Northern Wilds Magazine
Chip looks back as he hears the camera shutter click. | ERIN ALTEMUS
Dog Blog

Sign-up, Plan, Train, Train, Train

Over the past 12 or so years that we have raced sled dogs, I’ve been asked many times if we have thought about running “that race” in Alaska, generally referring to the Iditarod.

“Yes,” I’d respond. “I’ve thought about it. But it’s expensive, and it would be a lot of work.”

And then we had a child, and it was all we could do to get a dog team trained up for races like Beargrease. I suppose I was also afraid. I have been dragged by enough dog teams and lost a few teams and suffered from frozen hands and body-crushing chills. I have fallen asleep at the handlebar and broken up a lot of fights. So, I know what can go wrong. And I know it can get a lot worse. I’ve been a little reluctant to sign up for the possibility of wrecking my train. But I also like to keep things interesting.

So, when my friend Anna went to Alaska and started completing her qualifiers, I decided to inquire with the Iditarod and see where things were at. I learned I had all my qualifiers completed and on file, and I had two very solid 6-year-old leaders capable of running the race (with a large contingency of alternates) and it seemed like, perhaps, we have enough of a community following that we could pull off the fundraising part of things too. So, I gave Iditarod my credit card number on sign-up day.

There’s really no turning back now. Fundraising efforts are well underway. Training has been off to a rather slow start, thanks to a warm fall. I can remember much cooler falls. In 2020, early October was so cold, Mush Lake froze over. Early November was not, however, and the ice went out, constituting the first time I saw the lake freeze up twice in one fall. This year we had to take a three-week hiatus from training in September due to the temps never dropping below 50 degrees. So, in the year when we are supposed to be running longer and farther, we are just biding our time, waiting for the weather to turn. Meanwhile, I’m spending a lot of time in my head.

As a kennel coming up from Minnesota to do this race, we have some logistical challenges. I can’t take a leave of absence from my job, so our current thinking is that we will run two races here, the Gunflint Mail Run and the Beargrease, and then drive up to Alaska. In order for me to maximize my work hours and my daughter’s time at school, I’ll send Matt on the road with the dogs. It’s 3,000 miles of driving–that’s a 4-5-day drive for him and a friend. I’ll fly up and Matt and I will race the team on a shorter race to acclimate them to Alaska terrain and temps. Then, I might fly home again, work a little more, come back up with Sylvia to Anchorage for Iditarod pre-race week (vet checks, meetings, banquet). At the end of the race, we are all up in Nome, where we must fly back out to Anchorage with the dogs that finish. Some of us will fly home and the dogs of course must drive home with Matt, and maybe….me.

Meanwhile, there’s other things, like how many booties do we need? And I need to sew more dog coats, and will my parka be warm enough? And I should probably watch more Iditarod documentaries, and the dog box is falling apart, but Matt has already been fixing that up, and there is the trailer to fix up and the dog sled to build, and the next fundraiser to plan, and the sponsors to thank, and the sponsors to update, and we need to buy straw, and we need to buy meat, and there are vaccines to order, and is the vet coming to the kennel to vaccinate? And when are race sign-ups? I mean, it really is endless.

After all of this goes through my mind, I am so relieved, so sublimely, and magnificently relieved to get behind the dog team and stare at their tug lines and their tails, some which curl up and some down, and their concentrated strength and their hanging tongues. It’s the best. It’s why we are doing it. These dogs, every day, give it their all.

You might now see why we haven’t done this before. We may never do this again. It’s going to be one heck of a winter. I’m trying my hardest to bring the journey to all of you. I hope you follow along. You can follow here in Northern Wilds, and also online at:

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