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Teens, their dogs, and an amazing race

For kids: The Jr. Iditarod sled-dog race gives teens a taste of adventure in the Alaskan wilderness.

By Sherry Shahan / February 19, 2008

A musher runs her team toward the Knik Lake checkpoint during the 2002 Jr. Iditarod in Alaska.

Stephen Nowers/Anchorage Daily News/AP/File

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Wasilla, Alaska

Ice cracks beneath the weight of dozens of pickup trucks, sending a warning: Drive slowly on frozen Knik Lake. It's a frostbite kind of morning in February 2007. The thermometer dips to 20 degrees below zero – that's Fahrenheit, without a wind chill factor.

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The howls of Alaskan huskies slice the air. Male and female mushers between the ages of 14 and 17 wearing down parkas with thick fur ruffs and insulated gloves unload their teams from "dog boxes." These camperlike shells fit snugly on the beds of trucks.

The mushers are getting ready to start the 30th Jr. Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. They toss chunks of fish and sausage on the ice-encrusted ground as a prerace doggy snack. They check their sleds to make sure they haven't forgotten anything: ax, snowshoes, headlamp and an alternate battery-powered light, cold-weather sleeping bag, and a lighter or matches to start a fire.

Among other things, rules also require dog food, a dog-food cooker, and eight dog booties (snug-fitting, socklike coverings) for each dog. Additionally, all dogs entered must have a physical exam no later than 14 days before the race start. Dogs must also have up-to-date shots.

A race official checks everything off. "Good luck," he says, knowing that these teens will rely more on their training than on good fortune. Most of them have spent the winter mushing in shorter sprint races to prepare for this one. Some have been involved in the sport since they were 4 or 5 years old racing in single-dog events.

The two Iditarods

The two-day Jr. Iditarod began in 1978 as a way to let young mushers compete in a shorter version of the grown-up Iditarod.

The junior route is approximately 150 miles, which is much shorter than the 1,049-mile route that adult racers follow from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska.

The adult Iditarod honors the 1925 serum run when 20 mushers and about 150 hard-driving huskies rushed to transport medicine from Nenana to Nome, Alaska, in just 5-1/2 days. Back then, the 674-mile journey usually took 25 days by dog sled.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, sled-dog teams transported mail, supplies, and people. Later, airplanes took over the mail routes. And snowmobiles eventually sped onto the scene, pushing the tradition of dog sledding closer to extinction.

The adult Iditarod was organized in 1973 by mushing enthusiasts to help keep this part of Alaskan culture alive. Dog mushing is now the official state sport.

Hit the trail

At the 2007 junior race, the teen mushers slip padded harnesses over each canine. The main lines, called "ganglines," run through the center of the teams. Race rules require a minimum of seven dogs per team and a maximum of 10. The mushers kiss their dogs and give them a friendly scratch. "Ready to go, fella?" they ask.

Then they slip booties onto the dogs' paws to protect toe pads from snow and ice. Booties that start to slip or that develop holes are quickly adjusted or changed. Every musher knows the saying: "A dog team is only as good as its feet."

The bone-chilling cold doesn't keep family, friends, and reporters from hanging around the starting chute. An official announces mushers' names over loudspeakers as teams are released at two-minute intervals.

2008 Jr. Iditarod participants

Saturday, Feb. 23, will mark the official start of the 31st Jr. Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Here's a look at two of this year's mushers.

Veteran Patrick Mackey

Patrick, who's 17, is about to enter his third Jr. Iditarod. He says the sport of dog mushing is in his blood.

"Mushing has been in our family for three generations," he said.

"I train with my dad, Jason Mackey. We just got back from Fairbanks on a training run with my Uncle Lance and my cousin Cain. In 2009, I'll be coming in the Iditarod with my dad. I can hardly wait!"

Rookie Meredith Mapes

Meredith will compete in her first Jr. Iditarod this year. She became interested in dog mushing at an early age through the Girl Scouts.

"I won the first race I ever entered," she said. "And [I] also have a Red Lantern [an award given to the last person to finish a race]."

Meredith is president of her 4-H Club, where she raises and auctions off pigs. With that money, she contributes to the cost of caring for her dogs.

Her 4-H leader is a former Jr. Iditarod musher and teaches all aspects of dog care. Mushers also learn winter survival and first aid – for humans and animals.

What does Meredith think about on those long, lonely stretches of white? "Just how bad my singing voice is!" she said. "I sing to my dogs to keep from being bored."