STERLING - While the snow has yet to blanket the entire Kenai Peninsula, most mushers have been training their dog teams for months, and Ashley Irmen of Sterling is no exception.
"We started fall training about the third week of August with a four-wheeler, and since then we've just been building miles and practicing camping trips," she said.
Irmen has a lot to work toward. She is signed up for one of the first distance races in the state - the Sheep Mountain 150, scheduled for Dec. 13 and 14.
The race starts and ends at the Sheep Mountain Lodge at Mile 113.5 of the Glenn Highway, and consists of three legs - each approximately 50 miles long - through the rugged Talkeetna Mountains, with two mandatory layovers of five hours separating them.
"It's my first race and I feel we'll be pretty ready, but I still have lots of butterflies," Irmen said.
First race jitters are common with most mushers, but Irmen said her anxiety stems not from fearing she won't do well, but from wondering how her dogs will handle the event. That's because while some mushers buy dogs from professional mushers or attempt to breed to the pro's bloodlines, Irmen runs a team exclusively of rescue dogs.
"I believe you don't need to constantly breed. There's a lot of good dogs already out there. I have 23 dogs in my kennel - 17 of them sled dogs - and all are rescues. Some people doubt dogs that are rescues, but I want to prove they are capable of doing it," she said.
Irmen is a realist, though. She said while her dogs may finish the race is good spirits and good health, she likely won't be setting any speed records doing it.
But that's not her intention.
"I know we can't beat Jeff King, or place first, or even place in the top 20, but I'm not worrying about beating someone or placing high. I just want to see what the dogs can do, work out any of the kinks, and finish," she said.
Irmen also knows that may not be easy. Since she is running rescue dogs, some of the dogs have quirks that will make the competition more challenging for her than it will likely be for some of the other rookie mushers.
"They're all here for various reasons. One came from another musher that thought the dog was too big, another was supposedly too stupid, and some of them are just very shy and nervous," she said.
Then there are also the dogs with quirks she doesn't now about yet, because rather than being given to her directly from another musher, they came from an animal shelter.
"Some are blind adoptions from the Kenai Animal Shelter, the Fairbanks Animal Shelter or the Second Chance League (a sled dog rescue group in Fairbanks)," she said.
Irmen, along with a handful of other peninsula mushers, also stepped up to take home at least one sled dog of the more than 30 left behind after Martina Delp, a sled dog rescuer in Salcha, was accidentally killed in 2007. Delp's dogs, like those from shelters, left many unanswered questions.
"There's no records for some of them. I don't know if they were even distance dogs," she said.
Regardless of their pasts, Irmen said once adopted, she does her best to make each dog feel safe, secure and part of the pack.
"It's a lot of working with each individual dog, working within their comfort zone and seeing what they'll do," she said.
Also, unlike many mushers that keep their dogs tethered when not hooked into a team, Irmen also has a fenced in yard where the dogs are allowed to free run together, to further bond to each other.
"We've been doing camping trips too, to get them feeling safe away from home, and it's a good way to see who will and who won't eat away from home," she said.
Over the next few weeks Irmen said she hopes she and her team will further coalesce into one unit. After three winters of running dogs, and several small races under her belt, she feels ready for to make the jump to mid-distance racing. And, no matter how good or bad the event shakes out in the end, she said she won't change her kennel mission after it's over.
"I believe in working with what you've got," she said.
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