THUNDER BAY – Local musher Julia Cross will take a big step closer to her dog sledding dreams when she runs the Junior Iditarod at the end of February. The two-day, 150-mile junior version offers participants aged 14 to 17 a taste of the world-famous, 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race.
Both versions of the race take place in Alaska, where Cross, 17, will steer her dog team through average temperatures of -20 C. Human and canine participants alike must brave the elements for the duration of the race, which begins on Feb. 29.
Cross has been involved with dog sledding since the age of five, and started racing in 2013. This will be her biggest race so far, though she has run others up to 120 miles long. Speaking in her backyard, surrounded by four sled dogs, Cross seems unfazed by the challenge she’ll be taking on in a matter of weeks.
“It’s actually not nearly as dangerous as most people think. The trails are marked, so we hopefully don’t get lost – although I’ve gotten lost a couple of times,” she chuckles. “There are people out on the trails making sure you’re ok, and you have a GPS tracker the race marshals can follow.”
Nine other participants have registered for the junior race so far, in advance of the Feb. 15 deadline. Cross is the only Canadian, and one of only two non-Alaskans along with a competitor from Sweden. She says she’s more focused on completing the race well than on winning it.
“My goal is not always to win,” she maintains. “I want to finish the race with the happiest and healthiest dog team I can, because that’s what’s more important.”
Competing in the junior version of the iconic Iditarod will put her one step closer to a long-held goal.
“When I first got involved in dog sled racing, the race that popped up was the Iditarod,” she explains. “Everyone knows it and it’s kind of been my dream. You get to spend more than a week out on the trail with just you and your dogs, and that’s something that’s really appealing to me.”
She says the fact that no Canadian – and only two females – has ever won the race is an additional motivating factor.
Alaskan musher Ryan Reddington will provide her team, while Cross is working with numerous businesses in Thunder Bay and beyond to help finance the excursion. Gear Up for Outdoors has provided her winter gear, while meat for the dogs will come from George’s Market. She says she’s about halfway to her fundraising goal, and more companies have been reaching out to support her.
Cross says she’s excited to represent Thunder Bay in a high-profile international race. While the city’s sled dog racing scene is small, it’s an ideal location for the sport.
“We’re actually in a really nice spot for dog mushing,” she says. “We’ve got good snow levels, a good winter, not super hot summers.”