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

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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.

Next page: Jake’s meteoric rise and why he left it all behind

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Ellen Burkhardt About Ellen Burkhardt

Ellen Burkhardt is a freelance writer. 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.