Justin Savidis was one of the frontrunners about 300 miles into the 2010 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, his first attempt at the grueling trek, when he pulled into McGrath minus one sled dog, Whitey-Lance. It was about minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit at 4 a.m. on that March day when something had spooked the dog. Whitey had backed out of his harness amid a tangle of dogs and had taken off into the harsh wintry Alaskan outback. One by one, other mushers passed Savidis who, bound by race rules and fueled by his wife’s clear directive, was to stay in McGrath until he found Whitey. “I told him, ‘Don’t come back without my dog,’ ” Rebecca Savidis recollects. It had long been her dream to be a musher in the Iditarod, but injury forced her to permanently change course. Her dream instead became manifested in Justin’s first race. The dogs were their children then, as they are now, and when Whitey went missing, there was no question Justin had to find him.
Justin and Rebecca (both BA’02) had met in a French class their senior year at the University of Utah. He was majoring in parks, recreation, and tourism, and she was studying communications. Their first date was climbing rocks up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Less than two weeks later, they were engaged. “You know when you know,” Justin says about meeting Rebecca. “It’s hard to describe.”
A year later, they married at Bridal Veil Falls near Provo, surrounded by mountain bikers, climbers, friends, and dogs. “It was very simple, very much like us,” Rebecca says of the short ceremony.
Until late summer of 2004, they lived in a tiny log cabin in a small mountain community nestled in Tollgate Canyon outside of Park City. They used a snow machine to access their home in the deep winter, occasionally employing their first two dogs, Tenzing and Luna, to haul groceries on a sled to the cabin.
Justin worked as an instructor for at-risk youth at a residential treatment center, teaching photography, whitewater kayaking, and snowboarding. Rebecca was in charge of developing a human resources function for a startup company. “It was a lot of work, long hours, and a blast,” Rebecca recalls. But it was a means toward a goal, a dream in the mind’s eye that had the couple moving to Alaska and Rebecca someday competing in the Iditarod. It was all part of Rebecca’s “master plan,” one that had germinated for years.
Childhood letters to Santa and school reports Rebecca wrote, which her parents saved, are early evidence of her love of dogs and her unexplainable fixation on the Iditarod, a race that starts the first weekend of March and has been run every year since 1973. The race’s ceremonial start is in Anchorage. The next day, dozens of mushers and their teams of 16 dogs take off from Willow for a roughly 1,000-mile trek to Nome, Alaska. The race, which celebrates the state’s long history of dog mushing, follows a trail once used as a sort of highway in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Although no musher has ever died during the Iditarod, the terrain is often treacherous. Racers and dogs trek over mountain passes, through open water, in between ice jams with blocks as big as houses, through blizzards and whiteout conditions, and across remote landscapes that last for miles without signs of human life between small towns and settlements of Eskimo, Athabaskan, and other Alaskan Natives. The dangers are balanced somewhat by the course’s beauty, particularly at night under crystalline skies without any light pollution, paired with a stunning quiet and calm.
During the years when Rebecca was growing up, women were winning the Iditarod. Libby Riddles was the first woman to win it, in 1985. Susan Butcher then won the race in 1986 and three more times over the next four years.
While Rebecca was a freshman at Idaho’s Ricks College, where her father Ron Haun was the football coach, she was cross-country skiing with a friend one winter day when they met two recreational dogsled teams on a trail near the Montana border. One of the mushers stopped and taught Rebecca a bit about mushing. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s what I’m going to do someday,’ ” she says.
After meeting and marrying Justin, also known as AJ (after the so-called angry Jesus he resembles with a full beard when he’s mad), Step One of her master plan was moving to Alaska. “I called AJ one day and asked him what he thought about applying for jobs in Alaska,” she says. “His response was simple, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever.’ I don’t think he took me seriously.” But Rebecca sent out résumés for both of them, and after a long search, they both received job offers on the same day. They followed Justin’s offer to Anchorage, where he took a job working for the Great Alaska Council of the Boy Scouts of America as a camp administration director.
“We made the decision, then told our families,” Rebecca says. “We are ‘all-in’ type of people. Once the decision was made, we went full force into making the move.” On August 13, 2004, they loaded up a 14-foot trailer with the few belongings they had left after selling stuff they didn’t need, and they drove for six days, living on beef jerky and Snickers bars. Among their first furnishings after moving to Anchorage were a bookshelf, coffee table, and desk that Justin made out of wood from downed trees. (He had once made a promise to Rebecca that he would give her everything he was able to make with his hands.)
But Willow was where they wanted to be for a run at the Iditarod. Within a year of moving to Anchorage, they found and purchased an old 20-acre fixer-upper homestead in Willow (population less than 3,000), across the street from where the Iditarod officially starts. The house is surrounded by lakes, and in the thawing of a spring “break-up,” their half-mile driveway turns to a sea of mud. In the winter, a resident cow moose at the property has been known to charge and try to stomp on the dogs.
Located about 80 miles north of Anchorage, Willow has two gas stations, one video/liquor store, one restaurant/ bar, and an elementary school. Summers are short in Willow, with lots of mosquitoes, and winters are long, with sustained temperatures of minus 20 to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. “Give me a minus 40 any day over mosquitoes,” says Rebecca, who travels all over Alaska in her job as director of human resources for The Foraker Group, which works to increase the leadership and management skills of professionals and volunteers in Alaska’s nonprofit and tribal organizations.
Once Rebecca and Justin were settled in at the homestead, she befriended a mushing mentor in Willow and began training, learning about the nuances of racing and how to care for and train the dogs. She and Justin accumulated more and more dogs, many of them rescued, and laid the foundation for their thriving Snowhook Kennel outfit, which today has 52 Alaskan Huskies, “which is a nice way of saying that they are mutts,” Rebecca notes. The one thing the dogs all have in common, she adds, is that “they are loved.”
The dogs each have their own houses that Justin maintains. They all get daily hugs. And they’re all fed a stew that includes thawed blocks of meat, chicken, lard, and supplements from a feed store 20 miles away. During winter, the dogs get fresh straw for bedding, and in the weeks before the big race in March, the canine race team consumes upwards of 10,000 calories a day, while Justin increases his own caloric intake by eating more ice cream.
“They put their dogs first,” says Philip Walters, a middle-school band teacher who in 2004 moved from Maryland to Alaska. Walters has used the Savidises’ dogs in qualifying races to pursue his own Iditarod dreams for 2015. “They’re incredible with their dog care,” he says. “They love their dogs. They’re basically sacrificing everything for their dogs. I don’t know how they make ends meet.”
The couple take it in stride as part of achieving their larger goals. But along the path of her master plan, Rebecca’s Iditarod dream literally shattered when she fractured several vertebrae in her back in 2004 after falling off a four-wheeler while training dogs. By 2008, after several more “dog-related” back injuries, she could no longer gut it out, needing emergency back surgery to address a shattered lumbar vertebra. “I have very expensive hardware holding me up,” she says. The sport, she notes, is not “gentle” on the mushers, and the learning curve is “straight up.”
After the surgery, an even more painful reality set in. “I had to have an honest conversation with myself,” Rebecca says. “If something happened [during a race], I could be paralyzed and put the dogs at risk. That’s not fair to the dogs.” Rebecca and her husband decided to switch roles, and the Iditarod became a “shared dream,” with Justin taking over as musher, while she continues to manage logistics behind the scenes.
Justin came to the intimidating Iditarod start line equipped with a figurative spine of steel. He had grown up with three sisters in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Their family worked in cattle ranching and construction. Justin was handling horses, herding cows, and working with tools by middle school. Meanwhile, his interest in challenging outdoor sports such as rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and snowboarding grew and grew. “You name it, I’ve done it,” he says. During college, he worked for a University of Utah-run camp for at-risk youths, leading them into the Uinta and Wasatch mountains, among other wilderness locations in Utah.
All those experiences had prepared him for that first try at the Iditarod in 2010, namely by helping him develop the coping skills that go with getting out of jams on your own. “He is the toughest person I know, mentally and physically,” Rebecca says. The 6-foot 3-inch Justin cuts wood all summer for the long winters in Willow. He keeps the homestead humming in the harshest conditions. His expressed attitude toward everyday life in Willow is, “No matter what, you’re going to get through and continue on,” an approach that has served him well during the Iditarod.
Working his way toward that shared dream, he began by competing in qualifying races. He continued to work his full-time job, knowing he’d be competing in the 2010 Iditarod against people who do nothing but train for it the entire year.
Then, when that first Iditarod came, Whitey disappeared, about a third of the way into the race. Craig Medred, a reporter with the Alaska Dispatch, wrote on March 12, 2010, “No sadder sight can be found in this Kuskokwim River community than Justin Savidis wandering into the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race checkpoint to check for word on ‘Whitey.’ ”
Justin had been one of the leaders in the race when Whitey went missing. For five days, Justin searched on foot, by snow machine, and in a plane provided by the Alaska State Police. Two trappers in the area found Whitey’s tracks, which were paired with paw prints of a lynx and wolves. Eventually, the last musher passed through McGrath.
Meanwhile, word had spread among Iditarod watchers all over the world of Whitey’s disappearance, and even prayer groups in New York and West Virginia were asking for the dog’s safe return. “Whatever they did worked,” Rebecca says. Justin received a call that a resident in McGrath had spotted a very “skittish” Whitey on the edge of town. Justin borrowed a snow machine and raced to find Whitey cornered by searchers and about to bolt. But a little salmon and patience helped coax Whitey into Justin’s arms, which is right where he stayed, next to the pilot of a small plane as they headed back to Willow to join the rest of the team that had flown home the previous day.
It had been too late to continue the race. “Not finishing haunted us,” Rebecca says. As soon as the scratch was made, there was no question they would make another Iditarod attempt.
Justin competed the following year and finished in 12 days, six hours, eight minutes, and three seconds. Musher John Baker won that race in what would become the fastest-ever winning time, at just under eight days and 19 hours. Justin went on to win another race, the 300-mile Don Bowers Memorial Dog Race, in both 2011 and 2012. One of his two humanitarian awards came from that 2011 race. In the 2013 Northern Lights 300, Justin also took home the equivalent humanitarian award called “For the Love of Dogs.” Justin and Rebecca consider those awards to be bigger honors than winning the races, because they recognize team owners for their exemplary treatment of their dogs.
Justin also finished the Iditarod in 2012, and in 2013, he completed the course in just a little over 11 days. The Savidises’ total prize earnings to date amount to $3,147, which means they’ll again rely on sponsors to get them to the starting line of the next Iditarod.
And Rebecca may have found a way to get herself back on a sled. On February 13, 2014, as a training run leading up to Iditarod, she will be the second musher in the Denali Doubles Invitational Sled Dog Race, a 265-mile race from Cantwell to Paxson. She’ll be tethered on a second sled behind Justin, being pulled by a 20-dog team. “I can’t wait,” Rebecca says. “We want to be as competitive as possible in this race—it’s not our way to do anything less.”
—Stephen Speckman is a journalist and photographer based in Salt Lake City and a frequent contributor to Continuum.
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