'I'm not going to make it:' Janssen describes Iditarod rescue
Musher Scott Janssen's shining Iditarod moment came on the final stretch of his Last Great Race this year. While the 56-year-old "Mushin' Mortician" didn't complete the 2018 Iditarod, he was able to save his good friend and mentor Jim Lanier.
The 77 year-old Lanier was trapped on a chunk of driftwood early Friday between the checkpoints of White Mountain and Safety, in an area known as the Blow Hole. The roughly 15-mile-long formation along the Bering Sea coast acts as a wind tunnel, creating a "blizzard that would close highways in the Lower 48," according to Janssen.
Janssen's team was making good time -- about 10.2 mph -- when he happened to look to his left, where he saw reflectors on a dogsled facing the wrong way and hit his brakes.
"I yelled out, 'Are you all right?'" Janssen said. "I heard a voice yell out, 'I need help.' So I threw my (anchor) down, tipped my sled over and I ran over. And it was my friend Jim Lanier."
Lanier told Janssen he couldn't get his team moving.
It turned out Lanier and his team had been there for quite some time. He had taken a wrong turn toward the ocean, turned back around and got his sled caught on the stump of driftwood at the high-tide mark that was buried in snow.
Janssen was able to muster the strength to move the sled off the stump, but the dogs still wouldn't move. That's when both men's eyes started to cloud over, as their corneas started to freeze.
Frostbite and hypothermia were setting in.
"At that point Jim said 'I'm not going to make it out of here,'" Janssen said. "He says, 'You need to keep going if you have to.' I said, 'Jim, I have a satellite phone, don't worry about it. I'm going to stay here with you.'"
Janssen laid down a sleeping bag and wrapped his arms and legs around Lanier, as the two mushers tried to keep warm and told stories for more than five hours.
Lanier, a former ranking official in the Democratic Party, and Janssen, who took his dog Thunder and wife Debbie to Donald Trump's inauguration, shared a moment that Janssen truly appreciates.
"I said, "Jim, the country should be more like us,'" Janssen said. "He said, "What do you mean?' I said, 'A Democrat and a Republican -- of course the Republican is helping the Democrat.' It was tongue-in-cheek."
At some point bikers on fat tires stopped and offered help. Due to frostbite Janssen couldn't dial his wife's number on the satellite phone, so one of the bikers was able to contact Debbie.
Debbie in turn alerted Iditarod officials, and race marshal Mark Nordman called the checkpoint of Safety. That's where Jessie Royer, who had just completed her own Iditarod run, was waiting with a snowmachine. Royer and a friend of the Janssen family drove out and took the two men back to Safety.
"To leave your dogs out there...You know, people look at it like, 'How can you do that?'" Janssen said. "But you have to think about the situation we were in. If you can't take care of yourself, you can't take care of your dogs; if you can't take care of your dogs, they can't take care of you."
Iditarod staff sent trailers out to retrieve the dogs and the sleds, the snowmachines saw the trailers coming about two miles from the site. Once they reached Safety, the men were medevaced to Nome where they refused medical treatment.
"I hope [Lanier] doesn't get down on himself because that could happen to any of us, any of us," Janssen said. "This wasn't anything he did. This was a culmination of Mother Nature. Sometimes she doesn't want you walking through her back yard."
As for the "Mushin' Mortician," he said at this year's bib-draw banquet that this would likely be his final trek on the trail.
"This, for the foreseeable future was my last Iditarod," Janssen said. "I don't lament not crossing the burled arches. Had a great time laying in the snow, feeling like I was dying.... so did Jim, with my friend. That's what it really came down to in this race."
Although the medevac meant both Janssen and Lanier have been scratched from this year's race, Janssen was philosophical about leaving the trail.
"We had every bit of adversity that was there," Janssen said. "And for some reason, say the grace of God, I looked to my left and saw Jim. And if I wouldn't have and I pulled in here with a woo-hoo of a finish and found out that I went by Jim Lanier, or anybody else, but especially Jim Lanier... I wouldn't be able to live with myself."
Lanier, from North Dakota, and Janssen, from Minnesota, grew up about 60 miles away from each other, hunting and fishing the same areas. Janssen says when he grew up he always wanted to be like Jim Lanier.
On Friday, though, Janssen was in the right place at the right time doing what he would do for anyone -- but this time, for a good friend and mentor.
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