Justin Savidis greets me (and a handful of other summer mushers) at the Ididaride Sled Dog Tours property in Seward. With his long, light red hair and freckles, he looks more like Opie Taylor than who he is: a rugged, four-time Iditarod competitor working as a guide at the Seavey’s kennel. As this issue of the magazine hits newsstands, Justin will be competing against around 80 other mushers, including Mitch and Dallas Seavey (the 2013 and 2014 Iditarod Champions, respectively). But for now, he gives us a tour of the kennel where rows of dogs yip and pull at their chains, attached to their individual houses. The dogs have already run today, and yet the minute the wheeled sled comes into view, the pups leap and cry out like kids in a classroom who want the teacher to call on them.
I had a Siberian husky and a malamute years ago, and I expected the mushing dogs of Alaska to be the same: massive, blue-eyed, thick-furred beasts with boundless energy. The energy part was true enough, but Alaskan huskies aren’t the AKC registered show dogs most of us are used to seeing on television or puppy calendars. For example, they’re lean, not barrel chested, which makes sense when you consider that the Iditarod is an endurance race (think about the human differences between a marathon runner and sprinter). They come in all colors; some have ears that flop over. Most, but not all, have a tail that curls over their backs. Also, the Alaskan husky or sled dog isn’t really a defined, recognized breed—it’s a mix, a mongrel, if you will. That said, all of them seem to be around the same size and weight, with a northern-breed look to them and an ability to withstand the harsh winter environs of Alaska. They are also formidable and enthusiastic athletes.
As Justin and the crew get the wheeled sled ready and grab leashes and harnesses, the dogs sport eager canine grins and bouncing paws. The din of their barking rises until it melds into an off-key chorus and the guides have to shout to hear one another. The wheeled sled is more like Santa’s sleigh, with a couple of rows of seating and room for a person to stand in the back and direct the dog team. Once all sixteen of our Alaskan huskies are harnessed and rigged, we “hike,” “gee,” “haw,” and “whoa” our way down a dirt trail. At times the dogs seem to hear the words (in particular “whoa”) as mere thoughtful suggestions rather than firm commands they should obey. They are intelligent dogs, yet they are also feral. You can see it in their eyes as they light up and burst forward without thinking, fueled by a pure need—an instinct—to run. Though there’s no snow, the terrain is nonetheless breathtaking. The dogs tow us through trees to the base of Resurrection Mountain where we ride along Box Canyon Creek. When we return to the kennel after a quick two-mile ride, the dogs accept our praise and pets and seem finally content to take a breather.
While the other guides unhook the dogs, Justin shows us to the back of the property, where three-week old puppies huddle together atop wood shavings in a painted, square box. We hold the squirming, mewling, soft bundles to our chests, knowing these won’t be house pets—even though they will be well taken care of. They will grow up to be working dogs, sled dogs, racing dogs, and maybe even champions.