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PUBLISHED: 4:03 PM on Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Auke Bay woman to compete in Iditarod
A typical winter day for Deborah Bicknell is filled with temperatures well below zero with more than 20 eager canines ready to race. There are 22 Alaskan Huskies to be exact at the Temakwa Kennels located in Tagish, a village in the Yukon Territory of Canada.

Bicknell, originally from Center Harbor, N.H., resides in Juneau when she isn't training for long distance sled races. She has been working with sled dogs since she was 11. In 1957, Deborah's pet Saint Bernard pulled her sled through her first race and since then she has competed in World Champion sprint races to the Yukon Quest and many more.

In 1995 Bicknell and her husband bought property in Tagish, Yukon after realizing that Juneau's climate was not ideal for sled dogs and preparing for races.

Bicknell's dream of finishing the Iditarod has chased her as much as she has pursued it. "I retired three years ago and I kept saying I was done but would then go back to it. I bought 14 dogs from my original team back that I had sold," said Bicknell, and then added, "my little buddies and I are going to finish this."

In the 2007 Iditarod Bicknell faced unforeseen challenges that postponed her dream once again. Bicknell made it to Rohn, the eighth checkpoint out of 25.


Courtesy photo
  Deborah Bicknell on the Iditarod course2007.
"It was unfortunate, the signs had disappeared and we were on glare ice, couldn't see anything. We turned around and went up river, and that's when the snow and ice shifted and I felt the sled tipping, there was nothing we could do, I fell in the river at 2 a.m. By the next day at noon I was dry thanks to the good gear I had, but we couldn't make a fire until later."

This was at Ptarmigan Pass at what they call "Hell's Gate." It changes from day to day, shifting around. "That's what happened, we weren't going fast enough and I felt it shift and knew we were going in," said Bicknell, "They found me at the end of the next day. I had not even thought of scratching from the race, that thought has never entered my mind my entire life."

After being reminded by one of the sweepers that the next leg of the race was the hardest and having had a knee replacement nine years ago in her left knee and in need of one in her right, she remembered what she had said before the race, that she didn't want to get hurt. It wasn't an easy decision but a smart one to withdraw and start training to finish strong next year.

"I'm a survivor, and anything can go wrong, no matter how much you do right," said Bicknell. "I would like to finish it, I've won the world, the Canadian, finished the Yukon quest and I would like to finish the Iditarod, and then I will belong to a very special group. There aren't that many people who have finished the Yukon and the Iditarod."

When asked if she has any fears surfacing from last time for the upcoming race she said, "It's funny I don't remember the pain from falling in or anything, it was just one of those things where I knew what I had to do to get through the night and stay alive. This year they are going to put up permanent tripods for the signs so that the same issue does not occur for people."

The upcoming race set for March 1, also will be sending trail breakers out before they let the Iron Dog snowmobile race out before the Iditarod so the trail will be set better.

"Last year it was pretty torn up in places," said Bicknell who just attended the mandatory rookie meeting in Anchorage in which they go over the trail, have speakers come in from previous races and go over checkpoints, drops and suggested equipment.

"It's a great meeting; I've always been a fan of the saying 'learn how to do it right, then modify what works for you after.' I've been racing all my life, but some people haven't and this is a big help to prepare the real 'rookies,'" Bicknell said.

Training has been going well for the excited sled team made up entirely of Alaskan Huskies between the ages of four and eight at Temakwa Kennels.

"There is a little bit of snow in Tagish but we are still on four wheelers. Right now we are using South Kennel Road, by Johnsons Crossing. They have a little bit more snow up there. All our runs right now are from 60-100 miles. We are getting into the longer runs now. We have already done a 100-mile run; will take a weekend off and then do a 200 mile run. We are trying to get the dogs in their best shape, then in February we will pull back the length of the runs a bit. They will be in prime condition, so before the race we will concentrate on attitude and appetite, those are two very important words!"

The dogs must train to carry a sufficient amount of supplies for each leg of the race as well. Sleds used to carry a lot more when there weren't as many checkpoints. They have built more checkpoints around the trail over the years. Still there are a lot of essentials to carry.

"Dog blankets, this year I will carry an extra drag break because last year it broke, all the necessary clothing, dog snacks (which they need about every two hours on the trail) and bowls, but we will not be overloaded with food," said Bicknell.

For the Yukon quest her sled weighed around 300lbs. The checkpoints are over 200 miles apart. The longest Iditarod leg is about 90 miles and there are a few cabins scattered throughout.

"A lot of people don't use many checkpoints because they don't want other competitors to know where they are in the race. But I just want to finish. Some people bring a lot of stuff they don't really need and by the third checkpoint they're having a yard sale," she said.

So far there are 110 teams signed up for the race and 80 will start.

This is the largest number of teams to ever sign up in the history of the Iditarod. "I don't know if all 110 teams have qualified yet though," said Bicknell. In order to qualify an entrant must have run two 200-mile races and one 300-mile race.

The legendary Iditarod in its 36th year, runs from Anchorage to Nome and is over 1150 miles, has 25 checkpoints, and 23 legs. It is sometimes called "the last great race on Earth." Teams are allowed to start with 16 dogs.

Bicknell said, "I will probably start with 14, they are big dogs, and we are an older more powerful team." Bicknell estimates it will take her 12-14 days to complete the race, "I'm hoping for 12."

"This will be the last year no matter what though, I'm 63 and its time to move on, find somewhere else, maybe spend some time in Hawaii," Bicknell said.

"I would like these dogs to go to good homes though, that's part of the reason for the Web site we've been making. I will keep my lead dogs but the others I want to give to good homes, to do skijoring or what not."

Besides shifting snow, ice, cold weather injuries for dogs and humans alike, not to mention her knees, Bicknell also has funding to worry about.

Such an endeavor is not a cheap one. There is information on how to become a sponsor as well as current sponsors on her website, www.deborahbicknell.net.

"I would like sponsors, they are very helpful, the entry-fee alone is $3,000 not to mention the two tons of dog food coming in next Tuesday."

Bicknell also would like to have a gathering to celebrate and see her off before her last race, "the people in Juneau have always supported me." Regardless of how her last race goes she says of her lifestyle "It has made me a survivor, and given me a lot of enjoyment but I wouldn't recommend it for everyone, I mean it's a 365 day job, its hard to go on vacations, but it has all made me stronger."

Up to date information on the race can be found at www.iditarod.com.

Meet the dogs and read Deborah Bicknell's Musher Journal on her Web site www.deborahbicknell.net


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