Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Count Down to the Iditarod: My experience with Dog Sled Racing

I put several childhood pictures on Facebook the other day.

My friend, Gwen, asked me about my experiences with dogsledding. With the Iditarod starting on Saturday, I thought this would be a good time to share mine.
My Dad worked nights when my parents were first married. My Mom decided she wanted a dog to keep her company and to frighten away any noises. She saw an ad for free Cocker Spaniels in the paper. My Dad went to work and a friend convinced him that he wanted a Siberian Husky. The question why might be asked since the first thing about Siberians is that they are not guard dogs, but I guess my parents were naive back then. They bought Sabra. The following year, my parents bought Koly, and Jim, a friend of my Dad's, bought Amy. In the top picture above, Sabra is the white dog, and Koly is the black and white. My Dad had enough for a three dog team! We bought Spitzi when I was three. She was my dog. I think my Dad ran a four dog team a few times, but Sabra did NOT appreciate being expected to pull someone and gave up her career.
I was born the following year. I remember more general impressions of dogsled races as a three and four year old. My Dad gave it up when I started school and trips to Cleveland or Michigan were practical. Generally when we went on vacation, and I'm showing my age here, I had a pad to lay down or play in the back of the Pinto stationwagon. This, children, was before kids were required to stay in some kind of safety seat in the back seat for the first decade of their lives, and I have to add I'm extremely grateful that I was born then. I like to stretch out and sleep while we drove. When we went to races, we had to pull the dog trailer. Because of that we took the Torino. The water jug was in the backseat as well. I couldn't stretch out as much.
We would get to the race. It would involve a lot of waiting around in the cold, and the dogs were tied to the trailer. Lesson #2 Huskies will run like crazy and have no idea where they are when they stop, so a fenced in yard and leash are mandatory. The second picture shows me "helping" harness. Koly had to be the last harnessed and the first harnessed, or he would unharness himself. Mom learned harness repair. The dogs and my Dad would take off. My Mom, I, and sometimes Sabra would would wait for their return. He was running only 3-7 miles, and I know huskies can run 15 mph. I don't remember how long it would take. It seemed a long time in the cold. I know he was at a disadvantage. He at 6'5", 200+ lbs was competing against 16 year olds a foot shorter and 100 lbs lighter on the dogs. He was never the first person to cross the finish line.
He would take the dogsled across the street to the elementary school and the 5th graders would race the dogs. I'm not sure how it started or how often he did it. We moved away from that school (though still in the district) after I finished first grade. We had All-About-Me week in kindergarten. On Friday, we could do something big! I brought in the sled and Spitzi. Spitzi didn't get along with dogs, but she was good with kids. We still have the sled in the barn. I'd love to hitch Blitzen and Koti up to it and take some pictures. We had a "rig", a type of sled on wheels that my Dad could use to train when there wasn't snow. I remember playing on it in the backyard.
I knew my "Gee" from my "Haw". I, also, knew enough to know that "Mush" is rarely to never used to get a team started. An upbeat work is used. Dad used "Hike" Imagine yelling "HI!-K" with a really hard "k". Now imagine yelling "Muuuusssshhh", yeah which gets your attention?
My Dad was then interested in the Iditarod Race. The 1,049 mile race across Alaska. We have VHS copies of the Wide World of Sports footage going back to the early 80s. Sometimes the Enquirer would publish the top ten standings during the two weeks of the race. I think my Dad liked me following the race as it truly is a sport where men and women compete equally. In most sports some sort of adjustment is given to the women. In dogsledding, the dogs are the atheletes so no advantage is given to the women. In fact if you read about it, the dogs in the race are equally males and females.
When I got to college, the Internet was just getting started. I found the Iditarod's webpage. OMG, they had near live updates. It was so addictive! There was a dog who wrote journal entries as well. I loved Zuma! One day a few years ago, I was surfing their page. I found one woman who runs purebred Siberians. I joined her mailing list. From there, I joined several others and made friends. We've never been to the race start, but a group from one list meets after the race ceremonial start every year for dinner. Last year, they collected a list of those who couldn't be there. Dad and I were among those toasted. The Iditarod offers an Insider package so that the ceremonial and official start,as well as all the finishes can be watched live along with daily updates. The race takes around 9 days for the winner to finish and around 14 days for the Red Lantern winner to finish. This is my version of March Madness to check who is currently in the lead.
The race starts on Saturday. I plan to hook my laptop up to the television and sit back and enjoy the show.

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