AKIAK, Alaska – To Mike Williams Jr., Yu’pik, and other Alaska Native mushers, the Iditarod is about the culture, about traveling the way of the ancestors and staying alive a way of life.
This year, for Williams, it’s also a way to provide for a growing family.
Williams, 29, became the father of twins on November 15 (he also has a stepson). His new sons, Daniel and Kohle, were born prematurely and have been staying with their mom at her parents’ house near the hospital in Bethel – just in case, and because their first shots are coming up.
You don’t casually travel an ice road between Bethel and Akiak along the Kuskokwim River in winter. So Williams spends his days getting the house ready for his family’s homecoming, working with his dogs, and preparing for the Iditarod, which starts March 1.
“It’s naturally pretty tough. I have not had very much time with the kids,” Williams told ICTMN. “They could come home now, but the trail is so bad and the runways have been slick.”
And so, he readies for his fifth Iditarod.
“It’s become more of a way to provide for them,” Williams said of mushing. “The better I do, the more I can do for them.”
Mushing is not an easy way to pay the rent. Williams, who fishes when he’s not mushing, has $56,900 in earnings in four Iditarods and finished a career-best eighth in 2012. Finishing in the top 10 in the Iditarod will yield a cash award of about $60,000–and a new 4×4 pickup for first place.
Not a bad paycheck for one event but, according to Williams’s dad, Iditarod veteran Mike Sr., it costs at least $50,000 a year to properly care for and train a team. Sponsorships help; Mike Jr.’s 11 sponsors include local companies and families, mushing legend George Attla, and the Calista Corporation, the Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Athabascan regional corporation.
Fatherhood, caring for his dogs, preparing his team to mush 1,000 miles of some of the roughest and most beautiful terrain in the world — frozen rivers, thick forests, desolate tundras – is a lot to think about.
“It’s going to be a little tough, but he’s prepared for it,” Mike Sr. said of his son. “I’m doing the food drops, he’s focusing on his training and his twins.”
Team Williams is rallying around Junior. Mike Sr., a veteran of 15 Iditarods and recipient of the most inspirational musher award in 2013, is staying out of this year’s race partly because of the expense, and partly to ensure his son has the best team.
Mike Jr.’s mom and sisters are preparing his meals for the trail – high-energy foods like caribou steaks, moose steaks, dried fish, muktuk, and Yu’pik ice cream, made from seal oil and berries. The dogs’ diet consists of beef, fish, kibble and whale blubber.
“They’re eating like kings,” Mike Jr. said.
Dad and son raced in the Kuskokwim 300, a highly regarded mid-distance race January 17-19. It proved a challenging pre-Iditarod test, particularly for the yearlings in the Williams kennel.
“It’s been really tough this year to train,” Mike Jr. said. “We haven’t had a week of snow. The trails have been slick. In the Kusko, it snowed the week before, then it melted. We were ankle-deep in water for 50 miles. Then the slush turned to crust. It was tough on [the dogs’] feet.”
Mike Jr. was pleased with his team’s performance. He finished the K-300 in 44 hours 28 minutes, good enough for 11th place and $3,190 (the winner, two-time Iditarod veteran Rohn Buser, received $22,000). “The dogs did better than I expected,” Mike Jr. said.
In the Iditarod, Mike Jr.’s team will be comprised of some veteran dogs and some younger ones his dad ran in the K-300.
After the K-300, the dogs got a week off. On January 27, Mike Jr. and team were moving again. He’s testing possible lead dogs.
“Chief is young and has been taking the lead position,” he said. “Rusty just started leading. Emo has been my leader for a lot of years, but he’s getting older.”
When Mike Jr. talks about the Iditarod, his love of being out there on the ancestral trails with his dogs is evident: The silent beauty of the Alaska range, the tough challenge of the Farewell Burn, going over hills and rivers into Athabascan country.
“Seeing all the changes in the trail — you’re in the Interior one day and on the coast a few hours later,” he said. “The coastal people are very friendly, very welcoming. It’s nice going through there.”
He looks forward to sharing that experience with his sons, and knows that they’ll feel compelled to mush.
“Mushing is in their blood,” he said.
Alaska Native mushers in the 2014 Iditarod
John Baker, Inupiat, is mushing in his 19th Iditarod. He won in 2011 and has 13 Top 10 finishes; his 2011 finish set a record of 8 days 18 hours 46 minutes 39 seconds. He finished ninth in the Kuskokwim 300, aka the K-300, in mid-January.
Richie Diehl, Dena'ina Athabascan, is mushing in his second Iditarod. He finished 36th in 2013. He finished 15th in this year’s K-300.
Peter Kaiser, Yu’pik, is mushing in his fifth Iditarod. He finished eighth in 2011 and fifth in 2012. He finished eighth in the K-300.
Michael Williams Jr., Yu’pik, is mushing in his fifth Iditarod. He finished eighth in 2012. He finished 11th in the K-300.