.”
Mackey was chosen by his fellow mushers to win the Most Inspirational Musher award, which gives him a free entry into next year’s race. “I guess there's no doubt I will be back next year,” he said at the banquet.
Kristy Berington races the Iditarod with her twin sister Anna. When she accepted her trophy for 21st place, said she felt privileged to have mushed alongside both Jason and Lance Mackey. Berington said she often thought of a story she heard about the brothers: “Jason and Lance would be dropped off in the middle of nowhere as kids, and Lance would say to Jason, ‘Population: 2.” With such a small field of mushers this year, Berington said she often found herself nodding at her sister on remote stretches of the trail, thinking, “Population: 2.”
“I just feel very honored to see some of the things that you've seen out there,” she said to Mackey. “You're really an inspiration.”
Mushers shared other tales during the ceremony of how their fellow competitors encouraged them—or in some cases, literally carried them—on the trail.
Rookie musher Hunter Keefe received the sportsmanship award. Eddie Burke, Jr. and Keefe had been in a friendly rivalry for the Rookie of the Year Title, but Keefe didn’t think twice when he saw Burke standing alone between Grayling and Eagle Island on the Yukon. Burke had fallen asleep on his sled and fallen off; his dogs continued down the trail without him to the next checkpoint. Keefe came upon Burke and didn’t think twice to give him a ride to reunite with his dog team.
Burke, who placed seventh, ultimately took home the Rookie of the Year title, but he was at the finish line to meet Keefe, who arrived in 11th place on Wednesday afternoon. Keefe was running dogs from Raymie and Barb Redington, the parents of Ryan, so the whole family was there to greet him, too. Standing outside the chute was Terrance Takak, a 16-year-old from Elim. Takak had been traveling to Nome by snowmachine with his family for the Lonnie O'Connor Iditarod Basketball Classic. As a ground storm was blowing, they decided to take shelter in the Nome Kennel Club Topkok shelter cabin. When they arrived, they found Keefe there, hunkered down to wait out the storm.
“He was making a fire and it was nice and warm in there,” Takak said.
The veterinarian team gave Deke Naaktgeboren the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award for his exemplary dog care. He crossed the finish line in 20th place with 12 dogs still in harness, the most of any musher in this year’s race. Mushers leave the start line with 14 dogs. Naaktgeboren’s dogs were all still barking and ready to keep running when they arrived at the chute in Nome.
“It's quite a big deal to me and means the world to me,” Naaktgeboren said after accepting the award. “It's funny that Jason Mackey won the most inspirational award because he inspired me not to go run my dogs in the heat on those first two days. It drove me crazy, but we sat there and we talked about how hot it was and I think that had a lot to do with it.”
Naaktgeboren said he wasn’t really racing until he got to the coast, but then he got stuck in the storm, which dashed his plans of climbing in the standings.
Nearly a week in Nome gave the winner of the race, Ryan Redington, some time to digest his accomplishment.
“I wanted to win this for the Redingtons and Eskimos in the communities throughout Alaska,” Redington said at the banquet on Sunday evening. He is Inupiaq, and earlier in the night, he recalled how special it felt to arrive in his mother's hometown of Unalakleet, saying it felt like he was mushing home. He is also the grandson of Joe Redington, Sr., one of the founders of the Iditarod. His victory marks the sixth win for an Alaska Native musher, and the first time a Redington gets to bring home the trophy that bears the image of his grandfather.
“When I was 14, I got to watch my grandpa finish his last Iditarod at 80-years-old,” Redington, 40, told the crowd. “He came in 36th place out to 64 teams that year, when he mushed across the finish line, he had such a big smile. And after he thanked his dogs and everything, he asked me to mush his dogs down to the dog a lot. And it was such a big honor…I got so many great memories of my grandpa, my dad, my uncle Joee and my brothers running this race, and I'm sorry it took us 16 years to win this race, but I'm very proud of my dogs.”
Redington also revealed some of the strategies he employed on the trail.
“One of the things that I tried to do was downplay the strength of my team,” he said. He recalled that when he was the second musher into Nikolai, broadcaster Greg Heister came up to him and asked, “Ryan, is this the winning team?”
“I said, ‘Oh no, there's so many other great teams,’ and I did that for one big reason,” Redington said. “That way, I could focus on my dogs and take care of them, and when I got into the next several days into the race, the cameras weren't on me—they were on the other competitors, and I thought that was a key part. We could just focus on our dog chores and focus on our dogs…and love and take care of them at every checkpoint. And it's just a dream come true to finally have had this happen.”
He thanked fellow musher Wade Marrs, who finished tenth, for talking about how to approach the race.
“I'd like to thank you for the many hours that we've talked about our strategy to come up with ideas of how to run the race,” Redington told Marrs. “I didn't know how to run the race in the beginning, so I talked to Wade a lot, and he really helped me out. I gave more rest and I got to thank Wade for his advice.”
One reoccurring theme in this year’s race was the small number of mushers who signed up to run the race. Thirty-three teams started, the smallest field ever, and pundits speculated if it’s the small purse, economic factors, a decline in mushers in general or the toll it takes on mushers and their families to dedicate their lives to running a 1,000-mile race. Five-time champion Dallas Seavey didn’t participate, citing he wanted to spend more time with his daughter. Nome’s Aaron Burmeister moved aside, also for reasons to spend more time with his family; he let Eddie Burke run his team. For the first time in 39 years, four-time champion Martin Buser was not on the trail and mused on Facebook how he survived the Iditarod from home. “It was somewhat difficult for the first time in my ad ult life to follow the race from home……on a computer…..with little experience using tracker replays and toggling between standings and tracker timing,” he wrote. Another four-time champion, Jeff King, was also absent. Matt Hall placed fourth and said at the finish line that he had plans to take a break from the Iditarod for a couple of years and regroup if he didn’t finish in the top 5. “Training for this race is your entire life, and it’s time to have a life outside of it for a little bit, I guess. So, I don’t know if it’s good or not, ‘cause we got a top 5 finish, so I guess, we’re coming back,” he said.
Four mushers scratched, including defending champion Brent Sass, who cited health reasons for dropping out of the race at Eagle Island. The remaining mushers split a $500,000 purse, with $51,800 going to the winner, $43,700 to runner-up Pete Kaiser of Bethel, $40,250 to third place finisher Richie Diehl of Aniak. The 20th place, Deke Naaktgeboren, finished in the money with a $10,909 check. All other finishers receive a symbolic $1,049, a dollar for every mile mushed.
Iditarod’s longtime foe Peta, an extremist animal rights organization, keeps trying to persuade sponsors and the public to cut ties with the race. The group placed ads in the Anchorage Daily News and the Fairbanks News Miner that called for an end of the Iditarod. They also approached The Nome Nugget, which declined to run the ads. Peta staged a small protest at the ceremonial start in Anchorage but was not present at the finish line. However, a video recording of Redington’s arrival in White Mountain proved to be fodder for those organizations calling for the end of the Iditarod. The video showed Redington’s team repeatedly wanting to follow a different trail to the checkpoint and the musher trying multiple times to get them back on the right trail, at times dragging the lead dog to the marked trail. According to a Peta press release, the organization put a bounty on video footage and paid a reward of $1,000 for the video footage in addition to the $1,100 offered by another advocacy group called Humane Mushing.
At the finish line, many mushers fulfilled a lifelong dream, most with their own dog team, others with the dog team of other mushers who sat out this year’s Iditarod. When asked what it feels like to stand under the burled arch with one’s own dog team, Bridgett Watkins said, “Dreams can come true if you work hard enough, never give, persevere no matter what obstacles come your way – keep trying, no matter what.”
Diana Haecker contributed to this report.