From the Boundary Waters to the Iditarod
Living in a yurt off the Gunflint Trail at the edge of the Boundary Waters, running dogs while working as a nurse at the Grand Marais hospital, Anna Hennessy was living what many would consider the proverbial dream.
But like many young, adventurous people, she wanted more.
After five seasons of working with her close friends at Sawtooth Racing kennel and running dogs throughout Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, she wanted to take her mushing to the next level. One day, during a break from work, she was dream-scrolling through Facebook and found post by Kathy Frederick, who was looking for female mushers to come work and train at her kennel outside of Willow, Alaska.
“Without hesitating, I responded to the post and sent a message to Kathy. Almost an hour later I heard back from her,” says Hennessy.
Kathy Frederick, the Chief Administrative Law Judge for the State of Alaska, has operated Shameless Huskies Kennel for almost two decades. Frederick was looking for someone to handle, care for, and race 24 dogs. Towards the end of their first phone conversation, Frederick told Hennessy that through the experience she would gain in handling the dogs, as well as racing them in long-distance races, Hennessy would be ready to run the Iditarod in three years.
“This blew my mind. That was the first time someone told me ‘You can do the Iditarod.’ I can’t say how profound that was. All of a sudden, this distant dream that always seemed to be way out there, became possible,” says Hennessy.
Not one to press the pause button, Anna moved up to Alaska to manage Kathy’s kennel the following fall. She got to know the individual personalities of the dogs, fed them, cared for them and of course, kept them in shape by taking them on regular runs. Her friend, Anna Nordin and partner Emily Ford, who spent the previous two winters making headlines for her ambitious solo treks across the Boundary Waters and elsewhere, came to help.
To qualify for the Iditarod, mushers must complete three qualifying races. Initially, Hennessy thought she would complete all these over the course of several seasons, but as she learned the trail system and took teams out for longer runs she thought, “Why postpone the dream?”
Initially, Hennessy expected to be in Alaska to train for several years before attempting the Iditarod. But with a determined nature, Hennessy ambitiously stacked all three qualifying races together. Within a three-week period, she completed each one, mushing a total distance of some 800 miles.
“Racing the qualifiers back-to-back was a really valuable experience. It taught me how to overcome fatigue, stay organized and take incredible care for the dogs. The intensity of the experience gave me a sense of what the Iditarod would be like.”
This year, Hennessy will be racing in the most famous dogsled race in the world.
Hennessy was 20 years old when she first went mushing. As a guest on a dogsled tour run by Camp Menogyn, she sat down and bundled up in the sled. The lead musher stood on the runners, gave the signal, and the dogs were off. Coursing through the forests, taking tight turns on the trails, the pace of travel was exhilarating. But it wasn’t until she got a chance to stand on the runners and be in control that the magic really hit. The adrenaline surged through her as the trees sped past, and Hennessy realized that this was unlike anything she had experienced. “Before it was over I knew: This needed to be part of my life.”
Those fifteen minutes changed her. The next year she was running and caring for dogs at Camp Menogyn. Each day she woke up to feed the dogs, take guests out on tours and taught them how to care for them: from putting on booties to keeping them rested. The whole time, that same thrill, the same singular, underlining passion that told her to pursue dogsledding, was there.
Hennessy‘s next step on this journey was to work a winter managing the dog yard at Bettles Lodge, north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. “The sun didn’t rise for a month. It was cold. It was dark, everything was extreme. It was a wonderful experience,” she says. Here, the bond Hennessy had experienced working with other dog teams became ever more powerful. “If I was hooked before, after those winters in Alaska, I was all in.”
Back in Minnesota, Hennessy’s apprenticeship continued when she joined her friends Matt Schmitt and Erin Altemus (who worked with Hennessy as a nurse at the hospital in Grand Marais), to be part of their team, Sawtooth Racing. Hennessy was primarily responsible for caring for the team, and raced the Gunflint Mail Run and Wolf Track Classic.
The crucial skills she was developing revolved around building a relationship with the dogs: Learning how the different animals work in a team, when they need to rest, when they can run, and how to care for them during a race.
These are essential skills for any dog racer.
“We are their coach but also their caretaker, paying attention to all aspects of their diet, hydration, watching aspects of their gait, attitude, hydration, weight, watching their poops and pees, checking their feet, their armpits, all of it. Most of all, we want to make sure that they still want to be part of the team,” says Altemus of Sawtooth Racing, who will be racing alongside Hennessy in this year’s Iditarod.
The experience Hennessy gained underlined that the most important part of any dog race is the relationship with the dogs. “It doesn’t matter how tough you are, if you can’t care for your dogs, you won’t race well.”
Connecting routes that had been used by Native Inupiaq and Athabaskan people, Russian Fur traders, Yankee prospectors, and as a means to transport supplies to the isolated towns in the interior, the origins of the various trails that make up the near 1,000 miles of today’s Iditarod are steeped in legend.
The modern Iditarod race was first run in 1973, at a time when dog teams were rapidly becoming replaced by snowmobiles, or “iron dogs” as they were often called. As the new, and far less reliable, technology eclipsed the dog sledding tradition, a group of mushers and Alaskans concerned about preserving the deeply-rooted tradition of dogsledding, organized the Iditarod sled dog race.
That first year, 34 mushers competed in the race. As the decades passed and the race grew in reputation and stature, it has been transformed from what was an event for a few passionate eccentrics into a highly competitive endurance race of all endurance races. An international spectacle synonymous with dogsledding culture.
On March 2, 2024, Hennessy and her team will be on the spectator-lined streets of downtown Anchorage. Hers and dozens of other teams will traverse open plains, travel through dense forests and scale scenic — though demanding — mountains. Along the way there will be regular checkpoints at small villages, accessible only by plane, where Hennessy and her team will have sent resupply packages of food, supplies, dog booties and other gear beforehand, will offer a chance for rest.
Due to the extreme isolation and variability of the weather, each team needs to be completely self-sufficient. While each musher carries an emergency locator device, there are numerous factors that can prevent help from reaching a team in trouble.
“The Iditarod is an extremely challenging race,” her father Mark Hennessy said when asked about his concerns for his daughter. With stoic reserve he added, “To put it in perspective, more people have climbed Mount Everest than have finished the Iditarod.”
Though there are two mandatory eight-hour stops and a mandatory twenty-four-hour rest stop, one of the biggest challenges will be the sleep deprivation and how that will be exasperated by the punishing conditions.
“I’m not overly worried about her,” says Hennessy’s partner Emily Ford. “Anna is really good under pressure. She’s smart and good with dogs. The whole goal this year is to have her finish. That hinges on ability to stay well in wilderness, which is natural for her. And Anna can read dogs really well, which is key.”
Indeed, the most important thing Hennessy says she learned from her years handling dogs and from the three long races she competed in last year was how to read her dogs and how to adjust according to how they were doing. “When you’re out on trail, there are so many factors to take into consideration. I mean there’s your sled, sixteen dogs and yourself. I have to have absolute trust in my dogs. Literally, I’m trusting them with my life. In turn, they are trusting that I don’t push them too hard. This bond is indescribable. It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve experienced.”
For all the images of a solitary individual on the quiet trail in the middle of nowhere, racing the Iditarod is truly a group effort, a community event, both in terms of logistics and motivation. Both through the support and love of her partner, Ford, and training with Jake Leingang and his partner, Mikayla, Hennessy gratefully acknowledges, “this race couldn’t happen without support of many people.”
Having her close friend Erin Altemus race with her is a source of strength for Hennessy, “Knowing that Erin is out there, facing the same challenges and the same thrills, is super encouraging.”
For her part, Altemus was largely inspired to pursue her own Iditarod dreams because of Hennessy, “I am really looking forward to running this race with her. I can hardly imagine doing this without her. I probably wouldn’t have signed up if she weren’t doing it. I’m sure that for me, it’s what ultimately spurred me to finally decide to do it.”
This past September, Hennessy arrived in Alaska to begin training. Over the summer the dogs have stayed in shape — and on the snow — by running tours on the Mendenhall glacier, all summer. While waiting for enough snow to accumulate, their dryland training regimen involved 12 to 14 dogs pulling an ATV on gravel roads.
Hennessy anticipates extreme cold, sleep deprivation, and having to dig deeper and push harder than she ever has.
Above all, she knows that maintaining the trusting, intimate relationship with the dogs is what will make the difference.
“I’m so excited for the adventure. To see 1,000 miles of a remote part of Alaska, to be out there with my dogs, my best friends. I can barely comprehend what I’ll see. I feel so much gratitude for everyone who has helped me get here and who has given me this opportunity.”
That gratitude extends back through the years, to where the trail started, on those early trips she took with her parents to the Boundary Waters, as a toddler sitting in the middle of the canoe, and then to the winters of dog sledding, and the incredible wide world these experiences in the Boundary Waters opened.
Follow Anna and Erin! The 51st Iditarod Dog Sled Race begins March 2, 2024. You can track teams in real time at iditarod.com/live. Anna Hennessy (team name “Anna”) will be racing with Shameless Huskies Kennel and Erin Altemus will be with Sawtooth Racing.
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