It's a sunny spring day less than two weeks before Saturday's start of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, and Deborah Bicknell is a busy woman.
Bicknell, who will be a 54-year-old rookie when the race starts Saturday morning in Fairbanks, is home in Juneau for only a day or so and she has a lot to do. Bicknell had just come in from her Tagish, Yukon Territory, training camp, and her schedule for the day includes:
dropping off some of her puppies at her dog lot, near the Mendenhall Golf Course, so a friend can take care of them during the race;
doing a couple of media interviews;
stopping by her doctor's office for cortisone shots in her ailing knees;
making some repairs to her sled and dog harnesses; and
packing and doing all the other chores necessary to run a 1,000-mile-plus sled dog race through the frozen wilderness between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
``I'm mostly a recreational (dog) driver,'' Bicknell said in between quick bites of a cheeseburger eaten on the run between errands. ``This is more of an adventure, and that's what interested me. I'm not looking to win. I just want to finish the race. Deep down, I want to be competitive, though.''
Bicknell, who is already claiming to be 55 even though her birthday isn't until April 1, is the first Juneau musher to enter the Yukon Quest. Dan Turner of Haines started and scratched from the race twice, in 1996 and 1998. While Southeast Alaska isn't the hotbed of mushing that the Mat-Su Valley or Fairbanks areas are, Bruce Denton of Juneau ran and finished the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race between Anchorage and Nome four times between 1980 and 1983, with a best finish of 10th place.
There's barely any snow on the ground for the day or so Bicknell was in town last week, which shows the difficulty of trying to train a competitive kennel in Juneau. Bicknell and her husband Sandy have some property in Tagish, where they've built a cabin that has electricity but no running water. For the past seven years Deborah has been heading across the border to train her dogs.
``I usually go up in November, but this year I went up in September,'' Bicknell said. ``I'll come back in March to train the dogs here in the summer. During the weekdays in the summer, I'll run the dogs for two or three hours out in the wetlands.''
Even though she's one of 11 rookie mushers in the 29-team field this year, Bicknell is no stranger to mushing.
Her first exposure to the sport came in 1957, when she was entered in a Kid And His Mutt race back in New Hampshire. Bicknell was an 11-year-old girl who weighed about 70 pounds, and her sled dog was the family's 173-pound St. Bernard who dragged Bicknell all over the place.
``I've been racing ever since,'' Bicknell said.
``She entered that Kid And His Mutt race, and you're probably too young to remember those Pathe news reels they used to show at the movies, but they thought this little girl and her huge St. Bernard were quite photogenic,'' said Dick Molburg, Bicknell's father. ``They filmed her and after the race we heard from friends all over the world that they'd seen Deb at the movies. She was just a natural.''
Bicknell's parents, Dick and Cindy Molburg, used to run a New Hampshire trap line and the St. Bernard would help them pack the skins off the line.
After a few years, Dick Molburg started buying sled dogs and then started racing in local sprint races. He trained and raced with the late Dr. Roland Lombard, of Wayland, Mass., who came to Alaska and won the Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race in Anchorage eight times in the 1960s and 1970s. At the time he won his last Fur Rondy race, Lombard was already approaching 60 years old.
``At that time, New England was a lot more snowy than it is now,'' Molburg said. ``I trained with Dr. Lombard and I watched a lot of good drivers. In New England I could beat all but the big three dog drivers.''
The mushing bug swept into the Molburg family - Bicknell has five brothers and sisters - and Bicknell was one of those bitten. One of Bicknell's brothers, Ricky, is working as a handler for Iditarod musher Lynda Plettner's kennel in the Mat-Su Valley. Her parents have owned Team and Trail magazine since 1966, with her mother writing most of the copy for the newsletter that covers sled dog racing around the continent.
``The paper keeps us busy,'' Cindy Molburg said.
Bicknell started running sprint races across New England, and eventually she went into Canada for races. During the winter of 1969-1970, Bicknell came to Alaska to work in the kennel of longtime sprint champion Earl Norris of Willow, a kennel that had about 300 dogs at the time. Bicknell went back to New England, then moved to Juneau 20 years ago. When she's not mushing, Bicknell owns Canvasses Unlimited, a service where she repairs boat canvasses, tents and awnings.
Until recently, Bicknell's mushing experience had been constrained to sprint races, which are usually two or three days of racing between 10 and 30 miles a day. Bicknell was a successful sprint musher, with a racing resume that includes a victory in the 1976 Canadian Open; the distinction of being the first woman to win the eastern version of the World Championships in Laconia, N.H., an event she won twice, in 1979 and 1980; and the distinction of being the first woman to win the International Sled Dog Championships in The Paw, Manitoba.
Bicknell's mushing prowess earned her a feature spot in one of the Dewar's Profile ads, which ran in 17 major magazines in 1985 and 1986.
Bicknell had stopped mushing after moving to Juneau, but then her dad retired from competitive racing and some of his 100 dogs ended up making their way to Alaska where they became members of Bicknell's small kennel, which now has 27 dogs (most are puppies). That put Bicknell, who uses her parents' kennel name (Temakwa Kennels) for her own kennel, back on the runners of her sled. But this time she was entering middle-distance races, events of between 100 and 300 miles.
Bicknell has run the 205-mile Percy DeWolfe Sled Dog Race from Dawson, Yukon Territory, to Eek, Alaska, four times, with the last time being in 1998. She used that race to qualifying for the Yukon Quest, which she's been planning to run since 1995.
``I've always looked at it and I've wanted to do it,'' Bicknell said. ``But I'm 55 years and I've done some damage to my body. My main worry is the first three mountains and what they might do to my knees. I'm not a camper, but I am a dog driver. I guess I'm just used to that old Holiday Inn at the end of the trail.''
Bicknell's bum knees also worry her parents, especially since Bicknell will be wearing a brace on her left knee because of a mushing accident more than 20 years ago. She started favoring that knee after the accident, so the right knee has gone bad, too. Bicknell had cortisone shots a week ago on Monday, and she ices down her knees after long days of racing.
``I'm nervous as hell,'' Dick Molburg said. ``She's an extremely competent dog driver. The only thing I worry about is her knees.''
The recent disappearance of Fairbanks rookie musher Rod Boyce, who took a wrong turn during the Tustemena 200 between Kenai and Homer two weekends ago and was lost for six days, also was a concern. The first question Bicknell's parents asked during a phone interview to New Hampshire was if they'd found Boyce yet (he wasn't found until three days later).
While nobody's ever died in a major Alaska sled dog race, there have been mushers who have died during training runs. Former Yukon Quest winner Bruce Johnson of Yukon Territory died four years ago when his team went through the ice, as did a Michigan musher the same year in a separate accident. Longtime Quest veteran David Oleson of Northwest Territories, who is running again this year, nearly died when his team went through the ice. Oleson was able to save himself, but only half his team.
``I used to think mushing was the safest sport in the world, but then we had a bad year four years ago,'' Bicknell said. ``I hate the water.''
But the mushing bug has a strong hold on Bicknell, and she's already wondering what her puppies can do. Bicknell's dogs have distinguished bloodlines that can be traced to dogs owned by prominent mushers Larry ``Cowboy'' Smith and George Attla, and Bicknell feels her younger dogs have a lot of potential.
``What I'd like to do, even though my husband says this is my first and last Yukon Quest, is I'd like to run the race one more time,'' Bicknell said. ``Those puppies are going to be fantastic.''