Not everyone who signs up for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race actually gets a dog team to the start line. When sign-ups opened last fall, at least two women added their names to the roster, but one dropped out two weeks ago. That leaves one woman in a field of 18 mushers.
“I’m pretty tough!” says Mandy Nauman. “I think I’m tough, but who knows. Once I get on that Quest Trail I might not be that tough!”
The Fairbanks musher has been training dogs from Veteran Brent Sass’s Wild and Free kennel based in Eureka, AK for the last eight years. For Nauman, the Yukon Quest has been dream in the making for nearly a decade.
In a recent email, Mandy Nauman says that “if [she] can inspire one little girl to follow her dreams, then [she’s] done [her] job” as a female musher, but beyond that, Nauman isn’t likely to focus on being the only woman to race a dog team in the Yukon Quest this year. “I am a rookie… very much a rookie.” she laughs.
It’s clear she’s nervous about the race, but driving a dog team in the Quest has been a long-time goal for the 32-year-old Minnesota native. “I’ve been running dogs for about eight years but I’ve gotten pretty serious about it in the last three years,” says Nauman.
She wasn’t the only women to sign up for the race, but after a recent withdrawal, she’s the only woman who will start this year. “My goal is to finish,” she says. “I don’t really care where I finish. Granted, I don’t want to be last, but if I am last and I finish then I’m fine with that.”
She can’t exactly explain what it is about sled dogs that gets her fired up, but she caught the mushing bug at Vermillion Community College in Ely, Minnesota years ago.
“One of the classes I had to take was a dog mushing class,” explains Nauman. “I played softball for the college, and my coach was also the instructor so he had taken me out on a sled a couple times. And I had been to Alaska a couple summers before. I worked in Denali, so I knew about dog mushing and I was just like ‘I’m going back to Alaska,’ so, I dropped out of college and moved here to Fairbanks.”
That’s when she met seven-time finisher Brent Sass. The two worked together at Chena Hot Springs and they’ve been friends ever since.
“When I first started getting into long distance mushing, Brent was the guy I’ was working with,” she says, “so I’ve know his dogs for eight years. I love them! They’re part of my family and I couldn’t imagine anybody else’s dogs, honestly.”
She spent the fall training up twelve dogs from Wild and Free Mushing for this year’s race. Like her, many of those dogs are also rookies. “I have four dogs that are under the age of three right now.” She’s not fazed by their inexperience. By the time she gets to the start line, she says her team will also include a few veteran dogs. “A lot of these dogs have been on that trail which is going to be huge, so they’re going to teach me the trail and teach me a lot of things,” she says. “Like to be tough and they’ll teach me to be patient and take my time and not stress out about the little things and just do what I do best and that’s take care of the dogs.”
Nauman laughs when she tries to explain what her family thinks of her lifestyle. “They think i’m crazy!” But she laughs when she admits that they could be right. “Yeah, I mean you might have to be a little bit crazy. But in all seriousness, they one hundred percent support me,” she smiles. “I’ve been doing it for eight years I think they just figure it is time that it happens. I say I’m only going to do it once, I think [my boyfriend] Matt will only let me do it once.” She’s quick to add that long-time boyfriend, Matt Austin fully supports her. “I think if I say I want to do it again, I think he’ll tell me to go find another boyfriend!” she chuckles.
Because this may be Nauman’s first and only run down the Yukon Quest trail, she says finishing in Whitehorse is her only option. “I know it’s going to be the hardest thing I ever do but you know with Wild and Free… you don’t quit when you’re running Wild and Free dogs,” she says in a serious voice. “So, I’m just going to keep that in the back of my head and chug along and I am going to do it! I’m going to do it!”
Mandy Nauman and her dog team will line out at the start of the 31st annual Yukon Quest International Sled dog race in downtown Fairbanks Saturday.