Juneau is back in the race

Two experienced and dedicated women first to represent state capital in the Iditarod in 24 years

Posted: Sunday, November 26, 2006

Juneau resident Deborah Bicknell sold her dog team two years ago and planned on retiring from mushing after 47 years in the sport.

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Then she followed the Iditarod with her husband, Sandy, and everything changed.

"We went to the start, and then we went to McGrath and then we went to Ruby and Unakaleet and Nome," Bicknell said. "I realized I missed it. I wanted to jump on one of the sleds."

Bicknell had the bug again, and so began the long process of reassembling a team for Iditarod XXV, starting March 3, 2007, in Anchorage.

Bicknell and Juneau resident Kathleen Frederick, new to mid-distance racing, have formed "Team Juneau" to share fundraising, costs and training responsibilities for the next two seasons.

They are the first Juneau team to enter the Iditarod in 24 years. Frederick plans on entering the race in 2008.

The first race of the season is the all-ladies GinGin 120, early December in Cantwell. Bicknell and Frederick will both run teams.

"We've known each other for a while," Bicknell said. "We both had dogs, and she kept trying to convince me to help her. I kept saying, 'No,' but I guess I was lonely this year.

"Kathy's heart is in the right place, and I think she's tough and I think she can do this. I'm going to give her some racing experience for sure, and we'll find out where she goes."

Frederick and Bicknell met at a 2002 fundraiser for the Yukon Quest. They have 26 dogs so far. Bicknell is leasing a team from Yukon Quest mushers Cor Guimond and Agata Franzca and has bought back a few of her dogs. Frederick also has some dogs at camp.

"It's been easy," Bicknell said. "You have to understand that I've been doing this for more than 50 years and I know how to do it. I know whether the dogs are good or not. I know how many miles to put them on. It's easy work for me. Once I get on the sled, it might be a little more difficult."

Bicknell lives in Juneau, but has been back for just two short visits in the past three months. She has a canvas shop, Canvases Unlimited, where she can make a lot of her own gear.

Bicknell has two camps in Tagish, Yukon, that extend on to Tagish Lake. It offers miles for training. If she wants to go on a 100-mile run with one of her teams, she has plenty of room.

Training started Sept. 14 with short six-mile runs every other day. Last week, the dogs were training 20 to 30 miles a day. On Thanksgiving Day, Bicknell planned on starting 50-mile runs with both teams. Eventually, the teams will build up to 100-milers.

"When I start training Tagish, I'm already doing eight-10 miles with the dogs and my four-wheeler," Bicknell said. "You can't do that around here.

"It doesn't make any sense to have a dog team in Juneau because of the rain," she said. "There's no place to put a team. It's all residential. The conditions are such that you can't train them anywhere."

Team Juneau

2007 race schedule

Dec. 9-10 - GinGin 120, Cantwell

Jan. 6-7 - Knik 200, Wasilla

Jan. 13 - Copper Basin 300, Glenallen

Jan. 27 - Tustemena 200, Kenai

Feb. 10 - Yukon Quest 300, Whitehorse-Fairbanks

March 3 - Iditarod 2007

March 15 - Percy De Wolfe, Dawson City-Eagle

Bicknell grew up in New Hampshire, and ran her first sled-dog sprint race in 1957 at age 11. She finished third, then won the next year. Bicknell entered her first World Championships in 1960, and posted some of the best female finishing times throughout that decade.

"As a sprint driver, if you would have asked me to run a 1,000-mile race, I would have said, 'Are you out of your mind?'" Bicknell said. "But now that I've worked it and done it, I'm used to it.

"If I had the opportunity as a kid to choose long-distance or sprinting, I would have taken long-distance and been very good at it," she said.

Bicknell was a pioneer among female sled-dog racers. She won the Canadian Open Championship in 1976. In 1979, she became the first woman to win the World Championship Sled Dog Derby. She successfully defended her title in 1980.

A year later, Bicknell moved to Juneau with her husband. She retired in 1987 but returned to the sport in the 1990s to focus on mid-distance racing instead of sprints. She began long-distance racing in 2000 and entered her first 1,100-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race.

"I think (the Iditarod) is doable," Bicknell said. "The first 300 miles are the toughest, but the trails are very well-marked.

"The Yukon Quest is actually quite dangerous," she said. "There's not much of a trail. You pick your path and have a good time. "When we went down the backside of Eagle Summit, I honestly thought someone was going to die. There was wind and blowing snow. Nobody could see anything."

Bicknell hopes to place in the top 40 at the Iditarod. She's 62 and has a replacement left knee - the result of a mushing injury she sustained when she was 17. She had it repaired in her mid-50s.

"I think I can do better (than top 40)," she said. "We just have to be practical about this. I'm going to be 62. I have a replacement knee, and I'm old and I'm not as strong as I used to be. One of the good things is that there are frequent checkpoints. If I decide I need to take a break there, I'm going to take a break."

Team Juneau is still raising money for the next two seasons. Visit www.teamjuneau.com for more information.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com

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