[story and photos by Jeff Schultz]

ASK MOST MUSHERS, and here's what they’ll tell you about their canine companions: “The dogs are the real athletes. Us mushers? We’re just the coaches. They do all the real work.” They’ll also tell you that their animals are their extended family. The late four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher once told me: “I’m here when they are born. They live with me, and together we enjoy many adventures. I’m here when they are sick and need my help, or I need theirs. And I’m here when they die. They’re a big part of my life.” Because the dogs are family, it’s normal to find a musher interacting with his or her kennel, speaking in cute, loving baby language to the dogs, encouraging, and interacting with each of them as if they were his or her own children.

Karin Hendrickson’s main leaders in the 2011 race, Aberdeen and Chase, both three years old at the time, pose at the Shageluk checkpoint. The dogs were born at Karin’s kennel, which hails back to the Osmar/Gebhardt bloodlines. They are brothers from a litter of pups named after songs by Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Along with Chase and Aberdeen, the litter included Highway, Trouble, Deja, Voodoo, and Shotgun. Both dogs ran in Karin’s Iditarod teams until they were eight years old, when they retired to a friend’s recreational team and the couch.

Mushers will also tell you that each pup has his or her own quirks and personalities—that each one, similar to a human, exhibits unique qualities. They may be shy or overtly happy and energetic. They may only want to run in one area of the team and refuse to run in any other position. They may be picky eaters or have a problem when running next to a certain “other dog.” A musher will learn and memorize these traits and use that information when putting the team together or when going on a particular run. Rick Swenson’s famous lead dog “Andy” was known for not wanting any other dog team to be in front of him. So, when another team was in sight, Andy would pick up the pace ever so slightly and eventually pass it. It’s one reason Swenson won so many races.

Justin Savidis’ dog Twig pokes his head out of his dog box on the back of Justin’s truck as they arrive for the Willow restart of the 2011 Iditarod.

Dedicated mushers not only know their dog’s personalities, but they know, and remember, most every dog’s lineage. It’s hard for me, a non-dog person, to fathom how a musher can rattle off a particular dog’s sire and dam, as well as its grand and greatgrandparents—along with the names of the owners of those dogs. Many mushers will also know the lineage of good dogs from other mushers’ kennels. It’s impressive, especially when you’re talking to long-time mushers who have raised, trained, and raced with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dogs over the course of their careers. Recalling that information, they piece together or hypothesize why some dogs have better dispositions than others.

Kristy Berington’s dogs Bozo, Nicholas, and Little-Bit pay attention to Kristy as they rest in the evening at the Galena checkpoint during Iditarod 2015. While all three dogs are now retired, they have a great story. Little-Bit was born deaf, so she led by feeling, or depended on her co-leader. When the team got to a fork in the trail, she’d just guess as to which trail to take. If she felt resistance from Kristy’s brake, she would head the other way. Meanwhile, Kristy says Nicholas was the worst sled dog she ever had. He never pulled and was just out sight-seeing when running. She only kept him because Nicholas was named after a sponsor’s son. But once he was tried as a leader, he shined. He loved running in lead and became one of Kristy’s best leaders. Bozo was aptly named, as he turned out to be the cheerleader of the team. He was always ridiculously happy and would run well in any position. He was also as intelligent as he was silly; he knew when to take things seriously

WHEN A LITTER OF PUPS IS BORN, most mushers will name the progeny after a particular theme—wildflowers, for example, christening them as Fireweed, Iris, or maybe Rose. Or perhaps after band members: Ringo, George, Paul, John. Or candy bars. Just about any theme you can imagine is on the table. Why? This is typically because a musher has so many dogs, it’s easier to name them if there’s a premise from the start.

Anna Berington’s dog Delta rides in the basket as Anna arrives at the Takotna checkpoint during the 2016 Iditarod. Delta was a young two years old during this race. Anna borrowed Delta from veteran Iditarod musher Jessie Royer. Delta is a big, friendly, fun-loving dog who would run well anywhere in the team, though he was never tried as a leader. When saying Delta’s name during a run, Anna would find herself singing the Helen Reddy song “Delta Dawn.” On the run into Takotna, Anna noticed Delta’s gait seemed off, indicating he might have some soreness in his shoulders. So she dropped him at Takotna with the veterinarians, and he flew back to Anchorage from there

Regardless of names or lineage or race results, I hope you’ll agree that each of these dogs deserves centerfold treatment.

Sonny Lindner’s dog “Simbol” (alternate spelling of Symbol) appears all smiles as Sonny checked in and out of Takotna during the 2009 Iditarod. Sonny tells us that Simbol was four years old in 2008 and she was always bouncing and ready to go. People
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Alaska Magazine MMN


Photos by Jeff Schultz

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