Trainer Can't Wait for Winter
ALASKA: DOG MUSHER
SEWARD, ALASKA — `HER name is Kiana and she's clocked over 50,027 miles on the trail,'' Dan Seavey tells one of many visitor to his husky ``dog lot.'' ``She's 12 and has run in three races. ... Yes, she does lead, but isn't the best lead dog.'' Mr. Seavey is responding to questions fired at him by curious visitors at his kennel located just outside of Seward, Alaska. What makes Seavey such an attraction is that he trains huskies for the Iditarod Trail Sled dog Race, and also helped found the annual competition in 1973.
Kiana is one of about 30 huskies at the dog lot that vie for attention by whining, howling, yipping, and wagging. Visitors are warned that these ``super-friendly dogs without manners'' are experts at wrapping their chains around ankles and tripping people.
After introducing Kiana, Seavey moves over to the training ring with his microphone and addresses the visitors. Barely audible over a cacophony of barks and howls, he points out that, ``Three years ago a track record for the Iditarod was established by Susan Butcher. It was 1,155 miles and she did it in 111/2 days, which is a little over 100 miles a day.
``That's the kind of dog you're visiting. We call them `endurance racers,' a dog that will travel at eight miles an hour at a trot, pulling his share of about 250 pounds before the musher steps onto the sled, day in and day out,'' he continues.
The dogs eat regular dog food in the summer, but when they are racing, they get a special diet. ``We give them a lot of red meat, animal fat, and fish to make up an average of 8,000 calories a day that they burn off during a race,'' Seavey says.
The race was established to commemorate the Iditarod Trail, which started in the ice-free, deep-water harbor of Seward. At the turn of the century, dog-sledders ferried supplies and mail during the winter into the gold rush country to the north along the trail, which got its name from a gold strike in the town of Iditarod.
The annual sled dog race doesn't start in Seward like the trail does. It is run over 1,000 miles of trail from Anchorage to Nome, with as many as 70 teams participating.
A racing team is made up of 18 dogs. Injured or exhausted dogs may be left at way stations along the trail, but if the team drops below seven dogs, it's disqualified, Seavey explains.
In competition, Seavey runs with three lead dogs in a team, and rotates them between the lead position and the middle of the team. Sled dogs are rotated to keep them from tiring, and to keep their harnesses from binding in the same places. The last two dogs next to the sled are called ``whee dogs'' - a term borrowed from horse teams. They carry the most weight and are essential to turn the sled.
Preparations for the March race begin this month, when the snow begins to fall in Alaska. The musher starts working with his dogs in teams of five or six. Training continues through the fall and winter so that ``when March comes, the team is conditioned and the musher is mentally and physically ready,'' says Seavey.
``It's never boring on the thousand-plus mile race,'' he adds, ``because you have to constantly watch the dogs and the trail.''
Knowing the trail is helpful, though it changes each year. It has become much easier to follow since the days of slash marks on trees or red ribbons here and there. The trail is now well marked with reflectors, or with tripods spaced along the almost treeless northern section of the trail.
``Of course, in a snow storm you're relying on the lead dog,'' explains Seavey. ``Essentially, there are two kinds of lead dog: One goes by smell and the other by the feel of the trail. The best kind is the `nose' dog, as he goes in a more direct line, sometimes following a three-week-old scent.'' The second type of dog weaves more as he leads, and uses softer ground or harder-worn path underfoot as a guide.
Seavey placed fifth in the 1974 Iditarod. Since then he has concentrated on breeding and training Alaskan huskies, but they aren't purebred dogs. Purebred Siberian Huskies, with their short-backed conformation, aren't the best sled dogs for the long endurance runs. Their stride is too short to maintain the eight-mile-an-hour pace, he says.
The most desirable dogs have some breeding going back to the Siberian dogs owned by Norwegian Leonhart Seppala. Mr. Seppala gained fame as one of the mushers in a legendary five-day dog sled feat carrying serum to Nome during a 1925 epidemic. This strain is crossed with village dogs to get the long backs and good feet essential for racing. ``As with horses, if you don't have good feet, you don't have a racing dog,'' says Seavey.
Dan Seavey has an insatiable enthusiasm for Alaska and his sled dogs. ``I've been here for 26 years, and in October when that first snow comes I'm like a kid. I still get excited,'' he says. ``I can't wait for winter to begin.''