Three coins in the fountain, Three strikes and you’re out, Three blind mice.
Three seems to be a number of prominence. However, for me, in Alaska, it was a number of confusion because I had three perspectives about sled dog racing teams preparing for the infamous 1,112 grueling mile Iditarod Race.
We were passengers on a riverboat discovery cruise, which was a unique Alaskan experience. This proved to be a great excursion because we saw a bush float-plane takeoff alongside the boat, visited the Chena Indian Village, and admired caribou from a stone’s throw away!
A standout-out of the cruise, for me, was a dockside seat at the home and kennels of the late Susan Butcher, four-time Iditarod winner. Her husband, Dave Munson, shared stories about raising and training the beautiful Alaskan huskies for a championship dog sled team. He even provided spectators with a dog mushing demonstration. However, watching the kennels’ puppies at play and in “training” was a hands-down crowd favorite! The caring relationship between the trainers and the animals was evident throughout our visit. The experience at Trail Breaker Kennels had mom yearning to return to Illinois with a cute, loveable Alaskan puppy.
Alaskan sports hall of famer and multiple Iditarod and Yukon Quest winner, Lance Mackey, was a post luncheon speaker who wowed the audience with inspiring, motivational words about dog mushing and life. His charismatic charm held the audience captive as he discussed his family, addictions, battles with cancer, and the love of animals. Besides the 70 to 100 sled dogs at Mackey’s Comeback Kennel (in his front yard), he has nine house pets including a Labrador, Chihauhua, Pomeranian, Lhasa Apos, Jack Russels, and cats! Obviously, he has a true connection with 4-legged creatures. This was most apparent when his face softened while telling us that he takes time during the day to spend time with each and every animal on his property. He claims that his dogs kept him going during his roughest days of intense radiation and neck surgery and that dog mushing saved his life! He had one of his dogs with him and the dog’s wagging tail and the kisses on Mackey’s cheek demonstrated the mutual affection between the dog and his trainer. The animals gave him a purpose to live; what a moving tale.
An unsettling feeling crept through me almost immediately as I stepped foot on the grounds at Sun Dog Kennels. This was an up-close and personal encounter, and not of the pleasant kind, by any means. As we got out of the van that brought us to the kennels, we heard anxious dogs barking, almost as though they were frightened or in pain; when all 60 of them would howl at once the sound was unbelievable, almost like I was in the middle of a werewolf horror movie. And the smell! They actively picked up after the dogs, but after it was swept up, they dumped it into an uncovered bucket to sit in sun. This was not the introduction I expected. I thought this would be a warm and fuzzy kind of place!
Top 20 Iditarod musher, Gerald Sousa, led us to the side of his log home where he trains 60 dogs. What I saw, in my opinion, was animal cruelty. The dogs are kept in a dog yard where each dog has its own small, 2×2 house with a flat roof (so the dogs may stand on them) and a nameplate. The dogs are tethered on short chains that extend to about a 3-foot radius and many of the dogs run in the small space until they wear the dirt down. The dog yard is very crowded with dogs constantly barking for attention.
We were immediately told not to pet the dogs until a team finished a training run and were properly fed. Intimidating, to say the least. Where were the friendly animals I saw in the other encounters? We were quickly placed in groups for a chance to be pulled by dogs on a training (ATV) sled. When the trainers move the dogs from their “house” to the ATV, they grab them by their front legs in order to make it harder for the dogs to get away. Gerald said that if a dog got loose, it would attack the dogs that were still changed up. Some of the younger dogs were visibly shaking, had their tails between their legs, and had to be physically dragged to the ATV.
The 8-mile run included a water break and another gruesome scene, as one of the dogs was bleeding. The owner spoke to an assistant, questioning if the dog attacked another dog team member, or had bit its tongue. After the training run, the dogs were fed and tourists were permitted to only pet the dogs that were harnessed. Many people, including myself, opted to admire the dogs from a distance. When it was time to return the dogs to their “homes” all but 1 had to be dragged. I suppose if I was tied to an 18 inch chain all my life, being forced to pull ATV and the weight of 6 people would be a welcome change.
To conclude the tour, we learned about sled dog harnessing, Iditorad requirements, winter camping, survival gear (including booties that the dogs wear), training, and feeding. This was the only part of the tour I even ½ way enjoyed! I was happy to hear they only bread 1 dog per year. Gerald said, “Just because I have 60 dogs, doesn’t mean I want 600.” At least they aren’t a puppy mill.
So, my three perspectives have me wondering: are the dogs well-cared for or abusively trained to run the challenging race? Does it depend on the owner? Or did the first 2 only show us what they wanted us to see and the 3rd showed us the reality? I’m not sure, but the one thing I know for sure is I’m no longer enthralled by the idea of the Iditarod.