Winter has been reluctant to release the Vineyard from its grasp. As Islanders eagerly await the actual arrival of spring and boating weather, Jodi Bailey, a native of Vineyard Haven who now calls Chatanika, Alaska, home, is preparing to take the skis off the sled she used to compete in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a thousand-mile race from Anchorage to Nome billed as “the last great race on Earth.”
Ms. Bailey, who attended Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School through her junior year before completing high school off-Island, moved to Alaska in 1991. By 1997 she had begun running sled dogs with her husband, Dan Kaduce. In 2009, she started qualifying for thousand-mile races, and in 2011, she became the first rookie to finish the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod back to back. She has since completed the Iditarod four times.
When and why did you leave the Island?
I left pretty much for school, and college. I went to Emory University in Atlanta. While I was down there, I started going to Alaska during the summers, and the summers there kinda convinced me that I wanted to give it a more long-term shot. I moved up to Alaska as soon as I graduated from the university.
I’ve heard that it casts a spell.
It does kind of ruin other parts of the United States for you. There are just so many possibilities. People forget how big it really is, and how much access to outdoor, usable space and recreation opportunities there are.
How did you discover mushing?
It wasn’t like the Iditarod or dog mushing was some great dream that moved me to Alaska. It sort of happened after I’d been here for a while — more accidental than on purpose, if that makes sense … I just started living here, and I started out ski-touring, which is when you put on crosscountry skis and have just one dog pull you. I slowly got into the dogs, and then my husband and I had a small kennel and we were running dogs with sleds. And he actually started racing before I did, and I watched him do it for a bunch of years and was like, “All right, I should try this.”
In 2011 you completed the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod back to back.
That year, I want to say, there were two weeks between. You get in a different mentality when you’re on the trail; you lose track of current events, and you don’t have things like dirty dishes. Everything’s very focused on what’s right in front of you and what you’re trying to accomplish, and it’s actually a nice clean mindset. I think in a lot of what we do in life, you’ve got your computer going, or your radio, or you’ve got phone messages to answer or emails to deal with … When you get out on the trail, everything you’re going to be able to use is already in your sled. It’s very streamlined.
What do you pack for?
Well, you’ve got your mandatory gear, which is stuff to help you care for the dogs and camp out if you need to. Those are things like snowshoes, an axe, a dog food cooker with fuel. Booties. And then you carry, obviously, a first aid kit. Mine is actually a little better stocked for dogs than for humans, but it can do double duty. And then a little sled repair kit, because if anything goes wrong out there, you’re gonna be the one who has to make it right enough to make it to the next checkpoint. You carry a sleeping bag, maybe some extra clothes or gloves, dog food and dog snacks, and then a little bit of human food. I carry a couple thermoses, and I have the ability to make boiling water on the trail if I need to.
Tell me about your worst moment on the trail this year.
We had one incident leaving the checkpoint of Shaktoolik, which is when you start to be out on the coast. It may not be the end of the earth, but it’s definitely on the bus route there. It’s cold, lonely, known for wind and extreme weather. That night it was really dark, not brutally cold, but it was a dark, cold, windy night, and my dogs went out and they were just like, “Yeah, we’re not feeling this.” In the end I decided it was in their best interest to go back to Shaktoolik and take a deep breath. I knew we had extra food there, extra gear there. So I brought them back in, let them spend another night in delightful downtown Shaktoolik, and when we took off the next day, maybe that extra rest, maybe the weather and the sun being out, they took off like a new team again.
And your best moment?
Maybe it was on the trip from White Mountain to Nome, when you’ve been climbing in the Topkok Hills, and the sun’s coming up, and you’re climbing and you’re climbing and you’re climbing, and you get to the top of one of the largest hills and look out, and you’ve actually climbed the last hill and you’re looking out over the sea ice and the coast, and you’re going to start down after that next section of trail and be on your way to safety, and this beautiful landscape opens up in front of you. It’s like a magical moment in place and time. Places that most people never get to see, and situations most people don’t ever put themselves in.
Get people out there long enough, hard enough, in enough extreme conditions, and in a way, it kind of has to change the way you look at things.
What’s the first thing you do after you cross the finish line in Nome?
After you do your gear check and sign in, and you get your dogs to the Nome dog lot — my friends and our handler had set up our Nome dog lot so the dogs all had really comfortable beds to crawl into — what did I do after that? I went to a restaurant and had a big huge meal. I think I ate like steak and eggs and a big salad, and like four cups of coffee. It’s weird ’cause you’re not used to sleeping regular hours, so you can’t sleep through the night when you get back, you kind of sleep for four hours and wake up and look around, trying to figure out where you are, wonder where your dogs are, and it’s like, “Oh, wait, yeah, it’s over.”
Can you give me a brief rundown of this year’s race?
As we went through the trail, I was actually pleased that things were much better than I expected. There’s something to be said for preparing yourself mentally for the worst, because then you’re never disappointed, and very often you get the reverse where you’re like, “Wait, that wasn’t as bad as I thought.”
In the Iditarod you expect over the course of 1,000 miles there’s gonna be some sections of low or no snow, you expect that you’re gonna have to cross some rivers, you expect that there can be situations of blowing snow, or no visibility. You can’t cross Alaska and not run into some interesting conditions. You have to remember that everybody’s going through the same trail, so just take a deep breath and figure out how to deal with it.
On the whole, I think the [dog] team did really really well. During the heat of the day, and I think you probably saw this on a lot of teams, everybody would end up slowing way down. The dogs aren’t really geared for hot-weather travel … You’d be surprised how warm it can actually get out there. Especially for the dark-coated dogs.
There’s always a couple of little mishaps. I had to stop at one point in time after a few shallow water crossings. The water had gotten in the braking system of my sled and frozen things up, so I had to stop and defrost my brake once.
What about rest stops?
The dogs are getting a solid five, five and a half hours of real rest. The first thing that happens is they get fed and put to bed. You put down their straw somewhere and undo their tug, so they know they’re not pulling anything, and they’re just like, “Oh yeah, we’re down, goodnight.”
But the musher’s got so much additional work to do at any given point, repacking their sled, fixing their sled, preparing the next meal to give the dogs, doing any massage or anything that needs to get done, On that six-hour stop, the musher’s lucky — an efficient musher — to get three hours of sleep.
How do you prepare your dogs?
We have a kennel with about 24 dogs that could potentially could have been Iditarod dogs, that we began training as early as August and September … You slowly try and figure out from the group you’re working with who your top 16 are gonna be. Closer to race date, they have a series of physical screenings they go through, and at that point in time you narrow your choice down to 20 possible dogs. Then on race morning, you actually pick the 16 that are gonna go. You can always send a dog home if they’re having a problem, but you don’t add any additional dogs.
Do you have favorite dogs?
Oh, all of them. They’re unique individuals, and the dogs that we run were all actually born here, so they have been with us every day of their lives.
Born in your kennel?
Yeah. Like in my living room. So you get to know them incredibly personally. We had a bigger litter named after the Little Rascals. You’ve got a Spanky, a Stymie, a Buckwheat, an Alfalfa, Petey, and Janet, and they all grew up together as one big pack on the property, but they each have their own personalities and quirks. Their mom is on the property, a dog named Sweet Pea. She’s always been a real vocal dog, and so all of her puppies are the same way. They’ll look right at you practically like they’re trying to talk, and just howl away at you, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
What’s the relationship with them like after a long race?
You really get in sync with your team in a way that you just don’t seem to do on shorter trips. You get in this micro-nap-sleep-and-move cycle with your team. So there’s a lot of a shared solitude with them that you wouldn’t experience if you just went for a run every day, or just went out somewhere overnight. It’s pretty special. I think the fact that these dogs were all born here, to see them go from being puppies on the property, then to develop to the point where they have the athletic capacity and the experience to be able to tackle something like the Iditarod … it’s pretty cool.
Do you have family still on the Vineyard?
I do. My brother Skip Bailey and his wife Carol, and my nephew Cord.
They’re probably all rooting for you from the Island as you race.
Watching their crazy sister off doing bizarre things in a far-away place. You know, it’s kind of fun, especially for my hometown paper, because I didn’t even know mushing existed when I was a kid. You can become a little bit myopic based on geography. Now I actually do something I didn’t even know existed when I lived there. It just kind of reminds you that the possibilities are out there, and some of the opportunities may seem a little bizarre, but you never know what might happen.
When was the last time you were back on the Island?
I went back this fall just to visit with family for a couple days, and it was not during the tourist season. But it still seemed like there’s been a lot of development since I was a kid there.
You’ve left a place that is developing for a place that is on the very edge of development.
Yeah, and I’m OK with that. I don’t even live in town, I live on the edge of town. I think it’s cool … you can still kind of come up and invent yourself in Alaska. The career path is not quite so clearly painted on the road in front of you.
We own our property, my husband built our house, and we both work as well. Not traditional jobs — guided mushing tours and custom excursions. And I’ve been a guide on a glacier. My husband’s a builder. We still have to work, we just don’t have the traditional office and a nametag kind of job. It took a while for my poor mom, when she was still going back East, to say, “My daughter’s a dog musher.”
More information about Jodi Bailey and her sled dogs can be found at dewclawkennel.com.