Twin sisters confront Alaska’s Iditarod
After consecutive days of racing on three hours sleep in bitter temperatures that can dip lower than 50-below, it’s understandable if some Iditarod competitors find themselves susceptible to double vision.
In this year’s annual dog sled race, which officially begins Sunday in Anchorage, racers and spectators will actually be seeing double thanks to a set of 28-year-old identical twins.
Anna and Kristy Berington are two of the 66 mushers in the 975-mile trek, which ends about a week and a half later in the coastal city of Nome. While Kristy has completed the race the past two years, it’s Anna’s first attempt at the Iditarod, and only the third time the pair has ever competed in the same sled dog race.
“The two races we did together — one of them I had frostbite and got hurt after the first checkpoint,” Anna said. “Kristy waited for me and we left together. I was thinking that it’s fun racing with my sister and not thinking about being hurt. The second time we raced together our teams were pretty different and I wasn’t able to keep up with Kristy. It was still fun knowing we were going through the same thing on the trail.”
While the pair will start this year’s race near each other, it’s every racer for herself on the course. Each musher is responsible for the care of the 12 huskies on their team, including safety, food and knowing when to call it a night. Before either twin gets into her sleeping bag on top of her sled to sleep each night of the race, she will lay down straw for the dogs and make sure that they have received proper medication and attention.
“You’re on your own out there,” Kristy said. “You break a sled you have to fix it. There’s a problem with the dog, you have to deal with it yourself.”
The pair’s love of animals stems from a childhood spent on a farm in Port Wing, Wisc., a small town on the shore of Lake Superior. Raised as outdoorswomen from an early age, the twins learned of dog sledding from a neighbor, who hired them to work at her sprint kennel and eventually allowed them to race some of the dogs.
After a stint in the National Guard and various outdoor guide jobs around Lake Tahoe, the twins moved to Alaska’s Kenai peninsula in late 2007 to pursue one of their earliest passions.
“Where we grew up there was tons of wilderness around us and we were always outside,” Kristy said. “Dog mushing ended up seeming like a good fit.”
Both women work full-time at separate kennels — Anna works with 1984 Iditarod winner Dean Osmar, while Kristy works with veteran musher Paul Gebhardt. They deal with 70-80 dogs, construct their own sleds and dog houses, tie their own gang lines, and groom their own training trails around the kennel.
But no matter how much time they put in beforehand, there’s really nothing that prepares them for the grueling nature of the Iditarod.
“In my first year, the hardest thing was the unknowns,” Kristy said. “I didn’t know what a dog team looked like after 700 miles. Now I’ve gone in both directions so there’s not much I haven’t seen. I think the cold is the thing I don’t like the most. It makes everything really hard. The first year it got 54-below when I was camping.”
They won’t have much help from the elements this year. Saturday's forecast calls for 18 inches of fresh snow on top of what has already been a heavy winter, even by Alaska standards.
“I just want to improve every year,” Kristy said. “I finished 39th my first year and 29th last year so I’d like to at least gain one spot.”
And her rookie sibling?
“I just want to finish,” Anna said.