Dropped Dogs Return from Iditarod Trail
Dogs that don't make it to the finish line get taken care of by Hiland inmates
EAGLE RIVER - At the PenAir runway, volunteers lined up to unload some precious cargo: nearly 100 dogs from the Iditarod trail.
“Each animal, whether a musher is in first or last, is extremely important to the musher. So we take extra care with every single dog,” said Dropped Dog Coordinator Kate Swift. “They're all freaked out. They're not around their musher. Some have never been on an airplane before so it's important for us that they feel safe.”
Some of the dogs were dropped at checkpoints along the way, too injured or tired to complete the thousand-mile trek. Others are part of entire teams flown back to Anchorage after their musher scratched from the race.
“They're more than family; they're like your lifeline out there,” said Jamaican musher Newton Marshall, who scratched when one of his dogs got loose and ran away. “They're the one taking you around. All you have to do is fuel them up and make sure they're happy. Keep them happy, keep them eating and you're good to go.”
Getting the dogs from the plane to the transport trucks is a task volunteers don’t take lightly.
“You have to make sure you got a handle on them so they don't run off. They're very powerful; they've got so much power in their front legs. That's what they're bred to do, that's what they're trained to do, that's what they do. If you let them go they'll sprint forever and you'll never catch them,” said volunteer Arielle King.
After a long night of traveling the pups get some much needed rest and TLC the next day.
“I just love dogs. I've always been an animal person so it comes natural to be there for them, to help take care of them. We know they've had a rough road and worked hard for their owners,” said Patience Kelso.
Kelso is one of about two dozen inmates at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center who look after more than 50 dogs brought in overnight, giving them food, water and lots of loving.
“The prison life can be repetitive and redundant so it's cool to be able to have the experience to come out and give back. A lot of us have some guilt and shame for being here, so it's cool to have something like this where we can give back to the community,” said inmate Alaina Thiessen.
Most dogs only spend a day or two at Hiland before a musher’s handling staff stops by to pick them up.
“It's pretty nice to have someone else take care of the dogs once they're dropped before we're able to come here and pick them up. I'm sure they feed them and make sure they're taken care of well and it's pretty nice,” said Christine Salisbury, a handler for last year’s Iditarod winner, Dallas Seavey.
Many of the inmates say it’s a lot of responsibility to care for so many animals at one time, but they’re thrilled to be a part of the Last Great Race.
“We want to better our lives and while we're in here this is the only way we can reach out and say we're better, we're trying,” said Kelso.