Posted by: morrowsl | January 12, 2016

Of Dogs and Determination, and Church Under the Alaskan Skies

Everyone who knows me by now knows I get a little crazy in early January and it usually lasts until mid-March.  The reason being sled-dog race season.  I’ve written a thousand words, at least, on the sport and why I love it so much.
But yesterday a cousin asked how I became so enamored of the sport and in making my reply I was reminded of the event that brought all of this crazy into my world.  It’s been twenty-seven years and, while I thought I remembered the major components well, I’d forgotten a lot of the background story of “why”.  Apparently, there have been a couple of books written about it that I was unaware of as well.  I just assumed the whole thing vanished in the time between then and now.

It was 1988 or 1989.  My kids were 8, 10, and 14.  Or maybe 9, 11, and 15.  Either way, still young enough to be influenced by things they might see on a trip to Target.  Marc found a stuffed Husky dog and asked to have it.  On the tag was the story of an expedition being launched to traverse Antarctica by dog sled.  I had no idea why this might be a thing, surely sledding was a mode of transportation in all areas where any other mode might be unavailable or impossible.  Hadn’t the Eskimos been using sleds and sled dogs for ages?  I was intrigued, but there was little information available.  The internet was in its infancy and we didn’t have a thousand dollars to put out on a home computer anyway, so I depended on the newspapers and the library for most of my research material.  And too, I was far too busy to spend my downtime reading, aside from using a paperback as a sleep aid or means of killing the time spent pretending to watch soccer practices.
I do recall seeing one article, memory has me believing it was in a newspaper, of the expedition being stalled out in Cuba (somehow over the years I came to believe it was South America) when their aircraft had maintenance issues.  There was a photo of one of the men standing in the narrow cargo area of the plane, t-shirt spinning in his moving hand, trying to create a breeze for the crated dogs so they wouldn’t die in the tropical heat.  That image stayed with me over the years.  But I have never been able to find it again.
While I could go into great detail about the expedition itself, this isn’t a blog post about that.  As I said, there have been books written about it.  Details can be found here:
International Trans-Antarctic Expedition
Logistics of International Trans-Antarctic Expedition

I’m assuming a few years passed with me eventually forgetting all about those six men and their sled dogs.  But the interest in the dogs and in sledding in general stuck.  I’m in Texas.  We rarely get snow, much less enough to consider sledding on.  The idea that such an ancient way of traveling was still used in our modern world was so novel to me.  I read what I could find when I had time.
Eventually the World Wide Web was launched and we manged to get a connected computer in the house.  Suddenly there was more information than I could possible research at one sitting.  I landed on and stuck with one major sled dog event, the Iditarod, an annual modern-day race over an historical 1,000-mile route to celebrate a successful attempt at saving lives.  So romantic!

Even then, access to real-time news of the race was sparse.  I found out what I could by reading articles posted on Alaska-based newspaper sites.
In 2005 I stumbled across an article about Martin Buser, an Iditarod veteran who cut off the tip of one finger mere days before competing in the race.  Some of the romance began to fade.  I started to realize there’s a lot more to mushing than just standing on the runners yelling “gee” and “haw”.  Martin became the epitome of determination in the face of adversity.  He became MMM – My Man Martin.  I had, still have, a great respect for him.
Other mushers stood out over time as well.  Dee Dee Jonrowe is one.  Cancer survivor and extraordinary athlete.  I always watch her in the videos just to hear her inquiring of her team, “You guys ready?”, in that soft voice that cloaks tempered steel.  I’ve watched her being knocked down so many times, and yet she is always right back on the sled and ready to try again.
Another cancer survivor, Lance Mackey, shot into the spotlight with his four consecutive Iditarod wins (2007 – 2010) alongside his three consecutive Yukon Quest wins (2005 – 2008).  Lance is the first musher to ever win both the Quest and Iditarod in the same year (2007) and repeated that win the following year.  His story is the stuff of legends.

It is easy to follow and revere the humans who make this race possible.  They know and understand the elements and data and rules and restrictions.  Certainly there are countless tales of courage and determination told during and after each race.  Frostbite, face-plants into submerged tree stumps, broken limbs and appendages, sleep-deprivation, missed trail markers, white-outs and ground blizzards, excessive heat and snowless trails make for impressive stories and photographs.
And while I’ve always been drawn to the drama of those stories, I prefer a good humanitarian story above all.  Such stories led me to follow Brent Sass after his successful efforts in leading two teams down Eagle Summit in the 2006 Yukon Quest 300 during a whiteout.  How many sports do you know where a competitor would bother to stop and render aid of such magnitude?

But the lasting impressions, from my first awareness of sled dogs to the last video I’ve watched, will always be those of the dogs.  They traverse the same terrain for the same number of miles that the humans on the runners do.  Except they are working the entire time.  They consume roughly 10,000 calories each, per day, during a distance race like the Iditarod or Quest.  And they do it wearing their skin and booties, occasionally a jacket and sometimes leggings.
Watch a video of any distance team in a checkpoint at the mid-point of a race.  The human, who will feed, massage, medicate and bed the dogs before ever considering taking care of themselves, will be glassy-eyed and exhausted from the efforts of racing and lack of sleep.  The dogs, so efficient at taking care of themselves regardless of the hour or weather, will circle ’round in the straw a time or two, plop down in a tight little ball, and sleep.  When food is presented, they’ll happily consume all that is offered, then curl back up and rest some more.  I’ve seen them barely stir when their musher kneels down to check them for soreness or a vet sticks a stethoscope under their chest.  But let the sounds of leaving find their ears and they are up and ready like a shot.  The well-behaved ones will sit patiently waiting their turn for booties or that last snack.  The more excitable ones will bark and howl.  And, once on the gangline, most of them will begin to prance and tug.
These dogs are born to racing.  It is the thing they live to do.  It’s where they are most happy.  And it is the place where they belong.

All those years ago, when the idea of dog sledding was a new thing to me, I believed what I read.  I followed the stories of abuse and neglect, most from the PETA organization, but from others as well.  I became angry for the sake of the dogs.  Those “advocates” had stories and sometimes photographs to support the stories.  A lot of it made me sick to my stomach.
But then I read about Susan Butcher and so many others, and began to understand that Alaska mushers aren’t just dog owners like the rest of the world.  They don’t go into starting kennels to make a lot of money and gain notoriety.  Those who race understand there’s more to the competition than winning.
Every year, during every single race I follow, the interviews and comments from the competitors are often the same.  Always, always credit goes first to the dogs.  Not to mom and dad, not to God above, not to a sponsor, not to their own hard work and determination.  But to the real athletes of the sport.  To the dogs.

Over the years, I’ve also come to greatly appreciate the work and fine efforts of Iditarod photographer Jeff Schultz.  He is a tireless professional with an extraordinary eye who brings Alaska to me under some of the worst conditions possible.  With the most incredible results.

Dee Dee once said that, alone with her team out on the trail is where she most feels God’s presence.  I suspect she is not the only one who finds church under those big open skies.

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