Couple shares story of how they met 22 years ago via Alaska magazine
Karin Bourne was a single mom with three children, working during the day, taking college classes at night, and doing research for an advertising class at a Canton, Ohio, library when she took a break and opened a copy of Alaska magazine in 1990.
That magazine changed her future forever.
She flipped to the last page of the June issue and saw an article titled, “Lasting Impressions: Racing the Sun to Kaktovik.” It was about Jon Nierenberg, who was mushing his sled dog team not just from Anchorage to Nome—the traditional 1,049-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race—but onward an additional 1,200 miles past Kotzebue, Kivalina, Point Lay, Barrow, Prudhoe Bay and finally Kaktovik in northeast Alaska.
“It had this tiny little picture of this man with this bright purple hat and big bushy beard, and it was about this guy who was doing a two-month solo trip on his own with his sled dogs,” Karin said. “And I had never heard such a thing in my whole life.”
She had always wanted to go to Alaska and was fascinated with the state. She recalled a junior high school teacher who came to Alaska each year and told the students about her experiences. It fueled a fire in Karin’s heart.
“I was intrigued with the article,” she said. “I don’t know what made me do this, as I have never done this in my entire life and never will again, but I sat down and wrote to the editor of Alaska magazine. And I wanted to know if this person survived, and what’s a dog musher and what’s the Iditarod? I had never heard of anything like that in Canton, Ohio, where I lived.”
Jon came to Alaska in April 1982 to work his first summer in Denali Park. He decided after one year to stay, and homesteaded a place in Healy. He didn’t even realize an article had been written about him until some coworkers told him.
He wrote a letter to the editor saying he thought the article was great but pointed out a misspelling of his first and last names.
“So Alaska magazine had a letter from Jon telling them thank you, but that’s not my name, and they also got a letter from me inquiring about that article,” Karin said.
In the end, they sent Karin’s letter to Jon and the two became pen pals.
“We shared our stories,” Karin said. “Our lives were just a world apart. He was living up here in a remote place with no electricity, no water, no road access and had a slew of sled dogs, and I couldn’t comprehend such a thing so it was a lot of fun. (Still) we had more in common than we really realized.”
“I didn’t have a phone—mail back then in the old days was a lot more important than it is now for people,” Jon said. “Anyone who I was writing to who would write back to me was important. I just wrote her back and didn’t think too much of it. But then she started sending letters. And it was like gold to get a letter almost every day. Photographs. That’s something special.”
Debbie Cutler is editor of Alaska magazine.
To find out what happens next and read the entire story, look in the September 2012 issue of Alaska magazine or listen to the audio on this website.