IOWA CITY — A few years ago, Emily Maxwell was tending bar at George’s Buffet. Now she is a musher leading a team of 14 sled dogs 1,000 miles over snowy tundra to Nome, Alaska.
Maxwell, 34, is among 52 mushers participating in the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which began Saturday in Anchorage and ends when people reach the finish line. Maxwell is hoping to best her rookie time last year of 11 days and 13 hours. However, warmer than ideal conditions could be bad news for trail conditions.
“Last year, I had such a good time, even on the race I wanted to do it again,” she said in a phone interview last week. “I didn’t think I’d be able to do it, but I thought, come March, would I be really sad? I figured I would be, so I signed up.”
Maxwell has gained attention for her endeavors in Iowa and beyond. She is featured on the March cover of Alaska Magazine and her story has been shared in more and more places.
She moved to Alaska in 2016 and now lives in Girdwood, working as a Pilates instructor and waitress in the offseason. Still, she identifies herself as an Iowa Citian and an Iowan.
“I’m really proud to represent my home state and hometown,” Maxwell said.
The former Grant Wood Elementary, City High and University of Iowa student has returned three times since the first race, giving presentations about her journey, speaking on Iowa Public Radio and visiting with supporters. George’s, a classic Iowa City dive bar known for its burgers and cans of Hamms beer, and Iowa City are listed as two of her sponsors.
The race costs about $80,000 all in, she said. The sign up is about $4,000, but secondary costs add up, including supplies, food drops for human and dog food, medication and ointment for the dogs, gear, harnesses, transportation and more.
“My jacket alone costs more than I paid for rent in Iowa City,” she said.
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Maxwell does not have her own team of dogs, although she is considering starting a kennel. Instead, she is racing a team of Alaskan Huskies — ranging from 50 to 80 pounds — from Skinny Leg Sleddogs in Great Falls, Mont. She met the owner last year during the Iditarod and he thought she was a good caretaker. He also was expected to participate this year with another set of dogs, she said.
The race is a challenge. Maxwell said she rarely sleeps for more than a couple of hours at a time and recalled sheltering for 13 hours in an old cabin with other mushers to avoid a blinding snowstorm, and losing 10 pounds because of a stripped-down diet.
She enjoys the connection with the dogs. They feed off the musher’s energy and it is a constant effort to make sure the dogs are fed and feeling OK, she said. That, and the beauty of the land, called her back.
“When you are out there and traveling by dog power — it is something they like to do and have fun doing — it is very serene,” she said. “There’s so many beautiful places out there, it’s hard to believe it’s on the same planet we are living on.”
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