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17-year-old Jenny Deye of Cambridge didn't join her classmates this fall for her first year of college. Instead, she's taking what her family calls a "kid's sabbatical." She's in Alaska training and exploring the life of the full-time sled dog racer. Jenny is out on the trail, in preparation for a run in the Junior Iditarod this February.
THE DEYE'S BACK YARD is a jungle of chain-link dog pens, wheeled sleds, and other mushing equipment. At the far end of the yard is a well-worn patch of ground - a launching pad of sorts - the beginning of miles of trail which wind through the Deye's property. On this September evening, there's no snow on the ground, but the tall grass, frequent gopher holes, and mud present challenges enough.
Lehmann: How'd the ride go?
Deye: Oh it was wonderful, they were truckin'...
The best seat is in the back, behind Jenny driving, because then you can hide behind her when the mud comes flying off their feet.
Deye: ...Yeah, it's muddy today, but it's not too bad - but I'm careful not to smile or you get brown teeth from the mud.
Jenny Deye often has a muddy smile. Her sights are set on competing in the Junior Iditarod this February. So every morning and evening for the past month, this 17-year-old has ventured out in grubby jeans and an old t-shirt to feed her dogs and teach them what they'll need to know to race in Alaska. Jenny is lucky because she rarely works alone.
The entire Deye family plays a role in Jenny's training. On almost every practice run, all five family members are out in the backyard, getting each dog in a harness and lining them up for a run. When they're not outside, Dad is working to pay the bills. Mom is the designated pit crew - out every day, feeding and caring for the dogs, and traveling with Jenny to her many races. Cindy and Charlie, Jenny's siblings, are designing a webpage where the family and local schoolchildren can follow Jenny's adventures in Alaska.
Dogs have been a part of this family since Don and Liz Deye had their first date. Jenny says her parents' stories about the dogs drew her to mushing.
Deye: I always remember the dogs howling when I was little.... I guess looking at all the pictures in here and stories about the team, and I guess I got hooked.
Jenny was 11 when she started to train as a musher. She competes in an average of five races a year in competitions as near as Duluth and as far as Italy. The Deye family livingroom is strewn with medals and photos from the races Jenny's won. Despite her success, Jenny says it's taken six years of hard work to get to this point. She and her mom spend hours tracking the dogs training and health needs. And everyone in the family has had to weigh the costs of supporting Jenny's dream.
Don Deye: There are people that support themselves to do it, but that's partly why Jenny's interested in becoming a vet, I think, so she can support her vice, but there are ways to minimize expenses by buying things in bulk and wholesale....
Liz Deye: Yeah, it's an expense, keeping a lot of dogs. People wind up moving out into the country, getting big pieces of land. It does change your lifestyle.
Jenny's Minnesota training has ended and she is now in Alaska working with veteran mushers to train for the Junior Iditarod. The full Iditarod spans 1161 miles from Anchorage to Nome. Jenny will get a fair test of the run racing the first 160 miles of the Iditarod in the junior competition. Iditarod Director Joanne Potts says even for veteran racers, mushing in Alaska is nothing like racing in the lower 48.
Potts: We had a rookie one year who almost lost his whole hand because of severe frostbite. And he had unzipped his sleeping bag in this blizzard, and he never should have done it, because once you unzip, why, you've had it. And he just wasn't experienced enough to know what to do.... Being out on the trail in Minnesota for a few days is very different from being out on the trail for 15 days in Alaska.
Potts says competitors like Jenny are the most likely to succeed because they've grown up around dogs and mushing. Whether Jenny is prepared for what awaits her in Alaska remains to be seen. She has had her share of adventures and scares. She's been caught in whiteouts, dogs have collapsed or gotten sick on the trail, and last year at the Beargrease, she almost succumbed to hypothermia.
Deye: My favorite time is to be out when it's 30° below and no one else is out there. Ususally during a storm, you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere... and I'm out with the team. I love it.
Jenny will spend the next few months in Alaska without her mom, her usual race companion, and without the rest of the family. Next year, she faces what could be an even bigger challenge: she'll enter veterinary school at the University of Minnesota. Attending college means getting rid of her dogs, a decision she's willing to delay as long as possible. But her choice doesn't mean she'll never go for the big race.
Deye: Maybe someday. I'll be involved in it some way, I imagine. Either as veterinarian or running my team. We'll see what happens.