January 26, 2011
by Wes Boyd
We may think it’s cold here, but it’s a lot colder in Willow, Alaska, where Hudsonite Justin High is getting ready for the adventure of a lifetime — competing in the legendary Iditarod sled dog race in 2012.
Known as “The Last Great Race,” the Iditarod runs through over 1,100 miles of frozen wilderness from Anchorage to Nome. It runs over mountains, rivers, tundra, and across dangerous sea ice. “This will prove to be the adventure of a lifetime, and one that will take all my means to complete,” he says.
There’s a lot of getting ready involved, including a couple years worth of training, and competing in qualifying races.
High, a Hudson Class of 2002 graduate, didn’t really have something like the world’s toughest dogsled race in mind when he was laid off from his job in concrete management in Florida in 2009. He moved back to Hudson and haunted the internet job sites, until one day, after about three months, he ran across a job listing for being a dog handler in Alaska. He sent off a resume, and within a couple days was on a plane for the 49th state. There he wound up working for long-time Iditarod musher DeeDee Jonrowe, one of the world’s premier mushers and several-time top female finisher in the Iditarod.
“I decided I needed a change and to leave the corporate hustle,” High said in a telephone interview from his Alaskan home. Going from an office desk in Florida to the back of a dog sled in Alaska would qualify as a change in anyone’s book.
“I saw the opportunity and jumped on it,” he commented. “In a few more years I probably wouldn’t have been able to. The Iditarod always sounded like an adventure to me, and now I’m going to be doing it.”
This winter, High has been working on getting several races completed in order to qualify for the big event next year. Earlier this month he finished 36th in the Copper Basin 300, one of several preliminary events held in the state. “My dogs were mostly yearlings and old men from DeeDee’s kennel,” he explained. “It was a hard race, but we just kept chugging along.”
Most of the dogs he’s using this winter belong to Jonrowe, although he has one of his own.
The Copper Basin 300 is regarded as one of the hardest of the 300-mile dogsled races. Justin faced open water, sometimes flowing over ice, bad trails, and temperatures that dipped below -20O Fahrenheit. He started the race with twelve dogs and finished with eleven in harness. He had to drop one dog at a checkpoint due to fatigue, but it had recovered by the time the rest of the team finished.
Justin faces two more qualifying races over the course of the next month. On January 28 he will be running in the Don Bowers Memorial 200, and the following weekend in the Willow to Tug 300. Completing both of those successfully will mean he’s qualified for the Iditarod.
Just learning to run a dog sled competitively has been an adventure, even with the help and words of wisdom of someone like DeeDee Jonrowe’s experience. He reports that it’s something that he had to learn by himself to a great degree, since much of the time he’s by himself on the training trail. Jonrowe’s first words of wisdom, he says, were “Hold on! Don’t lose the team!”
The most challenging thing about learning to run a dog team, he says, is the part before he gets on the runners — things like feeding, hitching, and tending the dogs. The most relaxing part is when he’s on the sled, either training or running the race.
And what do his parents, Brian and Lynnette High of Hudson think about Justin’s reaching for a grand adventure? “Dad thinks it’s pretty good,” Justin relates. “Mom is more scared, but my grandfather thinks it’s pretty amazing.”
One of the big challenges in even getting to do the Iditarod is getting to the starting line. It’s more than just the qualifiers, it’s the money involved, too. Running the Iditarod is not cheap; it’s estimated that the typical competitor spends about $20,000 in the attempt. It’s not just the big things, it’s little things like buying dog booties and dog food.
Justin is now looking for sponsorship to help him with his adventure, and plans to have a reception for interested Hudsonites when he’s back intown for his brother’s graduation in May.
If you are interested in following Justin and to see how you can help in his pursuit you can visit his web site at www.highs adventure.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We also plan to have periodic updates on his adventures in the Post-Gazette.