Some Of My Favorite Mushers Past and Present
Iditarod 2010 Coming March 6th!
I am waiting on the proverbial edge of my seat for the start of the 2010 Iditarod, I tried to think of what would be most interesting to write about. There is so much coverage of the Iditarod these days (and rightly so) that I wanted to lend something personal to my love of this great race and my admiration for all the people and dogs who participate in it. If only I was 30 years younger, I might have considered it myself - although I am most comfortable if there is a Shilo Inn at the end of my days so spending long, hard days on the trail might not have been my cup of tea.
In my little world, I have some experience with training one of the arctic breeds, the Alaskan malamutes and I suppose that is why I am so in love with this sport. Also having participated in a very small way at a local sled dog race, I got to see up close and personal some of the elements that go into this sport and will share those and then give you my favorite 6 mushers - past and present and why. Enjoy the ride!
Experiencing a Sled Dog Race
Years ago now, here in Central Oregon, we had the Attaboy 300 which was a 6-7 day staged dog sled race where mushers came from all over the country, even a few international racers to gear up for the famed Iditarod. Bob and I at the time had a time share here in Central Oregon and scheduled one of our vacation times specifically so that we could volunteer at this race. That is where I got my first glimpse up close and personal of some of the things that these musher folks do. That was also the first time I had seen Rachael Scdoris and her remarkable talent at work.
We were scheduled to work at one of the venues that was an all-day part of the race down south of SunRiver, Oregon and drove there dressed to the hilt in our warmest duds. We were psyched! We had 2 malamutes at home and we could not wait to see this event and experience as much of it as we could. We were just donning our bibs and getting our assignment when the first sled teams were heading out. That was when I got my first taste of the 'true nature' of these teams. I had thought our 2 malamutes were a bit much to handle when we would try to harness them and attach them to tug-lines to start off on the scooter. These dog sled teams made ours look like a piece of cake! Most often the teams were at least 11-15 dogs and the chaos that occurred as they passed other teams of dogs and tried to position themselves in the snow trail chute to take off - well, needless to say you could not hear a thing except DOG!
We were directed to go up to the chute - and I was thinking what an honor! Realistically thinking though - exactly how many jobs could there be since most of the help was going to be needed getting the racers out of the chute! We had no more than stepped into the long chute track than Rachael's father Jerry yelled out to us 'wise volunteers' that we needed to keep the teams coming in up top and not let them all pile into the lower half of this chute lane since there would be a bottleneck. So basically we were traffic directors with bibs on. No problem! At least I was doing something sled doggish!!!
Well, Bob took the upper hunk of the long chute path and I took the lower with some other folks. As it turned out, poor Bob ended up being the only person up top. Unfortunately, he was on a curve so he was pretty well hidden from view - and just his luck, about this time Bino Flowers (from none other than SunRiver, Oregon) came flying into the chute as if he was late for a very important date (start time) and never saw Bob waving his arms to swing further up into the chute lane. Bummer - the next thing I knew, my husband was laying on his back in the snow covered with a sled and a team of about 11 dogs yipping and yapping. All they wanted to do was get to the start line and take off - unfortunately there was a very exasperated old fart lying on the ground under them making snow angels!
Bino was not happy - in fact Bino was very mad at my poor husband. He yelled something like 'come ON, man!' - it didn't seem to matter that he was in last place - he was wanting to get out of that chute and get on with it! It did not help that my poor husband was totally humiliated already but when Jerry Scdoris said something over the loudspeaker about volunteers knowing what they were doing and staying out of the way of the mushers - that tore it! Oh well....he stood on the sidelines the rest of our 'tour of duty' while I worked the 'front lines'. Since Bob had stepped out and refused to participate now with his pride taking a beating, I was one of the front people who had to hold the dogs back from the other mushers' dogs so that they could get off okay without dogs getting into fights or sleds getting into tangles. Serious work that - but it was really fun to watch all the teams come up and get ready to take off. Most impressive of course was Rachael Scdoris as she deftly guided her team through the chute, took her place, and settled them - then pulled her snow hook and glided away into the sunset (well early morning snow-shine). It made me cry because she was so graceful and so unafraid. What an inspiration.
Bob did manage to get over it - Bino Flowers tracked him down eventually and apologized kind of - at least asked if he was okay! Good grief. What a way to make friends - but we weren't done yet! We had paid to participate in a musher's dinner so we could meet some of the mushers. I was disappointed that Rachael had not shown up for that particular evening but it was okay - we still got to meet some very famous at the time mushers and 'observe' them pulling in and taking care of their dogs. It really did make me realize for the first time how hard they work and how their first care and thought seems to be for their dogs. It was fascinating to watch all these very tired people lifting out all the dogs and setting them all up with food and straw before they even thought about coming in from the cold to eat. It was by this time 7:00 p.m. and they were still going after being out on the trails all day.
We ended up being paired with one of my now favorite mushers, Warren Palfry. He and his handler came in looking as exhausted as everyone else and probably thought 'ah good - we can sit with this nice older couple and just relax; go home and get a good night's rest before doing it all over again tomorrow'. Unfortunately for them, they picked our table and probably regretted it mightily! I had had a glass of wine - always loosens my tongue and I should have rethought that part before doing it. Once they sat down, I went into chat-it-up mode and could not seem to stop myself. I remember thinking to myself 'SHUT UP' but it was not working! Bob gave me a couple of looks but then he became so amused that he was no help at all! I went from asking a few questions to somehow winding around to how I had trained these 2 stupid dogs of mine to pull on a scooter and if that was not bad enough, I found that I was expounding on the techniques that I employed - to a MUSHER!!! Was I out of my mind? Well, the question did cross my mind. I could not seem to shut up, however, although I have to say I did refrain from whipping the pictures out of my purse to show them.
I will never live it down - whenever Bob wants to get a rise out of me, he brings up the 'mushing incident' as he terms it when I held the professional musher who is racing in the Iditarod at dog-point so to speak talking about my stupid malamutes and urban mushing. We did actually go to another leg of the race that week though and I have to say - Warren and Kate were extremely polite. They did not run away from me like I had an infectious disease (I was surprised) - they actually waved at me and shouted out a greeting. At least I think it was a greeting! I felt so embarrassed for myself later but the enthusiasm of the sport just got the better of me I suppose. I never will know what possessed me to be so much of a dotty old fool but oh well - at least I left them alone after that.
Our last experience with the Attaboy was the overnight that the mushers were required to have in that particular race - where they camped out with their dogs in the snow. They were up at Mt. Bachelor here in Central Oregon and as night started to fall, we all walked amongst the trees and the dogs being bedded down for the night on their straw, being fed and tended to by the tireless mushers. It was so quiet and so totally beautiful I will never forget it. And the good thing was that I did not spoil it by blabbing my head off again!
At any rate, these folks made such an impression on me - as have these Arctic breed dogs. I fear that I shall never be the same now that I have discovered the love of the sled dogs and their sport. The mushers I think of as my favorites are just some of the ones I so admire but my selection of these 6 was because of who they are and what they stand for in my mind. Truly, all of the sled dog racers are my idols. I do not know how they do what they do and what they do is so beautiful. The dogs likewise are my idols and every time I watch a program on mushing, I cry just to watch them. It is a truly remarkable sport but then I do believe I'm slightly prejudiced!
Rachael is a no-brainer. I have admired her since I first heard about her because she is very close in age to our son, Patrick, who is also legally blind. She became the first blind athlete to complete the Iditarod in 2006 and again raced in 2009. She has received such publicity for her efforts and thankfully she has brought such attention to the issues of low vision, legal blindness and the totally blind. This year Rachael will not be running in the Iditarod, however, as she is training in tandem biking to hopefully represent the US in the Olympic Games in London in 2012.
In 2009, Rachael's finish at the Iditarod was the sports story of the year. She is an amazing young woman who fights the image of being labeled the 'blind athlete'. To watch her though is to realize how truly amazing she is! On one of the legs of the Attaboy 300 here in Central Oregon, an unexpected blizzard of sorts came up on Mt. Bachelor one of the years and everyone experienced pretty much a white-out condition not being able to see anything. She handled it with her usual good spirits and was quoted as saying 'welcome to my world'. When she took a wrong turn another day and ended up on a dead end trail and had to manually turn all of her dogs around and start off again on the sled, she was quoted in her good-natured way as saying something to the effect of it's part of the gig. She fought for her right to have a 'visual interpreter' in the Iditarod and finally won - and we were all so very proud of her achievements! We still are.
Rachael is scheduled to attend the World Sled Dog Championship race in Norway in 2011 and will speak to the Scandinavian Federations for the Blind to raise awareness for blind athletes. She truly is an inspiration and when you think of her, it is hard to believe that she is handicapped because she has such strong work ethic and so much to give.
The most endearing thing about Rachael Scdoris is her never-say-die attitude - she scratched in 2005, finished the Iditarod in 2006, scratched again in 2008, and finished in 45th place in 2009. For all handicapped and nonhandicapped persons alike, she is a beautiful person and she is an inspiration just because of her attitude.
DeeDee Jonrowe is one of my heroes on so many levels. She has been a runner-up in the Iditarod 3 times and she has the distinct honor of holding the fastest time ever recorded for a woman. She is very popular and I think one of the reasons why is her pure grit and determination. In 2003, she ran the Iditarod just 3 weeks after completing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Someone doesn't get much more special than that!
DeeDee was born in Germany, went to school in Virginia and in the 1970s moved with her family to Alaska. DeeDee is the spokesperson for the Winter Special Olympics, the National Girl Scouts Council and has co-written a book called Iditarod Dreams. She competed in her first Iditarod in 1980, ran in 1983 and 1984 and then in every single race since 1987 - a total of 23 races and 22 finishes. She has placed in the top ten 13 times.
She has had major setbacks in her life but she keeps on going and that is why I am enamored with her. In a special that I watched on the Iditarod last year, the pure love that she has for the sport and her dogs radiated from her and her determined attitude was equally evident. She is a tough competitor but above all, she is a survivor and an inspiration to men and women alike. Her perseverance in the face of adversity seems to have rocketed her to fame among Iditarod followers and competitors alike. She was voted Most Inspirational Musher in 2003 and has been chair of the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life.
I love Gary Paulsen just because he is the least likely person you would think of to run in the Iditarod and the most good natured person to take a poke at himself. Check out his classic book Winterdance - The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod. I fell in love right then and there. I have truly never laughed so hard out loud upon reading a book in my life - before or since!
Gary had an interesting life as many of his other books point out very graphically but through it all, he has certainly kept his sense of humor. He actually ran away at the age of 14 and joined a carnival. He then became a magazine proofer and got into the art of writing. He has written numerous children books and also some wonderful books on dogs and how dogs have impacted his life. He is the author of the Hatchet series but has published many other great books.
He somehow became interested in dog sledding and the first part of Winterdance is about how he trained his dogs and how he acquired them - equally entertaining - probably because it reminded me so much of what I would do or what I learned the hard way in training my own malamutes. He finally decided to put it all to use and entered the Iditarod. His depiction so colorfully of the trails, the incidents that occurred, and his overall description of the life of a musher are absolutely priceless and ever since reading his book, whenever I watch the Iditarod in parts or on specials, I think of his words.
Gary competed in the 1983 and 1985 Iditarods. In 1990, he gave it up for good because of angina - although he claimed that was the toughest decision he ever had to make. He again tried to make a comeback in 2005 (after 20 years) but then had to withdraw shortly before the race. He was in the 2006 Iditarod but had to scratch after 2 days on the trail. He had been listed in the 2009 race but again had to withdraw.
No matter if he races again or doesn't ever return, Gary has my heart because of his wonderful commentary on the madness that is the Iditarod. He put me right there with him and he made me laugh and he made me cry. What a talent!
Martin Buser is one of a kind and just had a debut recently on the TV show on the Discovery Channel Dirty Jobs. He was his usual good-natured self as he ran us through what he loves best - mushing. For some reason, Mike Rowe didn't think standing behind 'pooping machines' was too great. I guess it all depends on your perspective so to speak.
Martin began mushing at 17 and came from Switzerland. I have always been so impressed by his great attitude and the many awards and commendations he has won for being one of the kindest mushers when it came to his dogs and one of the most known for his good humor and undying spirit. One Iditarod saw Martin Buser entered with a partial amputation of one of his fingers in a woodworking accident but that didn't stop him! He is a great inspiration on the trails and never seems to be upset by life in general.
That great attitude does not hide the fact that Martin has won the Iditarod 4 times. He holds the record for the fastest finish time in Iditarod history. On 16 occasions, he has finished in the top ten. That's pretty impressive! He has run in 20. The fastest time recorded is his at 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes and 2 seconds - accomplished in 2002. Martin won his first Iditarod in 1980 and has run in every race since 1986.
I love his sense of humor and his dedication to his helpmates - his dogs. In 2008, he won national acclaim among fans when he gave his GPS unit to a pilot who was transporting dogs and equipment to and from checkpoints.
Doug Swingley comes from Lincoln, Montana and is a 4-time winner of the Iditarod. When he won in 1995, that was the first time a non-Alaskan had won the event. He came right back and won it again in 1999, 2000 and 2001. He competed in every Iditarod from 1992 to 2002.
In 2004, Doug was forced to scratch from the race because he suffered frostbite to his corneas. It damaged his vision such that he prefers now to only race during the day. He did come back and compete in 2005 and placed 14th in that race. He entered the 2006 race and it looked like he had a great shot at winning it but eventually succumbed to Jeff King when his dogs had some troubles with stretches of bare ice and he fell behind. He took second place that year.
He came back in 2007 but unfortunately had an accident on the trail that finally convinced him it was time to retire from long distance racing. He decided to stick to staged races at that point in his life and also got into long distance horse racing.
He married his wife, Melanie Shirilla (also a musher) in 2002 underneath the burled arch which is the finish line for the Iditarod. Together they maintain a kennel, breed and raise sled dogs. Doug's famous dog Pepi has probably received as much publicity as Doug! Melanie and Dough were both at that musher's dinner years ago but I was rather preoccupied with Warren or I would have definitely given them some tips as well!
Well, I guess I love Warren because he sat there in his fatigue and bewilderment and never said a word that was discouraging to a doddering old fool! I have since always checked to make sure Warren was in the running for the Iditarod and sure enough he has always been there! Those tips I gave him must have really paid off!!!
Seriously, he is a young man - he is only 34 - he started running dogs when he was 11 so I think he doesn't need my help after all. He now lives with his family and his handler Kate (I know her too if only for an evening) in YellowKnife and Warren's emphasis is all about raising dogs that are healthy specimens. He believes in excellence in breeding his dogs, and making sure that they are always physically fit. You gotta love a guy who cares about his dogs!
Warren has not placed in the top ten but I'm hoping he does one of these days. He has come in 19th so that is not that far from 10. There is always hope and if Warren follows those great tips I gave him, you never know.
Be safe on the trail, Warren - and if you get into trouble, you have my number. Night or day - I'm available for more tips on mushing.
Summing It Up
I love the Iditarod although I know there are a lot of animal rights folks who say that it is cruel and unusual punishment for the dogs, it is too commercialized, etc. From the mushers that I have praised here, however, I do feel that these folks do care tremendously about their dogs and that their first thought is for their well being and safety. They are fierce competitors as well but the basic underlying sense I have always gotten from these listed individuals is that they adore their dogs and that they will try within their power to keep them safe and healthy.
All that said, it is a gruesome race and defies all sanity if you ask me for folks to be out on the trail for 7-10 days going through dangerous situations over and over again and pushing themselves and their team to the limits. However, it is one of those spectacles in life that you watch with horror and with delight at the same time. The documentaries on the Iditarod are fascinating and also so educational. Once upon a time, there were mushers who did not do this for sport and who were a vital part of Alaskan heritage and history. I do believe that in some small ways, these brave athletes honor those memories and salute that history.
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