Legendary musher, Alaskan woman says stay connected
By CAITLIN SKVORC
WASILLA — At the NO MORE Mat-Su Summit last weekend, DeeDee Jonrowe showed attendees why mentoring and relationships come above all else.
Jonrowe was asked to speak about teamwork and “changing the culture” at the domestic violence and sexual assault awareness event. Her history as a daughter, a wildlife biologist, a musher, a runner, a cancer survivor and a mentor informed her speech.
In her speech to about 40 summit attendees Saturday afternoon, Jonrowe spoke mostly about interactions with her dogs, but much of that translated seamlessly to desirable and appropriate human interaction.
In one analogy, she compared raising a puppy to raising a human baby.
“In my situation, that baby’s gonna be developed to be a long-distance racer, or it’s going to be developed to the best of its potential, where it will find a happy place in life. That’s my goal, because not all dogs wanna be long distance racers,” she said. “You develop the skills that they have.”
If those skills aren’t learned, and a child is forced into a behavior or activity to which they are not inclined, they might very well fall into a life of violence.
While Jonrowe did explain this in additional dog team metaphors, she also used her battle with cancer as an example of the negative outcomes of being convinced to do something you don’t want to do.
In 2003, Jonrowe finished her 21st Iditarod race in 18th place. Three weeks prior to the start, she had just finished her final round of chemotherapy.
“Everybody thought I was strong as an ox, I ‘was well!’” Jonrowe said. “The truth of the matter was, I was not the person I had been.”
She couldn’t keep up with her friends on the sled dog trail or on the running path, and “was confused as to who I was,” she said. The medical system she had been in was no longer a support, as she had been told to come back in three months, and neither were her old friends — it wasn’t just a matter of speed, but a matter of time she didn’t have to spend with the people once close to her.
Still, Jonrowe had never been one to make excuses. She decided she simply “needed to get (her) act together.”
Her husband went off to work in Bristol Bay, and she hadn’t mentioned her worries to him.
“He needed to be thinking about making money and not get hurt,” she said.
But living alone — she “found ways to avoid people,” she said — she sunk into depression, something she didn’t think she “ever could do.”
Finally, she opened up to a pastor, telling him “I’m in a really dark place.” He said something like, “You’ve done a lot tougher things, you’ll be fine.”
Later, she took her darkness to a medical doctor. The doctor said, “you need counseling.”
She took his advice and spent three hours doing something she said she didn’t want to do — crying, speaking her problems to a counselor.
The counselor told her, “you really do have some problems, but I don’t have time for you. I’m going to transfer you to an associate.”
“I will never, ever trust a stranger like that again,” Jonrowe said.
Which is why she asked members of the summit audience to not be that kind of stranger. Jonrowe had her dogs to get her out of bed in the morning, through the fog of depression. Someone had to feed them, take care of them, and she knew she could do the best job.
And her husband, Mike, had not given up on her.
“That’s the strength that comes from relationships,” Jonrowe said.
But not every individual has that strong of a bond with a person, pet or spiritual being. And if those without such bonds become depressed, the road may be very short.
Forging relationships, then — to the point where there is a mutual understanding of body language — is absolutely necessary.
“People have to be treated consistently well, if you want them to have the confidence to deal with life,” Jonrowe said. “Life’s gonna throw them cancer, life’s gonna throw them a car accident, life’s gonna throw them death, and for them to be able to handle those things … you have to have people around you that give you that resiliency.”
“Everyone has demons,” said Wasilla City Councilman Stu Graham, at the end of the summit. “Everyone has problems. But we need to have someone to reach out to. And we can be the person other people reach out to.”