Gwenn Bogart has always had a love of animals, and her professional careers have long reflected that connection; from horsemanship to founding an international breast cancer support group called “Casting for Recovery,” that uses fly fishing for both mental and physical recovery.
In March, the Manchester native and her animals, this time a pack of sled dogs, will join 70 other individuals in hopes of completing the Iditarod. Bogart is the first Vermonter to compete in the race since 2007.
The “last great race” as it’s commonly known, spans nearly 1,000 miles and began over 40 years ago as an event to test the best sled dog mushers. Today, following a ceremonial start in Anchorage, the journey begins with a restart in Willow. From there, the race runs through the Rainy Pass of the Alaskan Range into widely separated towns and villages and along the shore of the Bering Sea, until it finally reaches the western town of Nome. The trail winds through a harsh landscape of tundra and forests, over hills and mountain passes, and across rivers.
Bogart first started thinking about running in the Iditarod in 2009 after traveling to Alaska as a spectator. Shortly after, she relocated to Wasilla, Alaska, following her engagement to a former Iditarod Air Force member.
In 2012, she realized she had a “burning desire” to mush dogs and was given the opportunity to work alongside Iditarod veteran Jim Lanier. Bogart began training for the 2014 Iditarod in March of that year, alongside Lanier and Ray Redington Jr., grandson of Iditarod founder Joe Redington Sr. While Bogart failed to qualify for the 2014 race, her dreams have become a reality for 2015.
In order to qualify, mushers must race-and finish in good standing- 750 miles, including one race that is a minimum of 300 miles long. Bogart’s journey began with the Sheep Mountain 200/300, where she and a team of Northern White’s finished fourth in March of 2013.
“The start of any dog race is a scene of total chaos. The dogs, all amped up, bark and leap, lunging in their harnesses,” she wrote in an online post following the race. “The cacophony is loud, very loud and as a rookie musher the “all of it” worked on undoing me, as nerves were already on edge. But, I kept my head clear and did not let it undo me and stayed calm within myself.”
200 miles and nearly two days later, Bogart’s team crossed the finish line, successfully completing their first Iditarod qualifier.
“As the finish line came into view I had that heart swelling feeling again and made a mental note again, of how lucky I am so be alive and able to do what I love to do,” she said.
Bogart’s next race was the Copper Basin 300, Alaska’s toughest 300-mile dog sled race, this past January.
“Many Iditarod mushers said, when they asked me what races I had entered, if you can complete the Copper, then you can do the Iditarod,” she said.
Again, Bogart successfully completed the qualifier, leaving one more 300-mile race between her and the Iditarod. Originally, Bogart planned to race in the Yukon Quest, but pulled out after her success in the Copper Basin in favor of the Northern Lights 300. After a heat wave forced the race to be cancelled, Bogart began to worry about her time to qualify. The Iditarod committee allowed rookies to sign up for the event, although their participation was dependent on their completion of a second 300-mile race prior to the event. For 2015, Bogart plans compete once again in the Copper Basin, the Northern Lights 300, and if needed, the Yukon Quest 300.
Just what is Bogart in for throughout the race?
Unpredictable weather patterns have often been found on the trail. During last year’s race, warm conditions on one end of the trail forced sleds to break apart and even crash, while on the other side, white-out conditions on the Bering Sea forced competitors to seek help, including four-time Iditarod winner Jeff King.
Top competitors finish the race in 8-9 days, while most mushers take between 12-14. There are 23 checkpoints mushers must stop at, where dog handlers will meet them.
For the most part, the race is a solitary effort, with no contact with anyone but handlers at the checkpoints.
The “last great race” is truly a journey of dogs and mushers against the elements, a journey that Bogart and her team are ready for come March 7. For more information on Bogart and to track her journey to the Iditarod, visit gwennsmushpuppies.com.