‘He has been with me every Iditarod’: Jeff Deeter runs the trail with his dad

Deeter, looking for a personal best this year, has another reason he’s racing in 2022
For veteran musher Jeff Deeter of Fairbanks, the 2022 Iditarod is extra special as he carries and spreads his father's ashes along the trail.
Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 8:28 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The 50th running of the Iditarod has brought the eyes of the world to the storied race, attracting 49 mushers and their dog teams to the start line in 2022 — each of whom has a different reason for doing it.

That includes Iditarod veteran Jeff Deeter, who has placed in the top 20 the last three times he’s run the race.

“My goal is to improve on my previous finishes,” Deeter said during a stop at Rainy Pass this week. “But really, I’ve got to make sure my team stays healthy, stays perky, and pepping and is enjoying themselves while they’re out here.

“Last year I was 12th,” he continued, “so that’s very close to the top 10. So, that’s my goal for this year.”

This year, though, there’s another answer to the question of why he runs.

“This year, I’m carrying my dad’s ashes,” he said, “so that’s pretty special.”

For many, the Iditarod has proven to be a familial effort. Deeter, for example, has been snacking on lasagna from his mom, Gretchen, all along the trail. His dad, Eric, has also played a big role in his mushing career.

“I started mushing when I was 15,” Deeter explained, “and my dad was really a huge influence in really getting me started in the sport. He helped me build my first dog box, and handled for me on my first Copper Basin, which is a pretty tough race to be a handler on.”

Eric and Gretchen were both there for Deeter’s first Iditarod in 2008, in which he placed 59th. Moving up in the pack over time — from 43rd in 2018, to 15th in 2019 and 16th the year after that — he has his sights set on breaking through to the next level.

He’s also set on making sure his dad makes it to Nome.

“I definitely think about him quite a bit when I am out here, and when I gotta dig deep for, you know, extra strength and motivation out there,” Deeter said. “Kinda channel his drive, his passion.”

Eric was an artist and avid traveler, but never traveled the full Iditarod Trail. For the milestone edition of the race, Deeter knew in advance what he wanted to do.

“I don’t know how many more Iditarods I’ll do,” he said, explaining how he’d lost his dad to a deadly car crash about 10 years ago. “Figured he needs to see the trail, and this is the year.

“He has been with me every Iditarod I have done,” he added, “and it’s sweet to be able to take his ashes and have him out here on the trail.”

Combining the 50th anniversary of the race with the rookie run of Deeter’s wife, KattiJo, made this year the perfect time to bring his dad along. So, Eric’s ashes are being spread in special spots all the way to Nome.

One of them is in Rainy Pass, at about 4,000-foot altitude.

“I spread some of his ashes up there,” Deeter said. “It’s a pretty cool spot. It’s, you know, tucked right in the mountains. So I left a little bit of him there.

“And when we were going through the (Farewell) Burn, I had a moment there where I wasn’t white-knuckled, two-handed driving,” he laughed. “and I could sprinkle a little bit and told him to look out for us.”

Eric would “get a kick out of it,” said Deeter, who is carrying the ashes in an array of containers out on the trail.

“All kinds of scrap, random plastic containers I gathered from around the house,” he said, “so I think he’d find that funny. Pill bottles and little ticker cups and whatnot. So, yeah. I know he does appreciate it.”

Speaking in McGrath, Deeter said he’d already been able to take many moments not just to think about his dad, but to speak to him, too.

“I just tell him that, you know, how cool it is to be out here, and that I miss him,” Deeter said, “and just being able to talk to him.”

Top 10 finish or not, Deeter’s run this year is guaranteeing him at least one thing: more time to spend with dad.

“Sometimes the reward on the trail is not, it’s at least not there at surface level,” Deeter said. “It’s not there at face value. You have to really have a greater understanding of your purpose out here.

“There can be moments where you’re like, ‘What are we doing and why are we doing it?’” he continued, “but, hopefully, you know, you complete the race, and you can look back on it and say, ‘Yeah, that was totally worth it.’”

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