Monday, April 11, 2011

The Great One Has Arrived

Denali - photo courtesy Sebastian Schnuelle
Alaskans recognize North America's tallest mountain by the Tanaina Athbascan name "Denali", which translates in English as "The Great One". The name is also befitting the newest member of the Stardancer Historical Sled Dogs kennel.  Like the musher he drew to a record-setting first place victory in the 2009 Yukon Quest less than a month before crossing under Nome's famous burled arch in second place, Denali is one of the great ones. Just a few weeks ago Denali and his teammates crossed that same finish line in Nome in sixth place.

Born during the summer of 2003, Denali is not quite 8 years old and has enjoyed a remarkable and illustrious career. He's finished both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod several times, as well as many mid-distance races. 

Denali has been a true star of Sebastian Schnuelle's team.  Sebastian has decided it's time to retire from long-distance sled dog racing and move on to a less demanding (and less expensive) lifestyle. That means it's also time for Denali to retire from racing and enjoy his own less demanding life, which he'll enjoy with the other working pets of the Stardancer Historical Sled Dogs kennel. 

Denali's trip to our Two Rivers home started with a magazine article a couple of years ago.  Each issue of Mushing Magazine includes a full-color, multiple page photo spread featuring a team of sled dogs that has distinguished itself out on the trails. The 'SuperDogs' spread in the May/June 2009 issue featured the dogs of Sebastian Schnuelle's phenomenal long-distance team. As you'll recall, in 2009 Sab set a new record to win the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, and took second place behind Lance Mackey in the Iditarod Trail race.

As I scanned the photos of Sebastian's team, I did a double-take when I saw Denali's photo. His resemblance to my best leader, the now fully retired Torus, was truly uncanny. Torus was originally whelped and trained by Eric Butcher, and I knew that when Eric retired from the sport he sold several dogs to Sebastian. Being curious, I looked up Sebastian's Email address and sent off a query.

This prompted a three-way Email conversation between myself, Sebastian and Eric to discuss his lineage. Once a bit of confusion was sorted out, (we needed Eric to tell us who begat who), we determined that the similarities in conformation and appearance between Denali and Torus are indeed familial.

In the beginning, there was a Susan Butcher bitch named Sister and a Rusty Hagan dog name Gatorade. Sister and Gatorade begat Torus. Torus begat Jynx and then Jynx and Onyx begat Denali.

My curiosity satisfied, I didn't think much more about it until I received a message from Sebastian last fall, asking if I'd be interested in providing a retirement home for Denali. I didn't even hesitate to agree. After all, he IS kin.

A few days later I talked with a handler who had worked Denali doing glacier tours last summer. She confirmed everything Sebastian has said and spoke very highly of him, describing him as a dog who will work for just about anyone and loves doing his job. She said he isn't exactly the brightest bulb on the tree, but he's a good worker in any position other than lead.  Sebastian had previously written that Denali can lead a team, but isn't what he (Sab) would describe as a 'leader'.  He can get the job done, but he isn't particularly driven.

Meanwhile, things weren't going quite as planned in Sebastian's kennel. He had some handler issues that were apparently pretty vexing and complicated his plans for the racing season to a huge extent. I'm not aware of all the details, but those I have heard leave me feeling deeply blessed to have a very reliable and trustworthy handler in Ted Kirby.

So, Sebastian needed to hang on to Denali so he could run in a friend's Copper Basin 300 team. That friend had never mushed a race team without Denali and really wanted to run him one more season. I'm not about to come in between the bond of a musher and a dog, so of course I was agreeable.

Following the Copper Basin race, I got a new message from Sab, telling me he needed Denali to run on a Yukon Quest 300 team. I had to smile at that - after all, Denali was obviously not quite ready for retirement.

While Denali had a relatively easy run in the Quest 300, those running the full race weren't so fortunate.  Although he finished in 2nd place, Sebastian's Quest team was brutalized by the tough conditions on the trail, and he felt they weren't ready for a second long-ditance race.  When I suggested to Sebastian that we might arrange to exchange Denali at the Yukon Quest finish banquet he replied "He might have to run to Nome first." Indeed, he did run to Nome, and though he had some issues along the way, he finished the race, helping to pull the sled through the burled arch in 6th place.

By my calculation Denali raced over 1,648 miles during his first year of "retirement", and who knows how many additional miles in training. Thus, I believe it quite safe to proclaim that the newest addition to the Stardancer team is very well named.

I'd like to extend a special thank you to Sebastian Schnuelle, for placing Denali in our little kennel and to Jessie Royer (the fastest woman on the Iditarod trail the past two years) for delivering him to the kennel. Though I'm currently at work Ted tells me that Denali is settling in very nicely, hanging out in between his grandfather and half-sister. I'll be home for a few hours tomorrow and will try to capture some photos before I have to fly off to Kentucky for a week of training.


  1. Oh, what a wonderful story. Sab is one of my heroes, and his dog care is legendary. You are very lucky to have Denali on your "team."

  2. Very observant of you to pick the similarity, Swanny.