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Carrying on Middy's legacy at the Unalakleet checkpoint

Middy Johnson's widow, Aurora Johnson, greets Thomas Waerner, the first musher to reach...
Middy Johnson's widow, Aurora Johnson, greets Thomas Waerner, the first musher to reach Unalakleet on Sunday. (KTUU)
Published: Mar. 16, 2020 at 2:40 PM AKDT
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For locals in the coastal Alaskan village of Unalakleet, this year's Iditarod feels different.

It's the first race since Middy Johnson, a community leader whose vision was to make the town more hospitable and fun during the Last Great Race died unexpectedly in December.

Middy was famous for his sourdough pancakes and bacon. The tradition started after he ran the Iditarod in 2010 and saw how other checkpoints welcomed mushers. While the checkpoint was set up for Iditarod mushers, Middy made sure anyone who was hungry had a chance to eat.

"He just wanted Unalakleet to be a better pace with great hospitality to show the mushers and to all the spectators that come. Even locals came and ate. He never wanted anybody to be in want," Middy's widow Aurora Johnson said. "He had particular mushers that he gave particular things. Like Pete Kaiser, he always made him a big burger - a moose burger for when he comes in."

Paul Ivanoff knew Middy his entire life and was one of the community members who stepped up to continue his legacy of a fun and welcoming checkpoint.

"There's certainly been a big void with everything that we've done from our personal life to our work and now to Iditarod. We really haven't realized how much he did for Iditarod until we started meeting and planning on keeping his legacy going at the checkpoint," Ivanoff said. "It really took a group effort to cover what Middy did alone, so it's really impressive everything that he was able to accomplish."

In years past, the checkpoint has been a community hub during the Iditarod. This year the town decided to close it to everyone except for mushers and race volunteers to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19.

"After this certainly we're going to work to continue his legacy of feeding everybody that comes in and being a warm, welcoming community he strongly advocated for," Ivanoff said.

Even though the checkpoint is quieter than years past, the town in Unalakleet has not been this week.

Friday night the town celebrated Middy's memory with a concert and fireworks show Middy's sons put on.

When the Thomas Waerner arrived as the first musher into Unalakleet Sunday morning, he was greeted with a hug from Aurora Johnson.

"It's real unfortunate that we weren't able to open the checkpoint as we had hoped. Our heart and our prayers go with Aurora and her family," Ivanoff said. "This is probably one of the tougher things that she'll have to go through. It's a milestone that she'll have to overcome and with the support of hundreds of family and friends, we'll all get through it."

Middy was a plant manager for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation. The NSEDC is constructing a new building in Unalakleet that will be named after Middy Johnson.

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