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First all-NH team to compete in Iron Dog snowmobile race in Alaska returns home

A man stands with arms raised in between two snowmobiles with snow on the ground and mountains in the background.
Kim Bergeron
/
Courtesy
Kim Bergeron poses after a test run of snowmobiles that were used for the 2024 Iron Dog race in Alaska.

The Iron Dog race in Alaska is considered to be the longest and toughest snowmobile race in the world. Competitors travel over 2,000 miles of backcountry Alaska in six days. This year, the first all-New Hampshire team took part.

JP Bernier of Hancock and Kim Bergeron of Dublin spoke with NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley about their experience.


Transcript

[You’re both] straight from Alaska. What an amazing trip.

JP Bernier: We had a fantastic experience up north. We really loved our time out in the remote villages. To these people, we're rock stars for lack of a better term. There's not a lot going on out in the middle of nowhere, and us rolling through on an annual basis is a huge thing for them.

Kim Bergeron: We're blessed that we have villagers at about five different checkpoints who have put forth their homes, and food and shelter to support us as Iron Doggers.

Both of you [were] on your own for most of this race. You weren't traveling on marked trails. Plus, you had to make your own repairs on your snowmobiles [to] prepare for any last minute challenges [on] 2,000-plus miles of backcountry. How did the race go for you?

A man submerged in water with snow around him.
Kim Bergeron
/
Courtesy
Kim Bergeron crossed swift water in the Kuskokwim River, Alaska, where he fell in on his snowmobile during the Iron Dog race.

Kim Bergeron: It went really well until about 200 miles from the finish line, where I think a mixture of fatigue, adrenaline and maybe a little hubris caused me to take a poor line to get across some open water on the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. So unfortunately [I] sank my snowmobile in about six and a half or seven feet of water.

But I'll tell you, all of the training and the procedures that we had put in place, it worked like clockwork. We were able to control my breathing and my heart rate and then swim out. And then I had the best race partner in the world who got me in warm, dry clothes and put me in a little cocoon. And then here we are today.

So we're in this warm, cozy studio right now in New Hampshire, far away from all of those remote areas that you're traveling in. How would you describe the race for someone who might never have heard of this before? Can you kind of paint us a picture of the Iron Dog?

Kim Bergeron: You bet. So it comes down to teamwork, really getting with someone that you trust to put your life into their hands. And then preparation.

So I've been blessed. I've been riding in Alaska for 22 years. I participated in this event recreationally, only doing about 1,000 miles six times before. JP had done it three times before. So we could conceptualize portions of the race where we may or may not have difficulties bringing the tools you need, the survival items you might need, the potential parts you might break. And we're good at breaking parts.

And then having the mechanical skills and the people skills between two people to really just lock down on the problem and fix it. And the fact that we made it 2,300 miles – or 2,296 for me – is amazing. And the fact that this man to my right here, JP, chose on that last day to ride to the finish line is pretty darn impressive.

So, JP, from your standpoint, what was that like leaving your partner? I mean, you and Kim had prepared together. You've been working on this together [with] months and months of preparation. So now you've got to finish out the last leg on your own.

JP Bernier: In the end, there was a second team that also lost their machine in the river about 25 feet away from Kim's. So they had a partner that also needed to get out of there. So Trent Johnson from Hayward, Wisconsin, and I partnered up that last day in order to ride out the final miles. And it turned out to be an interesting day, to say the least. That kind of culminated with us being charged by a moose and having to play chicken.

I'm laughing, but I imagine at the moment you're not laughing.

JP Bernier: No. We had already come across multiple moose. Sometimes we'll get a mock charge or you'll get a snort and the ears flattened. But this moose didn't play any games. It just turned and charged.

You're in his territory.

One man stands with arms raised and another on a snowmobile behind him surrounded by snow.
Kim Bergeron
/
Courtesy
JP Bernier and a friend clear a path to cross a creek during the Iron Dog race in Alaska.

JP Bernier: Yeah. So I was in front of Trent and immediately had to make a decision. I didn't have an escape, so I just accelerated directly at the moose to play the traditional game of chicken. And at the last moment, I chose wisely and picked right. And he went just off my left shoulder.

So even after all of the challenges of the race this year, will you both go back to compete next year?

Kim Bergeron: I'm definitely going to go back. I've got a mission. I've got to finish it under my own power. JP?

JP Bernier: I don't know yet. That was a lot. You have to give pretty much everything of yourself for a substantial period of time in training, building the sleds, all of the front end commitment on top of the physical aspects of it all and emotional, psychological. I'm not 25 any longer. I'm in my 50s, and to be a professional athlete, to compete at that level takes a lot. And I just don't know if I'm there yet to be able to give it another go or not.

Kim has this drive to complete the task, and I feel like what we did was a success up there, and I don't necessarily have that same other side of it, of still wanting. So it's trying to come to terms with where I'm at with that.

So, Kim, you're still thinking that you might, in the coming months, be able to convince JP that he wants to do this again.

Kim Bergeron: You know, the direct answer is I think I just got to give him time. Let him come up on his own. I don't want to convince him. I want it to be of his own accord. The pluses of traveling with a teammate that you've been down this trail before is all the different nuances that I've learned and he's learned. And I think that's a huge benefit as opposed to breaking in a new teammate.

I do view it as a success that we finished. A lot of people have said, "You must be so disappointed." I keep looking at everyone [and say], "No, every procedure we practiced, we implemented. I'm here walking and standing and breathing for it."

And for me, honestly, Rick, there was only 507 miles of trail that I'd never done, and that was the Red Dog loop around Kotzebue, and that was my only apprehension. I think I might have a little bit of sled dog in me. I can just sniff the trail out. I love it, and I love the challenge. I really do, and really for me, it's the villagers. I love that experience, I crave that.

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Jackie Harris is the Morning Edition Producer at NHPR. She first joined NHPR in 2021 as the Morning Edition Fellow.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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