March 19th 2009

Mitch Seavey - Iditarod 2009
Champion Bloodlines - On our Alaska Walk we meet the Seaveys and their racing huskies. By Julie Johnson, Walk Leader - Alaska I have been a huge fan of the Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska for years. The race is roughly 1,000 miles between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska, and it crosses some of the most beautiful and foreboding landscape one can imagine. The first race in 1973 was put together to commemorate the serum run of 1925 when sled dog teams saved the small village of Nome by delivering diphtheria serum. Dog sled travel had long depended upon by villages for commerce and mail delivery, by that time and mushing looked to be a dying craft as aircraft were introduced to Alaska. However, the winter of 1925, bad weather grounded aircraft all over Alaska and 20 sled dog teams relayed the serum 674 miles between Nenena and Nome in less than five and a half days (you may have seen the fictional account of this run in Disney’s animated movie 'Balto'). The test of human and canine strength and the almost supernatural bonds between them made the first serum run possible and make today’s Iditarod race one of the most amazing athletic events I’ve ever witnessed. The first race in 1973 attracted a small band of die hard local mushers – today, over 100 mushers from around the world compete and volunteers, fans and media converge on Alaska to see this Last Great Race. One of the mushers to run in that first Iditarod was Dan Seavey, Sr. of Seward, Alaska. Dan didn’t know it at the time, but he started a trend – his son Mitch won the Iditarod in 2004 and Mitch’s sons Dallas, Tyrell and Danny have also followed in their grandfathers’ footsteps. I recently talked with Danny Seavey a few days after his dad won the Kusko 300, the first of the important sled dog races leading up to the granddaddy of them all – the Iditarod -- which begins in March. This year, it starts Saturday, March 7, and training time before the 1,000 mile race is precious. I felt pretty lucky to talk with Danny, who I knew was busy helping his dad get ready for the race. 'When Dad runs the Iditarod,' he said, 'he will have put in at least 5,000 miles behind the dog sled team this season.' It’s that kind of dedication and love of the sport that has made the Seavey name one of the most respected and competitive in the sport of dog mushing. That’s why I wanted to make sure walkers on the Alaska Wayfarers’ walk get a chance to meet the Seaveys and their dogs at their family-run Ididaride Sled Dog Tour near Seward, Alaska. I took the tour last summer with my friend Robyn (our walk manager), her two-year-old son and my 15 year old niece, Taylor. We knew we’d love it the minute we got out of the car and heard the happy howls of dozens of dogs eager to run. Danny Seavey and other dog handlers and trainers begin the tour by giving a short description of the Iditarod, its history and the dogs you are about to meet. You then get the ride of a lifetime aboard a 'summer sled' as a team of dogs bounces over the landscape of the beautiful Seavey homestead. The ride is a blast but what comes next is a chance to meet some actual Alaska huskies (and puppies if we’re lucky!) and see a demonstration of the mushers’ craft. Everybody who works here has worked with sled dogs and many have run the Iditarod, so feel free to ask all the questions you can think of! Dan Seavey, Sr., and his wife Shirley moved from Minnesota in 1963 intending to run (or mush) sled dogs. They loaded the kids in the Rambler and made their way up the AlCan Highway, ending up in the small port town of Seward. As luck would have it, they got there just in time for the biggest earthquake in North American history, the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964. Mitch was four years old at the time and his first memories are watching their sled dog trying to eat the plants as they were knocked to the floor during the quake. The Seaveys soon moved their family to the current location of the Ididaride, five miles from Seward. Dan was the Seward High School history teacher for 21 years. In the winter, Danny says his grandfather would mush the five miles into town, often picking up students along the way. He’d tie the dogs up during the day and then mush home at night. Students who wanted to graduate from high school had to know the name of Dan’s lead dog – Ginghis Khan – because it was a historic character! Mitch was only 14 when Dan ran in the first Iditarod, but he helped train and manage the dogs. He is on tape saying that 'someday I’m going to win the Iditarod.' He kept that promise in 2005. A couple of years ago, I volunteered as a dog handler for a musher at the start of the Iditarod. Volunteer training took place on one of the coldest days I’ve ever experienced – 35 below with the windchill (which effectively ended any dreams I ever had of mushing). And so I had to ask Danny how the mushers deal with the cold. 'That’s by far the most asked question we get,' he laughed. 'Everybody wants to know how mushers deal with the cold but we don’t even think about it. You might hear mushers talk about how to keep their dogs warm, they might even say 50 below is a little chilly. But you’ll never hear two mushers talk about how cold it is. We just don’t think about it.' The hardest thing for mushers, according to Danny, is sleep deprivation. 'The year Dad won the Iditarod he had 17 hours of sleep in 9 days.' He says overall conditioning is important. 'You have to be an athlete,' he says. His father is a USA Wrestling Team coach and between wrestling and mushing, he stays in good shape. 'I also think experience is why young mushers don’t win as much,' he says. 'The average age of winners these days in 50. The older groups can go longer, they have more experience in how to deal with the challenges.' Danny says he wants everyone to have fun at the Ididaride but education is also a big part of why they love to have visitors. Mushers run with what is called the 'Alaskan Husky.' After looking at my photos of a race, a friend told me she had expected the dogs to be big malamutes – but these dogs were so funny and scrawny looking they probably wouldn’t be adopted at the pound! Don’t be fooled, though. The dogs are carefully bred and trained – an average price for a good sled dog is $5,000! 'We choose very carefully who breeds,' Danny explains. 'These dogs are so competitive, nothing compares to their sheer physical ability. These dogs can run 1,000 miles in 9 days – and we’re looking for a dog that thinks it’s fun! Before Dad won the 2008 Alaska Sweepstakes (a 408 mile race that began 11 days after Mitch’s team finished the Iditarod), the record was 74 hours. I drew up a schedule that had him finishing in 72 hours.' Mitch didn’t think his dogs could do it but Danny reminded him that it had already been done, so they should try. 'And he did it in 63 hours!' Danny understands that it’s hard to look at your pet dog curled up in the living room and imagine him running 1,000 miles in the snow. 'But these dogs are different than what people are used to. These dogs are closer to a wild dog in some ways. They’re outdoor dogs with a strong pack mentality and running and pulling is in their nature. On the other hand,' he says,' they are domesticated, you can have them in your house and the car. We had a program for five year olds at the convention center not long ago.' 'We hope to show people what these dogs really are,' Danny says. 'But we really haven’t discovered all they can do – they’re phenomenal!' I agree! And I can’t wait for my Wayfarer friends to meet the Seaveys and these amazing dogs! Until then, you can learn more about the Seaveys and Ididaride and you can follow the Last Great Race, the Iditarod. Happy mushing! Champion Bloodlines - On our Alaska Walk we meet the Seaveys and their racing huskies.

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