Editor's note: If you or a loved one is in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK), which is answered locally.
FARGO — Gunnar Johnson was about 12 years old in 1979 when he was wowed by a slideshow on the Iditarod sled dog race.
The images were put together by Jim Lanier, a friend of Johnson's parents, Stella and the late Ken Johnson, all three of whom attended North Dakota State University together.
Johnson never forgot that slideshow and, in 1991, when he was in his early 20s, he participated in his first Iditarod.
He would say later the race provided some of the best and worst moments of his life, and in 2017 he embarked on his second Iditarod.
During that race, Johnson carried with him small mementos to honor the memory of his first cousin, Benjamin Stassen, who died by suicide in 2010, when Stassen was a 21-year-old college student.
Now, Johnson is preparing to take part in his third Iditarod when this year's race begins on March 7.
This time around, his participation will again honor the memory of his cousin, but it will also be more than that.
Johnson is inviting people to send him the names of loved ones who have died by suicide and he plans to carry that list of names as he and a team of 14 dogs traverse hundreds of miles of Alaska's unforgiving terrain and climate.
The race covers so much ground and is often plagued by such extreme conditions that any extra weight not related to moving the dogs and sled, even if it's just a few ounces, is usually shunned.
In the case of the names, however, Johnson feels the effort is worth it if it helps bring peace to loved ones left behind while also raising awareness about suicide and the importance of talking about it.
"I think everybody knows somebody who has died by suicide, but we don't talk about it. It's something behind the scenes," Johnson said.
"We thought this would be a good way to bring some of that out, promote some healing and remember all the people who have been lost," Johnson said, making reference to his cousin's family, including Helen Stassen, Benjamin's mother, who is helping to collect names for the memorial list.
"To us, this is a win whether we get a hundred names or a hundred thousand," Johnson said, adding that about 600 names have been received so far.
To add a name to the list, visit www.gunnariditarodhope.com, or send a name, or names, to P.O. Box 152, Prescott, WI, 54021.
The Iditarod is traditionally a roughly 1,000-mile trek across Alaska from Willow to Nome. This year, because of COVID-19 and its potential impact on communities along the race route, the journey will be a roughly 860-mile loop that starts and ends in Willow.
Because of the grueling nature of the race, many mushers bow out along the way and Johnson said that is always a possibility.
"There's no guarantee we're going to make it all the way, but we're going to try," Johnson said, adding that he will be using a dog team provided by Lanier.
A cold, lonely time
Johnson, a former city attorney in Duluth, Minn., who still has family in the Red River Valley, including a sister in Hawley, Minn., and a sister in Detroit Lakes, Minn., recalled a moment in the 2017 Iditarod when his dog team stopped and refused to go on, temporarily stranding him on the frozen water of Norton Bay on the Bering Sea about 200 miles from the finish line.
As he contemplated his predicament, exhausted, hungry and battling temperatures of minus 15 degrees, Johnson said he thought about his cousin Benjamin and felt the presence of his spirit. He said it helped inspire him to carry on and when the dogs had rested, that's just what he did.
Johnson said each Iditarod musher has a button on their sled that when pushed brings rescuers.
He said that during the bleak hours he was trapped on the ice, he was tempted to push that button and effectively throw in the towel, but he's glad he didn't.
The Iditarod "is a really good analogy for life," Johnson said, adding that when this year's event concludes he will take the collected list of names to Knik, Alaska, near the traditional starting point of the Iditarod and burn the list with his Iditarod camp stove.
"Then we're going to take and spread those ashes along the shore, and the tide is going to come up and wash them into the Pacific Ocean.
"Hopefully," he added, "those names will be spread to the winds, to wherever the ocean currents take them. And hopefully that's a fitting end to this story."