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Iditarod set to begin for mushers and the real athletes -- their dogs

March 2, 2009 |  2:32 pm

Four-time Iditarod champion Doug Swingley poses with lead dogs Cola (left) and Stormy after crossing the Iditarod finish line first in 2000.

The Iditarod Sled Dog Trail Race begins Saturday in Anchorage, Ala., so it's only a matter of time before someone or some animal rights group cries out about cruelty to canines.

In fact, as any musher will attest, dogs enjoy the grueling competition as much as mushers do. Some dogs will become injured and a few will succumb to the severe weather and the incredible workload along the 1,150-mile route to Nome.

But sled dogs are bred for and live for this kind of competition, and seem to achieve the same sense of satisfaction their handlers feel after a successful, if long, bitter-cold day on a blustery wilderness trail.

Lance Mackey this year will try to three-peat as Iditarod champion with a lead dog named Larry. Larry was part of Mackey's "dream team" in 2007, when he won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest 20 days before winning the Iditarod.

That was a feat some said couldn't be accomplished, and what made it more remarkable was that Mackey, instead of mixing fresh dogs into his Iditarod team, harnessed 13 of his Yukon Quest dogs for the start of the Iditarod.

Iditarod route

After winning he told the Anchorage Daily News: "The farther we went, the better they got. It was like adding coal to a freight train. I just kept shoveling the food into them and they got stronger and faster and better as we went. It was an amazing thing to witness."

Mackey, who once lived in a tent, is grateful for Larry, just as all great mushers owe their success to their lead dogs. Five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson, in fact, named his son, Andy, after his lead dog.

This year's Iditarod, like those before it, will feature several compelling story elements during the 10 to 17 days of competition. It remains unknown who will win, of course, but this much is clear: a lead dog will be first across the finish line.

-- Pete Thomas

Photo: Four-time Iditarod champion Doug Swingley poses with lead dogs Cola (left) and Stormy after crossing the Iditarod finish line first in 2000. Credit: Associated Press. Graphic courtesy of the Iditarod

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