Friday Harbor High School graduate Chad Stoddard is a now renowned dog musher in the history books, winning the title of “Rookie of the Year” for the annual Iditarod race this year.
But before Stoddard mastered the art of dog mushing in sub-zero temperatures under a blanket of stars, he was just a young man from Friday Harbor with a dream of being outside in the elements, where he has always felt at peace.
Stoddard was born in Anchorage, Alaska. He moved to San Juan Island with his family when he was very young.
“I just feel very thankful, I feel so lucky to just have grown up in Friday Harbor, good friends and family there that I think about a lot when I am out and alone on the trail with the dogs,” said Stoddard.
He graduated high school from Friday Harbor High in 2006, then moved to Bellingham to study natural resource management and geography. He received his degree from Western Washington University in 2012. Stoddard said he spent his college years trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life post-college.
“I was really involved with basketball when I was younger, like in love with basketball and I remember not knowing what else I wanted to do in college — definitely was on the ‘five- or six’ year plan,’ for sure,” Stoddard laughed.
Post-graduation at Western, Stoddard worked in Bellingham, retrofitting houses, doing weatherization on homes as his first job into the workforce, which he described as a “great job,” but not exactly enjoyable. It was a government-funded program, for low-income housing to initiate more sustainable energy.
“Basically, out of school, homeowners could apply to make their house more energy-efficient,” Stoddard said. “It was a tough job, I had to crawl underneath houses, which was not exactly pleasant. But it was a really good job, I learned a lot, about what I wanted to do with my life and what I didn’t.”
Stoddard’s mushing journey began when he went to Juno, Alaska, in the summer starting as a guide doing dog tours.
“I went up to Anchorage and was visiting a friend for a birthday party and that’s when I met Ibi, my partner, my wife,” he continued. “That’s when I discovered my love for mushing. I fell in love with Ibi and the dogs at the same time. My first ride on the sled with her, it just felt very comfortable and very natural. She’s the reason I fell in love with dog mushing, it’s really been a great joy to my life, finding her and finding this sport.”
Stoddard commented on how every day, there seems to be always something new to learn and an obstacle to overcome, which is part of the charm of the niche sport he loves. He even learns from his dogs, he said.
“It’s a very addicting lifestyle and you always aim to do better,” Stoddard said. “It’s very satisficing working with your hands and being outside.”
To be eligible to run in the Iditarod, one of the most well-known dog sledding races in the United States, a rookie musher must have several qualifying races under their belts, as well as years of training to withstand the incredibly difficult weather conditions.
Stoddard explained that during the race, he and his opponents endured severe weather and the inevitable sleep deprivation, which tested each musher to their core — from the knowledge on how to handle the dogs, preparing their own bodies for intensely cold weather, as well as much needed survival skills to compete.
“After my first 300-mile race last year in the Copper River Basin, it was in a very cold area of the state in January — the beginning of the race was -40 below and it got colder,” Stoddard said. “[It’s a] long race, brutally cold and took a lot out of me. And being sleep deprived, you don’t sleep very much at all.”
Stoddard began his rooky Iditarod race down the “gold trail loop” which is 832 miles, according to the race’s website. From Willow to Iditarod and back to Willow. According to Stoddard, the hardest part of the rookie race was the checkpoints.
“It was -50 below at the Iditarod checkpoint and the cold weather can really bring challenges. You constantly check on your dogs, making sure they are all tied in. There [are] 14 dogs on your team, that’s 56 booties you have to put on your dogs to protect the pads of their feet. And your gloves, gloves are so important to protect your hands from frostbite.”
Stoddard started the race on the Iditarod on March 7, finishing on March 16. It took him nine days and four hours winning 23rd place, the top finishing rookie, granting him the honorable “Rookie of the year,” and receiving a $2,000 prize.
“I guess my name is in the record books now,” Stoddard joked. “Looking back, I just feel more natural being out in Alaska with the dogs. It’s been a long journey and there are moments that are more enjoyable and less enjoyable out there with difficult conditions; you experience some moments, while you’re standing there, looking up at northern lights and you have to pinch yourself, while you’re pouring your heart and soul into the race, giving it everything you got.”