Michelle Phillips follows Jessie Royer into Nikolai on the Iditarod trail. (Dave Poyzer/Iditarod)

Michelle Phillips follows Jessie Royer into Nikolai on the Iditarod trail. (Dave Poyzer/Iditarod)

Yukon musher reflects on an “intense” Iditarod race

Michelle Phillips places 11th, looks ahead to 2022 race

The Yukon’s Michelle Phillips finished the 2021 Iditarod sled-dog race as the top Canadian, taking 11th place overall on March 15.

The 832-mile race in Alaska followed the Gold Loop Trail this year beginning in Deshka Landing, through 16 checkpoints such as Rainy Pass, McGrath and others before ending back at Deshka Landing. Dallas Seavey of Talkeetna, Alaska came in first with a time of seven days, 14 hours, eight minutes and 57 seconds.

The usually 1,000-mile race was rerouted to a shorter course as a precaution against COVID-19 to avoid having race officials, mushers and others in many of the usual village checkpoints along the way.

“It was really intense,” Phillips said in a March 18 interview of the 2021 race.

There was also no ceremonial start in Anchorage this year as there typically is due to the pandemic.

Phillips, who operates Tagish Lake Kennels with her husband and fellow musher Ed Hopkins, was one of two Canadians and the only Yukoner listed in the race that saw a total of 48 mushers leave the starting chute on March 7.

Aaron Peck of Grande Prairie, Alta. was the other Canadian in the race, finishing in 14th place on March 16.

While there are travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19, Phillips explained that as a registered commercial carrier, she was able to go across the border into Alaska for the race.

Another three Canadians, including the Yukon’s Marcelle Fressineau, had been set to run the race but withdrew before the start.

This marked Phillips’ 11th Iditarod run, competing each year between 2010 and 2018 and again in 2020 before her 2021 run.

2021 marked her top finish with a time of eight days, one hour, 30 minutes and 56 seconds.

Prior to that, her top finish was 13th place both in 2017 and 2020, though 2017 saw her fastest speed of nine days, two hours, two minutes and 45 seconds.

In her 2010 rookie year in the Iditarod, Phillips finished in 27th place with a time of 10 days, eight hours, 31 minutes and 12 seconds.

Going into the 2021 race, “I just wanted to do as well as possible,” Phillips said.

She added that with a lack of tours in 2020 due to COVID-19 impacting her and Hopkins’ business, she was also aiming to place as strong as possible for the prize money, which increases the higher a musher places.

The 2021 race rules state the purse this year will be a minimum of $400,000 with the highest percentages going to those who place in the top 20 spots. Those who finish after that will receive $1,049 for finishing the race.

While this marked Phillips’ highest placing in her more than a decade running the Iditarod, she said there were a number of challenges to deal with throughout the race.

It was a very different race with many changes due to COVID. Along with not having the ceremonial start in Anchorage, there were the checkpoint changes, which saw a lot of checkpoints hosted in tents away from the nearest community rather than schools and community centers mushers might normally sleep in and grab a bite to eat at when they arrive at a checkpoint.

Adding to that was -40 to -50 C weather along the way and the out-and-back trail of this year’s race which resulted in “a lot of head-ons” on the way back, Phillips noted.

That said, Phillips plans to be back for the 2022 edition of the race.

“I want to do the 50th (anniversary) for sure,” she said.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com