'Mushin' Mortician' honored for Iditarod rescue
State lawmakers are honoring a longtime Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher for a lifesaving rescue during this year's race.
Rep. Matt Claman (D-Anchorage) presented "Mushin' Mortician" Scott Janssen with a legislative citation Thursday, at the Janssen Evergreen Memorial Chapel on E Street.
"The truth? The real heroes were my dogs," Janssen said. "They were the true heroes."
On March 16, Janssen came upon fellow musher and friend Jim Lanier. The 77-year-old Lanier had been separated from his sled and dog team not able to move for almost five hours in temperatures as low as 60 degrees below zero.
Lanier and Janssen had been traveling between the checkpoints of White Mountain and Safety, just 22 miles from the race's finish line in Nome, when conditions took a turn for the worse.
"There was heavy snow and it was blowing," Lanier said. "I probably went a mile."
"I could see half of my team," Janssen said. "Through my headlamp, I could see the trail markers. Then all of the sudden there were no trail markers."
"About every 200 yards there would be a big drift," Lanier said. "The dogs would wallow and then I'd have to go pull them out and I'm not good at wallowing."
"After a mile, Lanier put the brakes on and said no," said rookie musher Emily Maxwell. "There was no trail and the dogs were stuck up to their shoulders."
The mushers turned back and waited out the storm. Later that morning they tried again. The stretch of land is approximately 15 miles long, adjacent the Bering Sea. The stretch is termed the "Blow Hole" because of the intensity of wind gusts and turbulent, inclement weather patterns. On this path, Lanier would lose his way, veering off course toward the open water of the Bering Sea. When he turned around, his team became stuck on some driftwood.
"Around 7 a.m. that morning as we came in we were notified that there was an urgent phone call received Scott Janssen down off the trail," Iditarod Trail Committee board member Mike Owens said. "We were told that Jim Lanier was in a life-threatening situation and will need to be extracted from the trail."
Lanier was hypothermic and a rescue team on snowmachines was deployed. With little concern for his own safety, Janssen worked tirelessly to try and get Jim and his team moving again. After more than two hours Scott realized that Jim was not going to be able to complete the race on his own and made a decision to stay with him. Ultimately having to scratch his dream of completing his last race to save fellow musher Lanier.
"(A) musher's No. 1 concern is not for their own well being but for their dogs," Owens said. "So we went prepared not only to extract the two mushers but also prepared to get the teams out."
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. Owens told Lanier not to worry about his dogs, that he would bring them back for him.
"We knew we were going into bad weather," Owens said. "I asked my team, do you still want to go on and without hesitation, everyone said yes. Visibility was stake to stake and sometimes we had to stop and look around to see where we were. Snow was coming at us from every direction. That is my greatest fear, to lose a musher or a team on that ice."
The rescue team eventually found Janssen and Lanier's dogs. The canines were huddled up, partially covered in snow.
"They seemed safe," Owens said. "So, I immediately started stimulating the dogs, rubbing snow out of their eyes and off their face. They started responding to me right away. I started on Jim's team first."
Owens tied both teams together which total 24 dogs and drove Lanier's dogsled to Nome.
"A lot of power there," Owens said. "The theory was that when you have cold animals, instead of bringing them back in a box, we wanted to warm them up. That's why we continued with them. The best way to warm sled dogs up is to get them up and moving."
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