KENAI — When Travis Beals was in elementary school he would dream about the Iditarod as the current standings were read aloud before the day’s lessons began.
Often Beals would think about the arctic adventures of Martin Buser and his team of sled dogs.
To the Seward youngster, Buser was “the man.”
A decade and a half later, Beals found himself in a similar daydream state in Rohn on rest while mushing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Using his knife to cut the ends off his new plastic sled runners, Beals said he was not paying attention to what he was doing, cutting toward himself and not away, he said.
The man spoke.
“Why you cuttin’ like that?”
It was Buser. The man.
“And this year I was racing with him?” said the 21-year-old rookie Iditarod musher. “It was like, ‘Holy smokes.’”
While Beals said he enjoyed the company of one of his childhood idols on the trail for a few hours, that was not the best part of running his first Iditarod. Neither was completing the storied race he had dreamt of running since age nine. Nor was it getting engaged to his fiancé under the burled arch as he crossed under it.
It was all of that combined.
“You can’t get any better feeling to be honest,” he said. “I wanted to finish the Iditarod my whole life. She said, ‘Yes.’ And, holy smokes, I get to look forward to this — we just started a tour business, so this is actually going to become possible.”
A sense of confidence swelled inside the young musher.
“Growing up I was never quite book smart material,” he said. “I was always the one having to get extra help and I couldn’t see a direction of where I was heading, but now that this is all happening, I see myself changing as far as confidence.
“I feel like I can tackle anything now. I just feel like everything is coming together.”
Beals finished the 2013 Iditarod in 37th place. He was the youngest musher in the race this year and finished 6th among the 12 other rookie mushers. Although he has only been pursuing the sport as a profession for about five years, he has been mushing all his life — his mother was mushing her dogs when she was pregnant with him.
“She said, ‘You’ve been running dogs your entire life. When I was pregnant with you I’d go out and mush dogs,’” he said. “I think it is pretty funny. I say I got, ‘Shaken by dog syndrome’ or something.”
At 14, Beals got a job as a “pooper scooper” at Seavey’s IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours — a Seward-based tourist sled dog ride operation owned by the family of Mitch Seavey, who won this year’s Iditarod.
“Even while I was working with those guys I had my own dogs and was running them,” he said. “Just there for the paycheck and the good times.”
Eventually Beals started purchasing dogs from the Seavey’s kennel and from Lance Mackey’s Comeback Kennel to build his own, now called Turning Heads Kennel. But Beals said he doesn’t much care about the genetic line of his dogs.
“If they have four legs and a tail and they run and eat and pull, then that’s all I care about,” he said.
Beals said he trained for the Iditarod by racing a number of mid-distance races and this year totaled 1,900 miles of trail.
The hardest part about the race, he said, was just getting there considering the large cost and amount of training needed. The race? Well, that was easy.
“Once I was there, I was like, ‘Alright, vacation time,’” he said, laughing.
So did the young musher feel intimidated surrounded by older, veteran mushers in the sport’s most anticipated and competitive race?
“I felt like that when I was a lot younger going into races nervous, but not anymore,” he said. “It is like, ‘I know what I’m doing, I’m confident with my dogs’ and I’ll be able to run with all of the veterans one of these years.”
Close to the end of the race, Beals said the weight of the accomplishment overwhelmed him.
“Finally getting there, finally getting it done. It’s really emotional — the last few days of the race I couldn’t even see the trail I was crying so hard,” he said. “That’s 10, 11 days with a dog team across Alaska, you did it all, you trained the team.”
But before Beals could rest himself and his team he had one more task. He got down on one knee and popped the question to Sarah Stokey, his girlfriend of about three years. Stokey, 25, is also a musher with dreams of running the Iditarod.
“That’s kind of how I got attracted to her — I knew she was into dogs,” Beals said.
A quick note about the ring.
Beals met his mother at a road crossing about five miles from the finish line. She passed him the ring encased in a light grey box, which Beals then dropped and lost in the similarly-colored snow. He spent about five panic-stricken minutes searching for it before finding it and returning to the trail, he said.
The dogs arrived, the proposal delivered and Stokey said she was completely surprised.
“I couldn’t think of a better way,” she said. “A lot of my girlfriends called after and were like, ‘That’s so cool, that’s the most romantic proposal, ever.’ And a lot of them were like, ‘Thanks for setting the bar so high, God.’”
Stokey said she is fascinated by Beals’ ability to communicate with his dogs and expects him to “achieve everything he sets out to do.”
“It’s spellbinding watching him out there,” she said. “He gets something out of those dogs I don’t think most people are capable of.”
However, Beals said he couldn’t have gotten to the Iditarod without his fiancé.
“She is the backbone behind me, helping me get everything done,” he said. “She’ll be an incredible person to spend the rest of my life with, that’s for sure.”
On top of the confidence he gained in just preparing for the race, Beals said the knowledge he can finish will propel him to another level — future champion. He said he is also taking aim at an even loftier goal — doing it before he’s 25 and beating the youngest-musher-to-win mark set by Dallas Seavey, a friend of his.
Beals and Dallas Seavey have been a “friendly rivalry,” as the Willow musher with Peninsula roots “has always been a tad step older” and “a tad step better at everything,” Beals said.
Despite the rush of achieving his lifelong goal being behind him, Beals can now channel his effervescent energy to besting the mushers he used to daydream about in elementary school.
“These guys are in trouble,” Beals said with a laugh. “I’m a 21-year-old. I can’t sit down for more than 10 minutes. I run around like a crazy maniac. I think I’m going to mix it up with these guys.”