Trinkets, photos & a beloved volunteer's ashes: Mushers carry more than gear to Nome
As mushers and their dog teams make the 1,000-mile journey to Nome, there are items they’re required to carry in their sleds from checkpoint to checkpoint, and ultimately to the burled arch.
The mandatory packing list includes snowshoes, an ax, a sleeping bag, a functional cooker and pot to boil water, fuel, a veterinarian notebook and plenty of extra dog booties.
Several mushers are also carrying something extra. Something special.
For musher Matthew Failor, reaching the finish line for the eighth time means a beloved Iditarod volunteer has made the trip, too.
Failor carried the ashes of Mark Greene in his sled. Greene, who volunteered on the Iditarod Trail for six years, passed away in 2018.
“Mark is a fellow Ohioan — I’m from Ohio — and he was an avid Iditarod supporter, a huge volunteer, and he was always in the village of Kaltag,” Failor explained. “And he did a lot of stuff to make that village checkpoint better, just organizing. He always had these little blinking lights to make sure tourists and villagers wouldn’t get too close to the dogs, he brought in cots for us to sleep on, a big tarp to divide the room so we could have a little more peace and quiet.”
The vial of ashes doesn’t weigh enough to matter to the dogs pulling the sled, but the symbolic gesture of a ride along the race Greene loved is one Failor is happy to accommodate.
“Mark Greene is gonna be with me in my sled all the way to Nome,” Failor said before taking off from the official starting line in Willow, “and I’m very happy to do that because he is a big part of Iditarod.”
Greene was also known to carry a sock monkey around with him. Along the trail, Failor mushed with a sock monkey and a patch commemorating Greene attached to his sled.
Thursday, Failor reached the burled arch with the patch and Greene's ashes, but no sock monkey. He gave it to local children at the checkpoint in Elim.
"Mark Greene lives on," Failor said.
Rookie mushers Alison Lifka and Victoria Hardwick are also carrying special items with them.
Lifka is carrying two pins from a friend, as well as a pin given to her by fellow alumnae from Sweet Briar college.
“I’m gonna carry it all the way to Nome and give it to the people that supported me,” Lifka said.
Hardwick is carrying a small blue cross given to her by her Iditarider.
“It was all real new,” she said about the idea of bringing something other than gear along for her first Iditarod race, adding, “It’s really cool.”
For veteran musher Aaron Burmeister, his extra item is a personal one. A family photo is displayed behind a protective cover on his sled where he can see it on the trail.
“I have a picture of my family because it’s the hardest thing about being on the trail is missing my wife and kids,” he said. “It gets harder and harder every year as the kids get older.”
The practice of carrying trinkets, photos and even ashes to Nome is not new. Failor said this is the third time he’s carried ashes with him.
“It’s important for people because it brings joy to their life,” he said.
Joar Leifseth Ulsom, who won the race in 2018, carried the ashes of Rudy Demoski — known as "The Happy Musher" — to Nome this year, according to a race official.
As of Thursday evening, Ulsom arrived at the burled arch in second place, Burmeister came in 10th place and Failor arrived in 18th place. Lifka and Hardwick were still on the trail.
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