What: 2013 Iditarod
When: Begins Saturday
Where: Anchorage to Nome, Alaska
More info: http://iditarod.com
U niversity of Colorado-Boulder alumna Karin Hendrickson never planned on running sled dogs in Alaska.
She graduated in 1991 with a degree in environmental conservation and a teaching certificate. After volunteering for her first Iditarod in 2002 to spend time with her mom, who is also a volunteer, Hendrickson said she couldn't resist the pull of the dogs and formed her own team in 2006, competing in her first Iditarod in 2009. She and her husband Varan Hoyt got married along the Iditarod trail and live outside Anchorage raising about 30 dogs. Hendrickson also works full time as a pesticide control coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
This year's Iditarod -- known to fans as the last great race on earth -- begins Saturday.
How did you get involved with dog handling and the Iditarod in the first place?
I met the Redingtons, who are very well known in the mushing world. They had no sponsorships, so I did some work trying to help them get a website and get some promo materials out there. I came up the second year (2003) to volunteer again, and that's the point I decided I was going to move to Alaska to be a dog handler. You do all the labor, the grunt work -- cleaning up the poop and feeding the dog s-- for free room and board, but you don't get to race. It's kind of like being a dog slave (laughing). I did that for a couple years, and I really didn't think I would get into racing myself. But it has a way of working itself under your skin. I took a year off and tried to live straight, but I couldn't do it. I got a real job and a real place to live. I just couldn't give up running dogs and the whole lifestyle, so I ended up starting to build my own.
Describe the Iditarod. What all does the race entail?
It's 1,000 miles across the wilderness of Alaska. There are no roads connecting to where we're going to anybody out there doing race support, like vets and officials -- they're all flown out by bush plane. It's extremely remote. The trail is very wild, and it's 1,000 miles, so that's a long way to go by dog team. It takes anywhere from 10 days to a couple of weeks. The routine goes like this: You run for six to eight hours, and then you stop and take a break. While the dogs are sleeping on straw, you're the one hauling the straw, melting snow to cook their meals, massaging their feet, tending to their injuries. And then hopefully I get maybe an hour or so to take a nap. We get back up, get another meal into the dogs, put booties on their feet and go.
(How far we go) is dictated by what the dogs are capable of doing, which is on the order of 100 miles a day, broken into small chunks.
So it's just you and your dogs?
It's just me and my dogs. Outside assistance is prohibited. There are checkpoints where we can go in to find a dry place to sleep. (There are) resupplies and vets at every checkpoint. We start with 16 dogs and that's all we get. The ones that can't continue, or we don't feel like they're having a good time, get flown home.
What are the most extreme weather conditions you've raced in?
I've seen 60, 70 below zero. The dogs do fine. I have a hard time staying warm at those temperatures. It means you have to eat a lot. I've seen winds hard enough to obliterate a trail in a matter of minutes. A couple years ago, I was trying to get my dogs to cross some overflow, which is where liquid water flows over ice. I was trying to negotiate some open water, tripped and fell and went face first. I was submerged in water at 20 below zero. It sounds a lot scarier than it was. I just jumped up and smacked the ice off me.
With the extreme conditions and lack of sleep, why do you keep coming back?
You know when people go and do (Mount) Everest, where they come back and they're beat up and exhausted and the top of the mountain was just grueling? All they can say was that they just had to do it. It's a challenge, and it's beautiful too. The things you see, the places you go -- you're not going to experience it if you just go out in an airplane and spend a couple hours. I spend days submerged in that environment.
It's also the dogs. There's something really amazing about the bond you get with a dog that you've raised. (You've) watched them be born, trained them, lived with them and been out on the trail with them. You don't get that with house pets. There's something different you get when you go out and work with a team.
How do you balance your full-time job with handling dogs? What does a typical day look like for you?
I think I'm the only one crazy enough to try to do this (laughing). Because of what I do, I have to live out away from the cities near miles and miles of trails, so I live about an hour from my job, so I get up around 6 a.m. and I'm out the door by 6:20. I work from 7:30 to 3:30 and drive straight home, grab something to eat and go run dogs. It takes about an hour by the time you get your sled rigged and the dogs in their booties and jackets if it's cold. We run for two to three hours, then get them all undressed and unharnessed and then feed them. By that time, it's time for me to go to bed. When we're training we aim for about 10 miles an hour, so that's about 20 to 25 miles per day.
Things like cleaning the dog lot and preparing all the meals -- we feed them a lot of meat and that takes a lot of processing. I rely on help from my husband and my helpers. And then things like cleaning the house and laundry and grocery shopping -- that's at the very end.
I've heard that saying "mush" to get dogs to run isn't how you really get them to run. How do you do it, and what else should people know about the dogs?
The thing about sled dogs -- all they want to do is go. The same way a lab only ever wants to chase a ball, it could be exhausted and it will still chase a ball. Sled dogs want to run. I don't really say anything, I just let them go. They do know their left and right, and they know things like 'easy' but mostly they just want to go, even 700 or 800 miles into a race.
I want people to understand we're not making these dogs do it. People are worried about these sled dogs. I want them to understand how much love we have for these dogs. I do what's best for my dogs no matter what the outcome to me. What's best for them is to run, they live for it.
--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.