Before Yukon Quest rookie Martin Apayauq Reitan was ever born, he was part of a mushing family.
His father, Ketil, is a recreational and sport musher from Norway who met his future wife, Evelyn, while mushing across northern Alaska.
She would eventually become a handler for Ketil and help him with a 20-year business that provided dog mushing adventures in Norway.
They would often visit her parents in the remote Alaska village of Kaktovik. Her father, Herman Aishanna, was an Inupiat whaling captain who used to depend on a team of dogs to help him navigate the arctic wilderness and hunt caribou.
It would seem inevitable that Martin would start learning how to mush at the age of four. It was never about sport and competition for him. It was a way of life.
But today, the 20-year-old is holding his own in the Yukon Quest. He has been leading the other rookies in the race.
“Two years ago, I was a handler for Torsten Kohnert on the Quest and it just looked like a great race,” said Martin. “So many friendly people everywhere, very relaxed. It sounded like it was a real challenge.”
It’s a challenge that Martin has had some practice with. He has gone on a camping trip from Nome to Katkovik, mushing more than a 1,000 miles through mountains and over frozen rivers as his dad broke trail on a snow machine ahead.
Martin has also trained with mentors and companions with some inside knowledge. His brother Vebjorn ran the YQ last year and received the “Rookie of the Year” award, placing fourth. Ketil ran the Yukon Quest in 1989.
“My dad has taught me just about everything I know. He’s been an inspiration since I was a little kid.”
His mom has also nurtured his aspirations. She sewed Martin’s caribou socks, which are liners where the fur faces inward to warm toes susceptible to frostbite. She also cooked a type of doughnut called uksrukuaktak, but rolled it into sticks to make carrying it more convenient.
“My mom’s very supportive. She’s great, encouraging me to do the things that I want to do.”
Both parents helped Martin modify a sled that triples as a shelter and sleeping bag. Martin can fully extend his legs while sleeping in a bag that can be zippered from the inside and shield him from the elements.
The rookie said he’s been having fun. He’s outdoors with dogs that he loves. Conditions have been pretty good. He even had to shed his parka and dog blankets when the sun beamed down warmth on the Yukon.
He’s also proud of his experienced team. They’ve run many long-distance races. In fact, a few of them were even born in motion at 60 mph.
They did get a little assist. One of Martin’s family dogs gave birth in a truck while they were driving up the Dalton Highway toward Prudhoe Bay. To honor the mobile birth, the pups were named after places along the Dalton Highway including his lead dog - Wiseman.
Ketil said he’s happy that Martin is trying out mushing as a sport, but that there’s no pressure for Martin or his other son to continue racing. He said their interest in the sport has been a more recent development.
“For many years, they weren’t so interested in racing,” he said. “They liked outdoor life and hunting but racing was not their focus. Then they became more and more interested in the racing part.”
Martin said he may continue racing but is exploring other possibilities in life. He is learning how to whale with his cousins in Kaktovik. He may go to photography school in Norway.
Currently, he’s a licensed boat caption who helps with his father’s polar-bear viewing business in Kaktovik. The village sits on a barrier island in the Beaufort Sea.
“I don’t know if I’m going to keep racing,” he sad. “A lot of people say they’re going to try out racing and then they wind up doing it their whole lives.”
If not racing, then perhaps Martin will become a photographer for the Yukon Quest.
When asked to name his favorite dog, Martin said, “I think my favorite is Niksik. He’s so photogenic.”