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Putting the 'ID' in the Iditarod

| January 19, 2023 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT – A Bonner County man is putting the "ID" in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race by being one of two competitors from the Gem State to participate in the legendary sled dog race.

A nurse in Bonner General Health’s emergency department, Jed Stephensen has spent more than half his life involved with mushing in one way or another. In March, he will put all those years of skills to the ultimate test by running the 50th anniversary Iditarod. Running a dog team of 14 from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, Stephensen, and his team will cover nearly 1,000 miles in weeks, possibly less.

Stephensen said his love of the sport began when he was 9 and read Gary Paulsen’s “Dog Song." The story follows a young Inuit boy in Alaska, during a time when Native Americans are being forced to adopt modern culture and put aside their own. The young man seeks out and learns the traditions of his people, including mushing. Stephensen said he was hooked.

“Ever since then I wanted to be a dog musher,” Stephensen said.

Under the guidance of a man he emailed, Billy Snodgrass, Stephensen began his dog mushing career at 15. Snodgrass agreed to let Stephensen visit him in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where Stephensen would work with Snodgrass training dogs. Later on, when he graduated high school and went to college at Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg, Stephensen said he would spend his winter breaks in Jackson Hole conducting sled dog tours with Snodgrass.

“That’s really where I learned,” Stephensen said.

Taking all he had learned from Snodgrass, Stephensen continued pursuing his mushing dreams by moving to Alaska after college. Training with Linwood Fielder, a reputable musher who has completed the Iditarod over 20 times, Stephensen said his work was centered around mushing. Spending the winters training and the summers doing sled dog tours outside of Juneau.

Having competed in six sled dog races to date, placing third in a race held last year in McCall, Stephensen will have completed his eighth race just before leaving for Alaska to prepare for the Iditarod. While there, Stephensen said he will have to prepare “drop bags.”

“Iditarod has 22 checkpoints along the route and at each checkpoint, you pass through, you'll have a whole bunch of supplies that were flown out for you,” Stephensen said.

Delivered via bush plane, Stephensen said those supply points are the only chance racers have to re-supply for themselves and their dogs. He said part of what makes the Iditarod challenging and unique is the fact the trail is located away from any roadways. To ensure the teams are in good health, veterinarians are placed at each checkpoint.

“That's how you get all the food that you need for the dogs because these dogs are burning up to 10,000 calories a day,” Stephensen said “You cannot swap dogs out. Basically, part of the race is just maintaining a healthy team. So you start out with 14, if a dog gets injured then you just leave them at a checkpoint with the veterinarians.”

The health of his team is so important that Stephensen said he wanted to understand what his dogs go through physically. To that end, Stephensen went to Utah to compete in an ultra marathon.

“I decided that I would run a marathon and basically run as far as I've ever asked my dogs to. So last year, I ran an ultra marathon that was 65 miles just to prove that I'm willing to do whatever I asked them to do,” Stephensen said.

With the Iditarod being such a difficult race, Stephensen said there are a number of factors that can qualify a person to compete. He said that each competitor must complete qualifying races and get sign-off from race officials certifying that each competitor has good judgment in survival and dog care.

In addition to the health of his team, Stephensen will have to contend with the harsh Alaskan wilderness. Cold temperatures and tough weather conditions aside, he will also have to contend with the wildlife of Alaska. However, Stephensen said he is most leery of moose.

“I'm always concerned about moose. I mean, daily. You know, when I get out into the mountains, I'm always either encountering moose or I'm on trails. So moose are always a concern,” Stephensen said.

Once, Stephensen said he encountered moose while racing — with the animal set and ready to attack. Stephensen was able to escape the attack and spare injury to himself or his dogs by dispatching the animal with a gunshot.

With all the dangers that come with mushing competitively Stephensen, a married father of twin 8-year-old boys, said his hobby has brought a sense of responsibility to his family. He said his wife is supportive while his boys have chores caring for the dogs, a kennel of 16.

Having been given good advice and education Stephensen said he would tell young mushers or anyone who aspires to be a musher, to follow a similar path to what he chose. Find a way to work for and learn from an experienced dog musher or breeder.

“You can get kick-started a lot quicker because you make a lot of mistakes in the beginning,” Stephensen said.

Most commonly, inexperienced mushers spend a lot of time figuring out that breeding matters Stephensen said. He recommended anyone interested in the sport to work with someone who deals with mush dogs exclusively. The challenge is one he watched a friend battle for a decade, Stephensen said.

“He was just kind of stumbling around trying to figure out what dog mushing was all about. It probably took him 10 years to figure out, ‘What are good bloodlines?’ And if you can get that, right from the get-go, then it saves you a tremendous amount of time,” Stephensen said.

Being a musher and competing in the Iditarod has been a dream for Stephensen since his childhood. Now fulfilling it, he said what he wants most now is for his sons to get value from his dream.

“The biggest thing for me is to show my kids that dreams are not only worth chasing after but probably one of the more important things to get after in your life,” Stephensen said. “Being an example to my kids, [showing them] that no dream is too big, is really important to me. It gives permission for them to dream big and to have fun, have ambition in life.”

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE)

Jed Stephensen picks up the harnesses for the sled dogs following a training session.

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE)

Jed Stephensen untangles the dogs before taking off for a training session.

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(Photo by DYLAN GREENE)

Jed Stephensen puts a harness on Sampson.