By Caurie Putnam
(Reuters) - When the annual Iditarod sled-dog race begins Saturday, the winner of the Jr. Iditarod will serve as the honorary musher, as is customary, leading the racers 12 miles in a ceremonial start. For the first time ever, the young honoree wearing "Bib #1" comes from outside Alaska.
Noah Pereira, of Clarkson, New York, made history on February 24 by becoming the first out-of-state musher to win the Jr. Iditarod since it began in 1977.
Pereira, 16, beat 12 other teams, including defending champion Conway Seavey of Sterling, Alaska, by four minutes to win the two-day, 150-mile (240-km) race.
He ran the final 10 miles alongside his dogs to lighten the load, becoming the sixth rookie to win the Jr. Iditarod, which is open to mushers aged 14 to 17.
"I was battling it out with Conway at the end," Pereira said. "But the dogs did awesome. They love running so much it was like a big party for them.
"I was hoping to place in the top five and just have the experience of racing in a race of this caliber," Pereira said. "Winning was an unexpected bonus."
He trains in his hometown of Clarkson on the Erie Canal about nine miles south of Lake Ontario and 16 miles west of Rochester, an area of western New York known for large annual snowfalls, and competes in 20- to 30-mile races across the Northeast.
To win the much more competitive race thousands of miles away, Pereira had the help of Iditarod royalty. He thanked Dallas Seavey, the reigning Iditarod champion, who has let Pereira work as a handler at his kennel of 100 dogs in Willow, Alaska, on-and-off for the past two years.
Dallas Seavey is the older brother of Pereira's competitor Conway Seavey and son of 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey.
Pereira ran the Jr. Iditarod with a team of 10 of Dallas Seavey's Alaskan Huskies, led by 2-year-olds Fox and Paxson.
Always a lover of dogs, Pereira became interested in mushing at age 10 when he met a neighbor's two Alaskan Malamutes, a large breed of sled dog, and began researching the sport.
Pereira met the Seavey family in 2009, at age 12, when he traveled to Alaska with his father Lou Pereira to Mitch Seavey's kennel to buy his first three dogs: Sid, Jumbo, and Cashew.
Pereira now owns nine sled dogs, all Alaskan Huskies, and trains them at home on the snowmobile paths and parks around the canal.
A big party was being planned for Pereira at Brockport High School when he returns in mid-March, said Dana Boshnack, principal of the school where Pereira maintains an A average, plays varsity soccer, and is active in the Environmental Club.
The school district gave him the flexibility to continue his junior year studies in Alaska.
"I think we all understand this is a once in a lifetime experience for Noah," Boshnack said.
The victory earned Pereira a $4,000 scholarship which he plans to use for college; he wants to study engineering.
He also hopes to compete in the Iditarod in the future. If Pereira were to win the 1,049-mile (1,688-km) Iditarod, which was first run in 1973, he could make history again: A Jr. Iditarod champion has never gone on to win the big race.
(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Phil Berlowitz)