Thursday, March 27, 2008

One for the History Books

Distance sled dog racing as we know it today began with the All Alaska Sweepstakes started in 1908 by the Nome Kennel Club. The race ran for a few years and then stopped, but the concept of distance sled dog racing endured. Many of the early mushers are now legends. Right now that race is being re-run on Alaska's Seward Peninsula. And just to make things interesting, the Nome Kennel Club has rasised a $100,000 winner take all purse.

The race is also using most of the original rules. The rules, race standings, and everything else (check out Josh's Blog for current news) can be found at . One of the most interesting of the original rules is that the dog musher must cross the finish line with every dogs they started with. Dogs can be either in the sled or attached to the line, but they must all be present. Modern races allow mushers to drop dogs. Having to maintain a complete team is an unique aspect of this particular race. Also interesting; there are no mandatory rest stops. It is totally up to the musher to decide when and where to rest their dogs. Mushers started the race at 2 minute intervals which means the first mushers have roughly a 30 minute head start on the last mushers. In most races this is accounted for during mandatory rest stops. Without any mandatory stops, we have to watch the musher's time, not necessarily their place, to determine who is winning.

The front runners have quickly covered the 200 miles to Candle and are on their way back to Nome. It appears that Lance Mackey, Jeff King, and Mitch Seavey are leading the pack. Except that in a race like this every team is a few injuries away from being out of contention.

To be honest it has been a little difficult to follow the race on the website. Josh's Blog has the only real "news" I can find regarding the race. It'll be interesting to learn what the mushers think of the format. Distance sled dog racing is getting bigger and bigger every year. The Iditarod is becoming a major international spectacle with other races earning devoted global followings. What will the musher's say about a race with rules orginally made for teams of working sled dogs? How will those old rules resonate with today's professional dog drivers?

We should start getting some answers this weekend. Until then, "Hike it out!"

Monday, March 17, 2008

Western Wrap-up

Weatherman was wrong. It did not rain Sunday. It was beautiful. Temperature was just above freezing when the race started and warmed up to sweatshirt weather by the time the first musher finished. Trail was well packed and slick. Times weren't as fast as day 1 of course, but much faster then day two. Results were as follows:

1st Place: John Hanson Jr. Day 1=1:08:52, Day 2=1:42:16, Day 3=1:13:48, Overall=4:04:56
2nd Place: Clint Anelon Day 1=1:12:32, Day 2=1:46:32, Day 3=1:16:45, Overall=4:15:49
3rd Place: Tom Weedman Day 1=1:12:19, Day 2=1:52:57, Day 3=1:14:36, Overall=4:19:52
4th Place: Blunka Wassillie Day 1=1:14:12, Day 2=1:56:11, Day 3=1:21:10, Overall=4:31:33
5th Place: Ryan Savo Day 1=1:36:27, Day 2=2:06:37, Day 3=1:49:30, Overall=5:32:34
6th Place: Keenan Herrmann Day 1=2:01:25, Day 2=3:00:58, Day 3=3:10:58 Overall=7:37:25

Johnny, Tommy, and Blunka are from New Stuyahok and Clint is from Iliamna. Johnny ran his dad John Sr.'s dogs, Blunka ran Gust Choknock's dogs, Clint ran his dad Tim's dogs, and Tommy ran his own dogs. Ryan and Keenan were the only Dillingham mushers to enter. Ryan ran my big working dogs to get a feel for racing before we get competitive in the years to come.

Keenan showed the kind of grit and tallent we don't see in enough of our young people. He drove a sled he made himself out of hand-milled spruce and birch. Hand-tied and proven over 350 training miles, it wasn't pretty, but the contraption held up well. His lines were self fashioned. The team consisted of one old leader and three 10 month old pups he and his sister had been raising and training themselves. They would give me a call from time to time, but they socialized them, harness broke them, recognized the leader in the bunch and worked with her. Keenan and Libby brought up their sled dogs largely on their own and made their own equipment. When Keenan first called me about a month ago to ask about the race I said, "How far are you running and how often." He told me they were running 15 miles every day with his sister in the basket. I asked him if the pups were coming home worn out and he said, "Not really." I suggested he try it without his sister in the sled and recommended giving the dogs a break every now and again, but encouraged him to keep working twoard entering the race. Keenan took home a $900 dollar check Sunday. Wonder if he split it with Libby? The dogs were half hers after all.

Long after the crowds had gone home Sunday, Keenan's family and a small group of supporters waited for him at the finish line. He came in fist pumping wearing a smile that touched each ear. Dogs looked great, every tail wagging. Mom took pictures, Dad patted him on his back, and Libby quickly offered the pups some baited water. It was fun watching the top mushers come in with their dogs loping and seeing them take home the big checks. But for all the work and effort that goes into a dog sled race, it was Keenan's finish that I'll keep with me. I saw in him the glow of those first magical moments. That time when we first knew we would never stop mushing, when it was perfect. In that time and at that place I saw what I sometimes forget. In all its complexity with all its intricacies, this passion we share boils down to two things; a musher and his dogs. The musher and his dogs crossing the finish line of the Western Alaska Championship Sled Dog Race at 4:11 PM Sunday afternoon were simply perfect.

Long may you run young man, and thank you.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Western - Day 2

It snowed all last night and half of today. Mushers were much slower cover the 18 1/2 miles. The fastest musher took about 1 hour 40 minutes. Ryan was a bit over 2 hours and yes, Keenan and his 4 dogs made around. Took a little while, but they made it.

The top four teams all came in slower with most dogs trotting instead of loping. My dogs came in trotting as expected and looked great coming in the shoot. They also looked good as soon as they stopped. Then a few of them layed down and the others were looking pretty tired (except Bing and Luke in the lead). I thought, "18 miles shouldn't make you that tired, even with some snow on the trail." We mushed them back to our land about a mile and a half away. As soon as we pulled into the dog yard, they're tails were wagging and everyone was up and looking around. We had to hold on tight bringing them to their houses. They gobbled down their pre-meal snack and everyone trotted around on their chain waiting to be fed. Those turkeys! They weren't tired at all. Think they may have learned the concept of "checkpoints" during the Kusko and were acting tired to try get a rest after they crossed the finish line.

I mentioned it snowed most of the day, but it rained the rest. Things will probably be warm, soft and sloppy tomorrow. Ryan may have a chance at beating one of the four teams ahead of him. If the working dogs keep trotting along and one of the sprint teams slows to a walk, he just may catch someone. It wouldn't make a difference in the overall time, but it'd be fun to beat someone on day 3. Should be fun to watch. I'll let you know what happens.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Ryan was the 4th of 6 mushers to leave the starting shoot of the Western Alaska Championship Sled Dog Race at 12:06 today. This is Ryan's first race, think he had fun. I know the dogs did.

This year's running celebrates the 50th year of the race and Beaver Round-up (our annual spring festival). Three mushers have come down from New Stuyahok, one flew over from Iliamna, Ryan and another local fella make up the rest of the field. The four out-of-town teams are competitive and finished pretty close together in two groups of two. Then Ryan came in 15 minutes later and Keenan another 20 minutes after that.

Ryan's running my dogs. They are not sprint dogs and never do very well in these races, but it's still fun. They covered the 18 1/2 mile course at 12 mph, much too slow to compete in sprint races. True sprint teams run at 16 to 19 mph depending on the trail. My dogs lope for a while, but eventually settle into their comfortable trot. It's how they run, how they work, and I've got no desire to change that. We'll do much better once our new sprint team is up and flying. We're all pretty excited to get that going, especially Ryan. He's a competitive guy and will enjoy running twoard the front of these competitive races.

Keenan Herrmann is the other Dillingham musher. Keenan is 17 years old, running four dogs (three only 10 months old) on a sled he built from milled spruce and birch. His family operates the only farm in the region on a piece of ground 13 miles out of town. The Herrmann's are a great family and have enjoyed seeing Keenan and his sister Libby taking so well to dog mushing. They're natural with animals and aren't afraid of hard work. They give me a call from time to time with questions and such. I was so proud of Keenan and Libby seeing their dogs run the 18.4 mile course. They did it in fine fashion crossing the finish line with plenty of gas in the tank, tails wagging, and Keenan grinning ear to ear. He says he's going to beat those "Stuyahok boys" some day. If he sticks with, I believe he may.

KDLG is broadcasting the race at 12:00 Saturday and 1:00 Sunday. You can listen on-line at There should be a few race stories and musher interviews on the site tomorrow as well.

Snow is falling and the forcast is for more snow and even rain. Although our dogs don't particularly like warm weather, it wouldn't hurt to get a bunch of snow on the trail to slow down those hot-shot teams!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Gettin' Big

Alethia and I flew home Saturday. Things are down right balmy in Southwest Alaska, almost 40 degrees today. Alethia and I visited with one of our new sprint dogs and her pups. I've included a few pictures below:

Minnie is so gentle and such a good momma. She lets us play with her pups all we want. Minnie wasn't raised with kids, but has taken to Alethia and Jake very nicely.

Two of the pups are mostly black and these two are mostly white. The pup in Alethia's right arm (big white blaze on her head) has a way about her. Anxious to see if she becomes a leader.

One of the black pups. Seriously now, could this picture be any cuter?!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Alethia's Big Adventure

Alethia went to Disneyland. A right of passage for any American child, she has always wanted to go and finally got her chance. I had some business in Durango, Colorado so Alethia and I flew to Phoenix where my parents spend their winters. I went Northeast to Durango and Alethia headed West to Cali-for-nIA. My trip was very worthwhile, but Alethia's trip was outstanding. Just ask her.

One of my sisters lives in San Diego with her family. Mom, Dad, and Alethia drove to her place where Alethia got to play with her second cousins. The oldest is almost exactly Alethia's age and the other a little younger. They had a great time together and then drove up to Orange County for a day in Paradise. Well, a 5 year old's paradise anyway.

Alethia has visited family in Minnesota a few times, but that is the extent of her voyages outside of Alaska. We get to Anchorage from time to time, but our world is in Southwest Alaska. Alethia spent her first 3 years in Koliganek and the last 2 1/2 in Dillingham. Johanna and I are both from the region and understand what it means for our children to venture so far from home. It's impossible for those not born and raised in Alaska to understand how shocking the rest of the world can seem. I'm sure there are those raised in other remote areas of the earth who would understand. But when Koliganek and Dillingham are the standards against which all other places are judged, trips like this are nothing short of incredible.

Alethia has just reached the age where trips like this are worth doing. She can handle the long flights and many changes in environment. She did tell me that Jake and Momma had to come with us next time. Suprised she forgot about the other Belleque still on the way.

Alethia told mom that she wants to live with her in Arizona. Do we have another Arizona Wildcat on our hands? Bear Down!

The old man himself with Alethia, her cousin Quinn, and 2nd cousin Emma.

I think this is Belle with Alethia. She met with other princesses as well. Alethia's a big princess fan.