Edmonds woman selected for sled dog expedition team

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Jan Steves will cover Alaska’s frozen rivers, tundra and sea ice in the 800-mile Serum Run

Three winters ago, Edmonds resident Jan Steves combined three of her favorite things: mountains, snow and dogs.

An avid skier and instructor, Steves had spent her free time climbing mountains and snow shoeing. She was ready for a bigger challenge.

Steves trained with Iditarod veteran Perry Solmonson, from Plain, Wash., for two months before competing in her first sled dog race, the 2008 Cascade Quest, a 200-mile Iditarod qualifier.

“It was the first time I drove a (dog sled) team,” she said from Alaska. “It was the experience of a lifetime.”

Last May, Steves and her snow machine partner Ricky Klement, of Colorado, were selected as one of 15 dog teams to participate in the 2011 Col. Norman Vaughan Serum Run ’25 Expedition. She is one of four mushers from Washington.

Twenty days on the trail

The 800-mile Serum Run will cover Alaska’s frozen rivers, tundra and sea ice from Nenana to Nome, where temperatures dropped to 19 degrees Fahrenheit earlier this week. Mushers, snow machiners and more than 150 sled dogs will retrace the original Serum Run. The team departs Nenana on Feb. 20.

“It’s just amazing I’m actually spending 20 days on the trail with my dogs,” Steves said. “I can only imagine what it’ll be like.”

Steves said the mission of the expedition is two-fold. The run commemorates the original team of 20 men and their dog teams who delivered diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925. Additionally, the team will help raise awareness throughout Alaska of the need for inoculations and the importance of immunizations, preventative health and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. Along the trail, the team will stop at villages and talk with children and adults about the importance of healthy lifestyle choices and inoculations.

“It is important to remember this story and keep it alive,” she said. “It is important to honor the men and dogs that virtually saved the life of Nome. It is even more important to honor our children by educating them about their health.”

Outdoor background

Raised in Edmonds, Steves’ family — including her travel guru brother Rick Steves — was involved with the outdoors, particularly anything that called for being in the snow. At 17, Steves taught skiing for the Fiorini Ski School at Snoqualmie Pass. After getting married and raising three children, Steves got involved with the Everett Mountaineers, climbing mountains and snow shoeing.

Steves said her daughters think it’s awesome their mom is a musher. Her son is a little more concerned, though.

“They know it’s my passion and they’re supportive,” she said.

Winter training

Leading up to the Serum Run Expedition, Steves has been training with Ted English out of English Kennel in Willow, Alaska. She spent September training and returned in November with plans to stay in Alaska until March.

Training began in the early fall when she drove a 4-wheeler along the trail with her dogs. Once the snow started falling, she switched to leading her dogs along the sled trails.

“We build the miles up slowly,” she said. “They’re athletes and need appropriate training.”

At the end of the month, the group will participate in a shakedown weekend where they will work together making trail signs and preparing for the expedition.

“Everyone has to work together and share in the preparation of this,” Steves said. “We’ll have to make sure our group is cohesive.”

This winter season, Steves has competed in or will compete in the Alaskan Excursions 120, the Knik 200, the Don Bowers Memorial Race 200/300 and the Willow Tug 300. Her dream is to qualify for the Iditarod again.

But there is little time to waste in preparing for the expedition.

Last week Steves spent five hours one day with a chainsaw clearing trees that had fallen onto the sled trails. She also cut up 50 pound blocks of meat to bag and freeze for the dogs.

The Serum Run will be Steves’ first expedition. Expeditions differ from races, which are competive and can be solitary.

“It’s the leisurely way to Nome,” she said. “It’ll be fun because we’ll get to experience villages and the scenery. And there’s camaraderie with your partners.”

The team has to equip the snow machine with all the necessary equipment, spare parts, tools and tow ropes anticipated to finish the expedition. Her gear will need to protect her from temperatures dropping to minus-40 degrees.

“I’ve never been in that,” she said. “It’s extremely cold.”

Expensive expedition

A pricey endeavour, Steves will pay about $1,000 on snow booties for her dogs alone. She relies on sponsors to help with the costs.

The team needs to prepare meals for themselves and the dogs and package them in vacuum-sealed bags. Along the trip, she will melt snow and drop the pre-cooked meat into the boiling water and add kibble so the dogs will have a warm meal and one that hydrates them. Meals for the dogs include cut-up lamb, chicken, beef, salmon and poultry skins stuffed in bags. Dog sleds will be inspected and tugs, necklines and booties will be made for the dogs. The last task will be to organize drop bags that will be flown to designated villages along the trail.

Along the trail Klement will ride ahead of her to mark the trail for hazards and set up parking at their designated villages and hang back along the trail.

In March 2008, Steves volunteered for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. With a trail spanning from Anchorage to Nome, competitors cover 1,150 miles of mountain ranges, frozen rivers and dense forest in 10 to 17 days. Steves helped out in Willow and at the checkpoint in Ruby where she checked in and parked teams, among other tasks.

She returned to Willow, Alaska, the following two winters for training. During the 2009-10 season, Steves finished the Alaska Excursions 120, the Don Bowers Memorial Race 200 and the Klondike 300, qualifying for the Iditarod 2011.

One of her favorite parts of mushing is listening to her favorite music on the trail: Bronn Journey’s harp music.

“It so wonderfully accompanies the vision that I have when I am driving my team through the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness,” she said. “Mushing is my passion and when on the trail with my dogs, well, it is hard to describe. To fully understand, you would have to be on the runners with me.”

Source: The Enterprise Newspapers

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