Bearss Blog: Taxi, please. Sleds as unique as their mushers
A kaleidoscope of colors and shapes tickle an eye looking out over a checkpoint early in the race. Dogsleds are as distinct and unique to each musher as the swirls on frostbitten fingertips. Some sleds strike memories of the first race in 1973, while others appear to be straight out of the newest sci-fi movie.
If you’re a stickler for the rules, scroll on down to rules 15 and 46 for the only guidance regulating sled design. There’s not much there, and surprisingly enough, the rules do clearly state you must have a sled. Additionally, that sled must be capable of hauling any injured or fatigued dogs.
New this year is a line dictating any dogs carried must be in front of the handlebars (and musher). This is a departure from last year when dogs were restricted to being carried in the main sled, either in the front or in a compartment on the rear of the runners that could double as a seat for the musher. Before 2017 there were no restrictions where dogs could hitch a ride, even allowing dogs to be transported in the tow behind doggie travel trailers.
Over the years, as mushers innovated with sled design, the Iditarod Trail Committee has responded with rules changes. Like any good heavyweight boxer, we’ve seen mushers counterpunch with more innovation. Last year, Dallas Seavey revealed to the mushing world what may have been the first-ever carbon fiber sled “bag” to facilitate the safe shuttling of his dogs down the trail.
Look upon Mitch Seavey’s chilly chariot this year and you may notice the traditional nylon sled bag in the front has several plastic “doggie doors” added to aid in loading and unloading his canine crew. While his team is running down the trail, up to four of his dogs comfortably rest on a bed of straw in his front sled bag. Mitch can also take a load off his feet while he sits down on the storage bag for his gear on the back of his runners.
Now, if this is a dog race, why would you carry dogs instead of having them run the whole way? Part of the answer is found in my first blog about doping. Mushers care passionately about their dogs and want to provide them with the best possible care. For some mushers, riding affords additional rest for their dogs. This technique may gain each dog upwards of 24 hours extra rest over the course of this 1000-mile race.
The other aspect to consider is driving 16 dogs down a snow and ice covered trail is analogous to being towed down the street by a Ferrari while standing on a skateboard. It can be an absolutely nerve-wracking ride to be white-knuckling the handlebars down the backside of the Alaska Range with 16 highly-trained Huskies with an intense need for speed. We don’t need all 16 dogs to cover this race trail-- 10 dogs is an approximate threshold where a team reaches maximum speed and power. If you can train your team to ride, why not?
Now, this is just one way of doing things, there are many other top mushers, like Aliy Zirkle and Wade Marrs, who do not commonly carry dogs for extra rest. Instead, they employ alternative techniques for maximizing their individual teams. Potential downfalls cited for carrying dogs include the need for more storage space, a bigger sled, and the impact 200+ lbs has on sled handling.
Personally, I started my rookie year carrying dogs in a kennel built into the front of my sled and would repeat that in a heartbeat. My team of yearlings were well-rested, perky, peppy and ready to go-- even if I wasn’t.
Which way is the best? I guess that’s a question to be debated at the Burled Arch.
Bryan Bearss trained Iditarod race teams full time from 2003 to 2009 and raced the Iditarod in 2006 and 2015. He is currently an elementary school teacher and marathon canoe racer.
Opinions expressed are those of the author and not of KTVA 11 News.
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