From Kyle Hopkins in Anchorage --
Maybe it was the lush fish traps that derailed his Iditarod, Mike Williams says.
The Akiak musher fishes year-round to feed his village dog team, which this year meant snappy November days spent working traps along the frozen Kuskokwim River. At 20 and 30 below, a bad cold became pneumonia, Williams said, stealing away crucial training days.
“The physician was concerned about my health,” said Williams, 59.
As a result, Williams has told Iditarod officials he is withdrawing from the race. It would have been the veteran musher's 15th Iditarod.
Competing in his place: Williams’ 26-year-old son, Mike Jr.
“Right now I’m taking care of me, and Junior decided to take a break from his studies to jump on the runners in my stead,” the elder Williams said in a phone interview today. He walked the dogyard as he talked, pouring water for the team.
"Junior," Iditarod mushers learned during last year’s race, is no joke. Though he hadn't planned on competing this year, the younger Williams has twice completed the race. He placed 13th in 2011, racing with leaders Pirate and Emo, dogs who Mike Sr. says later helped Pete Kaiser of Bethel win the Kobuk 440.
Pirate arrived from Iditarod champion John Baker’s kennel, Mike Sr. said, while other dogs on Team Williams are descended from bloodlines bred by Susan Butcher, Rick Swenson and George Attla.
Mike Williams Jr. is putting college courses in Oregon on hold this spring to train in Akiak, a Yup’ik village of 370, his father said. Finding someone to replace him behind the sled is one thing, but Mike Sr. mushes for more than sport.
All six of the elder Williams' brothers died of suicide or accidental deaths. Williams has said he races to promote sobriety; a symbol of healing for traditional Alaska Native communities devastated by alcohol and the side effects of rapid modernization.
A longtime school board member, Mike Sr. works as a counselor and has championed both tribal sovereignty and mental health programs in rural Alaska. He says his son has been racing sled dogs since childhood, helping train the team after wrestling and basketball practice, running dogs while his father led tribal council meetings.
The younger Williams can inspire people too, his father said.
“The last couple of years he’s been quietly mushing for youth sobriety, as an example for young people,” Mike Sr. said.
“You can’t jump on runners and run Iditarod,” he said. “You have to take care of yourself, you have to prepare yourself.”
Iditarod rules allow for an eligible musher to replace another competitor as long as the switch is made for medical reasons, said Iditarod director Stan Hooley. Race officials already have decided to allow the younger Williams to step in for his father, he said.
Meantime, Mike Sr. hopes to return to the race next year. Maybe celebrate his 60th birthday on the trail.
“I hate to watch from the porch,” Williams said.