Last but not least: Rookie musher takes Iditarod's Red Lantern prize

Not wildfire, nor broken-down sled, nor runaway dogs could deter rookie contestant Mary Helwig from finishing the iconic sled-dog race.

Mark Thiessen/AP
Musher Aliy Zirkle drives her dog team to the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Tuesday, in Nome, Alas. Ms. Zirkle finished third in the race.

It took 13 days, eight hours, and 51 minutes, but Mary Helwig and her team of 11 dogs crossed the burled arch in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday, making her the final placer in this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Ms. Helwig, a rookie contestant who is training to be a veterinary technician, closed out the 1,000-mile marathon across Alaska’s frozen wilderness after overcoming sled breakdowns and dogs gone loose. A cheering crowd met her at Nome, where organizers awarded her the Red Lantern to acknowledge her perseverance.

Indeed, Helwig had faced challenges for the race long before she and her sled-dog team set off from Anchorage on March 6. In June, she lost her home and possessions – including high-priced mushing gear – in a wildfire that nearly cost her the dogs she had spent three years preparing for the 2016 Iditarod.

“If I can get myself through this disaster,” she had told the Alaska Dispatch News after the fire, “I’ll feel that much more prepared to handle the difficulties of the trail.”

During the race itself, Helwig’s troubles came early. By the time she was 250 miles into the course, she had already struggled with losing the trail, two of her dogs getting loose, and sled breakdowns that took place one after another, according to race officials. She finished the marathon on the sled of a musher who had quit the race.

Still, Helwig made it well in time for the Finisher’s Banquet on Saturday, and holds the third-fastest Red Lantern time in race history, race organizers wrote on the Iditarod website.

Other contestants faced a range of challenges as well.

Veteran musher DeeDee Jonrowe, who closed out her 31st race on Thursday, had to pause and wait for a defecating buffalo to finish its business.

Others were more serious: Third-place finisher Aliye Zirkle described a “terrifying” nighttime encounter with a man on a snowmobile – an incident that left one dog dead and at least three others injured.

“Alaska always throws something at the musher,” commentator Bruce Lee said, according to the Indian Country Today Media Network. “That’s part of the intrigue.”

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, now in its 44th year, memorializes a rescue mission that delivered medicine to the coastal community of Nome in 1925.

This year’s first-placer, Dallas Seavey, finished in a record eight days, 11 hours, 20 minutes, and 15 seconds – making him the youngest musher to win three straight titles.  

This report contains material from Reuters.

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