Palmer couple tie the knot on Iditarod Trail
SUSITNA RIVER, Alaska (KTUU) - As 33 Iditarod teams were beginning the race of their years, one couple from Palmer were beginning the race of their lives.
Crystal and Nicholas Gundersen said their “I Do’s” and shared a memorable kiss while teams of sled dogs passed behind them Sunday afternoon under sun-splashed skies at the confluence of the Yentna River and Susitna River.
And to top it off, the couple had Iditarod legend DeeDee Jonrowe officiate the ceremony.
With a few dozen friends and family members riding around 20 snowmachines out to the location, it was a “dream come true” for Crystal.
“It was a beautiful day (Sunday), it was just gorgeous out,” she gushed.
The two got hitched at a spot colloquially known as “Scary Tree,” which mushers and longtime Alaskans have named for its reputedly ragged appearance. In the winter when the rivers freeze up, locals typically gather by the tree to host parties and celebrations, as well as Iditarod watch parties.
“People would decorate it with, I don’t know, beer cans, pop cans, or whatever they had, and it would be all decorated by the end of the Iditarod,” Crystal explained. “So now, since it washed out, someone goes and sets a tree out there every year.”
The couple both grew up with the Iditarod firmly entrenched in their childhoods — Crystal is from Pilot Point and Nicholas is from Sand Point, both small communities on the Aleutian Chain — and she now works as a practice manager at Mat-Su Health Services in Wasilla, while Nicholas is a sales representative for a heavy equipment company in Anchorage.
Crystal said she and Nicholas have been engaged for a few years but had to delay the wedding due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It gave her time to find the perfect person to officiate their wedding. Crystal said she’s always admired Jonrowe, who she shares a connection with.
“I’ve been really obsessed with her — and Iditarod, because of her — since I was a little girl,” Crystal said. “And now even more recently, I’ve grown to respect her a lot more because I recently was diagnosed with breast cancer, and finished my radiation treatment in December, so that was another reason why she inspired me so much ... because I know that she went through breast cancer as well.”
Nicholas said he never followed the Iditarod as closely as his new bride, but knew the story of Balto, the lead dog of Leonhard Seppala’s dog sled team that helped bring the diphtheria vaccine to Nome in 1925, with a massive assist from another one of Seppala’s lead dogs, Togo.
Crystal said she asked one of her uncles — who is a friend of Jonrowe’s — to ask DeeDee to officially wed them, and the celebration was on.
The celebratory weekend began Saturday morning in Downtown Anchorage with the ceremonial start, where Crystal rode along with Fairbanks musher Riley Dyche in the IditaRider Experience, which awards a few dozen lucky fans with a ride in the sled of one of the mushers in the field.
Once Saturday’s festivities were over, the couple invited all the family members and friends out to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley for the official ceremony.
Nicholas said they weren’t the only ones that were eager to get out to the unique wedding venue.
“We all of a sudden saw the pink parka go flying by, and it was like, ‘DeeDee just passed us!’” Nicholas recounted. “So we had a couple of guys that were on some fast sleds that got to catch up to her and say, ‘Hey, we’re coming up behind you! The whole crew is!”
Once there, Jonrowe presided over the ceremony as Iditarod teams casually passed by behind them. Nicholas described the scene as he enjoyed their first kiss as a married couple with a team of dogs trotting by.
“We started to kiss and then it was just a continuous — everyone yelling at us to, ‘Keep kissing, keep kissing,’ because the musher stopped and we didn’t know where he was at, because we were both you know, trying to get that right photo for everyone to have,” he said.
Nicholas said the honeymoon will mostly be spent following the race as mushers head to Nome.
“We’re not going to get a lot of sleep for the next seven to 10 days, depending on how long this race goes because she does not sleep at all,” he said. “We’ve got the insider tracker going. I set up a computer for her to have next to the bed so she can watch it live.”
So how deep does Crystal’s passion for the Last Great Race run? Nicholas said her allergies to dog hair prove how far she’s willing to go to see her heroes, with tears and a runny nose gaining odd looks from others as she watches teams go by.
“It looks like she’s crying, so it looks like she’s super emotional and really passionate and really, it’s her allergies just fighting against her,” he said with a laugh. “I see people looking at her and they’re just like, ‘Oh my gosh, she loves the sport so much,’ and it’s like, ‘No, it’s a dog allergy,’ but alright.
“I think it all does boil down to Crystal’s love for the sport, the dogs.”
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