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Dog handling at the Iditarod

by Steve McKee on March 17, 2006

My family and I really like dogs, so we went to Alaska at the start of this month for the start of the 1100 mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race.  A few months ago I found out from my aunt and uncle in Anchorage just how easy it was to go from being a spectator (watching the action over the temporary wooden fences that line 4th Avenue in Anchorage) to being a dog handling participant (right in the thick of it helping to move dog teams to the starting line) just by emailing in a volunteer application and then showing up a day early for some training.

Not only is the Iditarod a race of epic proportions in its distance and the rigors facing the participants, but it’s also wonderful in the way men and women, young and old, can all compete equally.  If you’re between the age of 19 and 66, it’s pretty easy to find mushers who are the equivalent of you in the lineup.  On top of this, it’s a world class competition and yet volunteers can get right in on it.

I especially like the way the race always ends up being about the dogs, totally and utterly about the dogs.  Hey, I know this because I read Gary Paulsen’s wonderful book “Winterdance:  The fine madness of running the Iditarod.”  Twice.

And it’s about dogs not in some stuffy dog-show kind of way, in which some judge likes the poofy hair on this dog more than the poofy hair on that dog.  It’s about dogs in great physical shape that are excited about getting to move out.  These Iditarod dogs are the best in the world at what they do.  They bark and carry on and act like dogs when they sense that it’s getting close to go-time and then they kick butt.

So, with about forty other volunteers, Melody and I spent about an hour and half the day before the race hanging onto the tug-line of a real dog team and chugging in a crouched position around a frozen hotel parking lot pretending to be lining up an Iditarod team for its start.  During the race, teams would be leaving one-at-a-time at two minute intervals.  We took turns “accidentally” stumbling and then rolling quickly sideways away from oncoming handlers and the sled.  Our kids got to ride in the sled while we panted along out front, our breath energetically steaming the 17 degree air.

The next morning on race day, we volunteers assembled early in the predawn fog of downtown Anchorage, the tall neon marquee of the 4th Avenue Theater filling the air with a wonderful red glow.  The city streets had been covered with snow (trucked in from local ball fields) and some mushers’ trucks were moving into position, sleds strapped on top and dogs’ noses poking out of air-holes in their individual little doors.

We were awarded our coveted “dog handler” armbands and told to return at 10.  So it was breakfast with the kids at a cafe and then back on duty.  By ten o’clock the fog was gone and the streets were much busier.  Our armbands earned us the right to pass the security guy and duck around the flimsy slat wood fence that holds back spectators and walk right into the middle of it all.  Trucks were parked on all sides with dogs clipped along both sides of the trucks on short chains.  Mushers conferred with helpers and laid out tug lines and dog harnesses.  Spectators milled along sidewalks on the other side of the temporary fences watching it happen.  Dogs (over a thousand of them in an eight block area) whined and barked and squirmed and peed on tires.  Volunteers like us gathered at intersections to get assignments.

“Musher number eight needs two people,” Carl (the assigner) would say.  Hands would go up and people other than us would be assigned.  Then we missed out again.  And again.

Then we got it.  Number eighteen needed three dog handlers.  So Melody and I and a really enthusiastic guy named Scott loitered about the truck of a musher named Jerry Sousa trying to not feel too useless during the fifteen minutes or so before he was due to move up towards the starting chute.  During a particularly loud crescendo of dog excitement I saw Scott holding his cell phone in the air, letting a friend somewhere share in all that good energy.

Through observation of others I could tell it was okay to pet the dogs.  I would offer my leather gloved knuckles for sniffing, and then follow with neck scratching and ear rubbing.  Despite their status as world class athletes, these dogs could settle down and enjoy a good petting just like a good ol’ regular dog.

Almost without exception these dogs are not the hefty Siberian huskies with the thick fur and the perfect black and white markings that everybody associates with pulling sleds.  These are instead medium sized and even sort of small dogs, with not very thick fur, and markings that are sometimes random and even mutt-like.  Some have blue eyes, most have brown, some have one of each.  Oh yeah, one more thing: they are willing to happily run a thousand mile marathon in freezing temperatures all while pulling a load.  All that talent and still they look fairly unremarkable.

They are known as “Alaskan huskies,” a breed not officially recognized by Kennel club registries, but a breed actively being shaped by very interested mushers who value performance above all else.  Their legs tend to be long, their waists thin, and they have well-muscled thighs.  These forty-five pound dogs will eat ten thousand calories a day during the race.  That’s right, 10,000 calories each day.

While waiting, I checked a roster of the mushers’ names.  It is said the more accomplished mushers are the equivalent of movie stars in Alaska.  Our personal favorite was Gary Paulsen, the outdoor writer I mentioned above (multiple Newbery awards, in case you needed confirmation that the guy can really write) who had finally returned to dog sledding after a twenty year hiatus just for this race.  He was team number fifteen.  Hey wait a minute.  If we’re number eighteen and the numbers switch back on the other side of the street, then that must mean . . .

“Pssst, honey!” I said.  “That’s Gary Paulsen right there!”  I tilted my head toward a man about twenty feet away working a harness onto a dog.  He had a white beard and was thick of build, kind of like Santa Claus in a dark grey parka who happened to also be wearing a white racing bib with the number 15 on it.  I liked that his pick-up truck was sort of a beater, just like in his “Winterdance” days.

There was something perfect about that moment.  Reading Gary’s book years ago, including its juicy description of the race start in Anchorage, had ultimately resulted in us attending this race and now we were essentially appearing alongside him in a scene from it.  I made sure to photograph him handling his lead dogs.  Any dogs worthy of replacing “Cookie” from his 1980’s sledding days had to be worthy dogs indeed.  Surely they would be featured prominently in some future (or should I say “present”) account of the race.  It was pretty enjoyable to be standing nearby pondering all of this.

Minutes after watching Gary Paulsen’s team get led away around the corner, it came time for our team 18 to move up and I was told by one of the team leaders that it turned out that they didn’t need me.  Mel offered to give me her spot, but I couldn’t do that to her, so I remained behind and watched Scott and her and the others lead the dogs around the corner for their start a few blocks away.  The magic of this place now had a kernel of disappointment within it, but inside of ten minutes I found Carl-the-assigner again and was told to join team 41 led by musher Tim Osmar.  I liked how casual and blue-collar Tim’s operation felt.  No matching sponsor parkas on this team.  He was the first of two teams I helped to the line that day.

My finest moment as an Iditarod volunteer came about an hour later when I was reassigned to team 80 (among the last four to go.)

On a side street only two blocks from the starting line I found team 80 with musher Glenn Lockwood chatting easily with some spectators across the flimsy fence.  The dogs clipped to his truck were pretty calm, the sun was shining now, and there were twenty minutes of relaxed waiting to go, so I passed my time visiting the dogs, scratching under their collars and imagining the freezing storms, deep snow and rugged countryside that awaited them.  I wanted to go with them.  I wanted their adventure.

Glenn was in his fifties, wore glasses and had that sort of easy quiet-but-competent air about him that you would want, say, your doctor to have.  He was from Wisconsin and this was his first Iditarod.  I overheard him telling someone that he would probably be on ibuprofen pretty heavily starting at day-two because “you just can’t train yourself for all those days of standing.”  I introduced myself as a volunteer ready to help dog handle.

“Good,” he said.  “Most of the people I have with me are new at this.”

Gulp.  I told him my training had consisted mostly of running around a parking lot for half an hour.  But then I also pointed out that I had helped lead Tim Osmar’s team to the chute less than an hour ago.

As Glenn fitted harnesses on his dogs he told me to keep a hold of the line between the lead and swing dogs.  I wasn’t sure what a swing dog was, but I could surmise where I should be.  By then, team 79 was already hooked up right nearby and their dogs were going nuts with anticipation.  As more of our dogs got hooked up, their own excitement grew and things got even louder.  One of my swing dogs kept wanting to leap over my other swing dog, putting a twist in his tug, which I straightened out, only to have him then climb back the other way.  A sweetheart of a dog in back of me simply stood in place and trembled with excitement.  Dogs.  You’ve got to love their sincerity.

Two minutes after team 79 left we were called forward.  Glenn, like some of the mushers, preferred to take his team out by actually leading the team from the front with a tether on the lead dogs while somebody else worked the sled and presumably leaned on the brake (a metal spike that gets pushed into the snow by foot pressure.)

As soon as they began to move, the dogs all got quiet.  The noticeable aspect now was the tremendous power that was present in that tug line.  And in my position up front that force was coming from just the first four dogs!  Glenn took us wide of the corner so the sled would clear.  By then the dogs had us moving out at a jog.  Then came a brief stop to collect ourselves.  “Hey, we’ve got to slow these guys down,” Glenn called back.

We started forward again.  We didn’t have leash extensions like I’d used earlier on the other team, and it was more awkward to exert control.  I was crouched over, arm extended way sideways to hold the tow line, feet moving quickly through the chopped up snow, trying to resist the forward force in that line.  One more block to go.  My leg occasionally bumped into the dog bedside me.  Then came a big bump and my center of gravity was moving sideways.  I let go of the line, my hip met the snow and, true to my training, I rolled once away from the team.  Ninja-like, I popped back up and hustled forward to get another hold on my spot on the line.  “There you are,” said Glenn.

We stopped behind team 79, listening to their countdown over the loud speaker.   They were off and we moved up, nothing between us and an endless snow-covered road.  The crowds lining the sides were thick here at the start line.  The dogs knew what was coming.  Some were still and waiting, others lunged forward, barking and yipping excitedly.  Less than two minutes till lift-off and Glenn just lingered at the front.

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready to do some mushing?” I asked.  He smiled and stayed put.  The announcer called one minute.

“Is this the chute?” Glenn asked me.  Maybe he thought there would be some race official showing him the line.

“Yeah, this is it,” I said, with all the assurance of one who had been there once before.  This was probably my most significant contribution to the 2006 Iditarod:  I helped a musher avoid a moment for the blooper reel with him scrambling around out of place while everyone and the cameras looked on.

He made it back to the sled just fine, and when the countdown reached zero I let go of the lead dogs and moved sideways, this time being sure to linger a bit to take it all in.  Just like that, the lot of them moved out, dogs leaning forward, their powerful legs digging in, picking up speed, sled gliding by with Glenn standing behind while the crowd cheered.  A volunteer with a different color arm band from mine told me I would have to leave the chute.  As I walked back I took one last look at my team on their thousand mile journey.  They were growing smaller with distance, but I could tell the dogs were now in a full-fledged gallop, sled dog nirvana finally achieved.

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