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For Iditarod vet Gunnar Johnson, travels on the trail serve purpose away from it, too

The musher is racing for a cause as well
Veteran musher Gunnar Johnson, of Duluth, Minn., travels down the trail with his dog team...
Veteran musher Gunnar Johnson, of Duluth, Minn., travels down the trail with his dog team shortly after departing the 2021 Iditarod start line at Deshka Landing.(KTUU)
Published: Mar. 7, 2021 at 7:10 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Musher Gunnar Johnson, who first ran the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1991 but wouldn’t enter again until 2017, has returned to the Last Great Race not only with a goal for his travels on the trail but to effect change off of it, too.

“It’s going to be plenty real,” Johnson said at Sunday’s start in Deshka Landing. ”Going over the range twice? That’s rough. Going through Dalzell Gorge twice? Going up and down the steps? There’s a lot of river crossings, creek crossings, some potential weather – looks like it could get cold, looks like we could get some snow, looks like it could get warm – so there’s all these factors in there that could make it a really tough race.”

The 52-year-old Johnson, of Duluth, Minnesota, had scouted out parts of the trail with veteran Jim Lanier in advance of the start, he said, as he looks to finish his third career Iditarod. However, he also has another mission in mind for this year’s race: raise awareness of suicide, and honor some of those who have died by self-harm in the past.

“My family experienced the loss and trauma that comes with that type of event,” Johnson said, citing the death of a cousin about ten years ago. “The idea is to remember the individuals that have died by suicide. Each one of them was a personality, a brother or sister, somebody that is missed.”

Johnson, who is wearing bib number 11 this year, has been gathering the names of suicide victims and is carrying them with him along the trail.

Musher Gunnar Johnson holds up an envelope containing the names of thousands of people who died...
Musher Gunnar Johnson holds up an envelope containing the names of thousands of people who died by suicide. Johnson says he is racing the Iditarod with the mission of raising awareness of suicide and honoring its victims.(KTUU)

“I have thousands of them in my sled,” he said. “They’re going to ride with me on this journey from here at Deshka Landing all the way to Iditarod and come back.

“You know, you think about a lot of things on the race,” he continued. “You have many, many hours. Mostly you think about the dogs and the strategy and the trail. But I’m going to be thinking about the loved ones I’m carrying with me, about how lucky I am to be here, and how glad I am for all the people that have helped me get to where we are today.”

At the end of the race, Johnson said, he’ll have a little ceremony and take the names to mile one of the Historic Iditarod Trail, burn the lists and then spread the ashes of them in Cook Inlet.

“I feel really proud of what we’re doing,” Johnson said, “to try and provide some sort of healing for those who are left behind. It’s really, really tough when you lose someone that traumatically; it’s a brutal way to lose a loved one.”

For the next week or so, though, Johnson will be working to make it back to Deshka Landing with his dog team after originally being inspired to run the Iditarod back in 1979, when he saw a slide show on the race from Lanier, who would eventually become a friend and great supporter.

Since the early days, Johnson has returned to Alaska to also run the Copper Basin, Denali Doubles and Northern Lights 300, according to the Iditarod Trail Committee. He told the group last year that “now is as good of a time as any for me to run the Iditarod one more time,” calling the opportunity to be a part of this amazing race a special one.

“You know what, it’s been a nerve-wracking and tough year, with COVID and all the ups and downs,” he said. “But we’re here, we’re really excited, we have a great team of dogs and it’s a beautiful day, and we’ll see. It’s going to be fun.”

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