How do you tell them all apart? It’s the first question asked when someone new meets the team. I’m sure their jumping barking faces do appear similar at first glance, but I’d like to tell you a bit about them and what they lend to the team.
The 12-dog race team I will take to Beargrease is composed mostly of four-year-olds. They were all born the same year as my daughter Sylvia, 2017. We bred two females who gave birth to six rockstars and seven in the baby litter. Hush, Itsy, Teddy and Temper are core dogs on the race team. Stevie (Nicks) and Tina (Turner) are from the rockstar litter. Taco and Pinto are brothers also born in 2017 in a litter we split with another musher. There are three two-year-olds, Georgia and Frida (sisters) and Peaches, a single pup born two years ago in a c-section that our friends at Cedar Grove Vet remember well because they had to revive her on the spot. Finally, we acquired two dogs last year, Keith and Chicken. Chicken is just a year and a half old, so she might be too young for the Beargrease, but she is the happiest dog we’ve ever owned and her unending drive has found her a place with the A-team.
Sled dogs in a single litter often have similar traits. This is true of the four from the baby litter. They are consistent in their ability to recover after a long run; able to go again after a few hours rest as if it’s no big deal. They are chipper with a certain amount of shy. Itsy has one of the smoothest gaits I’ve ever seen. She’s always loping, but even when she trots, it is perfection. She took well to leading this year, and though she isn’t my go-to leader, she will be up there in front if Keith or Temper falters.
Hush and Teddy are steady-eddy. Temper, a 60-pound plus male led the whole Beargrease last year next to an experienced Nancy or Beezus. Those two, now 10, have retired from the race team. Temper’s job will be to remember what he did last year. He’s endearing in his ability to watch for us to make any call needed. At the start line, when every other dog is lunging to go, Temper stands calm, looking back, waiting for the “Alright!” command.
This will be Tina’s first big race. We spayed this dog early, which caused her to gain some weight. She is now the chubbiest dog in the kennel and no matter her ration, she’s still plump. She also has the softest fur and would be a top choice for cuddling on the straw mid-race.
Taco and Pinto are the most vocal dogs we own. Taco is the smallest male we have. He’s a bit of a baby, squawking when we take off his booties for no good reason. He gained himself a reputation as a nuisance dog when we hauled him to a race in Maine and somehow every time we drove, he managed to escape his dog box in the trailer, much to the border guard’s surprise when they opened our rig to look inside. He also chewed up a down sleeping bag, scattering feathers all over the inside of our dog trailer. He’s mellowed a little since then but still manages to muster a great performance on every run.
Peaches is the “most improved” dog of the year. I would have picked an older more experienced dog, but my husband Matt really stuck by her and she proved herself at the Gunflint Mail Run. Georgia and Frida, the other two-lings, could not be more different despite their common genetics. Georgia is friendly to all while Frida is super skittish, won’t let us touch her feet and dives in her house at the least disturbance. But both of them love to run.
Keith is one of the strangest dogs we’ve ever owned. He has been very shy since day one, leaping away from us whenever we are in his vicinity at home. It took many months of holding him and touching him before he started “letting” me touch him. When we started training this fall, he came up reluctantly when we had a harness in hand. But the day we brought him to a race, this skittish, fearful dog lit up. Suddenly he was bounding around, vying for my attention, pressing his rear end up against me, like “Pet me, pet me!” When it came to race time, he was all business, not paying much attention to the spectators, just ready to go. Granted, he still spooks easily, especially passing other teams.
We have two dogs that won’t make the team this year. One of the 2017 rockstars, Sting, has lymphoma. At only four years old, this has been a hard hit. He is living out his life in our house, and seems pretty happy about this. Another dog, Major Tom, broke two metacarpals in a freak accident so he is also having a month’s vacation from running and living in our basement where he is constantly chewing up pens, books, and socks with the sweetest of grins, one that I will really miss on my Beargrease team.
We know each dog, their bark, their appetite, and their attitude on the line. After a run or a race, the general conversation is around each dog and how they did, though some dogs are so solid, they don’t need a report. How did Peaches do, how about Frida?
And how about Matt? In his first race back after heart surgery in 2020, Matt pulled off a win at the Gunflint Mail Run. Matt and Vern Schroeder (who was running his son Nathan’s team), were minutes apart after the first leg. Vern left the halfway checkpoint in first place and within 15 miles, Matt passed him. Vern stayed within a minute for the next 15 miles but finally Matt edged ahead. Our second team, mushed by Anna Hennessy of three 10-year-olds, and four 1-year-olds, placed fifth in the 8-dog race.
In much sadder news, we grieve for our friend Frank Moe who passed away just days after the Gunflint Mail Run. Frank was a champion for mushing in Cook County and beyond, both through his work on the county board, the Cook County Dog Mushers Association, the Beargrease and individually as a musher himself. In one of the last conversations I had with him, speaking about our move to the County Road 14 area, he told me, “I’m really glad you guys are there.” He used many of the trails that we now use before he and Sherri moved their kennel to the Camp 20 road several years ago. Frank’s enthusiasm for mushing, his musher spirit, will be felt along the trail for many years to come.