A sport that hasn’t gone to the dogs
I have been a sports fan most of my life, but in recent years, my interest in big-time sports has declined significantly. Dog sled racing is an exception; I still find it extremely interesting and am a little frustrated no one else is aware of it and that the local media ignore it completely.
I realize that writing a column about this subject will automatically trigger vehement responses from several organizations who are opposed to this sport. I respect their opinion and their right to express it, but I personally am comfortable with the domestication of wild animals and their relationship with humans. Hearing from these folks at least is an indication that someone is reading my columns.
Each year, I follow a pair of 1,000-mile-long races — the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. This year, the Yukon Quest ran from Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territory to Fairbanks, Alaska. It is, in many respects, more challenging than the Iditarod. However, expanded coverage and the tradition of the Iditarod make it even more enjoyable to follow. This year, 52 teams started the race; 40 finished. One of the 12 mushers who “scratched,” Nic Petit, provided the biggest story of this year’s Iditarod.
Petit is a highly competitive musher who had a comfortable lead late in last year’s race when he got lost in a “whiteout” blizzard on the Norton Sound sea ice. He ultimately was passed by Joar Ulsom, who then won the race.
This year, Petit found himself in a similar situation when he reached Norton Sound with a two-hour lead on his nearest competitors. Disaster struck again. This time, his team refused to go on, apparently still traumatized by what had happened there a year ago. Being unwilling to subject his dogs to another terrifying experience, he led them back to the checkpoint and withdrew from the race.
His withdrawal provided Peter Kaiser with the opportunity to pass him and to eventually win the race, edging out Ulsom by 12 minutes. It is remarkable that two teams can mush a thousand miles in nine-and-a-half days and still be only 12 minutes apart. This was Kaiser’s first Iditarod championship. He is part Eskimo; his great-grandmother was a Yup’ik woman who married a gold miner.
Jesse Royer had her highest-ever Iditarod finish, coming in third. She is a special favorite of mine; in 2004, my wife and I met her at one of the stops on our riverboat cruise on the Tanana River. Fourth place went to Ally Zirkle. The fact that two women finished in the top four is another interesting characteristic of this sport — it is the only major one in which men and women do compete equally.
So why am I so intrigued with this event? I suspect it begins with the dogs. Who wouldn’t be impressed with dogs running 1,000 miles in 10 days in the Alaska wilderness? And, the mushers and their obvious love for the dogs cannot be ignored.
Nonetheless, I guess I am most impressed imagining a musher and a team of dogs in the middle of the night with the temperature 30 degrees below zero, just as happy as can be to be sharing the experience together in the Alaska wilderness.