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Mush! Mush!

Musher family, Christmas 2009. Back: me, Scott. Front: Liza, Michael, Diane, Mark

I have not always been one to enjoy the cold. This is odd, since I’ve lived in the Dakotas and Minnesota all my life and I’ve never really considered leaving. I guess I have always tolerated the cold for the simple reason that it was a fact of life. Changing that seemed, if not impossible, a really big hassle. So here I have stayed. I don’t snowboard. I don’t ski. I don’t snowmobile. I don’t ice fish. I don’t build snow forts. I shovel, but only because I pretty much have to. Other than that. I don’t spend a lot of time outside in the winter.

Except for mushing season.

Mushing is another word for dogsledding. You know, when a team of dogs (usually huskies) pulls a person on a sled. The person is the musher. And mushing is an incredible experience.

I was first introduced to mushing when I began dating my now-wife. Her family is a mushing family. It’s the family sport, and if you’re going to be a member of that family, it’s a good idea to get yourself acquainted with what they do. They’ve got a full dog team (and then some), and when the snow comes down, the fun begins. My father-in-law Mark and brother-in-lawMichael are both competitive mushers. They enter races in the upper Midwest and Michael often places in his division. My wife Liza and I usually travel along and help in races as dog handlers. In addition to the hand-on experience, my mother-in-law Diane is Education Director for the Iditarod, the “Last Great Race” which covers over 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness, from Anchorage to Nome.

At the Iditarod 2010 official starting line in Willow, Alaska

In March 2010, Liza and I were fortunate enough to be able to go to Alaska to take part in the opening festivities of the race. We had the opportunity to meet many legendary mushers including former champions Martin Buser, Jeff King, and Dick Mackey. We also briefly met current four-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey. Read a bit of Lance Mackey’s inspirational story.

Long story short, Alaska was amazing and these professional dog lovers and canine athletes were inspiring. There is nothing quite like seeing the Iditarod happening right before your eyes.

The dogs are amazing athletes. They absolutely LOVE to run. If they could, they would pull a sled all day and all night (and some professional dog teams almost get to do exactly that), and the colder the better. Northern breed dogs (Siberian huskies, Alaskan huskies, etc.) are specially evolved to not only withstand, but thrive in the arctic elements. They’ve got a double layer of fat under their skin and super thick fur. In fact, it has been said that the optimal temperature for a team to run is -20°F. Otherwise they will overheat.

It is said that every time a musher goes out on a run, they will come back with some sort of “trail story.” The first time I went out on the sled, I had a four-dog team and it didn’t go well. The dogs, who were still in the early stages of their training at the time, got distracted by a squirrel that was streaking along far off the trail. Long story short, my father in law had to come speeding out on the snowmobile and help me untangle the dogs from one another and the team’s gangline from a barbed wire fence. Once we got that sorted out, we decided to call it quits on my first run and head back to the house. The dogs were so excited to be turned around, heading toward the house that they sped home like a bolt of lighting. Never mind the fact that the sled hit a large bump which careened me forward and somehow got my leg under the sled for a couple  yards. The others were at the house and saw the team return with an empty sled and came back to rescue me in the midst of my limping home on the trail. Not a very successful trail story, I must say.

Completing a successful night run.

But things improved. A few years later, I took out an eight dog team on a night run and it was beautiful. The only sounds I could hear were the pat-pat-pat of the dogs’ feet in the snow, their excited panting, and the occasional joyful yelp. As I praised them and cheered them on, calling them each by name, I could feel a slight extra proud tug coming from each team member. The moon was high and full, casting shadows of the athletes and me on the bright nighttime snow. It was nothing short of magical. I didn’t want to come back in. Neither did the dogs, so we ran a little longer. When we finally came back into the yard. The dogs stood in place patiently as I went down the line, praising them one at a time, each dog getting their own bit of love, which was the least I could do, after that amazing experience. Each team member got ear scratches and belly rubs and I got some loving licks to the face. They were very happy dogs and I was a very grateful human.

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Categories: Family, Life
  1. Diane
    December 8, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    Ah yes, I remember the time the dogs came home without you… I’m glad you tried it again, because your 8 dog run was an amazing experience!

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