A dogsledding achievement for a Vineyarder


Updated 9 am, February 21

Jodi Bailey — born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard but now of Chatanika, Alaska — is trying to do something no rookie sled-dog driver has ever done: finish in the same year the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest race from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks, Alaska; and two weeks later the more famous 1,150-mile Iditarod from Anchorage to Nome. The races are grueling tests of knowledge, skill, preparation, physical fitness, and endurance. Jodi, 41, started with no illusions about winning either race — but she plans to finish both, an unheard-of achievement for a rookie.

Yukon Quest

Jodi finished the Yukon Quest last Thursday, March 17, in seventh place. She was on the trail for 12 days, of which she and the dogs rested about half the time, usually at a check station or hospitality hut, though she carries enough straw for bedding to make a temporary camp along the trail if necessary. Only 13 of 25 mushers completed the course.

In an interview that can be seen on YouTube, Jodi credited the scores of race officials, veterinarians, and assistants of many kinds, all of whom are unpaid volunteers and endure unbelievable cold and weather, just as the mushers do.

In a telephone interview over the weekend, Jodi praised the strength and athleticism of her dogs. “Our dogs are amazing athletes, running with strength and enthusiasm at 40 or 50 below, breaking trail when the drifted snow covered the tracks of other sleds, which is tough for them to do,” she said.

Day and night means nothing to a musher. Jodi averages 50 to 80 miles between rests, depending on conditions. She often ran through the night when the conditions were favorable, but as she was about to leave one checkpoint at 1 am, the thermometer stood at 55 degrees below zero. She elected to wait there until the weather warmed above minus 50. It turned out she was there for 16 hours. “The welfare of the dogs is paramount,” she explained.

Jodi began the race with 14 dogs and finished with 11, leaving three dogs at checkpoints to be picked up by her assistants. Sled dogs wear booties, and at every rest she checked every foot of every dog, and she found one with a broken toenail. “Then one small female just got overtired,” she told The Times, “and another pulled a muscle and stiffened up.”

A 1,000-mile dogsled trip is dangerous. Jodi told The Times that one of the race leaders hit a place on a river where the ice had forced liquid water to the surface. “Ice is a living thing at extreme cold,” Jodi explained, “and behaves in ways no one understands.” The driver got wet and might have died of hypothermia if a following musher hadn’t seen him and helped him build a fire to dry out and warm up.

Jodi’s husband, Dan Kaduce, who was rookie-of-the-year in the Iditarod last year, also started the Yukon Quest, but he was running second when he and the leader, the victims of an inaccurate weather forecast, ran into howling winds, heavy snow, and minus 55 degrees on a very steep part of the course. Both men decided to abandon the race to get their dogs to safety.

Jodi’s biggest scare came after leaving Dawson in a snowstorm, when extraneous trail markers led her across a river to a dead-end. Jodi does not carry a GPS, and there is no cell phone reception in that part of Canada. Though mushers do carry an emergency satellite beacon, getting lost could prove fatal. Jodi did find her way out of trouble despite the storm, but in getting back on the trail, she got turned around and wound up back in Dawson, losing about four hours.

Jodi summed up her Yukon Quest experience this way: “It’s amazing that an experience can be so humbling and so empowering at the same time.”

Vineyard roots

Dogsledding is an unlikely pastime for a woman who grew up in Vineyard Haven. The daughter of Nancy and the late Bob Bailey, former owner of Island Transport, Inc., Jodi went to the Tisbury School and Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (class of 1987).

Nancy Bailey told The Times in a telephone interview from Florida, where she now lives, that Jodi was not an athlete at MVRHS. Her main extracurricular interest was the Minnesingers. However, she is an athlete now. Dogsledding is physically demanding, requiring both strength and endurance, and both she and her husband run marathons and triathlons to keep in shape for the trail.

Jodi could not estimate the percentage of the Yukon Quest in which she was running behind the sled, or even pushing the sled (called pedaling) to help the dogs, but it is considerable. Sometimes she pushes with one foot, like a skateboarder, or poles with a ski pole. All this under brutal conditions. She is an athlete’s athlete.

Leaving MVRHS after her junior year, Jodi completed high school at Suffield Academy in Connecticut, then went to Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. She encountered no sled dogs at Suffield, and little or no snow in Atlanta.

But she fell in love with Alaska in her junior year at Emory, when she undertook a six-credit summer study of Inuit storytelling at the University of Fairbanks. Returning to Alaska after graduation from Emory in 1991, she became an instructor in computers and personal relations for the University of Alaska’s Interior Aleutians Campus. Most of her teaching is done via phone or internet from the Fairbanks campus, near where she and her husband now live, but she travels extensively in remote parts of Alaska to set up programs. The university has given her the semester off to attempt the races.

Jodi met her husband, Dan Kaduce, through a common interest in the sport of skijoring — a skier is pulled behind a dog. She and Dan have abandoned skis for sleds, and expanded their Dew Claw Kennel, which now has about 60 dogs. Dan is a heavy-equipment operator, but in Alaska, that’s mainly summer work, and in the winter his focus is training sled dogs. According to the kennel’s website, Dew Claw is known for big, strong, happy teams, and it won the Vet’s Choice Award in the 2003 Yukon Quest. Because they have been raised and trained together, Dew Claw dogs do not fight with one another as some teams do.

Jodi has driven shorter races and done well. She was 18th in the Copper Basin 300 in January (Dan was 6th). This year’s project will be her first try at the super marathons of mushing. She and her husband do not drive races in tandem, and made separate preparations of the drop-bags of food, bedding, and supplies which are stashed along the race course, but Dan, who had driven the course before, was Jodi’s coach and mentor.

The Iditarod

Probably the most famous sled-dog race in the world, the Iditarod commemorates a famous emergency relay of dog sleds that carried diphtheria antitoxin from Anchorage to Nome in 1925, saving many lives when no other delivery was possible. This year’s race will start from Anchorage on March 5. If anything, it is a bit longer than the Yukon Quest, though Jodi says that veterans consider them about equal. An important difference is that the Iditarod covers wilderness far from roads and other amenities of civilization.

Now that Jodi has the Yukon Quest under her belt, she and Dan will sit down and talk about Jodi’s team for the Iditarod (Dan is not entered this year). They will choose the 16 strongest dogs of the 28 in their two Yukon Quest teams.

Vineyarders can follow Jodi’s progress in the Iditarod on the official web site at www.iditarod.com, at Dan and Jodi’s Dew Claw Kennels web site or on Jodi’s Facebook page. Jodi told The Times that the kennel is supported by corporate sponsors, including the company from whom they buy meat for the dogs, Bailey Farms (no relation). But she is even more touched by the individuals who have helped sponsor their teams. For more information go to www.dewclawkennel.com/.