A lot of dog lovers must have been happy this week when Michael Vick’s book tour was called off. The last thing they wanted was a rehash, excuse or even an apology from a player many of them will never be able to forgive.
The news out of Alaska should make them even happier. For the fourth year in a row, no dogs died while running the 1,000-mile Iditarod sled race.
That isn’t such a big story in Alaska, where the race from Anchorage to Nome is an ingrained part of the state’s culture. People who live there understand the rugged outdoors is risky to both man and dog, and bristle at the suggestion that the more than 1,000 dogs competing annually in the race are somehow being treated inhumanely.
To them, the Iditarod is a celebration of all things Alaskan, a tribute to the hardy people who call the 49th state home. To the mushers themselves, it’s also a tribute to the dogs that carry them along the way.
“My dog team is my heart,” said Aliy Zirkle, a pretty good story herself after finishing runner-up for the second year in a row.
Some outside groups aren’t so sure that’s always the case in a race that attracted 65 mushers this year — including 13 rookies and 16 women — most of whom started with teams of 16 dogs each. Though the Humane Society of the United States has in the past done little but express concern about the toll of the arduous race on the dogs, other groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have been vocal in opposing any competition involving dogs in harnesses.
Six dogs died in the 2009 race, including Dizzy and Grasshopper, who met their demise in the Alaskan wilderness as the wind howled, temperatures dropped to 45 degrees below, and their owner fought for his own survival. Musher Lou Packer was found by race organizers on foot leading his dogs instead of the other way around as he struggled to find the trail in a brutal storm that hit the state.
But there have been no fatalities since that race. The dogs that start, for the most part, pretty much finish. Those that can’t are treated by some of the 52 veterinarians staffing the race and reunited with their owners afterward.
Mushers say their dogs are born to run, and happy doing what they do. A hundred miles of pulling a sled every day isn’t for the family pet, but these dogs are supremely conditioned and they spend their days running in front of the people who know them best.
“The Last Great Race on Earth” is quite a test, indeed, for man and beast, stretching across two mountain ranges and through some of the most remote Alaskan wilderness. The 41st version that ended Tuesday night when Mitch Seavey drove his team through cheering crowds to victory in Nome after nine days, 7 hours and 39 minutes on the trail was, by most accounts, about as good as sled racing gets.
Seavey and Zirkle dueled in a spring to the finish along the frozen Bering Sea coast with history at stake. Zirkle was trying to become the first female winner since the late Susan Butcher won her fourth title in 1990, while Seavey was trying to become the oldest Iditarod winner ever at the age of 53.
“This one was for gentlemen of a certain age who still have it going on,” Seavey said after winning by 24 minutes and holding one of his lead dogs, Tanner, in his arms for photographers.
The most interesting part for dog lovers, though, might be how he won. The former champion did it by, of all things, knowing when to give his dogs a rest.
“I admire the fact that Mitch can make a choice for his team to rest his team,” Zirkle said. “A lot of people who are out there and watch us and follow us on this race, they always say, `Go, go, go, go, and they never think of the stop, stop, stop, and the fact you have to refuel your animals and yourself.”
For the dogs it’s all physical. The mushers aren’t exactly just along for the ride, either, though the mental aspect of dealing with long hours alone on the trail may be the toughest obstacle of all.
“The brain kind of stops working somewhere along the Yukon,” Seavey said. “I offered Aliy a cough drop this morning. She decided it was too complicated to unwrap it.”
Zirkle is a rising star in mushing circles, and Seavey said afterward that she will not only win a race but probably multiple races in coming years. Seavey, whose son won the race last year and whose father raced in five Iditarods, won for the second time.
Asked if he would be back next year to defend, Seavey replied in true musher’s fashion:
“Of course, what else does one do?”
What else, indeed. In Alaska what they do is race dog sleds.
And, after week of being reminded about the worst things people do to their dogs, maybe that’s not so bad after all.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg
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