When Josh McNeal hits the trail on the 2022 Iditarod in a few days, he’ll do so as a veteran.
But in many ways, the La Center High graduate’s second Iditarod will feel very much like doing it for the first time.
“We are doing the traditional course this year, headed to Nome,” McNeal said. “We’re super excited to get to do the race all the way to Nome. But it’s kind of ironic, because I’m entered as a veteran. But once I leave the checkpoint of Ophir, I’m essentially a rookie again. But I am looking forward to not having to go over the Alaska Range twice, like last year.”
So much of the 2022 Iditarod will be different from the 2021 race, which was greatly altered by COVID-19 precautions.
Last year’s course was an out-and-back route from Willow to Iditarod. This year, mushers and their dogs will take the 975-mile northern route from Willow to Nome.
It begins with the ceremonial start through the streets of Anchorage on Saturday, another part of the race that did not happen in 2021.
McNeal will hit the trail with all nine of his dogs who finished last year’s race, plus a couple of other experienced dogs he added to his team.
But most of all, he comes with a year of valuable experience.
“I think one of the biggest lessons I learned last year — and I think I got better at this as the race went on — is learning to control your emotions,” McNeal said. “When you’re that tired and exhausted, the littlest things seem like a huge deal. But they’re really not. If you can look at yourself from an outsider’s perspective, they’re really not that big of an issue. I’ve really tried to take that into my training this year as well, just working on staying calm and working through the little issues.”
McNeal is a 2013 graduate of La Center High School who moved to Alaska after attending the University of Alaska Anchorage.
After taking up dog mushing in 2018, he placed 28th overall and second-best among Iditarod rookies last year.
McNeal said he has enjoyed sharing his insider’s experience from the 2021 Iditarod with others, particularly during visits back to Clark County.
“It was really fun to come back from the race last year and getting to talk to people about it,” he said. “Because obviously, mushing is not a huge thing down in Southwest Washington. I had a lot of people who I really didn’t know who reached out to say, ‘Good job’ and ‘We’ve been following you.’”
It has been a particularly harsh winter in the interior of Alaska, with record snowfall. That comes with advantages and disadvantages.
“The trail reports I’ve heard is a lot of the snowless parts of the course have snow this year, so that’s super exciting,” McNeal said. “Hopefully, those conditions will hold in the next couple of weeks.”
The weather has also led to hazards. Two weeks ago, an Iditarod rookie had her team attacked by moose while on a training run.
“Moose have been a huge problem this year just because here in the interior, we’ve had just record-breaking snow,” McNeal said. “And then that 2-inch layer of ice on the snow (in December) made it even harder on the moose. They’re hungry. They’re having a hard time moving around finding food. So they’re just angry. I feel really bad for them. It has made it increasingly more difficult to train dogs and to make sure you can keep your dogs and yourself safe.”
Last summer, McNeal didn’t know if he’d be returning to the Iditarod in 2022.
“And then, I don’t know, right around when signups started, I started contemplating it,” he said. “It’s the 50th anniversary of the race, and the core of my team is coming into the prime age for racing. So it kind of made sense to sign up, even with as much work as it is.
“It’s just a huge time and money and energy commitment. My wife (Jobie) and I, we both work full-time jobs. And we both come home from work, and then we’re doing dog stuff. It’s pretty much a commitment from the middle of August to the beginning of April. We’ve already built our lives around our dogs, but it’s much more of a grind to make sure of everything to run the Iditarod, and a huge financial commitment as well.”
McNeal, 27, is taking a month off from his job as a well site supervisor for Hilcorp, an oil company on the North Slope of Alaska. This year, Hilcorp has become one of the principal sponsors of the Iditarod. McNeal will have a special Iditarider during Saturday’s ceremonial start in Anchorage.
“An Iditarider is a sponsor or someone who can bid to ride in the sled during the ceremonial start,” McNeal said. “So I’ll be taking the Hilcorp representative in my sled.”
McNeal is making the final preparations for this year’s journey, including dropping 1,900 pounds of food for his team and making sure all his dogs are fit to run nearly 1,000 miles.
On Wednesday, McNeal was due to depart his home near Fairbanks for Anchorage, and he will attend a mushers’ meeting today. Then comes the ceremonial start in Anchorage on Saturday.
“And then we travel two hours north to Willow for the restart (Sunday),” McNeal said. “And then we’ll be out on the trail for however many days it takes me to get to Nome.”
McNeal hopes that is less than the 9½ days it took him to complete the race last year.
“My goal is place higher than I placed last year,” he said. “It’ll be fun to see what happens. I’m more experienced; my dogs are more experienced. That definitely helps.”