Well it is that time of year again, where we take on a large and scary task. Yup time for me to answer student’s questions. Anyone who has worked with kids know they have no problems asking the tough questions, so I never know what to expect when I do this project.
Every year students across the nation learn about Iditarod in the classroom. And at Dew Claw we try in our small way to support teachers who are using the Iditarod in creative ways to engage students. As part of that every year we pick a class to send us questions to answer in our blog. This year we worked with 3 Third Grade classes: Mrs. Hebl’s class, Mr. Eggersdorfer ‘ s class and Mrs. Koble’s class, all from Roosevelt Elementary School in Minnesota. And it was really a partnership, I will be answering the questions students have about the race and mushing. And in return they decorated quart sized freezer bags that I used to pack my personal gear and supplies for drop bags. So while I am on the trail, at every checkpoint I have some beautiful artwork to cheer me up.
So here we go, the students had some great questions and I will do my best to answer them here….
What do you like the most about being a musher?
The dogs. They are my reason for mushing. They have such great attitudes and love what they are doing, their enthusiasm is contagious. It is not that I do not love being out in nature, the stunning winter landscape, and exploring trails. But all of it is so much more fun when you add the dogs. They allow me to travel father, carry more, and are a constant source of companionship on the trail.
But it is important to remember that having dogs is a very serious commitment. They require my care and attention every day! Even in the off season when there is no snow for mushing I am still with them every day, feeding them, cleaning their yard, playing with them.
What is the Red Lantern for?
The Red Lantern is a tradition in mushing where you keep a lantern lit to shine as a light until all the mushers make it to the finish line. When the last musher gets in the lantern can be extinguished and that musher is awarded the red lantern for last place. In many sports last place is not such a big deal. But in an extremely tough sport, where some of the competitors will not even make it to the finish*, the Red lantern is a symbol of not giving up.
In Iditarod it started out as a “Widows Lamp” and is now known as the Red Lantern, you can read more about the history here.
*When a musher does not finish that is called a scratch. Mushers can scratch for many reasons; they are sick or their dogs are not well, or sometimes there are situations with extreme weather that make it too difficult for a musher to go on. Basically running races is a huge challenge, and sometimes things do not go well, and so mushers can scratch instead of being forced to continue when they are unable. In many cases this is done for the best interest of the team.
Do you like camping or riding on the sled better?
Do I really have to choose… Because really the two go hand in hand. Riding the sled allows me to go to amazing places where I can camp with my team. One of the main reasons mushers camp on the Iditarod trail is to spend time with the dogs, allow them to rest, while you feed and care for them. So camping is really an important part of the race. And when we are training sometimes we will go out on trip and camp with the dogs just for fun. This allows me to practice taking care of the team while we camp, and it also get the dogs used to camping together in team. Of course in order to camp, you have to run the team there. And seeing the trail and traveling with your dogs is also great fun!
OK I will say one thing about running dogs you may not know. We do not actually ride the sled. Yes sometimes, but even when we appear to be just standing there, we are actually driving the sled. And often times we are actually helping the team along. Either by peddling, kicking with one foot while we stand on the side of the sled. Or by ski-poling, using a ski pole to help propel the sled along the trail. Some mushers use sleds with storage areas behind where they stand that can also be used as a seat. Since mushers are the ones doing all the work when the team camps sometimes they need a little extra time to get off their feet. That way they are better rested and able to take care of the team when they stop. It can also be useful for a musher to sit down and get out of the winds when the team is running, making the sled more aerodynamic. Mushers will also do things like eat, drink, change gloves, whatever, all while on a moving sled. Doing this while the dogs are traveling instead of waiting till we stop means we have more time when they stop to take care of the dogs.
What is it like feeding all of those dogs when they’re hungry?
It is realty fun, you know you are making them happy when they get to snarf down a nice big bowl of kibble and meat. Yes of course it is a lot of work, but mushers are used to that. Either on the trail or at home all your dogs need constant care. Feeding is one of the chores we do daily. And like I said it is actually one of the most fun chores, because the dogs enjoy it so much.
How did you afford all of those dogs? Good Question! I ask myself that all the time!
But seriously, Dan and I both work in the summer, and we are very fortunate to have some wonderful sponsors who help us cover the cost of racing Iditarod. We do not live in a fancy house, take fancy vacations, or go out much. But that is our choice, and the price you pay for the privilege of being able to have dogs.
Is it hard to pick out 16 dogs for the team?
I have been working with a talented group of dogs who were all bred and raised at Dew Claw. So I have known these dogs their entire life. That helps me know what their capable of. We started training for the 2016 Iditarod in the fall, when we ran dogs with a quad before there was even snow on the ground. As the season progresses you get a feel for how each dog is doing that year. And so you have a lot of time to watch each dog before you make the final decision. And sometimes a dog may get sore or have an injury, and in that case you know that dogs is going to need extra attention and some rest and recovery, so then it is easy to say, “I am not going to push this dog to race this year”. For the rest it can be very hard. Especially if you have a good group of strong dogs.
What are the names of your dogs for the team this year?
Well to be honest I have not made my final choices yet. Like I just said it can be hard to decide when you have a good group of dogs. But I have it narrowed down to 19.
I do not have to decide till race day. A few weeks before the race the dogs are required to get EKG’s and blood-work to ensure that they are all fit to race. But you are allowed to have up to 24 dogs undergo these screenings. And then right before the race all dogs are required to go through a complete vet check. But again you are allowed to check as many as 20 dogs. All because the Iditarod understands how difficult the choice can be. Also mushers want to make sure they take the healthiest dogs, and the screenings and vet check are a way to get professional assessment on the health of the dogs.
SO right now I have narrowed it down to *drum roll please* in no particular order
- Sweet P
Have any of your dogs got hurt or sick?
Having dogs is a lot like having kids. Have you ever been sick or hurt? Chances are good you have. And so have some of my dogs. But like your parents I do everything I can to take care of them. And when they do get sick I do everything I can to make sure they get better. Sometimes it means dogs need extra rest to recover, and there are a lot of things I can do at home to take care of the dogs. But we also have veterinarians who work with us. Kind of like when you need to go to the doctor.
Common problems faced by sled dogs are stomach bugs. When you travel to races and new trails often you can pick up little illnesses. Again, not much like people who can pick up a flu or stomach bug when they travel to a new place. Also sometimes dogs who are running a lot can have problems with their feet, either small rubs like blisters or pad wear. But our dogs wear booties when they run to prevent these problems, and we check every dogs feet regularly to make sure there are not any small problems forming. Feet can be treated with ointment. And if a dog does get sore, they get massage and days off until the feel better again.
If a dog is not feeling well on a race a musher can choose to let them stop racing and send them home, that is called dropping a dog. If you drop a dog from your team they are cared for by vets until they can be transported home.
Did you like my bag- it was the one with the smiley faces, peace signs, and one big paw print…?
OK let me say the artwork on the bags was AWESOME!!!! I loved them! And I just know that when I pull them out of my drop bags the bright colors, paw prints, nice messages, and all the excellent art work is going to make me smile. I used the bags to pack my gloves & hot hands, also for my hot drink mixes.
Have you ever won a race?
How long does it take to train the dogs for the Iditarod? Years.
Sorry not being a smart aleck, but training for such a major event starts when dogs are younger. They have to learn how to run in team, camp on the trail, and be socialized. On Iditarod they will see crowds, planes, helicopters, snow machines, skiers, other dogs, bon fires, all kinds of things. And you start early getting dogs used to the chaos of races, first at home by training them with distractions around. And later they graduate to racing in smaller races and taking trips away from home. And you also need to get them comfortable with strangers, as they will be examined by multiple vets during the race. As they grow you continue to train them, they need to learn commands, and how to handle difficult trail situations.
Now in addition to training, giving them the skills they need in order to be able to succeed at Iditarod, there is also conditioning. Conditioning is building the physical capacity to run 100, in other words getting the dogs into top physical shape. Conditioning begins in the fall when mushers start running the dogs with a quad, and will continue for the entire winter. Each musher has their own plan for conditioning, much like how each human runner has their own plan for how to prepare to run a marathon.
How many dogs do you have total?
Right now we have 9 yearlings who are just starting to run in harness, 25 race dogs, and 4 retired dogs.
How long does the race usually take to complete?
The winner usually takes 8-9 days. And the Red lantern can take 13-16 or longer.
How long is the kids’ Iditarod race?
The Junior Iditarod Sled Dog Race, or Jr. Iditarod, is a 148- to 158-mile (222 km) sled dog race for mushers between the ages of 14 through 17. It is a great way for Junior Mushers to get a taste of the Iditarod trail, since it is run on the first part of the same trail the adult mushers use.
How many people usually come to watch the Iditarod? Gazillion
OK that is just my estimate, but it sure seems like it. The trail is lined with fans for miles when you leave the start. And then for hours you see people out on the river who there to cheer the mushers and dogs. I see more people in that one day then I do the entire rest of the year!
What type of dogs do you use for the race?
The dogs you see on the Iditarod are, for the most part, Alaskan Huskies. These are not the same dogs you see in the Disney movies, those are Siberian Huskies, a different breed. Although there are a few mushers who successfully run teams of pure breed Siberians in the Iditarod, the majority are Alaskan Huskies. I wrote some blog posts about Alaskan Huskies you might enjoy reading to learn more.
Alaskan Huskies – the real sled dogs
Have you ever wiped out while racing? Oh Yeah!!!!
But I am pretty sure everyone does. A thousand miles is a long time, and it is a tough trail, so yeah I have biffed. But nothing serious. So I just dust of the snow, tip my sled back up and keep going.
“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”.
How many years have you or Dan competed in the Iditarod?
Dan ran in 2010 and 2014
Dan – career summary
I ran in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, and will be running this year as well
Jodi – career summary
Do you have a favorite dog?
There is something special about every dog, I could never have just one favorite.
Thank you, Evelyn, Jaeger, Ella, Izzy, Libee, Heaven, Tommy & Jordan for your questions.
And for folks interested in learning more about ways to use the Iditarod in the classroom there are excellent resources for students at the Iditarod website, as well as the “Teacher on the Trail” blog.