Laura Neese watched as the wolf loped along the Quest trail. It shared the trail with her sled dog team for a while before casually walking to the side and gazing at the passing dogs.
The 21-year-old said moments like these are what the Yukon Quest 1000 Mile International Sled Dog Race is all about.
“It’s the week and half a year where I can be almost totally alone and with my dogs who I love more than anything, and experience things that very few people have or ever will,” she said.
Laura placed third in the Quest with a team of dogs from the kennel where she works and trains – Nature’s Kennel Sled Dog Racing & Adventures in Michigan.
She ran the Quest with the dogs in previous years, but scratched in 2017, and placed 13th in 2016.
She said she followed the same strategy this year as in years past – to work to the best of her and the dogs’ ability. But everything seemed to gel in the 2018 race.
“This year I saw the dogs come together as a true team,” she said.
She explained that the dogs worked hard to quickly summit the 3,640-foot Rosebud Summit. They ate well and were eager to get on the trail after resting at checkpoints.
Most importantly, her team seemed happy and she felt privileged to share such a wonderful experience with them.
"There's nothing that can replicate being out in the wilderness for a thousand miles with your dog team and everything that you go through with that team,” she said. “There are moments where you're just so full of pride for those dogs and so thankful for everything that they've done.”
Laura said it’s been a fun journey to the start chute of the Quest from the starting point of her dream to mush. And to think, she said, it began with a school project.
“When I was nine, my mom thought it would be good idea if I followed the Iditarod as a homeschool project. She thought it would be a one-year thing. It ended up being my life,” she said.
Along the journey, Laura’s parents and some of her four siblings learned how to handle her dogs for races. They even learned how to mush. Laura said their support as well as her love of dogs has helped get her to where she is today.
“They've had an inside view to my journey,” she said. “My family was always there encouraging me and helping me grow my dream.”
The inside view from Laura Neese’s dad
Mark Neese sat at one of the checkpoints, tired and cold. Yet he seemed to warm the air with conversation about one of his favorite subjects – his daughter and veteran Quest musher Laura Neese.
“She's just a strong-willed and delightful young woman,” he said. “Have you got a chance to meet her yet? Make sure you do because she's pretty special.”
Mark handled for his daughter on the Quest. He said he’s happy she’s competing well, but hopes the competitive side of mushing doesn’t diminish what first interested Laura in mushing – the promise of a wilderness adventure with trusted canine companions.
The retired gas and oil geologist explained that his wife Jeri homeschooled their four children in Ohio. As part of Laura’s schooling, she completed educational activities that revolved around the Iditarod.
“Wow, you talk about lighting a fire under a child. She became passionate about it. She would read anything she could about sled dogs and polar exploration,” he said.
This included tomes like polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s account of his harrowing Antarctic expedition from 1914-1917 when he became stranded on an ice flow. She would also research sled dogs and followed every sled dog race she could find.
“We let it drive her education because if it had anything to do with those topics, she would just devour it,” he said.
Then five years later, Laura decided to fulfill the promise of adventure with a seemingly innocuous request.
“She asked for an Alaska husky for her fourteenth birthday. She said she only wanted one,” said Mark.
After getting her first dog, Acadia, Laura soon acquired nine more from a musher moving to Czechoslovakia. Then she bred the dogs and welcomed a bounty of puppies.
“All the sudden we had a team,” he said.
In support of Laura, Mark, his wife and some of his four children learned how to recreationally mush. As she entered races, they learned how to handle for her.
Eventually, Laura graduated from high school at the age of 16 and moved to Michigan to work as a tour guide Nature’s Kennel Sled Dog Racing & Adventures. The job segued into long distance training when owners Ed and Tasha Stielstra took her under their wing.
Mark said it’s been amazing to see how both Laura and her sled dog team have grown as the bonds between them have strengthened. But he said the growth also has its roots in Laura’s work ethic and commitment to seeing things through.
“I’m proud of her because she is such a hard worker, and so passionate about this,” Mark Said. “Because of that, she has had opportunities open up to her and she’s taken advantage of each and every one.”
Mark & Laura Neese
Laura and her team in Dawson
Laura and her team outside of Pelly Crossing