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Musher brings list of names on Iditarod to honor suicide victims from the trail

Published: Mar. 22, 2021 at 9:37 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - If you or someone you know is in need of crisis intervention, call Alaska’s CARELINE anytime, any day of the year by dialing (877) 266-HELP, or dial 911. You can also text CARELINE advocates by sending “4HELP” to 839863.

This year’s Iditarod had a special meaning for one musher: Gunnar Johnson was running in part to bring closure to suicide victims’ families.

Over the past six months, Johnson and his family compiled a list of more than 1,500 names for him to take on the trail. The names were submitted on a website before the race for what the family is calling the Iditarod Hope Project.

“Each one of those represents an individual person that has died by suicide,” Johnson said. “It’s important to me, because I have personally been a part of losing a family member to suicide.”

On the list is Johnson’s cousin, Benjamin.

“Through this process of gathering these names, I have heard from hundreds, if not thousands, of other family members and friends,” Johnson said, “that have lost someone they loved dearly to suicide.”

Johnson, speaking of his experiences on the trail, said the Iditarod is in some ways like life.

“There can be often low points,” Johnson said. “We all try to finish the whole race. But sometimes our races are cut short.”

Johnson’s Iditarod ended early this year when he tested positive for COVID-19 in McGrath, mandating a withdrawal from the race.

However, while Johnson couldn’t continue to compete, that wasn’t the end of the journey for the thousands of names contained in a single envelope. Veteran musher Nicolas Petit carried them all to the finish line in Johnson’s absence.

“Gunnar asked me to carry the list when he couldn’t continue down the trail,” Petit said. “And to me, that means it’s important to him. So it’s important to me.”

Johnson said he never doubted that Petit would be willing to do that for him, and for those who submitted a name for the list.

“The only thing that I doubted was whether or not I would have the ability to talk to Nic,” he said, “just enough to make that handoff of the list.”

On Monday, the list took its final trip to the Iditarod Trail for a small ceremony honoring those lost.

“We burned the list in my Iditarod cooker, and took the ashes and spread them along the Cook Inlet,” Johnson said. “In the spring, when the tides come up, those ashes will be washed away,” Johnson said.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day in multiple languages. You can reach advocates by calling (800) 273-8255.

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