Joar Leifseth Ulsom is not a new name in the Alaskan mushing circuit, but to the broader public, not much was known about this quiet Norwegian musher who burst onto the Alaskan dog mushing scene in 2013. In conversations among media or mushers, he was referred to as “The Norwegian”, just as years earlier his mentor Robert Sørlie was nicknamed. And just as Sørlie, Ulsom’s victory in this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race catapulted into the limelight as a new member in the exclusive club of champion mushers.
So, who is Joar?
Joar Leifseth Ulsom, 31, was born in a small town called Mo I Rana in Norway, a few clicks south of the Arctic Circle. Mushing has not a big tradition there, but Ulsom found his affinity for dogs early in his youth. “I started borrowing my neighbor’s dog,” Ulsom said during an interview with Mushing Magazine. “That dog loved to pull and he pulled me around the neighborhood and all over the place on skis.”
At age 16, Joar moved out from home and attended a hunting and fishing school from 2003-2004 and a farming school from 2005-2006. By that time, Ulsom said, he had four dogs of his own. He met Dan Ditlesen who was signed up for the 550 km Finnmarksløpet race, but had hurt his back and he asked Ulsom if he could run the race for him. This was in 2007. Ulsom had six days to train with the team before the race and had to learn a lot in a short period of time to get ready for the new adventure. Ulsom finished with all eight dogs in second to last place. “That’s when I decided I really like the racing,” Ulsom said.
The following year he worked with Ketil Reitan in Norway. Ulsom got to race the long Femundløpet (600 km, 12 dogs) and liked racing even more.
In 2008 Ulsom started his own kennel and ran some shorter races. In 2009 he took his own team to the 600 km Femundløpet.
In December 2010 Ketil Reitan told him of an opportunity to come to Alaska and Ulsom didn’t have to be told twice. The plan was to go to Minnesota and train big freight dogs with Mille Porsild for an expedition from Nome, Alaska up the coast to Kaktovik. Once there, plans changed. Instead of training the Polar Huskies for the expedition, they were invited to run the Nadezhda Hope race in Chukotka. The race takes mushers from Providenia to Anadyr with checkpoints in every village, where the teams spent the night. Food drops are not sent out, but mushers get a walrus, or parts of it, to feed to their dogs at every checkpoint. Ulsom said that although their big freight dogs didn’t keep up with the other mushers, they proved to be well suited for the harsh terrain and weather conditions.
Once in Anadyr, the Minister of Sport and Culture in Chukotka wanted to send two of the best Chukchi mushers to run the Yukon Quest and asked Ulsom and Mille Porsild if they were interested in creating a team to work together on accomplishing that goal. That created Team Racing Beringia. After spending the summer in Norway, Ulsom had his own dogs flown to Chicago and drove them to Willow, Alaska and there they set up a camp to get Team Racing Beringia ready for the 2012 Yukon Quest. The team consisted of Ulsom, Mikhail Telpin and Nikolai Ettyne, two Native Chukchi mushers who lead a subsistence lifestyle and are very experienced hunters by dog team in one of the harshest climates on earth.
Despite losing one month of training due to the drive up to Alaska, in the end their three teams started the Quest. “None of us have ever done anything like it,” Ulsom remembered.
Although Norway is big on mushing, he said, every musher dreams about running the Iditarod and Yukon Quest and coming to Alaska. “But it was just not very realistic. I was in another full-time job and just to get to a race in Norway was hard enough. So when this, when I got this opportunity, it wasn't really hard to say yes.”
So he packed up and came to Alaska. He ran the Yukon Quest, then the Nadezhda Hope Race again and in 2013 ran the Kuskowim 300, the Knik 200 and the Top of the World (Tok to Eagle and back) race, and ran his first Iditarod in 2013. “I brought 17 dogs and not all of them were ready to race when I came,” Ulsom said. “I had 19 dogs total when I ran the Iditarod the first time. I really liked racing here.” He finished his first Iditarod race in seventh place and received the Rookie of the Year award.
As part of the Team Racing Beringia, Ulsom focuses on participating in a variety of races in Chukotka, Alaska and the Yukon. He ran and won the 2014 Nadezhda Hope race, started in the 2015 Yukon Quest and also led the 90th anniversary Serum Run to Nome.
In 2016 Willow mushers were hit hard during the Sockeye fire that spread through Willow and burned over 7,200 acres of forest and residences. No dogs were lost out of Ulsom’s kennel, as they evacuated the premises, but the main house burned down, as did the handler cabin, all sleds, gear and dog houses.
Despite the fire’s setback, Ulsom and other Willow mushers signed up for subsequent Iditarods and other races.
In the following years, 2014 through 2017 Ulsom placed twice in fourth and twice in sixth position in the Iditarod, mostly running under nine-day races.
In 2018, he finished first, after nine days and 12 hours on the trail.
Ulsom’s kennel had its start with sled dogs from kennels of Petter Arnesen and Ketil Reitan, consisting of Alaskan huskies hailing from great Norwegian bloodlines as well as Buser, Swingley and King bloodlines. “Most of the dogs I bought from Ketil were out of the dog he bought from Jeff King after his 2006 win. That dog was named Lindy,” Ulsom said. He also has a few dogs that are of Chukchi descent. When Mikhael Telpin trained with Ulsom in Alaska, an “accident” happened that proved to be beneficial to Ulsom down the line. “One of Telpin’s dogs climbed the fence to where one of my dogs in heat was. His name was Tom. He was a brown compact dog, probably one of his dogs with the longest legs, and a lot of fur. Really nice tough dog.” Tom met E6, a Norwegian dog, and the result was one pup called Tarzan. Tarzan then got to meet Leug and the result was Russeren, this year’s Golden Harness winner.
“Mostly I just like running dogs and training dogs,” he said of his motivation to make dogs his life’s career. “Usually when I go racing we make a plan and I try to stick with it. I try not to get worked up about looking what others are doing. I just run dogs down the trail and see where it gets us.”