Women-Only Snow Machine Race Honors Northwest Alaska Racing Legend

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

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

Fortunately, the snow machine started up, so Lie got in and went.

Lie was one of more than 30 women who entered this year’s Gunner 120 snow machine race, which runs from Kotzebue to Noorvik and back. While women can participate in any snow machine race in Alaska, the Gunner 120 is created just for women.

The women blasted off the ice around Front Street Monday afternoon, traversing Lockhart Point and Kobuk Lake, reaching the Kobuk River and arriving in Noorvik. Without any stops, the runners loaded fuel and returned. The fastest runner, Mary Sue Hyatt, completed the course in 1 hour, 39 minutes, and 25 seconds.

“When you see 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 1970s. “They make really good weather.”

In a good year, about 10 women sign up for another popular local event, the Nome-Golovin snow machine race. For the Gunner 120, triple that number is not uncommon.

“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 he ran with the men, he actually beat them”

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

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

“Come to think of it, she was winning all the time,” said Mitchell’s brother, Elmer Brown Sr. “There was no gradual attempt to beat someone. … She was always trying to beat her own time.”

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His competitive spirit came from basketball. Mitchell grew up playing the sport and earned the nickname for him because of his ability to shoot the ball from anywhere on the court. Being right-handed and left-handed, she made it difficult for her rivals to know where she was going, said her childhood friend Siikaurak Whiting.

Mitchell and Brown learned to snowshoe together as children and began running as teenagers: Mitchell was 13 and Brown was 14.

“She was just a natural,” Brown said. “Her speed of hers, I think, no one has surpassed her yet. She was timed crossing Lake Kobuk at 125”.

Wilson said he was lucky enough to see Mitchell while he was running around the lake, saying “his skis weren’t even on the ground.”

When Mitchell competed in a men’s race for the first time, people were impressed, and over time it became clear that he could win against anyone: men, women, big-name runners or his own brother, Whiting said.

“He was fierce,” Whiting said.

His victories brought him trophies that he proudly displayed in his home near the television, said Mitchell’s niece, Paula Octuck. And every winter and spring, “racing was definitely in the air,” she said.

“There were no limits when it came to the men’s race. If she is doing it, she is doing it. There is no question that she can do it,” Octuck said. “That’s the kind of person he was.”

Mitchell’s passion for the sport continued after he stopped running. Watching the races became a tradition for her and her family.

Mitchell stayed true to that tradition even after she lost her husband in a traumatic accident.

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

“She just wasn’t going to make it, and she knew it, so she made her go to Kotzebue without him,” said another of Mitchell’s nieces, Samantha Brown.

Mitchell walked into town a good 25 miles, and by the time he reached Kotzebue, his toes were frozen.

“Her toes had to be amputated due to frostbite she got walking home,” Samantha Brown said. “She lost her husband. She is quite tough.

“But he kept walking to see the women’s races,” Brown said.

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

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

‘It’s that adrenaline’

The race was renamed the Gunner 120 in 2017; it was previously known as the Kotzebue Women’s Race. Mitchell’s friends and family had the opportunity to spend race day thinking about Mitchell, sharing stories about her and reflecting on what she made of her in her life.

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

Near Kotzebue on Monday, the women walked the sunlit ice path, lifted their skis and took a breath in the countryside.

They all had different reasons for being there. Snow mechanics is something they have all done from a young age, and racing is often a part of their family tradition, like Katrina Carter who came in second.

“My mom was a runner. My dad was a runner. My brothers are runners. My grandfather was a runner,” said Carter, 31, who has been running since he was 18, but this was the first time this season that he was on his snow machine. “You know, he was always in the family.”

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

“At the start of the race, it’s that adrenaline or excitement of what’s going to happen,” he said. “After going for a while, it feels like you’re taking a quick ride, but you want to get there first.”

Daily News photographer Emily Mesner contributed to this report.