Monday, March 12, 2012

When Dogs Aren't Having Fun

Sled dogs run and pull because every strand of DNA in their bodies screams at them to run and pull.  The desire to run is as strong in these dogs as the desire to eat food, drink water or reproduce.  When asked why they run, we frequently respond that they run because it's fun - and if you make something fun for a dog s/he will do it over and over and over - until it finally isn't fun anymore.

Some critics of long distance racing believe that mushers abuse their dogs in order to force them to run, but it simply isn't possible to "make" a dog run.  Anyone who has ever owned a pet dog as a child figured out at a young age that if you try to force a dog to something s/he doesn't want to do, the dog will simply lie down and absolutely refuse to do anything, regardless of what the human might attempt.

That appears to be the case with at least a couple of mushers out on the Iditarod Trail this year.  In a jaw-dropping move that no one saw coming, Jeff King scratched from the race yesterday when his dogs quit having fun, and simply quit. According to an article in the Alaska Daily News,   DeeDee Jonrowe, who passed King on the trail, said "His dog team didn't want to go in the wind anymore." said musher DeeDee Jonrowe, who passed King on her way to Unalakleet. She said he was cooking food for the dogs and had them tucked in bushes, out of a steady wind.  Brent Sass also passed King. He asked if King needed help and King said no.  King and his 13 dogs were hauled by snowmachine to Unalakleet.

One of my choices for Rookie of the Year , Josh Cadzow, also scratched from the race when he recognized that his dogs simply weren't having fun anymore.  Having recognized that his dogs weren't happy, this brilliant young dog man from Fort Yukon felt it better to scratch from the race rather than push his dogs to the point where they just gave up - a very smart move on his part.

Also yesterday, up and coming musher Jake Berkowitz was withdrawn by race officials after cutting his hand badly with a knife.  According to Berkowitz' FaceBook page it was a deep cut between the thumb and first finger that prompted the race marshal to withdraw Jake and have him sent to a hand surgeon in Anchorage.  A similar accident took Mitch Seavey out of the running last year.

Dallas Seavey has taken the lead in the Iditarod, arriving in Koyuk at 3:17 this morning.  Aliy Zirkle was right behind him, bringing her team of of "mini-marathoners" into the checkpoint at 4:53.  Most telling at this point of the race is the average speed between the two checkpoints.  Aliy's dogs trotted along at slightly more than 6 1/2 miles per hour, while Dallas and his crew ran at only 5 and 3/4.  I believe the speed difference reflects a difference in rest time.  Dallas blew through Shaktoolik, staying at the checkpoint only 7 minutes, but camping for a couple of hours at a cabin outside town.  Aliy gave her team over 6 hours of rest in the village.  According to the GPS Tracker, Aaron Burmeister will be next into Koyuk, followed no more than an hour by John Baker.  Mitch Seavey, Peter Kaiser and Ramy Smyth are still well out on the ice.

Errand Day for Me:

I have to return to work tomorrow morning, pretty darned early, so my day will be spent running errands and preparing to turn the house and kennel over to Jeff.  While Jeff feeds and looks after the dogs this morning, I'll be in Fairbanks getting my hair cut, picking up some dog food and other necessities and then driving over to North Pole to collect the newly repaired heater for the cabin.  I'll need to reinstall that heater, run up to the post office to get the remainder of my mail, and shut down the house for two weeks.

Last night I put my sled away in the big storage bay, and repaired two harnesses that were chewed by dogs to ensure I'll have good gear ready for my return.  Given the snow that fell last week, I think the trails will remain in good condition for another month or so, but then break-up will bring an end to the 2011-2012 dog mushing season.  Until then I'll continue to take advantage of the snow so that the dogs and I can all continue to have fun.  After all, having fun is what this sport is all about.
Although media reports indicate that Jeff Kings team quit, a video interview available on the Iditarod Insider features tells a different story.  According to Jeff (the guy on the scene who should know), severak if the dogs his team came down with a virulent diarrhea.  After a long rest on the trail did little to resolve the illness he determined to scratch in the best interest of his dogs - a very good move by a very experienced and accomplished musher.

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