A conversation with Deborah Bicknell

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2008

In 2008, after more than five decades in the sport, Auke Bay musher Deborah Bicknell achieved her goal of completing the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

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Al Grillo / The Associated Press
Al Grillo / The Associated Press

Bicknell, who turns 63 on Tuesday, scratched from her debut Iditarod race in 2007 after getting lost in a blizzard and winding up in the Kuskokwim River. After nearly retiring from the sport last year, Bicknell entered the 2008 race more determined than ever and finished the roughly 1,100-mile race in 15 days, 5 hours and 36 minutes.

Bicknell spoke with the Juneau Empire from her training base in Tagish, Yukon Territory, about accomplishing her goal, the 1,100-mile trail, getting pinned down 27 miles from the finish at the infamous Solomon Blowhole, and what her plans are for the future.

You said back in February that completing the Iditarod would complete your dog sledding career. So are you planning to retire from the sport?

Yes, I am. Well, I'm retiring from the sport as far as any major racing. What I am hoping is, I do not want to sell any of my dogs to a professional team. I would like to maybe give away the majority of them because they would make very good pets and also they'd be skijoring and everything. So if there is anybody interested in well-behaved, well-trained dogs, I would like them to call me. But I am done. It's taken a lot out of me. I'm going in for a knee operation in mid-May, so I'll have another replacement but it will make me have two bionic legs.

This is really a young person's sport and this is actually 53 years that I've done it and it's time to do something else. And my poor husband, who has been behind me the whole time and supported me through this whole thing, he would like to do something else too, I bet.

So what does life have in store for you after sled dog racing?

I don't know. I think I have lots of options but I can't quite figure out any right now. We have family all over the country. ... There's still going to be a lot of things for me to do.

I know a lot of people were really excited for you down here in Juneau. How did it feel to complete the Iditarod?

Right up to 72 miles (left) I did not know if I was going to complete it, like, "Don't get excited yet, you haven't hit the finish line." And then when I hit that blowhole, it was like, "Oh my God, I feel like a drama queen. Last year the river, this year the blowhole." I felt a lot better once I got found and shown where the trail was. But right up to that last moment I didn't know whether I was going to make it over the trail. But when I turned that corner up the main street (in Nome), I was like, "I'm really here. I'm really here." It was exciting.

So what did you do immediately after the race?

Took care of my dogs. I didn't get to bed until about 1 (a.m.), although we did have some champagne. ... Do you know that champagne was still up at the finish line in the bags with glasses and everything? Somebody must have known it's important. So we had champagne at about 1 in the morning after taking care of the dogs.

It's an amazingly grueling race. What was the experience like and how did you cope with it?

I've driven dogs so many years. ... Every day was just like driving dogs - it was driving dog time. There were moments I was very happy that I was there. In fact, there were many moments - to see these villages, to meet the people and everything, and then when going across the 50-something miles on the sea ice I was just waiting for a polar bear to come out. I was really upset that I didn't bring a camera out. Many times when you're out in a race like this it's crazy because you're never going to pull (a camera) out, but there are a lot of places where I could have carried it. I'm just going to have to remember all these pictures in my mind. But it was beautiful country that I went across and I met some beautiful people.

What were the trail conditions like this year?

We didn't have much time to think because we were in three-foot ruts from the other teams. The first teams had it pretty good, but as it got further down the line, we were in ruts. That's what I headed for, I headed into the ruts because I knew it would keep the sled upright and I could keep control over the dogs. If you tried to be out of those ruts, I'm sure people went down all over the place.

After that we had time to appreciate how much time somebody had put into that trail. You could see someone stood there and made a decision to make the trail so all teams could handle it. It was an awesome trail. I have never seen a trail so well handled. I mean, they did a great job. The first 300 miles they had to deal with what they had to work with, so that was kind of dangerous and kind of intense, but the rest of the trail was fantastic, although there were a lot of mountains.

Were you at all nervous beginning the race this year after your adventure getting lost in 2007?

Well, no. In fact, I never even saw the turn. Everybody says, "Did you see the turn?" No, and I kind of looked for it. I found the glacier that kind of surprised me last year, but I never saw that turn. They had blocked it off and didn't want anybody going down it this year.

Do you feel a sense of redemption for completing the race this year?

Sure. But last year the conditions were really bad. There was no snow and it was a really tough race. And I'm getting up there in age and it was really abusive to me, so it was a good thing to quit last year. It was the right decision because I could have gotten hurt and I could have gotten into a situation where I wouldn't be able to take care of my dogs. This year everything went well. I took care of my dogs and they took care of me.

Were there many people your age in the race this year?

Not females. I'm the oldest female to ever sign up - or run - and finish the race.

Do you feel like an inspiration to other people?

Well, I don't know. They tell me I am. This is why I'm a little worried about quitting the sport - this is the thing that's kept me going, kept me young. And regardless if I want to stay healthy or not, if I wanted to drive dogs I had to. So now I have to find something else to take that. But it is a message to everybody, you know: Live your life the way that makes you happy. Stay as active as long as possible. We have enough time of being really old, so we don't want to get there too soon.

So did you learn any life lessons on the trail this year?

Life lessons? Just be tough. I already knew that. No, I don't think so.

Where any reinforced?

I found out I was tougher than I thought I was. One of the things is don't talk yourself into being old. That is one of the things I went into the race worried about. I wasn't worried about the dog team because they are good ... but I was worried about me so it just reinforced in me that I'm much stronger than I thought I was. And I can still do it, but it did take a lot out of me. In fact I haven't quite recouped right now.

So you told me back in February that you were going to quit last year but your husband convinced you to race again this year. Are you glad that he convinced you to do so?

Oh, yeah. I guess he was right. I really had a lot of people supporting me. Everybody said, "You can do it." "You have enough knowledge behind you." "You have this." "You have that." And I guess they were all right. They knew better than me. But they didn't let me quit and that was wonderful.

How does it feel to win the Red Lantern award for being the last to complete the race?

Well, I hear to make the record books there's only two places in the race - first and last. I didn't know they made such a big thing out of it. In fact, as I told one guy, he said, "I could have fought you for it." And I said, "You could have had it." I wasn't looking to be last.

When you will look back on this race, what will be the one thing that you'll want to tell people?

Probably to not give up your dreams. If you have a goal, work toward it and try to complete it, and many times you will. It's really been a fantastic thing for me. I started retiring in 1986, and obviously I wasn't ready. And then I sold my team four years ago and I still wasn't ready. Now I've done it all. I've raced every major sprint race and won many of them. I haven't done as well in the long distance (races). I've run every 1,000-mile race there is and I have run several other races and I have a lot or red lanterns. But winning isn't what it was about. It was the experience, being with the dogs, working with the dogs, that's what makes me happy. That's what I wanted to do and I've done it. And I kind of lived my life my way. I think there's a song like that.

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