Women-only snowmobile race honors Northwest Alaska racing legend

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KOTZEBUE — Shylena Lie was traveling at least 85 mph on her snowmobile around the Kobuk River this week when she hit a large bump and felt her face hit the windshield.

“I went flying, then the snowmobile went the other way,” Lie said. She remembered landing on his shoulder and rolling. “I didn’t feel anything broken so I got up and ran to the snowmobile.”

Luckily the snowmobile started, so Lie jumped on it and drove off.

Lie was among more than 30 women who took part in this year’s Gunner 120 snowmobile race, which runs from Kotzebue to Noorvik and back. While women can compete in any snowmobile race in Alaska, the Gunner 120 is created just for women.

The women took off from the ice around Front Street on Monday afternoon, crossed Lockhart Point and Kobuk Lake, joined the Kobuk River and arrived in Noorvik. Without any stopover, the runners refueled and returned. The fastest runner, Mary Sue Hyatt, completed the course in 1 hour, 39 minutes and 25 seconds.

“When you look at the footage of them crossing the lake, it’s just phenomenal,” said Claude Wilson of the Arctic Circle Racing Association, who has been involved in the sport since the late 70s. good time.”

In good years, a dozen women sign up for another popular local event, the Nome-Golovin Snowmobile Race. For the Gunner 120, it’s not uncommon to triple that number.

“There are a lot of girls who really like to run,” said one of this year’s winners, Shayla Johnson. In fact, the Gunner 120 is named after one of them.

“Once she ran with the men, she actually beat the men”

Mabel Irene Mitchell, known to all as “The Gunner”, was a born runner. In the 80s she competed in Kotzebue with women and men.

“And once she ran with the men, she actually beat the men,” Wilson said.

“Looking back on it, she just won all the time,” Mitchell’s brother, Elmer Brown Sr. said. “There was no progressive attempt to beat somebody. … She was always trying to beat her own weather.

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His competitive spirit started in basketball. Mitchell grew up playing the sport and earned his nickname due to his ability to shoot the ball from anywhere on the court. Being both left and right-handed, it was difficult for her rivals to know which direction she was going, said her childhood friend, Siikaurak Whiting.

Mitchell and Brown learned to snow together as children and started running as teenagers – Mitchell was 13 and Brown was 14.

“She was just natural,” Brown said. “Her speed – I believe no one has beaten her yet. She was clocked crossing Kobuk Lake at 125.”

Wilson said he was lucky enough to see Mitchell as she ran across the lake and said “her skis weren’t even on the ground.”

When Mitchell first entered a men’s race, people were impressed and over time it became clear that she could win against anyone – men, women, big name runners or her own brother. , Whiting said.

“She was fierce,” Whiting said.

Her victories earned her trophies that she proudly displayed in her home by the TV, Mitchell’s niece Paula Octuck said. And every winter and spring, “racing was definitely in the air,” she said.

“There were no boundaries when it came to men’s racing. If she does, she does. There’s no doubt she can do it,” Octuck said. “That’s the kind of person she was.”

Mitchell’s passion for the sport remained after she quit running. Watching the races has become a tradition for her and her family.

Mitchell remained faithful to this tradition even after she lost her husband a traumatic accident.

The couple traveled from Buckland to Kotzebue overnight in the 1990s. They encountered bad weather and an overflow on Kobuk Lake, Elmer Brown Jr. said, and their snowmobiles sank. Her husband ended up in the water but pushed Mitchell onto the ice and told her to walk home.

“He just wasn’t going to survive, and he knew it, so he made it go to Kotzebue without him,” said another of Mitchell’s nieces, Samantha Brown.

Mitchell walked 25 miles to town and by the time she reached Kotzebue her toes were frozen.

“They had to amputate her toes because of the frostbite she suffered on her way home,” Samantha Brown said. “She lost her husband. She is quite tough.

“But she kept walking to watch the women’s races,” Brown said.

Mitchell passed away in 2011, but her dedication to the things she loved rubbed off on other women around her.

“What I remember is there are no limits to what you want to do,” Octuck said. “If you want to do it, you get up and do it. You don’t sit and complain. You don’t want it, you get up and do it.

“It’s that adrenaline”

The race was renamed Gunner 120 in 2017 – it was previously known as the Kotzebue Women’s Race. Mitchell’s friends and loved ones had the chance to spend race day thinking about Mitchell, sharing stories about her and reflecting on what she has done for a living.

“She brings out the good not just in herself, but the good in others,” Whiting said, helping them know that “no matter what, you can do it… It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a guy. , you work hard as you can and put your best foot forward.

Near Kotzebue on Monday, the women hit the sunny ice road, lifting their skis and getting some fresh air on the course.

They all had different reasons for being there. Snowmobiling is something they’ve all been into since they were young, and racing is often part of their family tradition, like with Katrina Carter, who came second.

“My mother was a runner. My father was a runner. My brothers are runners. My grandfather was a racer,” said Carter, 31, who has been racing since she was 18, but it was the first time this season she had hopped on her snowmobile. “You know, it was just always in the family.”

For other women, like Johnson, running is an addiction.

“At the start of the race, it’s this adrenaline or this excitement of what’s going to happen,” she said. “After walking for a while it just feels like you’re going for a quick lap, but you want to get there first.”

Daily News photographer Emily Mesner contributed reporting for this story.

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