Good luck charms? Some Iditarod mushers carry one. Others would never consider it.

A man holds a medalion wearing a parka
Sebastien Dos Santos Borges holds a medallion given to one of his lead dogs during the Yukon Quest in 2017. He says he carries it with him to honor the dog. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

MCGRATH — Rookie Julie Ahnen is wearing a medallion of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, as she races through Alaska. Someone gave it to her while she was at her summer firefighting job.

“It says, ‘Guide me in all directions,” she said while resting at the checkpoint here, at race mile 311.

She wears the medallion around her neck for, hopefully, a bit of luck. She’s among the mushers carrying small mementos or pieces of home on the 1,000-mile journey to Nome. While a successful Iditarod mostly depends on mushers’ dogs and training and decision making. A race could also depend on improvisation and ingenuity, as well as a little luck.

Ahnen hopes the medallion helps in the luck department. But it wasn’t clear if it was working in McGrath. Ahnen was shivering in a wet down jacket. She’d left her rain gear at the last checkpoint to cut weight in her sled after she’d had to drop a few dogs.

Another rookie, Sebastien Dos Santos Borges, also wears a medallion. It’s a small circular dog tag from the Yukon Quest race. He said he wears it to honor his dogs.

A woman holds a medalion on her neck
Julie Ahnen shows off a medallion of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers in Catholic iconography. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

First-time Iditarod musher Sean Williams has something too: A keychain that belonged to his mom. 

Her name was Patricia. The keychain is the letter “P” with rhinestones on it. 

“It’s kind of just a physical reminder that it doesn’t really matter if the travel is bad, you know?” he said. “Thinking about good times and memories — all that keeps your mind in the right place, at least for me. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

But not everyone brought a memento.

“I guess it just never really crossed my mind to have one,” said Ryne Olson, who’s racing her fourth Iditarod.

Instead, she said, she relies on optimism.

“I think I like to just remain kind of naïve and be like, ‘It’s all gonna be wonderful!’ she said. “And just try my best to forget that it’s not going to be rainbows the whole time.”

Unfortunately for Olson, her optimism didn’t get her to the next checkpoint. She decided to stop racing in McGrath. Race officials said she made the decision “in the best interest of her race team.” Additional details were not immediately available.

As for good luck charms for rookie Joe Taylor? No, he’s just got the essentials. 

“Maybe I’ll have a rabbit’s foot next time!” he said and laughed.

two dogs stand and sit upright as a person prepares to feed them
Musher Joe Taylor and his dog team arrive at the McGrath checkpoint on a snowy March 9, 2022, afternoon. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Gerhardt Thiart, also on his rookie run, said he didn’t bring a good luck charm because what if he lost it?

“There’s a few small items that are close to me that I thought, ‘I wish I could take this as a good luck charm,’” he said. “And then I thought, ‘If I lose this thing halfway through this race I’ll lose all confidence. That’s why I said, ‘Nope! No good luck charms.’”

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Lex Treinen covers culture, homelessness, politics and corrections for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at ltreinen@alaskapublic.org.