NIU alumna Monica Zappa mushes on Iditarod trail

Monica Zappa and Blue Steel
Monica Zappa and Blue Steel

Monica Zappa moved to Alaska five years ago because of her love for dogs and the mountains.

Now she’s speeding across mountain ranges and desolate tundra with temperatures below freezing in an attempt to win the Iditarod, Alaska’s grueling 1,000-mile trek.

The 31-year-old is among 78 participants who signed up for the 43rd Iditarod, which runs from Fairbanks to Nome this year, and about one-third of the sledders are women. First place pays out $70,000, the largest amount in history.

The competitors left Fairbanks on March 9 and will spend about 10 days in the wilderness before it’s over. The champion already has crossed the line as have two others.

Today’s report showed that the Zappa team has traveled 707 miles since the start of the race and that 10 sledders have been eliminated.

She participated in the Iditarod for the first time last year and came in 47th place. She plans to do better this time.

Zappa said she learned to love dogs because of her parents, who participated in sled dog racing when she was a child.

She earned a master’s degree in geography from Northern Illinois University in 2009 and a bachelor’s degree in meteorology from St. Cloud State University in 2006. After graduating from NIU, she completed one year in a doctorate program at the University of Oklahoma, where she worked at the National Weather Center.

Monica Zappa
Monica Zappa

The northern Wisconsin native said she decided to leave school because she longed to see mountains and felt restless.

“I decided to do something really different and come to Alaska to see what it was all about,” Zappa told media during the race.

After her move, she met Tim Osmar, a commercial fisherman and musher, who has completed the Iditarod 23 times. In the Caribou Hills of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, she and Osmar live with more than 50 dogs. Both fish for a living and operate cart and sled dog tours when they’re not in training. His father, Dean Osmar, won the Iditarod in 1984.

Since 2012, Zappa has been mushing for a cause – to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay, where a gold and copper mining operation threatens wild salmon.

What are her top three hobbies? Dogs, mushing and finding ways to fund the first two.

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