BOZEMAN – Finding the sports silence too deafening already?
Reaching for the TV remote only to realize all you’ve got to alleviate your March Sadness is hand-wringing ESPN talking heads and replays of ancient Final Fours?
Still smarting from coronavirus jerking the rug from under our high school basketball tournaments when we were so tantalizingly close to gripping stories in places as far-flung as Lodge Grass, Scobey, Belt and elsewhere?
Montanans, I have just the antidote.
As the world shuts down around us, leaving an eerie void akin to the empty skies in the wake of 9/11, one faraway sporting tradition has proven immune to the coronavirus fallout to date – and it's ironic, given that the event on the same route dogs used in 1925 to transport a serum from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, to combat a diphtheria outbreak.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
And guess what? A Montanan could be poised to win it.
While all our eyes have been focused on March’s evolution from madness to sadness across the state, lifelong Montanan Jessie Royer has quietly ascended to the top in one of the most arduous sports in the world.
As of Sunday afternoon, Royer – who has lived in or near Ennis, Philipsburg, Darby, White Sulphur Springs and, now, Seeley-Lake when she’s not at her remote Alaska home north of Fairbanks – was in fourth place at Unalakleet on the frozen Bering Sea, about eight hours from the lead in the 975-mile race. For the first time in her 18 years running the Iditarod, she has three times pulled into checkpoints in first as she bids to become the third woman, and first since the late Susan Butcher 30 years ago, to win Alaska’s Super Bowl.
(You can follow Royer’s progress here).
Royer, 43, provides the perfect bandwagon, er sled, for Montanans to hop aboard in these otherwise sports-less environs.
After all, she is the consummate Montana woman: Tough, resilient, independent, fearless, maternal toward her kids (dogs), and as engaging as any sports personality you’ll meet.
She is also a poster woman for social distancing.
She grew up on ranches, was homeschooled for seven years and her best friends were and are cowboys and mushers. She hunts moose and caribou solo for days deep in the Alaskan bush. Half the time she lives a hermit-like existence off the grid in the sticks north of Fairbanks, for years driving her burly pickup with the bumper sticker “Alaska Girls Kick Ass” to a truck stop to pick up supplies, shower, fill water buckets and communicate with the outside world.
Royer once killed an Alaskan brown bear that was harassing dogs at a fellow musher’s kennels. She made mittens and a hood lining from the hide.
Yet belying the persona of Royer as a female Jeremiah Johnson is her persistent cheerfulness and a gentler side starkly evidenced by her drawings of wispy dragonflies adorning the walls of her rustic Alaska hideaway.
When photographer Erik Petersen and I covered her on the journey from Willow to Nome in 2006, she was unfailingly gracious when we’d converge at checkpoints to detail her one-woman and 16-dog battle against relentless cold, isolation and sleep deprivation. While other mushers were generally distant or cranky – and who wouldn’t be? – Royer was routinely chatty and smiling even as the bags under her eyes swelled.
Earlier in this year’s race, as she “hee’d” and “gaw’d” from Cripple to Ruby, her sled caught on fire due to a heat bottle in a plastic bag.
Small matter. She put it out, made some hasty repairs and still arrived first at the checkpoint on the Yukon River.
Royer has finished in the top 10 in the Iditarod seven times, including a career-best third a year ago. She has gradually inched her way up the Iditarod food chain and seems destined to one day slide under the burled arch in Nome first amid blaring sirens and well-wishers pouring from the 1890s-ish gold-rush honky-tonks.
This year? Maybe.
With still 260 miles to go, she was just a few minutes behind second-place Wade Marrs and third-place Aaron Burmeister, and within striking distance of leader Thomas Waerner.
And what a story it would be for Montana.
Only one other Montanan, mushing legend Doug Swingley of Lincoln, has won the Iditarod. He was the first “Outsider” to do it, shattering Alaskans and the myth that only Alaska residents can win it.
Now here comes a Montana woman who just might shatter another myth: that a perpetually underfunded female part-time Outsider couldn't possibly win it.
If Royer does mush down Front Street in first, she'll mostly be alone because even far-flung Nome, which knows a thing or two about outbreaks, has banned spectators due to coronavirus fears.
Nevertheless, at a time of deafening sports silence, when the TV remote is merely a painful reminder and the sports rug has been jerked out, she's giving Montanans something to cheer about from afar.