SANDPOINT — Solely two folks have completed what Jed Stephensen is chasing — the triple crown of sled canine racing.
Whereas the chances could seem daunting, the Sandpoint resident isn’t letting something stop him from fulfilling his lifelong dream of racing within the Iditarod.
The 37-year-old musher, who additionally works half time as an emergency room nurse at Bonner Common Well being, is wired in another way. Stephensen is pushed by aspirations solely a choose few select to pursue and is keen to push himself to the sting to make them come true.
Stephensen, who has lived in Sandpoint for six years, can also be the proprietor of Nordic Wayfinding, a enterprise he based a 12 months in the past with the primary focus of training the general public about sled canine racing and its calls for.
Coaching for what’s labeled as “the final nice race on Earth,” is a year-round dedication that’s costly and time consuming. As an ER nurse, a enterprise proprietor, a husband and a father of two twin boys, discovering that point might be practically inconceivable. However by some means, Stephensen does it.
“I’m all the time pushing the bounds,” he stated. “I don’t know how one can reside in any other case.”
What’s the Iditarod?
Began in 1973, the Iditarod is run throughout the Iditarod Nationwide Historic Path in Alaska. Merely put, it’s a virtually 1,000-mile sled canine race that spans from Anchorage to Nome. The race can take eight to fifteen days to finish.
The legendary race is held yearly and Stephensen is aiming for a visit to the 2023 Iditarod. To qualify for the occasion, Stephensen should full three races that add as much as a complete of 800 miles.
He’ll begin with the 200-mile Eagle Cap Excessive in Joseph, Oregon. The 300-mile Idaho Sled Canine Problem in McCall, Idaho is up subsequent after which Stephensen’s quest to qualify for the Iditarod wraps up on the 300-mile Race to the Sky in Lincoln, Montana.
In 2019, Stephensen competed in a pair of Iditarod qualifiers for the primary time. He completed one and was unable to finish the opposite.
The qualifiers are held inside about three and a half weeks of one another in January and February of 2022. If Stephensen completes the three races, he would be part of a choose group. Solely two different folks have completed the Rocky Mountain Triple Crown.
“For what I’m making an attempt to do, there’s simply not many people,” he stated.
The feat would permit Stephensen and his sled canines to compete within the 2023 Iditarod.
And this dream Stephensen is after is one thing he’s doing, for essentially the most half, all on his personal. His dad, Doug, helps him prepare the canines within the winter and his seven siblings, who primarily kind Nordic Wayfinding’s board of administrators, assist run the enterprise, in any other case the total weight of taking care of the 17 canines falls on his shoulders.
Up in Alaska, some sled canine groups have two to 3 handlers that may run the canines a number of occasions a day. They’ve four-wheelers and infinite quantities of trails, and a few mushers aren’t concerned with the each day maintenance of the canines.
Stephensen doesn’t have these luxuries, particularly dwelling in North Idaho. However that doesn’t trouble him.
“After I determined to do it, I wished to do it with my very own canines that I’ve raised and with my very own concept of how I wished to do it,” he stated. “I didn’t need anyone holding my hand.”
The origins of the dream
Rising up, Stephensen was raised on Alaskan tales from books written by well-known creator Jack London. His dad, who grew up in Venezuela, had London’s books that touched on sled canine adventures learn to him as a toddler by his grandmother, and Doug handed on the tales to Stephensen.
Though Doug by no means mushed, he handed over the fervour for the craft to his son.
“His Alaskan tales had been sort of his go-to tales,” Stephensen stated, “and in order that was sort of imprinted in my thoughts.”
Stephensen was born and raised in Germany, however ultimately his household moved to the U.S. At age 15 when the web was simply taking off, Stephensen reached out to a former Iditarod musher, Billy Snodgrass, dwelling in Jackson Gap, Wyoming. Stephensen, who was dwelling in Kansas on the time, requested Snodgrass how he may get into mushing and never lengthy after, he headed out to Wyoming to coach for 3 weeks in the summertime at about 9,000 toes.
It was Stephensen’s first style of mushing, however he was hooked. Only a few years later when he was attending Brigham Younger College-Idaho and learning English, he solely lived about two hours away from Snodgrass, so he began doing canine sled excursions for him.
After graduating from faculty, he went to Alaska for 2 years and continued to be taught the craft by way of tourism. Over the summer time, Stephensen gave canine sled excursions on a glacier simply exterior of Juneau, and within the winter, he skilled with Linwood Fiedler, a musher who has raced within the Iditarod 25 occasions.
After that journey, Stephensen married his spouse, Amy, and wasn’t certain if he would have the ability to proceed mushing as a consequence of again and knee issues.
“I wasn’t certain if my physique may maintain up,” he stated.
However then he bought into CrossFit and hardcore train and all these points went away, giving him hope that he may pursue his dream.
About 4 years in the past, he purchased 4 canines from Alaska, bred them and continued to construct his staff from there.
He’s had 4 litters of puppies, and for essentially the most half has saved all of them to make his present staff of 17 canines.
Mushing has additionally assisted Stephensen within the ER when he’s saving lives. He stated making an attempt to maintain a pack of howling canines in line and fixing issues all on his personal in the midst of the night time within the mountains, has taught him how one can keep calm within the midst of chaos.
Stephensen’s enterprise, Nordic Wayfinding, pays homage to his ancestors and its title represents the “religious expertise” he’s presently on to succeed in his purpose.
“I sort of contribute my ardour for the chilly to my Scandinavian heritage,” he stated.
Coaching, fueling the ‘athletes’
A crescendo of howls echoes up and down Higher Gold Creek Street — it should be coaching time.
One-by-one, Stephensen unloads his sled canines from the canine field at the back of his truck that he calls the Millennium Falcon. He guides every canine to the entrance of the truck, places a harness on them and hooks them as much as the rope tied to the entrance.
He connects 10 canines this time, unties the rope from a tree, faucets the gasoline to set the tempo and the staff heads down the highway. His fundamental lead canine, Seabiscuit, and Seabiscuit’s copilot, Panda, information the best way. Lead canines are a very powerful as they hold everybody else in a straight line.
The canines hug the best facet of the highway, leaving loads of room for visitors to go on the left.
About midway by way of the two-mile coaching session, Stephensen opens up his door, pokes out his head and asks his staff to return to a halt for a breather.
A minute later, the canines get again to enterprise, touring down the gravel floor at about 10 miles per hour and previous canines within the neighborhood which can be vocalizing their curiosity for what they’re witnessing by way of roaring barks. Stephensen’s crew is unfazed by the distractions and carries on till they attain the stopping level.
Stephensen hops out and locations a bowl of water in entrance of every canine. Some take just a few licks, others go searching and kick up their hind legs, expressing their want to maintain going.
Stephensen unhooks every canine, locations them again within the canine field and returns house.
That is the method Stephensen goes by way of practically daily whereas coaching his sled canines in the course of the summer time months when snow is nowhere to be discovered.
The canines choose frigid temperatures, so Stephensen usually will get up at round 3:30 a.m. and hooks them as much as give them cooler air. He usually received’t prepare them in temperatures above 50 levels.
As a part-time ER nurse, Stephensen works 4 straight days after which will get 10 days off. The one time he doesn’t prepare the canines is when he’s absolutely submerged in his job.
“I’ve bought a really small period of time to do all this,” he stated.
Most days, Stephensen tries to hook up all 17 canines to the “sled,” however when he doesn’t, he takes those that stayed within the canine field free operating for about three to seven miles. Which will appear to be so much, but it surely’s nothing for these canines.
“That doesn’t even tax them,” he stated about free operating. “Pulling is a complete totally different animal by way of train.”
As soon as September rolls round, Stephensen will crank up the coaching and by the top of November hopes to have the canines mushing by way of the snow in 50-mile increments. He stated that mileage is about what the canines should run from village to village in the course of the Iditarod.
To get his canines prepared for that, Stephensen will take his staff out on trails close to Trestle Creek within the winter. They’ll mush 50 miles in a single day, relaxation for 4 to 6 hours after which do it yet again.
Stephensen stated the canines can do 100 miles, however he doesn’t need to push them to that time as a result of that’s not why he mushes.
“You mush to have a contented, wholesome staff that enjoys what they’re doing,” he stated.
As soon as in a race, Stephensen pushed his staff 100 miles and afterwards he felt horrible.
“I don’t ever need to get to their limits,” he stated. “I all the time need to preserve their potential so the following time they run they’ve nonetheless bought some gasoline within the tank.”
All 17 of Stephensen’s canines are mutts. All of them have some kind of husky in them, however Stephensen stated it’s tough to know what breeds make up every one. Generically, they’re known as Alaskan huskies, he stated, which simply means canines bred to run within the Iditarod.
In Iditarod qualifying races, a most of 12 canines are allowed to drag the sled. On the Iditarod, that quantity bumps as much as 14. Stephensen all the time brings his full crew to each occasion.
He has 4 canines which can be simply over a 12 months outdated and are nonetheless studying, but it surely doesn’t take them lengthy to catch on.
Nearly immediately when Stephensen hooks his canines as much as the sled for the primary time, they perceive it. He additionally likes to place his youthful canines subsequent to a veteran canine on the sled, permitting them to get the cling of it even quicker.
The calls Stephensen yells out to his sled canines come naturally as properly. Though, there’s one they often battle with.
“They’re actually unhealthy at stopping as a result of they don’t ever need to cease,” he stated, “in order that they sort of know that one. They know that one when it’s handy for them.”
As a lot as Stephensen loves mushing, it’s an costly ardour. He stated sled canine racing is one thing you not often earn cash in due to how a lot it prices to deal with the canines.
Stephensen feeds his canines a mixture of water, uncooked meat and high-grade kibble that isn’t present in simply any pet retailer.
“It makes proudly owning a horse appear to be a stroll within the park,” he joked.
Provided that, Stephensen accepts donations to his assist journey on-line at jedstephensen.com. Quick profiles on the sled canines are on the web site and every one is accessible to be sponsored.
‘No matter I ask the canines to do, I can do’
Stephensen embraces the chance to intention excessive when he pursues one thing, so why not prepare to run ultramarathons on prime of what he already does.
That quest is a part of Stephensen’s efforts to show to the world that he can do something he asks his sled canines to do. He’s constructing as much as run 50 miles, identical to his canines.
On the finish of Could, he competed within the Coeur d’Alene Marathon. Subsequent Sunday, he’ll run the 52K within the Race the Wolf at Schweitzer Mountain, after which a couple of month later he hopes to finish a 50-mile run.
Clearly, Stephensen can’t do precisely what his canines can, however he hopes this exhibits he received’t push his canines any additional then he’d push himself. He stated it’s additionally a method of countering those who query the ethics of canine mushing.
He stated some folks don’t perceive what these sled canines are able to. They’re extraordinarily tough to tire out they usually take pleasure in pulling the sled as a result of it’s what they had been born to do. He stated the canines are “freak athletes” that don’t like mendacity round.
“They’re not sofa potatoes, that’s not what sled canines are about,” he stated. “They’re about working and in the event that they don’t have a job, it drives them loopy. They need to work and I present that for them they usually find it irresistible. It’s superb to look at.”
The canines aren’t shy about expressing how a lot they respect getting hooked as much as the sled every day both, Stephensen stated.
“The canines converse for themselves, I don’t have to talk for them,” he stated. “They’re fairly vocal.”
Pushing himself to compete in ultramarathons additionally permits Stephensen to narrate to what the canines are going by way of when they’re pulling the sled.
“It provides me a variety of perception into what the canines are experiencing themselves,” he stated, “and so all of the aches and pains I really feel now, I perceive what the canines are feeling.”
Stephensen runs as much as 20 miles per day whereas a bunch of his canines free run proper by his facet. He has a decent bond with every one, however he wants assist caring for them. Fortunately, he has his twin sons, Leif and Pax.
They have interaction in chores each day — scooping poop, feeding the canines and settling them down within the barn at night time. The 7-year-olds have competed in peewee sled canine races, such because the one in Priest Lake, and are primarily canine mushers-in-training.
Stephensen stated one of many causes he’s pursuing a visit to the Iditarod has to do together with his boys. He desires to indicate them the onerous work and perseverance it takes to show goals into actuality.
“Following your goals shouldn’t be solely value it, however crucial in life,” he stated. “Desires aren’t simple, goals are powerful. They’re not rainbows and unicorns.”
As soon as Stephensen achieves his dream of finishing the Iditarod, he’ll do away with the staff and shift his focus to different lofty targets like ending climbing the over 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Path together with his boys by the point they flip 18. He might even sail world wide.
“I don’t need to simply reside a boring life,” he stated.
As Stephensen navigates his journey to the Iditarod, some days he wakes up and wonders what he’s doing due to the quantity of effort he’s placing in to make it occur. Nonetheless, he stated the grind is so rewarding and he wouldn’t need to be doing the rest.
“Typically I take into consideration, ‘Oh, if I used to be to die tomorrow would I do something totally different?,’ he stated, “and the reply is, ‘No, I’m maxed out.’ I’m following my goals … I’m doing every thing I need to do.”