When DeeDee Jonrowe begins her 36th Iditarod on Saturday, she will pack a lifetime’s worth of perseverance and grit onto her sled for one last harrowing race across the savage beauty of Alaska.
The “Iron Lady” of the Iditarod, Jonrowe has covered more than 32,000 miles in the grueling “Last Great Race on Earth,” enough to go around the world 1.25 times. Her 35 starts are among the most ever. She has twice finished second and been among the top 10 finishers 16 times. But it’s her survival story, too, that has made this 64-year-old woman a legend in the sport.
The first time Jonrowe thought she was going to die was during a long-distance dog-mushing race nearly four decades ago. Howling arctic gusts dropped the wind chill to negative 114 degrees. Fearing for her life, she flipped her sled over and hid behind it, pulling her beloved dogs close to share the warmth.
She huddled there, cold and afraid, for more than 24 hours, wondering if she would ever be found. Authorities called off rescue attempts because the storm was too dangerous. Finally, residents from a nearby village arrived on snowmobiles and drove her to safety. She dropped out of that race, but, ignoring her fear of being stranded again, she entered the 1,000-mile Iditarod for the first time two months later. It was 1980.
Jonrowe is a survivor — on and off the trail. In 1996 she spent two weeks hospitalized with injuries from a serious car accident that killed her grandmother, and last summer she had surgery to deal with complications from it. She had a double mastectomy, followed by nine months of chemotherapy, for breast cancer in 2002. And two years ago, as fire burned 55 houses and more than 100 buildings in her hometown of Willow, Alaska, she was forced to evacuate. The home she owned with her husband of 40 years, Mike, and nearly all of their belongings were destroyed.
Through it all, Jonrowe has returned to the Iditarod because she finds peace in it. The sport has taught her tough lessons in resilience, commitment and finding joy in the difficulty of life. “You just have to not try to look down the road," she says. "Don’t look for the finish line; look for the next break.”
Under a cloudless blue sky one week before her final Iditarod, Jonrowe walks on a trail through the forest that surrounds her home in Willow. She is wearing a new pink racing parka, designed to shield her from the worst weather Alaska can conjure up. The fur ring on the hood is wolverine, which will protect her from frostbite. Fireweed, a symbol of rebirth in Alaska, is embroidered on the back.
Snow crunches under her shoes. Her dogs bark from a few hundred yards behind her. The trail is 3 feet wide and packed down, but the snow surrounding it remains untouched. The fire scorched the spruce, cottonwood and birch trees, leaving them black and branchless. They are haunting reminders of the devastation.
“It’s not what it was,” Jonrowe says. “But it’s beautiful as it is.”
When she heard about the fire on that terrible day, she rushed home. Ash was falling from the sky. She didn’t know how much time she had, so she grabbed what was most dear — her dogs — and fled.
At the same time, Jonrowe’s mother, Peggy Stout, with whom she was extremely close, was dying of cancer. “I saved my dogs, and I was trying to save my mom,” she says. “I can remember thinking, This must be what Armageddon is like. The things that don’t matter are all burned away. Only relationships matter. At least I still have my mom to hug. I fixated on Momma.”
Five weeks after the fire, Stout died. “I wanted to give up. I wanted to jump in that coffin with Momma,” she says. “I knew Mom and Dad were in heaven, and I wanted to join them.”
She turned her sorrow into anger, which she used as fuel. She would not allow herself to become a victim. She would not let the fire consume her like it consumed her home. “I give the greatest tribute to my faith. No matter how much I lost, God was still there. I couldn’t stop and fixate on the loss because there was too much to do,” she says. “I had to think one minute at a time. Finally, I could think maybe a day at a time.”
Those accumulated minutes and days have taken her on a remarkable journey. Now she sees renewal all around her as she walks across her property. Where there once was an 8-foot hole with 3 inches of soot, there is now a new home. Where once all wildlife was gone, there are now robins and owls and woodpeckers and fireweed. Eventually, green and living trees will replace the black and dead ones. “The fire was terrible, but it’s over,” she says. “So there’s no reason to keep pondering the loss.”
Jonrowe takes a step out the back door of her home, and at once two dozen dogs yelp in delight. They bark and jump and run in circles, desperate to get her attention and the kisses that will come with it. Some mushers run their dog teams like military units, but Jonrowe says she runs hers like a Girl Scout troop, and the dogs’ reactions to her presence suggest it’s the most fun troop in Alaska.
An aha moment came to Jonrowe in the 2016 Iditarod, the first after her home had burned down and her mother had died. She hadn’t trained her dogs as thoroughly as she likes to, and as she approached the second of more than three dozen checkpoints, she found herself frustrated, with the race and with her life. “Everything I loved had been moved around on me,” she says.
She thought about not only all that she had lost but, more important, what she still had: relationships, which proved impervious to the fire. She realized that she cared more about her fellow mushers and dogs than how she finished. The frustration of a possible poor finish blew off her like snow off the trail. “At that point it became fun,” she says.
She’ll carry that attitude with her Saturday, but fun doesn’t mean easy. The question is not whether she will face struggles in her final Iditarod but when and where they will come. The stinging wind will slice across her face. The sled will feel like it is being pulled through sand. The end of the race will seem forever away, and her body will ache for sleep that it won’t get for days. She will overcome all of that the same way she has overcome personal tragedies throughout her life: by refusing to be beaten. And she will smile the whole way, her joyful encouragement to her dogs as bright as her sled that glows pink — the color of survivors.