As the story came to be told and grew, there was a lone hero because stories are best that way.
Reality is more complex and sometimes confused by the fog of war. And then, too, in the male-dominated world of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the efforts of a woman with a significant part in the story are easily overlooked.
That one of the mining companies, Donlin Gold, is a major Iditarod sponsor only adds another layer to what may, or may not, have shaped what has come to be the Legend of Scott Janssen.
In reality, Janssen was a commendable performer – maybe even a heroic one – who put himself through some serious misery to aid the rescue of Jim Lanier. But there was other key performers overlooked, most especially 34-year-old Monica Zappa from Kasilof who with an assist from 47-year-old Brett Bruggeman, an endodontist from Great Falls, Mont., came first to Lanier’s aid.
Zappa “and I tried our best” to rescue him from the now famous “Solomon Blowhole” east of Nome in the early morning hours of March 16, Bruggeman said Thursday by telephone from his home in the Lower 48. But in the end all the duo managed to do was move Lanier and his team near the trail.
That move, however, was pivotal. Had it not happened, and had Lanier gone back to stay with his team stuck off the trail, Janssen might as easily have passed the 77-year-old musher unseen as Lanier friend Larry Daughtery had done before.
Bruggeman credits Zappa with wading through this year’s unusually deep coastal snow to reach Lanier’s team, and then leading the dogs across the beach and through a tangle of driftwood atop the barrier island to get them lined out on the trail to the Safety Roadhouse.
“She got Jim’s team untangled,” Bruggeman said. “She got them over to the trail.”
She and Bruggeman almost got them moving on the way to Safety Roadhouse, too, but they didn’t. If they had, the big story at the end of the 2018 Iditarod wouldn’t have been a story at all, which is the history of so many untold Iditarod stories.
Snapshots in time
In the world of Iditarod, things are seldom as they at first seem or as they are first told. Reporters glean only bits and pieces of information. Many mushers tend toward introversion. Accounts of events along the trail often need to be pried from their lips.
But there are a few who love to talk, and they are drawn to the media the way the light attracts the moth. They shape the narrative, and then the narrative grows.
A story is begun and builds upon itself, and it is rare for anyone to go back and piece together what really happened. The Iditarod, for its part, doesn’t care how a story gets relayed as long as the story promotes the race.
As for the people who are supposed to be in the business of sorting fact from fiction, well, by the time the Iditarod reaches Nome, reporters are pretty much worn out. They’re happy to see the winner crowned, and if a story of daring-do – as with the Legend of Scott Janssen – falls in their lap while they are still stuck in the City of the Golden Sands, they are happy to take what they are given and run with it.
To reconstruct what actually happened takes time, of which reporters usually have too little, and energy, of which most reporters are drained by the Iditarod finish. It is easy to overlook some of the players and easier still to simplify complicated chains of events.
It is probably to be expected that if a story like the one about to be told is finally written, it will be done by a magazine writer freed the burdens of daily deadlines on the Iditarod Trail, or by a reporter back in Anchorage allowed the luxury of a good bed, eight hours of sleep each night, and the time to ponder why the story being told seems to be missing key elements.
What you are about to read is a reconstruction of what happened to Lanier on the home stretch of the Iditarod this year. It is based on interviews with Bruggeman, Lanier and more than a half-dozen others, some of whom asked to remain nameless so as to avoid problems with Iditarod, which just happens to have a gag rule.
The story begins with a sick and struggling Lanier on the sled runners behind a dog team dropping down out of the Topkok Hills to frozen and snow-coverd Safety Lagoon in the early morning darkness on March 16. Four hours earlier, he had departed the White Mountain checkpoint after the race’s mandatory, 8-hour rest.
The rest hadn’t helped to cure the bronchitis that had left him badly ill, but the weather forecast for the Bering Sea coast ahead looked good.
A veteran of 19 Iditarods, the 77-year-old pathologist from a suburb just north of Alaska’s largest city knew he was taking a risk traveling the trail in poor health, but he figured everything would be fine as long as it was fine.
Almost immediately on coming out of the hills, however, he had a problem. The north winds were screaming south through the blowhole. Gusts to 40 mph, maybe more, picked up snow and blew it across the trail in a wall of white that made it impossible for Lanier to see his lead dogs only about 50 feet ahead.
Thus he did not notice when the veered left off the race trail cutting across the snow-covered ice of the Safety Lagoon in favor of pioneering their own route along the Bering Sea on the wrong side of the barrier islands that form the lagoon.
What had begun as one problem was now two problems for an old man alone on the trail. Behind him somewhere, though, was friend and fellow musher Larry Daugherty, whose team left the White Mountain checkpoint only three minutes after Lanier’s. Daugherty was planning to help escort his sick and ailing friend to the next checkpoint at the Safety Roadhouse.
A doctor from the Anchorage bedroom community of Eagle River, Daugherty considered Lanier a mentor and an inspiration. When Lanier’s fast-moving team opened a gap on Daugherty’s team in the barren Topkoks, Daugherty figured it was a good sign Lanier was on a fast pace to the finish.
If Lanier had a problem along the trail, Daugherty was sure to catch up. Daugherty did not expect the older musher’s dogs to hang a left at the bottom of the Topkoks and head for the Bering Sea. He was chagrined to find upon arriving in Safety, the last checkpoint, that Lanier had not passed through and instead disappeared in the night.
Alone and off trail
Back behind on the trail, with the wind howling, Lanier figured out the mistake his dogs had made when he saw Daughtery’s headlamp scoot by to the north. Lanier started trying then to lead his team back over the crown of the barrier island to the trail on the far side. The task was difficult due to an unusually large amount of snow and the significant volume of driftwood that accumulates on the Bering Sea beaches even though they are north of the end of the continent’s forest.
Sick and tiring, Lanier made progress, but eventually stalled out. The time was near 4 a.m. But potential help was on the way. Behind Lanier and Daughtery, a steady stream of teams was flowing out of White Mountain.
Jansen at 1:37 a.m., Zappa at 1:49 a.m., and Bruggeman at 1:52 a.m. were the first.
Zappa and Bruggeman quickly passed Jansen on the trail. About an hour after Lanier stopped, they came down out of the Topkoks and spotted a headlamp off the trail toward the ocean. Traveling together in the blow, they paused to ponder the light, but decided to move on down to the trail because of the difficulty in getting through the driftwood to the far side of the island.
They did not go far before they encountered someone walking toward the trail from the beach. That was Lanier, who told Zappa his dogs had wandered off the trail and were stuck.
The winds were howling, and Lanier was not in the best of shape. He said he couldn’t use his hands very well. They had been compromised by past frostbite, which made him more vulnerable to problems in the cold.
Zappa and Bruggeman hooked down their teams and Bruggeman stayed with them while Zappa headed off with Lanier to get his team. They found the dogs in a tangle about 200 yards away.
Zappa untangled them. Lanier wasn’t able to provide much help, but once Zappa got the dogs ready to go, he was able to get on the sled as she steered the dogs back to the trail. Lanier, at that point, expressed confidence that if one of the other mushers took the lead to Safety, his dogs would follow.
Lanier said that if that didn’t work, he would push the SOS button to summon help. Bruggeman started his team down the trail. Behind him, Zappa hooked down her team again, got of her sled, and went back to line Lanier’s dogs out to follow hers.
At that moment, her team bolted, apparently excited to chase Bruggeman. Zappa let go off Lanier’s lead dogs and rushed to grab her sled.
Lanier’s last view of Zappa was of her behind a team headed toward the sea. He was left fearing she might go over the top of the barrier island and end up in the same mess he’d been in. As Zappa gee’ed her dogs back onto the trail out of sight of Lanier, she was left hoping Lanier’s team was hot on the chase.
They weren’t. They’d stalled again along the trail.
At that point, Zappa and Bruggeman decided the thing to do was to continue on to Safety a couple of hours ahead and inform Iditarod personnel there that Lanier was in serious need of help. Meanwhile, back in Nome, Lanier’s wife, Anna Bondarenko, was watching the stalled satellite tracker on her husband’s sled and telling Iditarod officials something appeared wrong.
Bondarenko knew the trail. She in 2004 earned one of the belt buckles given only to Iditarod finishers.
As Bruggeman and Zappa left Lanier on the trail, they were thinking he would push the button to start a rescue. They were later surprised to discover at Safety that had not happened.
As Bruggeman and Zappa were making their way through the storm to Safety, Janssen was coming down out of the Topkoks. Shortly before 6:30 a.m., he encountered Lanier’s team. Janssen, like Bruggeman and Zappa before him, tried to get Lanier’s dogs moving.
He helped Lanier line the team out and started for Safety only to suffer a replay of what had happened to Zappa. His team bolted for the sea. Behind him, Lanier’s dogs got moving this time only to have his sled get stuck on a stump. Janssen got his team stopped, hooked them down and came back to confer with Lanier.
Things were going from bad to worse. Lanier’s eyes were freezing shut in the wind, a not uncommon occurrence. The eyes tear up to protect the corneas from freezing. The moisture accumulates on the eye lashes. The lashes freeze together. The ice needs to be scraped off.
Now, however, with both teams stopped, neither team was wanting to get going again. The dogs were nestled in at ground level, happy now to wait out the blow.
The situation was not good. Janssen decided it was best to pull out a satellite phone, dial up his wife, Debbie, waiting in Nome, and ask her to inform Iditarod officials there was trouble on the trail.
What transpired next is unclear, although the Iditarod later announced it started a rescue operation at 7 a.m. Expecting a rescue reasonably soon after the phone call, Janssen and Lanier huddled in the lee of one of their dogs sleds to wait.
Old friends, they joked and shivered and told stories as best they could to kill time. The rescue they were expecting, however, was slow to materialize. By the time a trio of cyclists in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a separate Iditarod event, pushed their bikes out of the storm and into the scene, Lanier and Janssen had been waiting for more than an hour and were cold despite being well dressed for the conditions.
To add to the mushers’ problems, Janssen had taken his gloves off to do something while helping Lanier, and the wind had whisked the gloves away. He told cyclist Phil Hofstetter his fingers were now so cold he can’t dial his sat phone. Hofstetter took the phone and dialed Debbie’s number again. Husband and wife had a heated discussion, possibly focused on why rescuers had yet to arrive.
Lanier had by then spent almost four hours out in the near-zero cold and the wind and was in bad shape both psychologically and physically. At age 77, he confessed later, he was thinking that if he died out on the trail, so be it.
As Hoftstetter was helping Janssen, Cable was digging through the dogsleds of the two mushers looking for a SPOT radio tracker and signalling device. Each musher carried two trackers issued by the Iditarod.
One tracked the sleds at all times no matter where mushers went. One was a back up tracker and offered mushers an SOS button to signal for help if they got in a dangerous situation. The SOS meant disqualification, but it was a potential lifesaver.
Cable and Janssen discussed what to do after the SPOT was found, and Janssen said push the SOS button. Cable did.
The GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center picked the signal up at 7:46 a.m. Unable to reach the designated Iditarod contact, it called Alaska State Troopers at 7:52 a.m. to report an emergency beacon had gone off along the Iditarod Trail.
Troopers by then had already been alerted by Nome search and rescue that Iditarod had asked for search assistance. With a search underway and the beacon pushed, troopers authorized a helicopter to fly to Safety to evacuate any mushers brought to the checkpoint in need of medical attention.
Luckily, neither Janssen or Lanier would need hospitalization.
Zappa and Bruggeman pulled into Safety at 8:20 a.m. to find Jessie Royer there. An Iditarod veteran and a top-20 finisher in the Iditarod just over, Royer had taken a snowmobile from Nome to Safety to meet fellow Montanan Bruggeman.
He and Zappa told Royer about Lanier’s problem, and how he planned to push the button. Royer told them no button had been pushed, apparently unaware state troopers had contacted Nome search and rescue about the distress signal.
Royer then headed out into the storm to find Lanier and Janssen while Zappa and Bruggeman took off on the trail to Nome.
Back with Janssen and Lanier, the cyclists had decided there was not much more they could do. Dressed lightly for travel, they were starting to freeze in the wind and decided it was time to move to generate some body heat.
With the button pushed and a call made to Debbie, they assumed rescuers were on the way. So they resumed their own march toward Safety and Nome.
But just to be sure things worked out, they stopped at Johnson’s Camp a couple of miles down the trail to text with Hofstetter’s wife in Nome to make sure the SOS message went through. Yes, she informed them, troopers had been notified, and a rescue was underway.
By then, Royer was speeding down the trail and Nome search and rescue was coming fast behind. Lanier remembers Royer helping him struggle to his feet and get on a snowmachine. By then, other machines were arriving to help Janssen.
By late morning, the two mushers were in Safety. By that afternoon, looking little the worse for wear, Janssen was sitting down with John Thompson, a reporter for KTVA-TV, the official station of the Iditarod, to tell his tale.
“This, for the foreseeable future was my last Iditarod,” Janssen said. “I don’t lament not crossing (under) the burled arches. Had a great time laying in the snow, feeling like I was dying…. so did Jim, with my friend. That’s what it really came down to in this race.”
Janssen had already told friends he planned to run for a seat on the Iditarod board of directors once he stepped away from the race. Two days after his arrival in Nome, mushers who had already gone on record demanding the resignation of Iditarod Trail Committee Board Chairman Andy Baker, voted Janssen the race’s Sportsmanship Award for 2108 for his role in helping to save Lanier.
A couple mushers later volunteered they wanted Janssen on the board to replace Baker. Janssen was by then basking in his 15 minutes of fame. The Washington Post recounted a heroic struggle to rescue a friend and survive. It was made-for-TV material, and the story went round the world.
“On a final call to his wife and family, Janssen confessed he did not know if they would make it out alive,” wrote Kyle Swenson. “‘I didn’t think I was going to die,’ Janssen explained to The Washington Post. ‘I knew I was going to die if someone didn’t come along.'”
He survived to become a hero, and Zappa, Bruggeman who’d labored in the cold and wind and dark to manuever Lanier and his team into position to be found, were forgotten along with Royer and the nameless members of Nome search and rescue who drove into the coastal maelstrom to retrieve Janssen and Lanier.
It was a big, complicated story, and stories are best when they are simple.