The Last Great Race: A Minnesotan’s Incredible Rise in Sled Dog Racing & Why He Left it All Behind

Jake Berkowitz

Jake Berkowitz at the starting line of the 2013 Iditarod Trail Race // Photo by Chris Beck

The Greyhound bus pulled away, leaving Jake Berkowitz stranded on a dirt road in the middle of northern Michigan. A few days earlier, the 18-year-old was celebrating Thanksgiving with his family in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now he was alone, waiting for a stranger to pick him up and introduce him to a way of life that would quickly and permanently redefine him in every way.

Berkowitz was born and raised in the Twin Cities, spending the majority of his childhood in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of St. Paul. Smart, hardworking, and raised in the Jewish faith, he attended a 16-week study program in Jerusalem his junior year of high school and, after graduating, returned to Israel for a year to study at Hebrew University and volunteer as a medic.

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Jake Berkowitz puts a boot on one of his sled dogs // Photo by Chris Beck

Mostly, though, Berkowitz was a student of adventure. From the time he was a young boy, he would accompany his father on camping trips. In his teens, he attended and worked at Camp Widjiwagan, way up at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota, participating in weeks-long treks through the region’s pristine forest and lakes. He felt most like himself in nature. “Camping, backpacking, canoeing, rafting—that seemed like the perfect fit for me,” he says.

When it came time for college in 2005, Berkowitz chose the University of Colorado*. It was a logical choice: the mountains were right there, offering ample opportunity for outdoor adventure. But school didn’t click with him, and after six weeks he dropped out, moved back home, and took a job at REI as a stop-gap until he could figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

Four months later, serendipity, destiny, fate—whatever you want to call it—stepped in. “One day on a lunch break, I Googled a few things that I really liked: snow, dogs, and expeditions,” Berkowitz says. “The first place that came up was Nature’s Kennel [Sled Dog Racing and Adventures]. I called and asked for a job. They said if I could be there in three days they’d take me for the season. So I cashed out my last paycheck, used my employee discount to get what I needed, and bought a bus ticket.”

He’d never seen a sled dog before, much less guided his own team, but Berkowitz had a feeling this was the right move for him. “There are parts of my life where I’m very detail-oriented, but other times, I go with my gut feeling and just go with it,” he says. To prepare for what awaited him at Nature’s Kennel, Berkowitz bought a book to read on the bus: “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Siberian Huskies.” It didn’t help much. “They weren’t even huskies,” he laughs.

Despite his lack of experience, Berkowitz immediately found his way at Nature’s Kennel. He had an innate ability to read the dogs, something co-owner Ed Stielstra saw right away. “Jake is the best dog person I’ve ever encountered,” he says, recalling how impressed he was with Berkowitz’s work ethic, positive attitude, and almost sixth-sense connection with the dogs. “He’s able to communicate with them better than most people can, to establish a bond with them. I didn’t really have to do much mentoring; he just soaks things up like a sponge.”

Although Stielstra originally hired Berkowitz to lead overnight expeditions for tour groups, he saw potential in the young man as a racer and asked Berkowitz to run the kennel’s B team in the 2007 Iditarod. (Racing kennels have two teams: the “A” team, the kennel’s more advanced dogs, and the “B” team, typically made up of year-old and two-year-old dogs.) The team bonded with Berkowitz instantly. “I like to believe I’m good with dogs, but when I took Jake’s team out for a run later to check in on them, they wouldn’t listen to a word I said,” Stielstra says. “For Jake, they were perfect. For me, they weren’t even close. He was seen as the alpha; he was their leader. I’ve only ever seen that once—with Jake.”

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Jake Berkowitz and his team of sled dogs // Photo by Chris Beck

After having to pull out of the 2007 Iditarod a month prior to the race due to poor training and trail conditions, Berkowitz signed up for the following year. Finally, on March 2, 2008, 21-year-old Berkowitz and his team set off on the 1,161-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, ready to put into practice years of training and hard work. The result? “I ran an awful race,” Berkowitz says of his 65th-place finish. “I made a lot of rookie mistakes and was very fortunate to finish with a very healthy—but very small—team.”

Throughout that first race, Berkowitz ended up having to drop off nine of his 16 dogs at checkpoints along the trail. He’d attempted to stick to the schedule he’d mapped out instead of reading his dogs, ultimately exhausting them—and himself—along the way. But he finished. That was the important part. “If you don’t finish your first race, it’s hard to get back on the saddle and pursue your career,” Berkowitz says. “It was very important for Nature’s Kennel, my family, and myself that I finish.”

Rookie mistakes and dropped dogs aside, Berkowitz’s 2008 race caught the eye of veteran racer Zack Steer*. Steer offered Berkowitz a job at his kennel in Alaska to train his B team. Once again, Berkowitz packed up his life and moved.

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Jake Berkowitz // Photo by Chris Beck

When the 2009 Iditarod rolled around, Berkowitz looked like a completely different racer. He finished 31st, a full 21 hours faster than the year before. More importantly, he completed the race with all 16 dogs—a feat accomplished by only three other racers in the 40-plus year history of the Iditarod. Berkowitz’s success yet again caught the attention of a racing veteran: five-time Iditarod racer Jon Little.

Little approached Berkowitz in 2010 to buy out his kennel in Big Lake, Alaska. The timing was perfect. “I was already thinking of starting a kennel,” Berkowitz says. “It was either buy land and a house, or buy a dog team. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”

Transitioning from six years of being a handler to owning his own kennel was a major step, but Berkowitz says he was ready. He’d learned as much as possible from mentors and racing B teams; now it was time to put what he knew into practice with Apex Kennels.

He wasn’t alone in the venture. In 2011, Berkowitz met his future wife, Robin. She was watching a mutual friend’s kennel down the road from Apex and, every day on training runs, Berkowitz would pass by her. Eventually, he started stopping to talk and the two got to know each other. They moved in together shortly thereafter and married in 2012.

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Jake and Robin Berkowitz // Photo by Chris Beck

 

The following three years would be the peak for Berkowitz’s racing career. He won three major races across Alaska in 2011, including finishing 72 minutes ahead of four-time defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey and a slew of other top racers in the Copper Basin 300. In 2012, he won the Knik 200, finished sixth in the Kobuk 440*, and was awarded Rookie of the Year in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. In the 2013 Iditarod, he took eighth—shaving nearly three days off his 2009 time—and won the coveted Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award for finishing with 15 healthy dogs.

But elements beyond his control were working against Berkowitz’s future as a professional sled dog racer. Since 1949, the average temperature in Alaska has risen by 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit, with winter averages increasing by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The world’s 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998; 2014 was the warmest year ever recorded. In 2015, the start of the Iditarod had to be relocated from Anchorage to Fairbanks due to lack of snow. It was the second time in the race’s 42-year history such a move was required.

Warmer temperatures mean less snow and a thawing permafrost in Alaska—both detrimental for sled dog racing. During the 2014 Iditarod, trail conditions were so bad that the first 350 miles of the race were snowless. Teams struggled to navigate the rocky dirt and multiple veteran mushers had to drop out due to a broken arm, leg, or, in Berkowitz’s case, sled. “My sled disintegrated from being dragged across the dirt,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. Those first 350 miles were all in the Alaska mountain range and there wasn’t a single ounce of snow. It was a very scary race.”

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Jake Berkowitz // Photo by Chris Beck

Being forced to deploy his emergency beacon and be airlifted off the Iditarod trail was the tipping point for Berkowitz. Already he’d spent the previous three years driving farther and farther north in search of snow on which to train; around his kennel in Big Lake, which is located on the Iditarod trail, there was none. The added cost, time, effort, and days away from his wife and baby girl weighed on Berkowitz, eventually leading him to follow his gut once more and make a huge decision. Late spring 2014, he called Stielstra and Jason Campeau, a musher in Calgary, Alberta, and sold them his team—his A team went to Campeau, his yearlings to Stielstra. That August, he, Robin, and their eight-month-old, Ruby, moved to Calgary.

“I definitely miss it, but I’m glad I was able to do it for a decade as a young person,” Berkowitz says of his decision to swap sled dogs and 14-hour days confined on a 20-inch-wide sled for a suit-and-tie job at Maplesoft Group, a technology and consulting firm of which Campeau is a partner. “It was time to build a career and spend time with my family. I didn’t want to miss out on my daughter growing up.”

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Photo by Chris Beck

Although he’s no longer racing, Berkowitz stays connected to that world by mentoring Campeau. Campeau’s kennel is just two-and-a-half hours from Calgary—close enough for Berkowitz to go spend time with the dogs he spent years raising and racing. “I wasn’t comfortable being mediocre at dogsledding,” Berkowitz says, reflecting on his fast rise in the ranks of sled dog racing. “I gave everything I had and my family gave everything they had, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Even when I wasn’t at the kennel, I was thinking about the kennel. The biggest difference now is to not have that lurking feeling. To be more in the moment.”

Keeping tabs on his dogs and embracing his mentorship role for now, it would seem Berkowitz has found a new way to channel his love of sled dogs and racing. But he stops short of saying he’s done racing for good. “Your highest highs and lowest lows come during a race,” Berkowitz says. “One moment it’s 3am, pitch black, 40-below, and you’re nodding off, not sure if you’re even going to finish. Then the sun starts to rise and you remember why you’re there.”

Whether the sun will rise again on Berkowitz’s racing career is uncertain. The gains he made in 10 years are more than most make during a lifetime of mushing. But for someone like Berkowitz, there’s always another level to reach—another trail to blaze.


*Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that Berkowitz attended Colorado State University; he attended the University of Colorado. The same version also misspelled Zack Steer’s last name as “Steel” and stated that Berkowitz placed sixth in the Unalakleet. He finished sixth in the Kobuk 440.  

Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is the managing editor of The Growler. When she's not writing, editing, or interviewing, chances are she's on the road, seeking out good food, drink, conversation, and fodder for her next story.

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