Sopping wet and close to freezing, Gonzaga graduate Victoria Hardwick and her team of 14 dedicated Alaskan Huskies raced into Nome, Alaska after 14 days of brisk winds, slushy mud, snow and exhaustion. They trudged up jagged mountains, through gorges, dense forests and frozen rivers.
Her sled became her home and life as she competed in “The Last Great Race” Iditarod. According to Iditarod.com, the race covers 1,000 miles of the roughest, most beautiful terrain there is to offer.
Hardwick’s run took 14 days, 22 hours and 51 minutes, securing her the red lantern prize which symbolizes perseverance. This was her very first Iditarod.
Hardwick is 33-years-old and originally from Colville, Washington. She is a 2007 Gonzaga graduate with a degree in biology. She moved to Bethel, Alaska in December 2013 and she started mushing around January 2014, a month after she moved there.
She grew up riding horses in Colville and was always interested in spending time with animals outdoors. While Hardwick was in dental school, she decided that she wanted dental school, she decided that she wanted to live in Alaska and mushing and racing sled dogs stuck in her mind as being a great thing to go do while there.
“Bethel has a really good mushing group and community here and so that was one of the big factors when I was looking at where to move in Alaska,” Hardwick said.
Hardwick is a public dentist working predominantly in Bethel. Between one and half to three months of the year, she travels out to villages and does dental work. When Iditarod training picks up, she works five days a week with two half days.
“I have many memories of Victoria’s dedication to mushing dogs. Every time I’ve seen her work with the dogs, it is evident she does it because she loves them and the sport. Mushing dogs is basically a second job for Victoria and she does it without complaint and always enthusiastically,” Hardwick’s boyfriend, Richard Aday said.
Training for the event starts in September, when the dogs will do a few miles a day. In October, they’ll increase mileage in going about 20 miles and up to December, they’re going on around 70 or 80 mile runs. The dogs will go on around four runs a week. For the past six years, Hardwick has participated in mid-distance races which range from 50-300 miles.
“The most challenging thing is getting enough miles for the dogs so that they’re able to compete in races, this has been the biggest challenge for I would say most mushers,” Hardwick said.
Balancing mushing dog sleds and being a public dentist takes dedication and organization, which Hardwick solidified through aspects of routine during her time at GU.
“I studied really, really hard. I would say I was very regimented in what I was doing throughout the entire day so I had my day broken down into half hours when I was a student. I had my whole day divided up to be as efficient as I possibly could,” Hardwick said.
Hardwick stood out as an excellent student right away to Dr. William Ettinger a biology professor at GU. She did research for him over the summers of 2005 and 2006.
“We were working on a new way to measure calcium concentrations inside of living plant cells. It was difficult, and not very rewarding work, but she thrived on the challenge and stuck with me,” Ettinger said.
Her academic habits and structure really helped when it came to mushing in the Iditarod.
“When I started getting really sleep deprived, it was almost impossible for me to do anything but follow a routine. Having had that previously, I feel really did help when it comes to mushing,” Hardwick said.
Her perseverance did not go unnoticed by those around her.
“I am not surprised she completed the Iditarod. It seems like a natural extension of her personality and dedication,” Ettinger said.
Hardwick described mushing sled dogs as a very vibrant way to explore outside and spend time with dogs which is incomparable to anything else.
“There’s something about being on a sled with a team of dogs going through places that I’ve never been before. When we went of Rainy Pasture at the Alaska range to have that be one day and a few days later be on the coast where you’re looking at the ocean, it’s very surreal,” Hardwick said.
Hardwick and her dog team left Willow, Alaska on March 3 and returned to Nome, Alaska on March 18. She ended up placing 39th out of 39 that finished. There were 54 that started. She won the red lantern award which is for the last person to come in.
“The red lantern is a symbol of perseverance. It’s the person who spent the most time on the trail and successfully completed the course. The idea behind it was that was the person who was bringing in the light for everyone else to finish or to see toward the end,” Hardwick said.
The red lantern award truly speaks to the final musher’s character in not giving up and deciding to keep on going. Hardwick’s drive in everything she does is very evident.
“I believe her success in mushing is due to her mindset of never giving up. Mushing dogs across Alaska means you’ll encounter wide ranges of weather and terrain. When you find yourself in an uncomfortable position it is important to not give up and use the resources present. Victoria’s perseverance to stick through it helps her find her success,” Aday said.
A lot goes into mushing sled dogs. There is a main line all the dogs are hooked to a “gangline” and all of the dogs wear harnesses. The two dogs in the front are the lead dogs. One line is connected to their collar and one line is connected to the back of their harness they’re wearing. When they are pulling the sled, all of the weight is coming from that line on the back of their harness. The gangline is connected to the sled, and there’s snow hook or an ice hook that’s connected. To stop, the snow hook is put in the ground and it holds the whole team. The musher stands on runners. The sled has a bag on it and which hold all of the supplies and if a dog gets injured you put the dog in that bag. Sleds also have plastics for different attachments for the skis which are periodically changed out depending on the conditions.
Hardwick raced with 14 dogs. The official breed is an Alaskan husky which has some Siberian, some hound and some American Eskimo dogs in it. A sort of sled dog mutt. Hardwick selected her team of dogs based on how they held up during training and if they had previously run the Iditarod. She had four or five dogs that previously completed the Iditarod and she leased out four dogs from local musher Mike Williams Jr.
The most common commands for the dogs are “Gee” (go to the right), “Haw” (go to the left), “woah or stop” to stop and “get going” to get started.
Everyone does the same route and this year they did the southern route. For even years, they do the northern route. The trails are modified when the conditions are poor.
“We went from Willow, Alaska through the traditional mining route to Iditarod then out to the coast out to Unalakleet then out to Nome from there,” Hardwick said.
Hardwick experienced many different conditions throughout the race. They ranged from below freezing, to a lot of snow, then rain and at one point there was no snow or ice so they were running on bare ground and bare dirt for miles.
Building trust between the musher and their dog team is crucial for success. During the Iditarod, Hardwick’s dogs were running over three times as much as they’d ever run.
“I think developing that trust was just a lot of miles, a lot of belly scratches, snacks, treats and then checking in with them and seeing how they’re doing mentally. If they’re a hard run, giving them a break when they need a break and making sure that they’re still having the best time they can,” Hardwick said.
A monumental challenge Hardwick and her team overcame was during the last part of their run going from White Mountain into Nome. She had multiple lead dogs that were done leading and they needed to go through that last set of mountains, but her dogs didn’t want to run up hills anymore.
“I kept asking myself what it took for them to trust me enough that we could do it. A big reason they quit is because they don’t believe in you. They don’t trust that you’re going to take care of them to finish through,” Hardwick said.
After they walked up the mountain Hardwick realized she had lost the jacket for her smallest girl.
“I set the hook, stopped the team, then walked back down to the very bottom, picked up the jacket and walked up to the top again,”
When she got to the top, there was a shift in attitude for both Hardwick and the dogs.
“When we were at the bottom, the dogs were totally different; they really looked exhausted, when I got to the top they were barking, they were excited and they really wanted to run which was something I hadn’t seen from them pretty much most of the race.
Hardwick ran a very fortunate race having no dogs injured.
“I felt like we got a finish on a really high note and I don’t know if everyone gets that opportunity,” Hardwick said.
Hardwick would love to run the race again at some point but does not know when that will be.
“I feel like I learned a lot doing it and I made a lot of mistakes in preparing for it that I didn’t realize until I was through the trail so I think we could actually do a whole lot better. I had phenomenal dogs, but I needed to learn a lot to race them that way,” Hardwick said.