ANCHORAGE, Alaska — When he was a boy growing up in the village of Fort Yukon, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race rookie Josh Cadzow rooted for Alaska Native John Baker to win the race.
But now that Cadzow is grown and Baker, an Inupiat Eskimo, has won, it is time for the slightly built, 23-year-old Athabaskan to pull for another Alaska Native to win the Iditarod — namely himself.
“Baker was always the musher to pull for when I was a kid. Hopefully, I’m the musher to pull for cause he won already,” Cadzow said. “He did his goal. Now it’s my goal.”
Cadzow said he won’t give up until he wins.
The rookie said he doesn’t expect to win the nearly 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome this time but will be competitive.
“I’m new to this race, but not to racing,” he said. “I’m learning lots, but I’ve got a lot to learn. I’m going to do well, that is all I can say.”
Cadzow pulled into the Takotna checkpoint 329 miles from Anchorage early Wednesday in 26th place.
Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser grabbed the lead by staying just two minutes in the checkpoint. He was followed by his 22-year-old son, Rohn, who also stopped briefly to move into second place.
The front-runners, including defending champion Baker, appeared to be resting their teams Wednesday in Takotna. The race requires teams to take one 24-hour stop during the race. Many choose to do that in Takotna, which is known for its hospitality and good food.
Sixty-six mushers are competing in this year’s race.
Cadzow’s family and friends and Fort Yukon neighbors helped raise thousands of dollars to finance his rookie run. His home-made camper is a rolling testament to their support. It has the names of his sponsors painted in large, black letters on its sides.
“They put their hearts and souls in this and I have to do the same thing,” Cadzow said.
Fort Yukon is a village of about 600 people in interior Alaska where the Fort Yukon and Porcupine rivers meet, about 145 miles northeast of Fairbanks. Residents traditionally traveled the frozen rivers by dog sled but now mostly use snowmobiles.
Cadzow said he hopes his rookie Iditarod run, and the races to follow, with him perhaps someday being crowned champion, will inspire other Alaska Natives to again take up dog mushing.
“That is where good dogs come from — the village,” he said.
Cadzow’s father, Clifton Cadzow, said his middle child showed an interest in dogs even as a very young boy when he kept a small team of Alaskan huskies in Fort Yukon for checking his trap lines in the winter. He also did some sprint racing with the dogs.
When Josh was 8 or 9, he wanted to mush a larger, six-dog team but his father thought it was too much power for the boy. Against his better judgment, he let the boy take off.
“I let him go with six dogs and he can’t even look over the handle bars and I was hoping he would come back, and he did,” Clifton Cadzow said.
When Josh’s mother and father moved to Fairbanks, Josh decided to stay in Fort Yukon to finish high school. He’s been living alone in the village since he was 17. At 18, he began competing in sprint races and then turned his attention to the long- distance races. He’s competed in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race three times, scratching twice and finishing seventh.
Clifton Cadzow said people in Fort Yukon held numerous raffles to help raise money for his son’s Iditarod run. Items ranged from a moose skin toboggan to two cords of wood.
Josh said the community has faith in him.
“If you do it and are really working hard, your people will be behind you 110 percent,” he said.