Mary Helwig

The journey to dogs

Mary was born in Richmond, Virginia and moved to southern California at the age of four. Mary has always loved dogs and grew up with three dalmatians.

She attended North Park University in Chicago, Illinois and after graduating in 2006, decided to move to Alaska to work for the Christian non-profit organization, Covenant Youth of Alaska (CYAK). She moved to Palmer (an hour north of Anchorage), but soon found herself living in Unalakleet working as a youth leader in the local Covenant church. It was during her time in Unalakleet that Mary was first exposed to the Iditarod as the mushers came through the small, coastal village on their way to Nome, and where she stepped on the runners for the first time. She participated in a short women's race after Easter Sunday service and found herself instantly hooked. "I pushed the sled more than the dogs pulled, but I had the time of my life" (the dogs had run in multiple short races beforehand with kids).

After her time in Unalakleet, Mary moved to Wasilla where she continued her work with CYAK part time doing the book keeping. The rest of her time was spent loving her newly adopted pet chocolate labrador/mix, Kiana, and working as a handler at Jonrowe Racing Kennel where she learned the basics of mushing and what it takes to raise, train, and race a competitive team of huskies from one of the best, DeeDee Jonrowe.

Mary spent two years working part time for DeeDee. Afterwards, she pursued a potential teaching career by substitute teaching and getting a feel for the education scene, but soon decided that she would rather work with dogs than kids (no offense, kids). So in September of 2011, she once again found herself moving to Unalakleet. This time to work for 2010 Iditarod veteran, William "Middy" Johnson, owner of Siku Kennel.

It was a tough season with often times harsh weather, but Mary successfully accomplished her goal of running her first mid-distance race, the Portage 200, competing with local mushers and coming in 2nd place. Despite being exhausted, after the race was finished she knew she was all in.

Mary took another year hiatus from mushing after her time in Unalakleet while she researched and looked for her own place that could accommodate a team of dogs. In 2013 she responded to an ad for an off-the-grid cabin for rent with dog lot space for a small team of dogs at Bacon's Acres' Kennel, owned by Kristin Bacon, in Big Lake, Alaska. She jumped at the opportunity and quickly found a new friend in Kristin and training buddy.

The following year, Mary found her own place in Willow, Alaska complete with dog lot for her growing team. That season, she completed her Iditarod qualifiers, her goal of running the 2016 Iditarod becoming more real!

Everything changed on June 14th, 2015 when a forest fire devastated her neighborhood. Within 20 hours, the Sockeye Fire had burned 6,500 acres, with Mary's new home directly in its path. Thankfully, Mary and her dogs were able to evacuate and board up at Bacon's Acres' Kennel in Big Lake, but anything left behind was destroyed beyond recognition (except for a few dog houses, her greenhouse, and miraculously her race sled).

Just two weeks later, Mary decided to continue pursuing her dream of running the 2016 Iditarod and attended the Iditarod volunteer & musher sign-up picnic.

It was a long hard summer and winter trying to rebuild her home and train for Iditarod, but Mary was able to rebuild AND cross under the burled arch in Nome as the 71st musher and Red Lantern recipient for the 2016 Iditarod.

Mary plans to continue enjoying her dogs and participating in mid-distance and long distance races for years to come.

Mary sleeping with her team during the 2015 Copper Basin 300

Mary sleeping with her team during the 2015 Copper Basin 300

Ceremonial start of 2016 Iditarod                          Photo by: Sam Towarak

Ceremonial start of 2016 Iditarod                          Photo by: Sam Towarak

Race experience

  • Portage 200 - 2012, 2nd place
  • Aurora 50/50 - 2013
  • Knik 100 - 2014, 8th place
  • Two Rivers 200 - 2014, 21st place
  • Copper Basin 300 - 2015, 35th place & Sportsmanship Award
  • Northern Lights 300 - 2015
  • Yukon Quest 300 - 2016, 15th place
  • Iditarod - 2016, 71st place & Red Lantern Award