With six Iron Dogs and 75 local races under his belt, Chris Collins thought he was done with snow machine racing. But when his youngest brother died of suicide this August, Collins decided he needed to return to racing and “spread a message of hope”.
Collins teamed up with Doug Wicken for the 2022 Iron Dog snow machine race to raise awareness of the need for suicide prevention in Northwest Alaska. Together they formed Team 12 and trained for the race while sharing mental health resources with residents.
“This is my second second sibling to commit suicide, so I felt like I needed to spread the word more,” Collins said. “It’s such a passion of mine because I’m into it myself. It’s the motivation I needed to get back in the running and spread the word that you’re positive and that you’re never alone.”
Collins’ experience is far from unique. Three people have died by suicide in northwest Alaska in recent weeks, according to Bree Swanson, social services director for the Maniilaq Association. Previously, the region had reported three suicides each in 2020 and 2021. In 2018 there was a staggering 14 suicide deaths.
“If you live in a region as small as ours, 14 deaths by suicide is devastating,” Swanson said. “This year we’ve already had three suicides in the last 10 days.”
Looking for the best platform to spread suicide awareness and prevention, Collins turned to racing. In Northwest Alaska, races are large events that bring people together months before the main event.
Collins and Wicken trained in various communities, where they hung posters with encouraging quotes and their logo—a map of Northwest Alaska surrounded by a suicide prevention ribbon—on city and tribal buildings. Since November, the team has made it through the Iron Dog North Loop, visiting Koyuk, Buckland, Selawik, Kiana and Norvik.
When Collins and Wicken came to Koyuk, their visit was announced on FM radio. Curious residents flocked to the store to meet the new racers in town. The community also responded to Team 12’s campaign. Collins said that in some villages, people offered to pay for their fuel to show their appreciation.
“They want us to get through more,” he said. “I’ve reached out to people from different communities on our messenger and on the phone and said, ‘Thank you for doing what you’re doing, it’s been a help already. We’re already seeing it in our kids.’”
Bringing hope to someone and sharing his experiences is an important mission for Collins after losing two family members to suicide.
“I don’t mind talking about it,” he said. “I think talking about it is part of the healing process.”
Collins learned of the death of one of his younger brothers while returning from a hunting trip five years ago.
“By the time I came back, it was too late,” Collins said. “He battled depression and depression took over in the spring of 2017.”
When Collins’ youngest brother died by suicide in the summer of 2021, nobody saw it coming.
“In advance, no one would have thought that he would be,” he said. “It was a surprise for the whole family and his friends.”
Swanson said males between the ages of 18 and 25 have the highest number of suicide deaths in Northwest Alaska. For this reason, when Collins and Wicken approached Swanson with their campaign, she said it was “just a wonderful way to support people” who need help.
“We don’t see a lot of men doing a lot of that work, and to have young men doing something that a lot of men really care about – which is Iron Dog – we felt like that was the perfect platform to train,” Swanson said, “To remind people, especially young men, that it’s okay to use services. It’s okay to talk about some of the feelings that they’re having.”
Maniilaq Behavioral Health supported Team 12, donated money for posters and stickers, and provided flyers showing mental health resources available in the area.
Year-round, Northwest Alaska has a high suicide rate during the summer months, when many young people are struggling to get enough sleep and lack of school schedules, Swanson said.
“But we also noticed it right after the holidays,” she said. “January is always a high risk month and we feel like people have had support from their families during Thanksgiving and Christmas and after the holidays that support is gone and people feel alone.”
Wicken suggested that severe winters in the region are not improving the situation.
“When it’s dark and cold, it just brings you down. If you’re already down, it takes you even further down,” he said.
The pandemic isn’t making things any better, with fewer community gatherings and activities happening, Collins said.
“It’s been a tough time especially in the last few years as the pandemic continues,” Collins said. “When you’re isolated for so long, with no activities, you get depressed and there’s nothing to look forward to. Everything has been paused and we all understand why, but at the same time we have to have something to look forward to. I just hope that the isolation and depression in the region will dissipate and people will become more active.”
Running for a cause, Collins also received support from Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Dickie Moto. The mayor wanted to “encourage all residents to get outside, be active, and be healthy,” according to Carl Weisner, director of the county’s department of public services, who replaced the mayor last week.
“Chris and Doug brought our suicide prevention communities together,” Weisneer said in an email. “(They) are role models for younger generations and the well-being of the community.”
For Team 12, this racing campaign isn’t just about suicide prevention, Collins said.
In January, Wicken and Collins visited Kotzebue Elementary School to show the second graders their helmets and protective gear and to talk about the hard work and preparation that goes into the Iron Dog “just to give the kids something to look up to.” can,” Collins said.
Collins, who has been racing for more than 20 years, said one of the top pieces of advice he gives to youngsters interested in the sport is to prepare for years of preparation.
“When you decide to race early in the season, it takes many, many months of preparation with your body and the machine. You can expect to pop off the couch and jump onto a machine and hope you’ll be okay,” Collins said. “You have to give everything, be 100% committed.”
Collins began his racing career in 2001. He saw other young people racing and thought he would be able to do what they were doing. For his first Iron Dog race in 2013, Collins teamed up with one of Kiana’s veteran racers, Brad Reich Sr., who taught him about strategy, preparation and the unique aspects of Iron Dog.
“We don’t have a large support team behind us and we have to be very careful with our machines,” Collins said of racing the Iron Dog. “We have to finish something. At the end of the day we can’t go out and bang on our gear and expect to have backup to replace anything.”
Collins followed Reich’s lead and took it easy en route to Nome. In the second half of the race, Reich suggested the team “make it a little louder”. The two racers finished seventh after time and fifth.
Collins and Wicken have been friends for about 15 years and have been discussing racing for several seasons. When Collins approached Wicken, the decision was made quickly.
“He asked me on a Friday, and on Saturday we deposited two snogos, and on Monday we signed up,” Wicken said.
Before the summer of 2021, Collins thought he had accomplished enough in esports and competitive sports. In that year he realized that racing can be an example and a platform for meeting even greater challenges.
“Racing and the requirements for racing help you with your own needs,” Collins said. “As a racer you have to work hard and be determined, and that hard work and determination will help you in ways other than racing.”
If you or someone you know is thinking about harming yourself or others, you can seek help through Maniilaq’s 24-hour emergency department at 1 (800) 431-3321, which provides health and risk assessments, crisis interventions, and referrals to higher levels provides care. You can also call Alaska Careline at 1 (877) 266-HELP (4357).