Former Montanan Jessie Royer Iditarod Rookie of the Year

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2001

NOME (AP) -- A former Montanan who got her start under the tutelage of this year's winner and four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Doug Swingley -- another Montanan -- crossed the finish line Friday to become Rookie of the Year.

It took 24-year-old Jessica Royer of Big Lake 11 days, 23 hours and 4 minutes to reach the finish line in 14th place. She was greeted by her boyfriend, Cim Smyth, the race's 1996 Rookie of the Year.

''She did awesome,'' Smyth said.

Royer won $13,619 in prize money. She got an additional $1,500 and a trophy for being the first rookie to reach Nome.

Royer's team consisted of several dogs from Swingley's line.

Royer, who moved to Alaska from Ennis, Mont., in 1998, said dog mushing comes naturally to her. She grew up on a ranch where her first dog team consisted of a border collie and a billie goat. She drove horse teams in the summer. By the time she was 15, she had sled dogs.

''She has an extremely good way with animals,'' said her stepfather, Jim Sperry.

She's worked with some of the best. In addition to Swingley, she was a dog handler for four-time champion Susan Butcher and three-time champion Jeff King.

At age 17, she won Montana's Race to the Sky 500 sled dog race. She also has competed in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Minnesota.

Royer said there were stretches along the 1,100-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome where the grandeur of Alaska, particularly on the Yukon River, nearly got the best of her and the team.

''The Yukon is so big and you were so small. It felt like you weren't going anywhere fast,'' she said.

Traveling along Norton Sound was just as bad, Royer said.

''It is a total whiteout. The dogs can't see anything but white for miles and miles ... They get so depressed.''

Smyth said Royer has a special knack of keeping her dogs from getting downhearted on the trail.

''She's real interactive with the dogs. She works with them on a personal level,'' he said.

Royer said she didn't expect to break the top 20. Some of the dogs on her team hadn't done runs longer than 40 miles.

Too little snow in Alaska kept Royer and Smyth driving around the state looking for adequate training conditions. Then a month before the start of the Iditarod, the dogs came down with kennel cough just when they should have been training hard.

''She really pulled them together and made them a team,'' Smyth said.

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