For the past 25 years of his career as a mortician, Scott Janssen has been the man people turn to when life runs out. In the embalming room and in the dimly-lit parlor of his Anchorage funeral home, Janssen has prepared bodies for burial and consoled grieving families for a quarter of a century.
Now, after his own brush with mortality, the veteran undertaker is about to become a rookie Iditarod musher, and he could hardly be more excited about it.
Sitting in a room lined with samples of marble headstones, porcelain urns and caskets, Janssen wears a black parka with a thick wolf ruff and the words “The Mushin’ Mortician” across the back. The Iditarod is barely a week away.
"Everything in my life has prepared me for this race," says the 49-year-old with a grin.
That includes the rigors of life in the business of death, which he says have instilled a "mental strength" that will be crucial on the trail, where he'll battle exhaustion, extreme temperatures and terrain.
As a funeral director, "when you're around people where their heart is breaking and they're crying and you know it's hard to keep your own head straight so you can take the lead…you just have to step up," he says.
And is his mortuary work (he's both an embalmer and a funeral director) he's "seen things that most people would probably see a psychologist for the rest of their life."
He remembers the 1995 crash of an AWACS radar plane at Elmendorf Air Force Base that killed 24 crew members. He worked for days straight without sleeping to prepare the bodies, an experience that haunted him.
"I couldn't close my eyes for months without seeing those people," he says.
All of this -- the sleep deprivation, the need to perform under stress, the mental toughness -- will help him get to Nome, he hopes.
The Minnesota transplant moved to Alaska in the 1980s and was introduced to dog mushing by Iditarod veteran Jim Lanier, a friend he knew through Lanier's work as a medical examiner. Friendships led to sponsorships, and rollerblading with his pet huskies on the Coastal Train became mushing with a small dog team at Hatcher Pass. Another veteran Iditarod musher named Paul Gebhardt mentored Janssen as he grew more serious about the sport. Finally, he moved to a motorhome in Gebhardt's Kasilof yard to prepare for the Iditarod full-time.
The dogs, the wilderness, the cold -- even the kennel chores -- he loves it all.
"It's a wonderful way of life. At night, the dogs, they'll sit out there, put their heads in the air and just howl. And I love it," he says.
Now the question for Janssen, as for all rookies, is whether he and his dogs will make it to Nome or not.
One complication: Several members of his dog team will be in heat.
He scratched from the Sheep Mountain 150 and the Copper Basin 300 races after incidents involving a scratched cornea in his eye and uncooperative dogs. He says he learned from both incidents and is determined to finish the race -- but not at the expense of the health of his dogs.
Gebhardt says he believes it's possible.
"He's got a lot to learn obviously, but he seems to really enjoy travelling with dogs in the wilderness," says Gebhardt, speaking from a cell phone on a training run with his dogs. "He's done enough mushing that he's fully capable of making it to Nome."
For now, the Mushin' Mortician, as he's branded himself, is reveling in race preparations. He has a tricked out dog trailer with the 'Team Janssen' logo on it, which features his funeral home's logo partly in 24K gold leaf.
"I like to think that I'm a pretty good marketer," he says.
He also has the custom-made parka, the dogs and the new sled. He's got a lot of supporters -- including, he says, people from his old high school who've requested 'Team Janssen' parkas on the Internet.
"I love it," says his wife of 31 years, Debbie Janssen. "When he said he wants to do it again next year, I said, let's get through this one first."
His family, including his two daughters, will be waiting for him at a rented house in Nome at the end of the race.
Last year Janssen had a brush with cancer, as well as major surgery. When you're a mortician in that kind of situation, your thoughts inevitably head to the worst-case scenario, he says. And so it's even sweeter that this year the Mushin' Mortician will turn 50 somewhere on the way to Nome, on the ride of his life.