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Local dog sledder Amanda Otto chases down Iditarod dream


DRIGGS — It was about 1 a.m. deep in the Alaskan wilderness and a rookie musher named Amanda Otto was driving her team of 12 sled dogs up a 4,500-foot mountain slope called, “The Hump,” pushing into the Gakona River Valley.

She was almost 41 miles out of the Chistochina checkpoint gliding along the tundra on one good sled runner. The other runner (or blade) was cobbled together with the help of a repair kit after it snapped in half on a difficult turn a few miles back.

“The dogs (were) sliding that sled in the dark and I looked up and thought, wow, that’s a bright star,” Otto said describing her feelings going up the mountain. “But then I realized that it wasn’t a star — that was a trail marker reflecting off my headlamp. And I think, well, what goes up must come down and the dogs took off down the mountain at full speed. They were having a hell of a lot of fun. Thank goodness it was dark and I couldn’t see how far down we were going.”

The Copper Basin 300 is one of the toughest dog sled races in Alaska. And it was one of the three races that Otto, 27, finished this season earning her first qualification to run in the Iditarod, the world-renowned, 1,049-mile race held in Alaska every March.

“Copper Basin was a landmark race for me,” she said. “That was the race that I wanted to do because it’s the toughest 300 miles in Alaska. It is known for its ridiculous temperatures and difficult backcountry. After that race, I felt like a musher.”

Otto took a turn on her first dog sled at the American Dog Derby in Ashton when she was a little girl growing up in Pocatello. The granddaughter of Football Hall of Famer James Otto, her family moved to Teton Valley where she graduated from Teton High School in 2012 with a college scholarship to play soccer.

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Courtesy Amanda Otto

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During her senior year at college, Otto had her sights set on playing professional soccer and had already been in conversation with a pro team in Europe. But a knee injury and surgery would sideline her and the next thing she knew she was surfing the web wondering what was next.

“I was a little depressed,” Otto said of that time in her life around 2016. “I had wrapped my identity around soccer. That’s all I did for 20 years and I hadn’t really planned on not having soccer in my life. I was sitting on my couch with a full brace on my leg and thought well, I love dogs and the outdoors. And that was the jump for me.”

She headed north to Alaska to a kennel where she would start learning how to care for race dogs. Her connections at that first kennel would lead her to the Husky Homestead and world-class musher Jeff King.

Under King’s mentorship and running his dogs, Otto would move on from the Copper Basin 300 to Alpine 200 and the Willow 300. Securing good scores and successful completions earned her a place on the starting line of the Iditarod in Anchorage in 2022.

“The Iditarod is the Super Bowl of dog sports,” Otto said. “I’m excited to sign up for the race next week. It’s been a five-year process and a long-awaited dream.”

The Iditarod race commemorates the 1925 Serum Run to Nome where state of Alaska officials had dispatched mushers to run lifesaving serum to the remote gold mining town. The trip saved hundreds of children from a diphtheria outbreak.

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Courtesy Amanda Otto

As of 2019, there have been 800 individual team finishers for a grand total of 2,231 teams to cross the finish line with mushers hailing from 23 states, five continents and 22 foreign countries since 1973, including 142 women. The race is roughly 1,049 miles and can take anywhere from eight to 14 days to complete.

“Dog mushing is a state sport in Alaska and has an incredible 100-year history with some of the most amazing survival stories,” King told this week. “The first Iditarod was supposed to be a one-time trip from Anchorage to Nome. Who would have believed it would be coming up on its 50th anniversary?”

King, known as the “winningest musher in the world,” holds four Iditarod championship titles earned in 1993, 1996, 1998, and 2006. In 1999, he was inducted into the Iditarod Hall of Fame. He acknowledged that he’s at the end of his racing career but working with and training with Otto has brought a renewed sense of excitement and remembered passion for the sport.

“Amanda is well-grounded and well-rounded,” he said. “She holds herself to a very high standard and she wants to do well. She has never jeopardized the integrity of the preparations required to race. I have a very high opinion of her.”

King said while good racing requires fitness and good mental health, understanding the dog team is a huge asset. “If I’m going to do anything, I’m helping her understand the dogs and how she can help each dog individually. I’m thrilled to be in a position to help her.”

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Courtesy Amanda Otto

Otto and mushers in general, race Alaskan Huskies which should not be confused with Siberians or Malamutes.

“They are the canine equivalent of marathon runners,” Otto said. “This is a team sport so the dogs all possess a very social nature with us (the mushers) and each other. Alaskan Huskies love what they do, and that infectious desire to run is what motivates most mushers to participate in this sport. For me, I see the dogs as the athletes and I am the coach. To work with this group of athletes is so fun.”

While Otto is working and training heading into the 2022 race, she will also need to raise funds to participate.

Donations to her GoFundMe will provide each dog with the nutrition, medical care and gear required for the race. She has a goal of raising $20,000.

“For me, this journey has definitely made me a more well-rounded person,” Otto said of working toward the Iditarod. “Mushing is a metaphor for life. Things rarely go as a plan and you need to be able to adapt. There is no one else out there when you are mushing. It’s on you to succeed and I have gained a sense of confidence knowing I can accomplish what I set my mind to.”

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