Iditarod Live: The Sled Blog

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A son replaces his father on the Iditarod trail

Like father, like son: Mike Williams Sr. of Akiak prepares to leave the Takotna checkpoint in the 2009 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Mike Sr. says he is withdrawing from this year's race for health reasons. His son, Mike Jr., will take his place on the sled. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News.)Like father, like son: Mike Williams Sr. of Akiak prepares to leave the Takotna checkpoint in the 2009 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Mike Sr. says he is withdrawing from this year's race for health reasons. His son, Mike Jr., will take his place on the sled. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News.)

MORE FATHER AND SON PICS: Mike Williams Sr. & Mike Williams Jr. gallery.


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.

Mike Williams Jr. looks to where he is to park his team as he arrives at the Nikolai checkpoint in 2011. (Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News.)Mike Williams Jr. looks to where he is to park his team as he arrives at the Nikolai checkpoint in 2011. (Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News.)

"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.

Mike Williams Sr. heads into a cabin for some sleep in Takotna on March 11, 2009. Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News photo.Mike Williams Sr. heads into a cabin for some sleep in Takotna on March 11, 2009. Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News photo.

Walker, one of the the wheel dogs on the team of Mike Williams Jr., eyes his meal as Williams feeds his team in the 40-plus degree sunshine on Puntilla Lake at the Rainy Pass checkpoint in 2011. Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News.Walker, one of the the wheel dogs on the team of Mike Williams Jr., eyes his meal as Williams feeds his team in the 40-plus degree sunshine on Puntilla Lake at the Rainy Pass checkpoint in 2011. Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News.

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