Musher Tales

Tales of mushers and their dogs are some of the most heartwarming stories you will ever hear. The heart and soul of the race, their stories show true grit and determination.  

Dogs as Heroes

by: Shelley Gill

Haley Stocking, with Sasquatch Books, shared the following memory that Shelley Gill shared with her about the Iditarod.  Ms. Gill is one of the first women to complete the Iditarod and is the author of Kiana’s Iditarod among other books.  Ms. Gill also has a new book coming out soon entitled Alaska’s Dog Heroes.  Iditarod fans will be excited to hear that huskies are well represented with chapters on Susan Butcher’s Telka, Dick Wilmarth’s Iditarod winning Hotfoot, and Libby Riddles’ Dugan!

“I was one of the first women to run in the Iditarod back in the bad old days of the race. I lived in a tent the winter of 1977 with Susan Butcher and we trained 170 dogs-ours and Joe Redington Sr.’s. It was still a grand adventure in those days. No aluminum sleds with seats, microchips or gps. The dogs were heavier and slower. We were never quite sure we would get there. It was a lot colder too. My book Kiana’s Iditarod was really the first book written about the race. Kiana was Bill Cotter’s leader and went on to win the Yukon Quest for him. Then, after Libby Riddles won in 1985, we wrote Danger the Dogyard Cat together. What a hoot! The cat she has now is just like Danger. Totally full of himself. Larger than life! The strength of the Iditarod is it celebrates a way of life that might have slipped into history if not for Joe Sr. and friends. It is a showcase like no other for animal/ human teamwork. And the bond we have with our dogs is about as close as you can get to another species. On the trail we complete each other. This year I wrote Alaska’s Dog Heroes which showcases a few of the race’s veteran dogs. Tekla-Susan’s leader was one of the most amazing huskies I have ever known. And Libby’s leaders, Dugan and Axle saved her bacon on the trail from Shaktoolik to Koyuk. The history of Alaska is written in dogs! I’m glad to have been part of it.”

 

Splat!

by:  Karin Hendrickson

Karin will be leaving the starting line in 2014 for her sixth straight race!  She shared this little story with me about an aspect of racing I never even considered!  You can follow Karin at Black on Blue Kennels.  She also shared with me some links about feeding on the trail and about her checkpoint routine that are really interesting and great to share with your students:  Dog Food, People Food, Checkpoints

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Leg 4 – Rohn to the middle of the Farewell Burn (32 miles)

We leave at 8:00am.  The dogs scream along down a rutted, dirty trail.  I can’t use my brake effectively because of the lack of snow, and the dogs are taking full advantage of it.  Even as we careen along and I dance and dive to keep the runner side down, I can enjoy the breathtaking beauty.  The mountains are simply stunning, and the muted sunrise, muffled by clouds, gives the entire scene a pearly, soft glow.  This is why we race!

I breathe a sigh of contentment and splat!  I’m hit full in the mouth with sloppy, fresh poop.  In all my years of mushing, this has never happened to me.  Gravity tends to work just fine out on the trail, and the dogs’ deposits tend to land on the ground.  Not on the sled and NOT on me. But the semi-hysterical dogs are digging hard.  Chisel, running in wheel, closest to the sled, has managed to fling a great wad off the trail and right up into my face.

There is a moment of stunned disbelief, and then I begin laughing.  I can’t help it, it is too ridiculous to be surrounded by breathtaking beauty and then be hit with a face full of reality.  I try to wipe the mess off my lips and out of my nostrils.  It takes several minutes of work, and a little cat-bath with my lemonade before I feel relatively poop-free.  Then of course my gloves are completely filthy and stinking to high heaven, so I must dig out my spares and get them on.  All this while we rollick down a twisty, rocky, potholed trail that rightfully should have my full attention.

Iditarod Dreams

by:  Laura Daugereau

Laura Daugereau ran her rookie Iditarod in 2008 and created a spoken word cd about here experiences.  She graciously allowed me to share one of the stories, Iditarod Dreams, with you.  If you are interested in purchasing a cd to hear more of her stories, please contact her at rusota@msn.com.  She is hoping to return to the Iditarod in 2015!

I was back at Susan Butcher’s kennel, running those three dogs, my very first ever time on the sled runners, and realizing that this was what I really wanted to do, this was my passion.  Deciding to run the Iditarod and always having that as a dream in the back of your head it was just something driving. That’s what I wanted to do.  That was the epitome of everything I loved about dog sledding.  I mean it’s a 1,150 mile race going over multiple types of terrain.  You’ve got mountain ranges, the Yukon River, barren tundra, frozen lakes.   You go up a glacier. You go through mountain passes and the mountain range.   It’s just an incredible experience and an incredible journey to do with your dogs.  But it’s also seeing where your limits are.  Testing everything there is about you and your knowledge and strength and endurance.  Testing that bond you have with your dogs.  It was always a dream to go run the Iditarod.

Seeing Things

by Mike Williams, Jr.  

Mike Williams, Jr. shared the following story with me about what can happen when too much coffee meets too little sleep on the trail!  Here’s a video of Mike at the 2013 Ceremonial Start to set the scene:

Well, I was talking with a fellow musher the other day about how tough the race can get and how tired we are by a certain time and how game plans can change because of it… and the hallucinations that can occur at times.

Well, this is a little bit about hallucinating. My first 3 Iditarods, I did not have a problem with it.  I was getting barely enough sleep and was constantly drinking juice or water. My last Iditarod however, I was not drinking as much as I should, and did not sleep every chance I got so I was toughing it out for no reason other than the fact that I just didn’t want to sleep in some places. On top of that, I was drinking a lot of coffee….So, coffee crashes and no sleep resulted in me really trying to stay awake, and hallucinating.

It hit me hard between Eagle Island and Kaltag. I was traveling along, when my head started bobbing. I knew I was falling asleep, and I was trying my best to keep my head up so my dogs could see the trail (traveling at night with a headlight). I let myself check out, but didn’t want to miss a turn or go the wrong way or something so I would try as hard as I could to keep my eyes open and watch the trail. It was snowing heavy snowflakes and that never helps. I soon began to see lights ahead of me, and I was going up a bump in the trail, so to me was the illusion of going up a river bank.  I saw a 2-story log cabin and some people there. It looked nothing like Kaltag. So I stopped the team when I reached those people.  I looked around and I was still on the river. No buildings, no people.  That happened again not too far down the trail. I stopped the dogs, reached in my sled bag for snacks for my dogs, and as I grabbed the snacks and looked around I was still on the river next to the river bank with nobody around. I snacked my dogs and continued on down the trail.

Soon I started to see bridges across the river. They were low, and when I would get close, it looked like my head would hit, so I would duck down to dodge the bridge. I looked back at the bridge and it was gone.  I knew I was hallucinating but man, if I wasn’t I didn’t want to risk banging my head and losing my team!  I passed by 2 more bridges.  Each time I reached up to touch them but there was nothing there.

After that I laughed at myself and just kept shaking my head at myself like, “man, that was crazy.”  Never happened to me like that before and it was really weird.

Photographers as Trail Markers

by:  Jodi Bailey

Iditarod musher Jodi Bailey, graciously allowed me to share this story about her trip down the Happy River Steps during the 2013 Iditarod.  It was orginally publshed on her blog.  You can read more of her adventures2013-03-02 15.06.45 at:  http://www.dewclawkennel.com/blog/?p=2504

On the trail again this time headed to Rainy Pass checkpoint. This section of trail is known for one thing…  The Steps. Oh Yeah Baby, the stuff nightmares are made of. Although not impossible the steps do present one of the most formidable sections of trail I have ever had to deal with. The last 2 years I have crashed. Nothing bone shattering or sled destroying, but an abrupt unplanned stop requiring effort to get everything back in order and moving again. BAM! CRASH!

This year I went through in broad daylight, and I totally knew when the steps were coming. It was easy to tell, they were just up ahead roughly where the helicopter and 2 small planes were flying.  I knew what they were doing. They had come for the drama shot.

OK so here is the thing about photographers on the trail….

There are a few categories of really cool mushing shots: The musher-dog bond shot (at checkpoints doing chores, close ups of kisses, loving looks into each others eyes…). The classic action shot (crazed teams exploding from the start chute, lone team shouldering into a mighty wind, team rolling down the river or over mountain expanse while musher ski poles (*cue breathtaking scenery). And the drama shot! (that amazing crash, the distraught look on a musher’s face as they deal with glaciers, open water, and trail hazards). The drama shot is what lures photographers to the notorious places, the Steps, the Gorge. And so the old joke goes: a red x with trail markers means danger ahead, a red x and a photographer and you better hold on for dear life.

This year despite my dogs being totally excited by the air traffic overhead I MADE IT!

I actually made it down the Steps! Guess the third try was a charm. And in my mind I was graceful, focused, and athletic. Smoothly navigating the perilous drops, and uneven terrain, all while calmly giving commands to my well mannered team. Now should I actually get my hands on the video taken by the crew in the helicopter I am guessing I would look more like a monkey having a seizure with its hands glued to the handlebar while plummeting behind a pack of charging lunatics. But hey for purposes of this blog lets all just picture me calmly in control of the situation.

The Story of Finding Your Way on the Trail

By:  Monica Zappa

monicaIt turns out I am directionally challenged when race time comes! Turns out my advanced degree in geography didn’t prepare me for navigating a dog team through the wilderness. Over the past three seasons I have completed 12 races and gotten very lost in 4 of them. While I never expected to have such difficulties when it comes to staying on the trail, I have become mentally tougher because of these experiences. Although it is difficult to remain composed in the middle of nowhere when you have no clue how to get to somewhere, I have learned that it is the most important part of survival.

My very fist race I got lost on was also the first race I ever attempted, the Tustumena 100.  At the mushers meeting, they stressed how well marked the trail was and that it would be nearly impossible to take a wrong turn. Also, the race trail was through our training grounds, a route I should be familiar with. Getting off course was the last thing on my mind. The trouble started about halfway to the checkpoint. A team just passed me and I was focused on staying on his tail so the dogs could chase his team for a little incentive bonus. After a few miles, we met a group of snowmachiners. They must not have been aware there was a dog race in progress, and/or were not very intelligent or respectful because they were revving up their engines and doing jumps on the side of the trail. The musher in front of me tried to yell at them to stop and wait for the teams to pass because the dogs were getting spooked. I was focused on what was going on in front of me and just was following the team ahead of me. A few miles down the trail after we passed the reckless snowmachiners, I noticed there weren’t anymore trail markers and the base of the trail was deteriorating to soft and deep snow. The musher we had been chasing for some time now was gaining on me and just out of shouting distance. A few more minutes passed and I was sure we were going the wrong way, but I wanted to catch up to him to confirm this was not the right direction so we could both turn our teams around. I told the dogs we had to catch up to him and we gave it a big effort, running and kicking through the soft, slushy snow. The day was hot and the effort took a lot out of our team, but we caught the team. The musher was Travis Beals. He had no inclination that we were going the wrong direction, but agreed it certainly didn’t look like we were on the race trail anymore. We turned our teams around and went back to where we had met the snowmachiners.  It turns out they had cut off the race trail that curved to the right by stopping their snowmachines in front of the trail markers so we didn’t see them.

The remainder of the race was agony for me. The detour probably cost us about an hour and the soft trail took a lot of energy out of my leaders who were on the elderly side to begin with. It didn’t help that the afternoon temperatures were climbing in to the 30s, and we had another 20 miles of steep hills to go before the halfway point. The team was looking rough and I was beginning to think we might not make it. Since it was my first race, I was incredibly naive going into the event. So naive that I though I had a chance to win when we started! The mental anguish of going from thinking I might be first to maybe not finishing started to sink in. Combined with some other difficult situations that were going on in my life at the time, I was a mess. I cried all the way to the checkpoint. It took what seemed like forever to get there but we finally made it. By this point I had decided that this would have to be my first and last dog race ever. This revelation made me even sadder because I would miss the dogs so much. Somehow I finished that race (without getting lost on the way back home). When I got to the finish line I had been crying for about 10 hours, the dogs looked exhausted and unenthused and I confessed to Tim that my mushing career was over. Luckily, he had faith that I would recover from the experience and come back as a stronger racer.  That, I certainly did, and two years later it really paid off.

This past spring we hosted a new race, Freddie’s Midnight Run, also a 100-mile event in the Caribou Hills. The first half of the race went fairly well for me, I got to the halfway point in 3rd place, not far behind the leader, who happened to be Travis Beals (the musher who I followed to get lost in the first race). He had a hot team and I wondered if I would be able to make up our 10 minute differential on the second half. The weather turned cold for the trek back and we fought the wind and tried our hardest to catch the teams ahead of us. About 10 miles before the end, we passed a team and were now in 2nd place, now we had to catch Travis! We ran hard to keep ahead of the teams on our tail, but never saw Travis. I figured that he had been speeding up too and therefore had 1st in the bag. When we got to the finish line, there was a group of people cheering. I looked around at the dog trucks and didn’t see another teams. “Where is Travis?” I shouted.  “He’s not here yet, you are 1st!” someone told me.

Turns out Travis missed a turn on the return route and got lost again, but this time I didn’t follow him! For me, the overall moral of this story is learning how to stay headstrong when you get off course. I have gotten lost several more times since my first race, but none have been as emotionally crippling as the first one. I learned that the dogs react to your mood and being upset and sad is about the worst thing that you can do when you get off course. The same lesson can apply to life when you get thrown a wrench; depression is a downward spiral that has no place in finding your way back to the trail. If I had given up after that first race I would never have experienced the joy of winning (even if it was because the guy in front of me got lost), and hopefully will get to experience this many more times (only next time without anyone getting lost, but simply being the fastest team)!

 Note: Travis and I remain good friends, and he can’t wait to compete with me in Iditarod this year!

Afterward: One week before our first win, at Freddie’s Midnight Run, was the Goose Bay 150. I arrived at the halfway checkpoint in 1st place with a great looking team. It was my first real shot at winning a dog race. I left the checkpoint with about a minute lead, which I was sure was getting longer as I sped down the river in the dark. Turns out the trail crew didn’t remove the markers from the previous day, and the racecourse was not the same way as the first half. We followed the markers and went back the way we had come the day before, going about 18 miles before realizing it was the wrong direction. I was certainly devastated, but focused on having a fun time for the remainder of the race. I didn’t even shed one tear and took the time to camp and visit with folks at the back of the pack, something that I never would do in competitive mode. So now, I hope to never get lost again, but if I do, I put competition aside and make sure my team is still having fun. Sometimes in life, too, we need to be flexible and change our agendas. I hope all the experiences with getting lost with help me be prepared for the challenges that arise on the Iditarod trail too!

The Story of the Shrew!

By: Angie Taggart

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Angie at the 2013 Banquet in Anchorage

Angie shared this story about meeting a shrew on the trail during the Taiga 300, her second race.  She says it was a great race with the coldest temperature being -30 degrees and the warmest being -15 degrees.  She went on to place fourth in the standings, her highest finish to date.  This year, Angie is back in the classroom, teaching pe at a K-6 school in Ketchikan, Alaska.

 Just outside of Maclaren Lodge while the dogs and I were running down the packed trail, I saw a tiny shrew standing alongside the left-hand side of the trail on top of a snow berm. I said to myself that this could become a catastrophic event if the dogs caught sight of him. Just after I had said that out-loud, the shrew jumped off the berm onto the trail. My eyes widened with anticipation of what he (and the dogs) would do next. What I feared most happened right before my eyes as that little bugger ran toward the team full-throttle. As if he could have planned it any better, he headed full-on down the center of the team. I kept envisioning a tasty snack for one of my furry athletes, but they acted as though nothing was going past them other than the flying snow. I watched in awe as the shrew continued forward, running beneath my sled and beyond. I was so amazed at this daring feat that I began to imagine his little buddies off to the side of the berm cheering him on . . .

Broken Bones But Not Spirit

by:  Cindy Abbott, Bib #60, 2013 Iditarod, Rookie

On March 3, 2013, I and my team of 14 amazing canine-athletes crossed the Iditarod start-line and headed into the Alaskan wilderness.  About 20 miles out, I injured my leg and thought I may have to scratch at the first checkpoint, Yentna. “Really,” I said!  After everything I had done to get this far and my race might be over after 42 miles!

Before the race started, I had planned on making the 72-mile run straight to Skwentna , stopping in Yentna long enough to pick-up supplies and straw, but now I was going to stop so I could evaluate the seriousness of my injury.  I pulled into to Yentna and announced that I was going to stay, but my dogs did not agree. They were jumping, barking, and banging at their harnesses, they wanted to go – so we did.  Three hours and 15 minutes later I checked into the Skwentna check-point, time to care for my dogs and try to determine the extent of my injury.

After resting for a few hours, I felt better and decided to run to the next checkpoint. In this way, I went from checkpoint to checkpoint until, on day 10 and 630 miles into the race, my condition had worsened and, for the safety of my team, I decided to scratch at Kaltag.

Knowing that this was the end of my race, I went to my sled, pulled out the NORD (National Organization of Rare Disorders) banner (which I had held on the summit of Mt. Everest in 2010), walked to the front of my team, put the banner on the ground near my dogs’ feet, and took a picture of the banner at MY finish line.

When I got back to Anchorage, I was told that I had not injured my leg; my pelvis was broken in two places! It was literally collapsing in on itself. The doctor said, “I don’t know how you are standing there, let alone running the Iditarod for 10 days!” With the help of a friend and a set of crutches, I hobbled out of the medical office, smiling. My race ended sooner than I would have liked but I had a fantastic time, a truly amazing experience!

Cindy Abbott signs up for the 2014 Iditarod

Cindy Abbott signs up for the 2014 Iditarod

Bones may break but not my spirit. On June 29, 2013, I went to the Iditarod Headquarters and signed up for the 2014 Iditarod Sled Dog Race. I will be running out of Vern Halter’s Dream a Dream Dog Farm. This time I plan on getting my NORD Banner photograph taken while standing under the Burled Arch in Nome.

A Special Memory

By:  Jen Reiter

Everyone has something that draws them to the Iditarod. It might be the thrill of the competition. It could be the challenge of conquering the wilds of Alaska. Perhaps it’s the history behind the race. I suppose for some it’s the dogs… okay, probably for a lot people, it’s the dogs.

I have always been drawn to the stories. I love to hear people talk about what they are passionate about. I love to listen to them tell me stories of things that are important to them. I get excited about what they are excited about and I always want to hear more.  I was so very fortunate to have one of those priceless moments today.

I was kneeling in the snow at Jon Van Zyle’s kennel petting a beautiful white dog. She was so calm and so peaceful and so very content to just stand and let me stroke her soft fur. Jon came over, knelt on her other side, gently caressed her head and started speaking about her.DSC_0072

He told me how he once had a wonderful leader, one of the Iditarod dogs, the best he had ever had, and how sad he had been when he lost that dog. Years later this dog, Gussik, had been born. When Gussik was born, he was in awe. She was the spitting image of his most favored old dog. The color, the markings, the face, the eyes… He felt as if he had been given a special gift that day. And this dog has had a special place in his heart ever since.

Gussik is a good dog, a good leader.   She’s getting older now.  He calls her the “grandma.”  She’s moving a little slower these days.  There was a little tinge of melancholy in his voice as he went on to share that perhaps Gussik had never really been given the chance to become as strong a leader as she could have been. I got the sense that perhaps both Jon and Gussik would like to make one last trip down the Iditarod trail together.

I felt truly honored to have been given the gift of that wonderful story.

You’ve Got to Earn Your Own Roses!

by:  Jen Reiter

I collected another wonderful Iditarod story today…. this time from musher Martin Buser. This one isn’t nearly so sentimental or???????? meaningful as some others I have collected, but it’s funny and heartwarming and some how fits his personality perfectly.

When we arrived at his kennel today, he was just about to release twenty puppies to go out for a free run with one of his apprentices. They took off on their adventurous romp and we went on with our tour. A bit later they returned and continued to run around, much to the delight of the teachers I might add! One bold little guy decided to run into the trophy room and try to snatch the yellow roses from the First Place Iditarod trophy. It’s an Iditarod tradition to award each of the winning lead dogs with a string of yellow roses to drape around their neck. Martin chided the pup saying, “Oh no you don’t, you need to earn your own, not take someone else’s!”

Later, one of the teachers asked about the yellow roses, and Martin kind of chuckled and said there was a story behind those roses. Martin apparently studied horticulture in college and had a fantastic plan in place for when his lead dogs first earned those yellow roses. He was going to dry them. He was going to preserve them. He was going to make sure they lasted forever and were displayed with pride.

When the big day finally arrived and he won his first race…. he was sadly disappointed to discover that those beautiful yellow roses were not even real! They were silk. And all of his well-developed plans went right down the sink….

But he has them to this day proudly displayed in his trophy room!

Race Start Small Moments

by:  Jen Reiter

As a collector of stories, I love to look for the small moments in the big events. Today’s Ceremonial Start was definitely a big event filled with lots of little moments that stick out in my head. Small moments like watching mushers proudly display the flags of their home countries on their trucks, seeing how excited this year’s Teacher on the Trail™ was to start her grand adventure on the first sled out, seeing the Berrington twins talk and encourage each other before the start, and being able to provide Angie Taggart with a Luna Bar when she couldn’t find breakfast!

DSC_0178But by far, my favorite small moment story of the day was Lance Mackey’s dog Stiffy. Stiffy (so named because one of his ear tips is bent up at a funny angle) is just a two-year old and has never seen a starting line before.  Between the crowd, the noise, the other dogs, the thousands of people – I think he found the whole thing overwhelming.

So he hid. Under the truck. Way, way under the truck. And he did not want to come out. The news crew next to me declared Stiffy the “story of this year’s race.”

Lance sat in the snow very calmly and talked and talked and talked to him. He encouraged and cajoled him. And finally he was able to ease him out from under the truck.DSC_0188

But he still sat there in the snow. Just talking, and stroking Stiffy’s fur, and looking into his eyes. The rest of the world seemed to melt away from them. Stiffy seemed to take strength from Lance. He stopped shivering, he stopped trying to hide under the truck.

I think together they are going to make an incredible team… man and dog… out on the trail. Good luck to both of them… we’ll be watching and cheering you on!