KENAI - Like a cowboy must get back in the saddle when bucked off a bronco, so, too, has Kasilof musher Jon Little gotten back on the runners following a sled dog tragedy at the end of September.
"It was a slow start after the accident. There was a lot of tension just hooking up teams for training runs, but as time went on and it got further away, it slowly got better," said Little, who is a five-time Iditarod and a Yukon Quest finisher, in which he placed fifth as a rookie in 2005.
The accident Little was referring to occurred when a team of dogs on a training run pulled through the brakes of a four-wheeler and got onto the roadway of the Sterling Highway, at its intersection with Kalifornsky Beach Road. Six dogs - all proven lead dogs or leaders in training - were struck by a vehicle.
Of the six that were hit, one dog miraculously sustained no injuries, but three others were killed instantly.
Two other dogs were hit and sustained injuries, but did not die at the scene. One had to be euthanized the next day due to the extent of internal injuries.
The other, a 3-year-old male named Wolf, was also hit, but his tug-line snapped during the accident and he ran away frightened. After an exhaustive search, Little got him, back but the dog was only using three legs.
Losing canine companions in this manner would be a blow for any musher, but it also affected Little because, unlike some professional dog drivers that maintain kennels of 50 to 100 dogs, he has always been a shoestring budget musher, keeping only 24 racers at any given time.
"I find myself on the trail, thinking about the dogs and what could have been, but I try not to dwell on it," he said.
Little has continued to forge ahead with training the other dogs in his kennel, and a few others that have since been loaned to him by another musher after learning about the tragedy.
"Basically, he was spending the winter doing construction, so he offered up four of his," Little said.
After weeks of integrating the new dogs and getting all of them into shape, Little put his team to the test for the first time earlier this month in the Sheep Mountain 150 Sled Dog Race, which traverses through the rugged Talkeetna Mountains.
In the end, Little placed fourth out of 50 competitors.
"It wasn't a total surprise, but it wasn't entirely in the plans either," he said.
Little said he believed he would have done just as good, or possibly even better, had he had the dogs lost in the accident, since they would have given him more leaders to chose from.
However, he said the experience of not having these proven leaders allowed him to try other dogs, which stepped up to meet the challenge.
"I relied on some not-so-experienced 3-year-olds for about 80 percent of the race, some of them were dogs that I wouldn't have tried if I had the other dogs, so I found out from it that I do have a couple of really nice lead dogs," he said.
Of these 3-year-olds, Little said a dog named Panther and his brother, Coyote, impressed him the most.
"I knew Panther could lead because he had led some in the T-200 last season, but Coyote wouldn't lead at all as a 2-year-old," he said.
These two young dogs are part of the same litter as Wolf, who after the accident was rushed to a veterinarian where X-rays revealed he had no broken bones, but "a major ankle dislocation."
Wolf was then taken to an orthopedic specialist in Anchorage for surgery. Due to the extent of his ligament damage, he had to have the bones of his foot fused.
"We call him our six-million-dollar dog, but we have to say thanks to a lot of people. We got a lot of small donations and a couple of large ones. It didn't quite cover it, but it made the cost of the surgery more palatable," Little said.
Wolf has almost completely healed from the surgery, is scheduled to start taking walks soon and may possibly be running by the end of the season - if he demonstrates the desire and ability to do so.
"We'll give him the opportunity to train, but if he gets sore or limps, we'll retire him as a house dog or find a good home for him," Little said.
"The vets said he would be good as a pet dog or as part of a recreational musher's team, but they wouldn't expect him to be an athlete. But in my experience, sled dogs often have a knack for proving doctors wrong when it comes to things they can't do."
Prior to the accident, Little signed up for the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest in February but wasn't sure he would still be able to compete after losing so many dogs. Now, though, he said it is looking like the race is back on for him, but he will maintain a conservative race schedule leading up to this ultra-marathon.
"I'm still on track for the Quest, but the only other race people will see me in may be the T-200, but it's so close to the Quest I won't be racing to win. I'll just use it as a well-marked, 200-mile training run," he said.