Jim Bennett gets ready for a grueling 1,000-mile mush
Fairbanks, Alaska — SMILING through a crust of icicles hanging from his mustache, Jim Bennett hardly shows signs of the strenuous workout he's getting as he pushes and glides, runs and rides behind his dog sled. His 10-dog team shows nothing but eagerness to lunge ahead through the snowy woods of Chena Ridge. From a kinetic jumble of howling excitement and tangled lines in Mr. Bennett's backyard, they've stretched into a silent regiment of efficient energy, padding along at a 10-mile-an-hour clip. Their tails are high and tongues awag -- the twin banners of sled-dog contentment.
``This is fun, it's an adventure,'' Bennett says simply. Fun and adventure are soon to take him well beyond the boundaries of the woods behind the log house he built here on the outskirts of town.
He's headed for the Yukon Quest -- cousin of the famous Iditarod sled-dog race -- which follows the old Klondike gold-rush trail. The 1,000-mile route curls out of the Yukon Territory over snowy mountains and ice-encased rivers into the Alaskan interior.
Bennett, who plans to write a children's book about his trip, won't be alone on that first weekend in March. Part of a mushing renaissance, he'll be joined by 39 other drivers and their teams in the Yukon Quest. Meanwhile, across Alaska in Anchorage, 64 others will be starting the 1,000-mile Iditarod.
Race organizers say there are 20 or 30 smaller races held all over the country on any given winter weekend. But mushers everywhere look to the epic two-week, 1,000-mile races here in Alaska as the ultimate in mushing.
Bennett's trip, for example, will be grueling: no stops to warm his feet by the fire at a lodge while sipping hot chocolate. Temperatures, he says, will never be above zero degrees F. -- and that's good, because his thick-coated dogs work best at temperatures of 10 to 20 degrees below zero. He'll be hauling his food and the dogs' -- several hundred pounds of it -- through the snows. He'll be relying on bush skills to survive the cold nights and deal with wild animals.
Ideas have a way of expanding to fit the environment up here -- and that makes for some big dreams that seem to swallow people whole. So by Alaskan standards it's not unusual that Bennett has left his elementary school teaching position to train for March's Yukon Quest. It's also not so unusual that he has invested thousands of dollars for dogs, food, and equipment, and yet is not in the race so much for a share of the $50,000 purse, he says, as for the opportunity to travel long distances in the wilderness with his dogs.
This is very Alaskan.
Today's surge of interest in mushing is not strictly Alaskan, although most anyone involved in the business of mushing admits that it was the grueling Iditarod race that sparked a return to sled dogs in the Alaskan bush, the Lower 48, and beyond.
``They almost quit raising and breeding sled dogs because of the snow machine,'' says Dorothy Page, a City Council member in Wasilla, Alaska, who is called the ``mother of the Iditarod.'' ``When I went to Nome in 1970 to promote the Iditarod, I associated Nome with dog sleds. And when I got there there was only one dog team in Nome, and they were using it to give tourist rides on the Bering Sea ice.''
``It's ironic that snow-machine races have lost popularity now,'' she observes. ``It was the Iditarod that brought sled dogs back to Alaska.''
Indeed, the old art of mushing introduced here by Russian fur traders can be measured in very modern terms -- sheer numbers.
``Our membership grew by over 100 percent in the past 10 years,'' says Donna Hawley, executive director of the International Sled Dog Racing Association. And she says ISDRA's 1,800 members represent only a fraction of those mushing.
``The other way to measure our sport is to look at the amount of prize money. It used to be $3,000 to $4,000 [total purses] in a weekend [of races all over the world]. Now it's $30,000 to $35,000 a weekend with corporate sponsors. And it's $800,000 [total for the season worldwide],'' says Mrs. Hawley. The Iditarod's purse, for example, has doubled to $200,000 -- the winner taking $50,000.
Mushing epitomizes an era of life in the bush that isn't that far removed from the part Alaska's population (more than a quarter) that still lives nowhere near a road. Miners, trappers, mail carriers, and natives used dogs and sleds over the great Alaskan distances. And today it is not uncommon to run into mushers who use sled dogs for self-sufficiency and not to race. Except for boats and expensive planes -- which unlike dogs are weather-sensitive -- the only lifeline from the bush to civilization remains the dog sled or snowmobile. And as Alaskans note, dogs don't run out of gas, and snow machines can't keep a musher warm at night.
But not just any dogs can safely or effectively haul cross-country. The qualities of obedience and eagerness to pull seem to occur in some dogs, regardless of breeding. There are disputes as to what breed is best, but every musher has stories about a dream dog of a certain breed.
Most mushers will start early, testing to see if a pup is eager to pull, if it learns quickly, and responds to voice commands, which are so essential, for example, on a steep course, when a command to go right or left or slow down can be of utmost importance. Good dogs are in demand, and mushers have paid anywhere from $200 to $2,000 for leaders.
Mary Shields, author of the popular book ``Sled Dog Trails'' and the first woman to finish the Iditarod, started running dogs in the mid-1960s and says the increase in the use of sled dogs can be measured audibly in her wilderness neighborhood outside Fairbanks.
``When one dog starts howling, the whole neighborhood starts howling,'' she says, estimating there are over 300 dogs in her area. She adds that there is whole ``sled-dog economy'' that has blossomed throughout the state. There was only one sled-dog outfitter in town when she started -- now there are 10, selling dog food, dog booties, harnesses, and the like.
There's a romance to driving dogs that seems to lure mushers. Ms. Shields says in her book that she finds wealth in wandering, explaining that on the trail ``I had been aware of each drainage I crossed, every river bend I rounded. When I crested each divide I felt a personal sense of achievement. My going was a slow one, but the experience was intimate.''
The desire for self-sufficiency and the utilitarian use of the dogs runs at odds with the big money races like the Iditarod, which costs more than $1,000 in just entry fees. Organizers figure it takes $25,000 to train and enter the race. Not long ago, the prize money didn't even match the cost of running in the race.
Bennett, who helped organize the first Yukon Quest last year, says the Quest is the common man's race, designed to be more like the cross-country epics of the pioneers, who didn't have planes to fly in supplies and checkpoints to stop for rest. Entry fees are half that of the Iditarod, and there are fewer checkpoints.