The Dog Days of Winter

Posted: Sunday, February 27, 2000

As Jim Stanford loaded 12 dogs into his truck for the Trail of '98 Sled Dog Race, the three left behind barked and strained against their chains, begging to go too.

``God, I hate leaving these dogs,'' said Stanford, petting Andy, the oldest dog at Diggin' Dog Kennels near Haines. ``It's for that reason I'm not competitive, because I take the dogs other mushers just wouldn't.''

This time he's taking Moca, a 2-year-old leader who's never raced before, and several slower but reliable dogs.

Stanford was the only musher from Southeast entered in the Trail of '98 - the only sled dog race in Southeast Alaska. Even that is a stretch, since only the ceremonial start takes place in Skagway. The real race begins on the other side of the border, where there's snow.

The Trail of '98 is a stage race, which means dog teams run only a set distance each day. In theory the three-day race follows the tracks of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway from Skagway to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. In reality it follows the snow, which meant this year the first two stages both started in Carcross, halfway between Skagway and Whitehorse, and looped back.

Though the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest get more press, sprint and stage races are more common than distance races. More than 300 of the 378 dog races in Alaska were sprint races, according to a count done in 1997 by the International Federation of Sleddog Sports.

``That's the way of the future,'' Stanford said. ``As the Humane Society gets more powerful, that's the way they'll go is stages, but the Iditarod and Quest will go down hard.''

Stage races allow both the dogs and the musher to rest in between, which appeals to amateur mushers like Stanford. But there's another side to the staged races too. With less distance to go, the competitive mushers can push their dogs to run faster, knowing they'll have time to recover before the next day or the next race.

Unlike Stanford, most competitive mushers have many dogs to choose from. A serious musher keeps 30 to 40 dogs and the famous names, Buser, King, Jonrowe, keep more than a hundred.

Stanford has just 15 dogs. For him, mushing is a hobby. Each fall he puts away his mason's tools and loads a dog box on the back of his one-ton work truck.

He runs his dogs up the snowy Kelsall River Valley, about 30 miles north of Haines. The area is a haven for the few dog mushers in Southeast Alaska, a region generally too warm and wet for the sport. Stanford has two neighbors who mush, but he's the only one racing this year.

His dogs average 10 to 12 mph on a good trail, 8 to 10 mph on a bad one. Faster teams sprint by at 15 to 16 mph, and in shorter races dog teams reach 28 mph. Sleds have gotten lighter to allow the dogs to go faster, with sprint sleds weighing as little as 45 pounds.

``It becomes almost like you've got a person on skis behind 18 dogs,'' Stanford said.

But Stanford doesn't race to win. He goes to a few races each year to meet people and learn from other mushers. He's so non-competitive he'll sometimes stop in the middle of a race, just to admire the scenery.

``It just doesn't make sense to me to run through beautiful country and just race,'' Stanford said.

Despite his relaxed attitude, Stanford's never been last in a race. He jokes that he keeps trying for a Red Lantern, the award given the last musher in, but missing it by a few places.

Most of all, Stanford wants to keep mushing fun.

``As soon as I feel that competitive thing start to well up in me, I consciously back off. Of course, that's why a lot of mushers think I'm crazy.''

Ceremonial start

Getting there is half the race. Stanford had to drive all day to reach Skagway, just 13 miles away, because the only road goes over the mountains into Canada, then back down again through the Chilkoot Pass. By ferry it's just an hour between the two towns, but when he tried that two years ago, high winds kept the ferry from docking in Skagway and he missed the start of the race.

This time another musher, John Schandelmeier, had the bad luck. The axle on his truck broke on the drive down from Paxson, with 12 dogs loaded in the back. He missed the mushers meeting, but made the ceremonial start the next morning.

The race organizers were having just as much trouble. In Skagway, when it wasn't raining, the wind was blowing away any snow there'd ever been. Reversing its usual job, the city's street department hauled 20 truckloads of snow down from Chilkoot Pass and dumped it in the street.

That still wasn't enough.

``Because of the obscenely warm weather we lost half of that,'' said Buckwheat Donahue, executive director of Skagway's Division of Tourism. He convinced the road crews to get up at 5 a.m. on Friday and bring down more. They were spreading it in the street while the mushers ate breakfast at The Sweet Tooth Cafe before the race.

Anything to keep the start in Skagway, Donahue said.

``Oh God, I love it. I don't care if it takes 100 loads of snow, as long as the city crews are willing to do it,'' Donahue said. ``It's just good for the Skagway image to be associated with mushing.''

Mushing's nothing new in Skagway or Haines, as historic photos in both towns attest. During the gold rush 102 years ago, dog sleds were common in Skagway as miners tried to cross over to the Klondike. In Haines, dogs were a regular form of transportation before cars and snowmobiles.

The dog race didn't really draw any tourists to Skagway in February, beyond the mushers, handlers and race organizers. It did draw out the residents though. Several elementary school teachers walked their classes down to watch the start and adults played hooky too.

``It's gonna be pretty fun, cause they're cool to watch and they're really fast dogs,'' said 9-year-old Lachlan Dennis, waiting by the starting line.

The crowd cheered Stanford, the local favorite, and he reached out to high-five spectators lining the sidewalks as he mushed by.

The mushers enjoyed the Skagway start too.

``That start in Skagway was really fun,'' said Diane Allen from Whitehorse. She'd been dubious beforehand. ``I'd kept cursing and muttering under my breath about having to go all the way down then drive back, but it was really fun with all those people.''

Stage 1: Fast start

When it was time to pull numbers for the start of the race, Stanford offered to start last. That way the faster mushers wouldn't have to pass him on a particularly narrow and brushy section of the trail.

He'd already sized up the other mushers and their dogs. A number of the teams were sprint racers from Alaska and the Yukon, including Brian MacDougall and Darren Kinvig, two friends of Stanford's from Whitehorse. Dean Osmar, an Iditarod champion, and Schandelmeier, a winner of the Quest, had both brought their dogs too.

``We've got some pretty fast mushers,'' said race marshal Al Pope, an ex-musher with a Scottish accent and long red hair. ``They're definitely a fairly famous bunch.''

Judy Cooper, a Juneau resident who spends winters mushing in snowier climes, agreed.

``You've got an excellent field,'' said Cooper, who was helping with the race. ``They'd leave me in the dust.''

That's where Stanford expected to be, though he often jokes with the volunteers, calling out as he crosses a road where they're holding back traffic ``Am I the winner so far?''

This time Pope reversed the joke on him. ``You're the first one, Stanford,'' Pope said to Stanford as he went by, near last. ``You're the winner so far.''

Stanford stopped to tell Pope he'd passed musher Carroll Johnson on the trail and Johnson might need help. Johnson's sled broke when he hit a tree.

``I tipped it over and then we were bouncing off the trees,'' Johnson said later.

For a while Johnson thought he'd have to scratch, but he managed to repair the sled with a willow branch splint lashed on with rope.

Jeff Sewing also broke his sled coming through the trees and he had to borrow a sled to finish the race.

The accidents happened in a narrow section of the trail, where the dog teams had to wind through the woods. The trail was soft and the dogs' feet plunged through it. Darren Kinvig, who'd trained on both trails, said he'd never seen it worse.

``The trail's like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,'' Stanford said. ``First it was really good. Then it was really bad.''

Stanford broke a tree limb with his left shoulder, leaving it sore. His dogs were hot and one threw up. Another nearly hit a tree trying to urinate on the run, but the dogs and sled made it through unharmed. Stanford had purposely run his slower dogs so he'd have better control. Their tails were still wagging when they came back after dark, having run 50 miles.

``I would die if I ever did something to my dogs,'' Stanford said.

Stage 2: Out the track and back

The second day of the race was a beautiful day for onlookers and a hard day for dogs. The clouds opened up to let the sun shine down, warming to 34 degrees. For the dogs it was like running 25 miles in Florida.

The starting order was reversed for the second stage, with the slowest teams leaving first. Stanford left third.

``I get to see the good teams go past me,'' he said.

The teams ran out about 12 miles, then went around a tight circle and came back on the same trail. Many teams got caught on the turnaround, circling several times before the mushers were able to convince their lead dogs to go back the way they'd come.

``It was like a Chinese fire drill,'' Stanford said.

Stanford worried his young lead dog, Moca, would have trouble there. After all, it was her first race. But Moca navigated the sled around a tangle of eight other dog teams and led on down the trail without hesitation.

It was one of his older dogs, Lady, who had trouble on the run, slowing in the heat. Stanford finally loaded her in the sled and let her ride for three miles.

One sled that passed him was empty, 10 dogs with no musher. Stanford grabbed the runaway dogs and tied up the leaders until musher Jeff Sewing could catch up. Sewing, who'd been riding a borrowed sprint sled, had lost control and fallen off.

Darren Kinvig also flipped his sled, but managed to hang on as the dogs dragged him down the railroad tracks. He just flipped the sled upright again without trying to stop the dogs, ignoring the bruises to his ribs.

``I never said nothing,'' Kinvig said. ``I thought `You guys look great. You've got lots of energy. I'll just let you keep running.'''

Kinvig was in the race for different reasons than Stanford. Kinvig needed to win. Mushing is his job and the prize money translates into food. Food for his 30 dogs and his two children.

He was in second place at the end of the day's run, eight minutes behind Brian MacDougal, and he didn't sleep. All night Kinvig was in and out of the dog lot, walking dogs, giving them water, massaging their legs, shoulders and haunches with ointment.

``If you're not there for (the dogs), they're not there for you. That's what it's all about,'' Kinvig said.

Stage 3: To the finish

Snow, or lack of snow, continued to dog the race until the end. By the third day almost all the snow that was piled on the side of the road into Whitehorse had melted, leaving gravel, dirt and cement. The officials decided to stop the clock two miles short of the finish line, making the last two miles of the 34-mile course a ceremonial finish. That way mushers could slow their teams and take it easy on the poor trail.

``I guess we're going to have to all start praying harder for more snow,'' said Donahue, the Skagway tourism director.

The race had other problems. The Mount Lorne Community Center, where the mushers were supposed to sleep the third night, was double-booked. The Girl Scouts won out over the racers, who had to find floor space in the homes of the race marshal and Whitehorse mushers.

Most races run more smoothly, said Pope, the race marshal, but the mushers took it all in stride.

``You can get mushers who come a long way and complain about little things like the changes we've made,'' Pope said, ``but everyone here's been real mellow.''

Until they're on the course. The trail for the final day was hard-packed snow and mostly downhill into Whitehorse, making it fast. Kinvig pushed his team, trying to close the gap with MacDougal. It showed as his dogs limped across the finish line six minutes behind MacDougal. One was dripping blood from its rear, a dramatic, but not dangerous, reaction to the stressful run, said race veterinarian Jane Egger.

``After two days of that hard stuff, they're tired,'' Kinvig said. ``They were running 25 mph in that stuff.''

Stanford's dogs looked a little tired too, but no worse for the wear. The dogs at the back of the pack often end the race healthier, said Egger, as she checked dogs.

``They have less injuries because they're not competing. They're not pushing them,'' she said.

John Schandelmeier came over to look at Stanford's dogs, particularly Marvin. Schandelmeier liked the way Marvin ran and wants him for his Quest team next year. He offered Stanford a trade, two dogs and some cash.

``I'll think about it,'' said Stanford, who generally doesn't sell his dogs.

He finished the race 12th, missing the Red Lantern award again. But in the Trail of '98 nice guys get an award, even when they don't finish last. Stanford took home the Sportsmanship Award for a second time, an award voted on by all the mushers.

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