Angie Taggart and her team participate in the Ketchikan Fourth of July parade.
Story last updated at 11/18/2009 - 11:59 am
KETCHIKAN - In Interior Alaska, it is not uncommon to find a team of dogs pulling a sled loaded with a well-bundled musher along any given stretch of open road or trail. At the very least, one is likely to see a truck with a makeshift dog kennel built onto its bed. It was just this kind of Interior Alaska experience that first piqued the interest of Angie Taggart, a Southeast Alaskan raised in Ketchikan, in dog mushing. That initial interest built over many years from an enjoyment in watching the races to a desire to run the Iditarod in the spring of 2011.
Having completed a teacher certification at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, Taggart accepted a position at Pitka's Point, a rural Alaska village of about 100 people that is located on the Yukon River. Like many rural Alaska communities, dog mushing is still very much a part of daily life in Pitka's Point. According to Taggart, many of the locals would run dogs and often travelled for mushing races. So when a fellow teacher invited her to watch the end of the Iditarod in Nome, she jumped at the opportunity.
As an avid outdoorswoman, Taggart said that she stood at the finish line thinking, "I wonder what it would be like to do the Iditarod." That was all it took; the seed had been planted. It would only take about ten years for Taggart's dream to become the plan she now has.
In 2000, Taggart approached DeeDee Jonrowe at a race and asked her what it would take to become a dog handler. Taggart said that Jonrowe asked her one thing, "Do you have a strong back?" Taggart said "yes" and two weeks later she was in Willow working with Jonrowe. This was Taggart's first introduction to what it would take to train for the Iditarod. She worked with Jonrowe throughout the 2001 Iditarod season, training the puppies to become familiar with the harnesses and to pull their own weight.
The following fall, Taggart took a position at Houghtaling Elementary School in Ketchikan, teaching the second grade. While she still wanted to run the Iditarod, her year working with Jonrowe had taught her the expense of training for the race, and the time commitment. So for the next eight years, Taggart put the mushing plan on the back burner, though she still attended the start or finish of the Iditarod each year.
During this time in Ketchikan, Taggart befriended Ray Redington Jr., a grandson of Joe Redington, the Iditarod founder. When Redington learned of Taggart's interest in running the Iditarod, he encouraged her to train. Finally, this year, Redington offered his facility outside Wasilla, his gear, and dogs for her to run the races she would need to in order to qualify. Taggart took her chance.
To qualify for the Iditarod, Taggart signed up for the Knik 200, a race that takes place in Willow. This first qualifying race, despite its travails, convinced Taggart that it was a challenge she wanted to undertake. Taggart said, "many times on that race I was discouraged and distraught." Not only did she face temperatures that dropped to 48 below zero, but she suffered from frostbite on one of her toes, and faced a fearful moment along the trail when her dogs refused to move forward. She finished anyway, several hours later than expected and winning the Red Lantern prize-the award given for coming in last, which became a memento of her accomplishment.
Taggart has now qualified for the Iditarod, having completed her 500 miles over the course of two separate races, and is fundraising to train for the 2011 Iditarod. She has raised about $20,000 of the $80,000 she will need to cover expenses for nearly a year of training and feeding her dogs, and for gear. Over the next seven months, she will be fundraising through many different events.
Taggart will be the featured guest at Family Night, held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Nov. 19 at the Children's Library at 629 Dock Street in Ketchikan. She will also host and produce the Monthly Grind at 7 p.m. on Jan. 16 at the Saxman Tribal House, and she will give a presentation for the Friday Insights event at the Alaska Discovery Center on Friday, Feb. 26th. Further information on Taggart's fundraising, and a link to donate to her Iditarod run, are available on her website at http://mushingadventures.blogspot.com.
When asked what it meant to Taggart to compete in the Iditarod, it was difficult for her to tie it to one thing.
"I love to be outdoors," she said. "I have kayaked the Yukon and done the Chilkoot. I get my mind set on something and I do it."
But it isn't all about the challenges and the thrill, though she admits that is part of it. For Taggart, there is something spiritual about the experience as well; it's about being in a place not many people had been to.
"It's the great vastness of it all," she said, "It's so peaceful, so quiet-I just hear the dogs panting and the swoosh of the runner."
Kelly Manning is a poet and writer from Juneau.