Chugiak-Eagle River mushers hit the trail for Iditarod 2020
UPDATE: Lanier scratched from the Iditarod on Tuesday, March 10 after getting bogged down on the trail between Rainy Pass and Rohn. Read more here.
This year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race field includes two brothers, two sisters and two guys who aren’t related at all — but might as well be.
“He’s like a father figure to me honestly,” Eagle River’s Larry Daugherty, 44, said of Chugiak’s Jim Lanier, a veteran musher who Daugherty said took him under his paw when he moved his family to Alaska in 2014.
Though he might bristle a bit at the father talk, the seemingly ageless Lanier (he’s actually 79) acknowledged he and Daugherty have a unique bond.
“Before he even got to Alaska he contacted me because he heard I was a musher,” Lanier said.
In addition to being the only Chugiak-Eagle River mushers in the field, both are doctors (Lanier is a retired pathologist, Daugherty a radiation oncologist), both worked at the Mayo Clinic, both have sons who are Junior Iditarod finishers and both are among the most fascinating characters in this year’s race to Nome.
NO EASY OUT
The oldest musher in the field, Lanier had to prove himself like a pup before this year’s race.
Though he finished all 16 races he entered between 1979 and 2013, Lanier scratched in 2014, 15, 16 and 18 — a year in which he survived a harrowing incident where he and musher Scott Janssen were found huddled together for warmth along the Bering Sea coast. In August of 2019, the Iditarod’s Qualifying Review Board denied him entry into this year’s race based on that performance and what officials said was a poor showing in the 2019 Yukon Quest, where Lanier finished 24th.
But the old dog had a new trick up his sleeve. Lanier vehemently disagreed with the board’s decision but instead of turning tail, he instead took the decision as a challenge. He run a pair of middle-distance qualifying races this winter, qualifying for the race as if he was rookie. After that, the board reversed its decision and allowed Lanier back in the field — but only after he paid an extra $2,000 for signing up late.
The ordeal may have made him stronger, Lanier said.
“I’m kinda glad I had to go through all that,” he said.
The early races hardened his race team and gave Lanier confidence that he can finish this year to become the first person to complete the 1,000-mile trek in six different decades. It also gave him an appreciation for the friends and mushers who stuck by him through the winter.
“I’m very appreciative of all of the people who have supported me this past year.”
One of those people has been Daugherty. After calling Lanier for advice before moving to Eagle River in 2014, Daugherty showed up at a book signing in Anchorage, where the veteran musher was signing copies of his memoir “Beyond Ophir: Confessions of an Iditarod Musher, An Alaska Odyssey.”
“He just kinda sat there and nodded,” Daugherty recalled.
Daugherty told Lanier of his lifelong dream to run the Iditarod, and Lanier extended an invite to his Northern Whites Kennel in Chugiak.
“I just never stopped showing up,” Daugherty said.
Lanier taught Daugherty the ropes and let him run his dog team in qualifying races. By 2016, Daugherty completed his dream, finishing his rookie race in 63rd place.
“I just have an enormous debt of gratitude to him,” Daugherty said.
It wasn’t just Lanier’s help that got Larry to the finish line. Turns out, doggedness is in Daugherty’s DNA.
The Utah native began his career in medicine as a paramedic and worked his way up to a job at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. But the avid outdoorsman wanted more adventures than alligators could provide, so he and wife Prairie moved their five children to the Last Frontier. After completing his goal of finishing the Iditarod, Daugherty decided to set his sights even higher, launching an audacious plan to become the first person to run the Iditarod and climb the world’s tallest mountain in the same year. Only four people are known to have climbed Everest and finished the Iditarod — Bob Hempstead, Fydor Konyukhov, Mark Selland and Cindy Abbott — and none have done it in the same year.
Daugherty’s first attempt at what he calls the “Iditarest” double ended last spring when he and a team of climbers were turned back by hurricane-force winds just 335 feet short of the top of the world.
Undeterred, Daugherty simply set about training for his next trip to Nepal, where this spring he hopes to apply the lessons he learned on his first attempt — namely, leaving more time to try and find a summit window.
“This time we’re booking a lot more time and I think we’ll be much more patient,” he said.
It’s not hard to see why Daugherty and Lanier have grown closer over the past few years, and that relationship came full circle this winter when Daugherty’s 17-year-old son, Calvin, used Lanier’s dogs to finish the Junior Iditarod race — an accomplishment Calvin shares with Lainer’s son, Jimmy.
“It’s super cool to have that shared history with my son now, and now we’ve both got the same ‘Jim’ stories,” Daugherty said.
HITTING THE TRAIL
Fittingly, Daugherty and Lanier will start close to each other when the Iditarod begins for real Sunday in Willow — Daugherty drew start position 45, Lanier drew 55 at Thursday’s pre race banquet. As for the race itself, neither considers themselves a contender to win but both hope to finish happy and with healthy dog teams.
Lanier said he’s expecting this year’s race to be difficult, with heavy snowfall and hungry moose along the trail expected to challenge mushers. In some places the snow is so deep, race officials have said the trail is essentially a deep trench cut through feet of powder.
“It’s going to be trench warfare,” said Lanier.
He means that literally. Like many mushers, Lanier — who once had to shoot a charging moose on a training run near Hatcher Pass — said he plans to carry a gun for moose protection this year. Especially in late winter, the half-ton beasts often use the manmade trail to travel more easily and avoid wolves, a situation that’s safer for the big ungulates but much more dangerous for mushers and their teams.
“They get in that trail and they don’t get out,” Lanier said.
Lanier is running his own dogs while Daugherty will be behind Jason Campeau’s “B” team when the race starts for real Sunday afternoon on Willow Lake. Neither man expects to be the first musher to reach Nome this year — Lanier’s best finish was 18th in 2004, Daugherty’s was 40th in 2018.
“It’s going to be a slow race and I’m not aiming to break any speed records,” Daugherty said.
Though he hasn’t run dogs much this winter, the busy doctor said he’s gained a lot of experience during his three previous finishes.
“The mental aspect of the race for me is so much easier each time I do it,” he said.
HOPING FOR THE BEST
Both mushers are also racing for a cause larger than themselves. Lanier said earlier this winter he’s mushing to raise awareness about the threat posed by climate change, while Daugherty is again carrying prayer flags for cancer patients and continuing to raise support for his nonprofit, Radiating Hope, which works to bring cancer facilities to developing countries.
Lanier and Daugherty said they’re both looking forward to hitting the trail — though with their hectic winter schedules neither has had a lot of time to get too excited. However, Daugherty said he’s confident in the skills Lanier has honed over decades behind a sled and owes his friend and mentor a debt of gratitude.
“He taught me how to be an Alaskan.”
The Iditarod ceremonial start will be Saturday at 10 a.m. in Downtown Anchorage. The race starts for real Sunday at 2 p.m. on Willow Lake. For more coverage of the race, visit adn.com/iditarod.