What heart remains untouched by the amazing story of White Fang, Jack London’s half-woolf half-dog hero sold to be a sled dog in the harsh and frozen Yukon Territory? That was my first thought as we began our Husky Homestead tour that morning in Denali, home of four-time Iditarod Champion Jeff King.
The tour started with a heartwarming puppy cuddling. August is supposed to be still warm in Alaska, but summer was rushed out in a hurry this year. The previous day’s snow was still covering the mountains. The morning was freezing cold and the little dogs greeting us were shivering. They seemed so happy to be picked up and hugged!
Before this tour I had no idea about the Iditarod sled race, mushers, or even about the Alaskan Huskies which are somewhat different from the Siberian Huskies I was accustomed to. Unlike the blue-eyed Siberian Husky, the Alaskan Husky is rather a type of dog than a specific breed and is not recognized by any kennel club. But don’t let this average looking dogs fool you. Even though they won’t make it to the dog shows, they surely are the strongest sled dogs out there.
Named after the Iditarod River, the Iditarod race was inspired by a memorable sled dog relay to deliver a life-saving medicine to the remote village of Nome. In the winter of 1925, the children of Nome were dying from diphtheria and the only way to stop the fast spreading disease was a vaccine that rested more than 1,000 miles away, in Anchorage. As the harbor waters were frozen and the planes couldn’t fly in subzero temperatures, the only hope for Nome were the sled dogs. Today, the Iditarod race starts in Anchorage each year in March and it lasts anywhere from 8-12 days, ending when the last musher crosses the finish line.
The tour continued with an introduction into the daily life and training of the dogs, as they get prepared for the Iditarod sled race. The dogs are chained to their own cages to keep them from fighting with each other. They all have very funny names. Apparently Jeff King’s daughters are in charge of naming the puppies and since there are so many litters to be named their imagination is being seriously challenged. So names like Merlot, Bailey, Rebel, Burglar, Menace and Suspect are very common.
As a few of the dogs were being selected for a race demonstration around the grounds, the rest of the pack was howling like crazy trying to catch the trainers’ attention in order to get selected. But the moment the team was complete and they realized they won’t be picked, they suddenly stopped. These dogs are so smart and they undeniable LOVE to run! It seems that both mushers and dogs get an adrenaline rush from racing, which is probably what makes them keep running up to one hundred and fifty miles a day and for 10 days straight.
Running the Iditarod is extremely challanging for both the mushers and their dogs, so years of preparations and training take place to increase the team’s chances of winning. From what we’ve been told, the $50,000 prize barely covers the costs involved in running this world race, but that doesn’t keep the passionate participants from pouring every bit of energy and funds into it.
Preparations for the Iditarod begin long before the race starts. All dogs are being examined by a veterinarian before the race. The mushers send food and other supplies in drop bags to checkpoints by helicopter. Straw is also available at the checkpoints that the musher can use for the dogs to camp.There are only a few things they can carry on their sleds during the race: a Vet Book that has notes on each dog (this is mandatory and is checked by a vet at each checkpoint), a cooler with high-callory dog treats, a 3-gallon pot with a double bottom that acts like a kerosene stove, dog booties, dog coats, foot ointment, an ax and a pair of snow shoes. As they stop on the road, they melt snow in the pot to prepare food for themselves and for the dogs. Before taking care of his/her own needs, the musher will first take care of the dogs: examine them, change their booties, massage their muscles, feed them and put them to rest. This last task seems to be the must difficult, as the dogs love so much to run that it’s hard to convince them they need to rest once in a while during the race.
The 1100 mile long trail through rugged wilderness, across frozen waters and over the treeless tundra is more than demanding for the dogs. They often get injured and have to be dropped from the race at the check points. An elaborate system has been established to care for and transport dropped dogs so that they can safely return to their homes.
I have to confess that we we weren’t expecting much from the Husky Homstead Tour. We only booked it because the weather was pretty bad that morning in Denali, so there was nothing else to do. The wind was blowing hard and a new storm was coming in, so our fancy helicopter tour and highh-alipine tundra hike had been canceled. But looking back, we are glad we took the tour. The Husky Homestead is not only a very authentic look into the rural Alaska, but also a rare look at the behind-the-scene preparations that take place for the Iditarod sled race.
Disclosure: In preparation for this post, I read some sad reports about animal abuse during the Iditarod race. While these reports may be true, I personally haven’t seen any sign of animal abuse or mistreat of the dogs at the Husky Homestead of Jeff King. My post is no way a promotional one of the Iditarod race or the Husky Honstead tour.