Hundreds of dog mushers have run the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race during its 45-year history. Many of them have become fan favorites.
One who has become a legend will retire her pink parka following the 2018 race. She will be among the horde starting out on Anchorage’s Fourth Avenue bound for Nome at Saturday’s ceremonial start. The race will restart at Willow on Sunday. Her team will definitely get the most attention of those entered.
For DeeDee Jonrowe her 36th run will not be a competition but a farewell tour crowning a racing career that has spanned some 40 years.
She placed second in 1993, 1996 and 1998. A bridesmaid three times, she has never won the Iditarod. But the accolades that have come her way far outweigh that one little blemish.
Taking the trail for one last time will give her a chance to express her appreciation to the people along the route, her fans everywhere, and the many volunteers and sponsors who have supported the race over the years, she has said. It will be an emotional time for the beloved musher as well as for her fans.
Once off the trail for what she says will be the last time, Alaska’s First Lady of Mushing plans to keep the dogs she considers family.
She is looking at training dogs for agility competition and perhaps working with dogs for police service. Primarily, she wants to spend more time at home and with husband Mike who has helped her care for the dogs throughout their 41 years together.
She will remember the many years of racing…some of those memories enjoyable and some much less so. A second book may also be in order. Her first, “Iditarod Dreams: A Year in the Life of Alaskan Sled Dog Racer DeeDee Jonrowe” co-authored with Lew Freedman, details her 1994 race. She also discusses the care of the animals and information surrounding the historic race.
Jonrowe’s first race was in 1978 when she entered the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous 75-mile three-day sprint event.
Two years later, she took part in her first Iditarod, placing 24th. Her worst finish was the next year when she dropped to 31st place. In her previous 35 races, she finished in the top 10 a total of 16 times. She had to scratch three times—twice following injuries and once after her dogs flat refused to continue when they encountered storms with fierce headwinds. She did not enter in 1982 or in 1985 and 1986. In addition to the Iditarod, she has competed in the Copper Basin 300, which she won in 2001, the Klondike 300 and the John Bear Grease Marathon—the 400 mile race in Duluth, Minn., named for a musher whose dog teams hauled loads of up to 700 pounds of mail between 1879 and 1899.
It is not Jonrowe’s racing record, or the amount of prize money won that has made her the world’s favorite musher. It is her unbounded spirit.
In 2002 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Just three weeks after taking the last of her series of debilitating chemotherapy sessions, she was lined up for the start of the 2003 Iditarod.
She not only finished but came in in 18th place, an achievement that prompted her colleagues to vote her as the most inspirational musher. She became a supporter of the American Cancer Society and co-chair of that group’s Relay for Life fund-raiser. She also has been active with the Girl Scouts and the Special Olympics, raising money and awareness for both.
Among her Iditarod accomplishments, in addition to the “most inspirational” title in both 1993 and 2013, she won the sportsmanship award in 1981 and the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award for dog care in 1991. She also just happened to set the record for the fastest time for a female musher for her 1998 time of 9 days, 8 hours, 26 minutes and 10 seconds, finishing in second place behind Jeff King.
Refusing to let cancer slow her down was just one of several personal struggles for which Jonrowe is known.
In 1996 she was involved in a vehicle accident on the Parks Highway’s Nenana River bridge. Her grandmother was killed while she and Mike were both severely injured. Despite the injuries, she finished fourth in the 1997 Iditarod and the next year came in second. The injuries continued to cause problems over the years and figured into her decision to retire.
DeeDee Ann Stout was born Dec. 20, 1953, in Frankfort, Germany, where her father, Kenneth Stout, was stationed with the military. She went to school in Virginia before coming to Alaska in 1971 when the family was transferred to Ft. Richardson. She attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, graduating with a degree in biological science and renewable resources.
Following his retirement from the Army, Ken Stout was to serve as a member of the Anchorage Assembly. A former head of the Alaska Republican Party, he represented East Anchorage from 2004-2007. He died in 2013 at the age of 84. His wife and DeeDee’s mother Peggy died of cancer in 2015.
In 1977 she married Mike Jonrowe, the son of Roger and Dorothy Jonrowe of Chugiak. Ten years later the younger Jonrowes obtained property in Willow and built a home there where she raised and trained her dogs.
That home was destroyed in the disastrous June 2015 Sockeye Fire which burned dozens of homes, including those of several mushers. Jonrowe was able to save all but one of her dogs but lost a cat and several chickens.
The home was a complete loss. She was able to retrieve only a few valuables before fleeing the home ahead of the flames.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.