Answering the call: Owens saves 24 dogs from brutal storm on the trail
On Friday morning around 7, Mike Owens' phone rang. On the other end was Debbie Janssen, the wife of veteran musher Scott Janssen.
There was trouble on the trail.
“Predominantly Jim Lanier was in a life-threatening situation and that [he] needed to be extracted from the trail. He was hypothermic,” said Owens an, Iditarod Trail Committee board member.
Owens, a Nome resident and finisher of the race back in 1987 and 1990, mobilized a crew on snow machines and set off for the trail.
Thankfully, Jessie Royer, who'd already completed the race, and Daniel Strang, were already in Safety and were able to reach Lanier and Janssen, bringing them back by snowmachine. Lanier veered off course toward the open water of the Bering Sea, then turned around, only to get stuck on driftwood. Thankfully, Janssen came by, saw him and stayed.
After being found by Royer and Strang, the Lanier and Owens parties connected. Lanier made it clear what his priority was: his dogs.
Owens reassured the 77-year-old veteran.
“I assured Jim, 'Jim, I’m going to take care of your dogs; I’ll bring them home.'”
But now Owens' had to find the dogs. As he and his team entered the blowhole, they place lived up to its name and reputation. It's known for producing hurricane-force winds and whiteout conditions.
“There were times we were down stake-to-stake," he's said. "I mean, that’s all you could see. You’d have to stop and look, and the wind would let a little to where you could see just the top of the stake. And you would go to the stake and stop and look and wait. And there [were] times you didn’t know if you were on a side hill, flat level-- snow coming at you from all directions."
They were also dangerously close to the sea ice and open water.
"That's my greatest fear," said Owens, "To one day lose a musher and team off that ice."
They avoided that pitfall and ultimately reached the dogs. They were in good condition.
“They were coiled up, partially snow covered. Very safe. Immediately I started stimulating the dogs, rubbing the snow out of their faces and eyes so they could see.”
But what to do with 24 dogs? Tie them together using Lanier's sled and get them home. After a stop in Safety-- a good omen-- they snacked the dogs and headed out. Eventually, they all reached Nome.
“What I’m so thankful for is I have two mushers that I have a lot of respect for that are healthy and doing well recovering. And I have 24 four-footed friends that they, too, have bounced back, are happy and they’ll be ready to run again."
And everyone is thankful for Mike Owens--in case he needs to run again.
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