Life After the Trail
The story behind Alaska's March 2014 issue cover model, Spur, a retired Iditarod sled dog.
I never thought Spur, my newly adopted Alaskan Husky and a former Iditarod sled dog, would run away from me. But after only a few months of cross country skiing together, when I saw the red light attached to her collar disappear down the dark, snowy trail in front of me, my heart sank.
It was the winter solstice, and we were two miles in to a six-mile ski-in adventure, when I hesitated at the top of a hill, a 40-pound pack strapped to my back, touring skis on my feet, and a veteran Iditarod sled dog attached to my belt. I unhooked the carabiner from my waist, clenched it with my fist and yelled to my ski partner, Joe, and his dog at the bottom of the hill. I hadn’t finished my sentence when a strong jolt pulled the leash out of my hand, and I watched as my loyal dog, sprinted away. I screamed her name, but it only made her run faster.
Down the trail, trucks screamed by on a dark highway; our short ski trip had suddenly turned into more than I had anticipated.
I was devastated.
We skied back, with Joe trying to calm me as I yelled profanities. I thought about all the places she could be, and how difficult it would be to find her in the dark. Joe continued to reassure me that she was a sled dog and was simply doing what she’s done her entire life — run.
“She probably thought I was cheering her on,” I muttered.
“She’s just running to the next checkpoint,” he assured me.
We continued to ski, Joe told stories of losing his dog team in his rookie year of dog handling, Spur had been the leader of that team.
I was silent, beating myself up in my head, recounting details of when she pulled the leash out of my grasp. The ski felt like it took forever. It was 45 minutes before we were approaching the parking lot, our first guess as to where she would run. We glided around the corner and I skied ahead to our parking spot.
I saw a red light.
Curled up in a tight Husky ball by the back tire of the truck was my dog, barely visible with a blanket of snow covering her.
“Spur girl!” I shrieked, then breathed a deep sigh of relief.
We shared a celebratory beer in the parking lot, then quickly returned to the trail. With two humans and two dogs, we started our ski adventure again—from the same starting point— two-and-a-half hours earlier. I barely noticed because I was thrilled to have my Spur girl back.
I adopted Spur, a 12-year-old Alaskan sled dog, from a small kennel just outside Denali National Park four months prior to our ski adventure. Joe was a dog handler for the Moderow family’s Salty Dog Kennel for three years and I spent a lot of time with her during my frequent visits.
Though we were familiar with each other, I still I had my worries whisking her away from her pack of 30 dogs and transitioning to life in the city. I knew there would be adjustments but never feared she would run away if I was close by.
Spur is attached to me in a way that can be borderline annoying. She is my shadow around the house, following me from room-to-room, watching the door I disappear behind at work, sticking to my hip at crowded parties—but put her in a harness on a snowy trail and she’s running.
I told myself Spur was different and wouldn’t run away. But it was the solstice weekend adventure that showed me she was doing all she knew how to do. The behavior is hard-wired in her brain. Like a golden retriever fetching a ball or a Rottweiler protecting, Alaskan huskies run.
The Moderow family kennel is not the only place with retired sled dogs in interior Alaska. Denali National Park has the only working sled dog kennel in the National Park Service, including a popular retirement adoption program.
Denali Park Kennel manager Jen Raffaeli says the program is well promoted and typically receives more applicants than dogs available for adoption. Adopting a dog from the Denali Park Kennels is free, but it is a selective process. She encouraged folks that are interested to visit the kennels in person to meet and spend time with the dogs. The park dogs retire around 9 years old, and Jen said although that may sound old, for many sled dogs they still have a lot of life left.
“Just because they’ve been running thousands of miles and breaking trail doesn’t mean they want to stop,” Jen said. “They still have several good years of hiking, biking, and skiing left.”
For many sled dogs, the best homes are where their owners can keep them active in the outdoors. Spur and I are fortunate that she can come to work with me. She pulls me on our 8-mile commute by bike or skis regularly on the Coastal Trail in Anchorage.
Many sled dog owners adopt multiple dogs, and some end up with a whole team. Karin Schmidt, a practicing veterinarian and dog musher agreed saying that it’s a widespread misconception that all sled dogs will run off, and can’t be taught to “come” when called. Consistent training and patience are keys to easing their transition to retirement life, she said.
Spur taught me to stay positive mentally during our outdoor adventures; otherwise she may be looking to run. Every sled dog is different, but one common trait is their resilient attitude, Karin said. She has raised dozens of sled dogs throughout the years, training for Iditarod in the late 80s, and working as the Chief Veterinarian on the Iditarod for three years.
“They’re the toughest wimps in the world. I go out in my yard to give vaccinations and they scream bloody murder, and yet they can go all day and run 1,000 miles,” Karin said laughing.
Not only can Alaskan huskies outrun many other breeds of dogs, they tend to have a much longer lifespan. Their bloodlines are selected for performance, historically people did not keep their dogs if they didn’t perform, Schmidt said. The dogs from her kennel typically lived 14 to 16 years, and she was able to keep most of her dogs for their entire lives.
For prospective owners, there is a sled dog rescue with a clean record for connecting dogs with well-suited homes. Second Chance League matches dogs from the Fairbanks North Star Borough Animal Control shelter with people looking to adopt a sled dog. Don Kiely and his partner Carol Kleckner lead involvement and work on evaluating and rehabilitating the sled dogs to find the right owners through their selective matching program. Carol visits the Fairbanks shelter to evaluate sled dogs while she takes them hiking, skijoring or running with her dog team. The nonprofit reports helping about a dozen sled dogs each year find homes. Although Don said the number of dogs coming into the shelter is on a decline the past few years, which is a mystery to him. Owners are getting smarter, or taking care of getting rid of dogs on their own, Don added.
I am lucky that I was able to hike, ski and run with Spur leading my team, before adopting her. I may be biased, but she is the exception in many cases. The Moderow kennel hired a cat-loving handler, and after one winter season, openly admitted Spur turned him into a dog lover. On the trail, other dogs notice her nonchalant attitude toward her own kind. My coworker’s pit bull was isolated during his puppy years, and is now aggressive when close to other dogs. Spur is one of the few dogs that can sit in the same room with him for long periods. She could care less about another dog’s behavior, yet is in tune to every move I make. Not only is she perceptive, but she’s an inspirational athlete. I have yet to see her tired after our long hiking adventures; miles pulling me by bike, skis or dog sled runners. I hope I’m as tough as Spur when I’m her age in dog years.
For more information about adopting a sled dog through Second Chance League, visit: secondchanceleague.org or carolkleckner.net
To learn more about the Denali National Park adoption program, go to: nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/kennels.htm