Sled dogs learn a bit differently than some other dog breeds and varieties. That is because sled dogs still live and function somewhat in a “pack”. (Although “team” might be a more politically correct term.) In saying that, I think our dogs learn a lot from their pack members. And this year, as I look through the recent Iditarod photos, one example has become very obvious.
The Iditarod Red Team was mostly a veteran squad. With the exception of Nelson, every member had been on the 1,000 race before. But, there was still an opportunity to pair up extremely knowledgeable veterans with relative newbies. So, during Iditarod, I decided to pair the ‘big dogs’: Mismo and Mac.
Mac, as many people know, is a highly talented, very confident, somewhat aloof, fantastic sled dog. Fantastic might even be an understatement. But, Mac was once a young novice and he learned the ropes just like Mismo is doing now. Mismo is happy, always ready to go and wants to please. I paired the two about half way through the race. My hope was that Mac would influence Mismo during the second (and more difficult) half of the race. In Sebastian’s photos, from Koyukuk on www.iditarod.com, you can start to see the pairing — often one or two positions up from wheel.
In the beginning the pairing went fine. I think that Mismo was still confident and strong on the Yukon River so they just ran together as a steady even pair. But, the run over to the western coast is always challenging. This year wind was very fierce and the sun was high above our heads. We even passed two unexpected dog teams that were camped just alongside the trail. This is an area that front runner Iditarod teams have quit before, so seeing those teams was emotional.
I noticed Mismo lean into Mac periodically after that and check in with him – nose to nose. I think novice dogs do this when they are unsure of a situation. If their partner barely acknowledges this nose touch and keeps working, that’s basically telling the novice dog: “It’s fine buddy. This is normal.”
The conditions got much worse along the western coast. When we left Unalakleet the wind was extreme — gusting to 40 mph. Mac is not a dog who will panic, just like his mother, Chica. They are steady, smart and unwavering. This helped Mismo stay completely calm when we came over a ridge and into a whiteout blizzard. We had lost the trail, but found Mitch Seavey and his team. Mitch and I took turns watching the both teams so that the other could search for the trail but never lose sight of the dogs. Our dog teams had to remain calm, stayed lined out in the fierce blowing snow and not panic. I am sure that Mac helped Mismo with that. After quite a bit of time and deliberate searching we found the trail again.
As we continued our race up the coast, I noticed Mismo acting more and more like Mac. In Koyuk, Mismo was almost cocky when the spectators flocked around the team. He was certainly gaining confidence. The two of them rested together in Elim and didn’t leave each other’s side for the next 150 miles. They were the strongest dogs in the team, pulling us up the mountains outside of Golovin. Then both of them enjoyed the kids that came to pet the team when we passed through Golovin village.
The final run from White Mountain to Nome was great for the pair despite a few challenges. There was some deep overflow that we side stepped. Then the run through the notorious ‘Blowhole’ (about 40 miles from the finish line) was extremely windy with gusts up to 35mph. But, in comparison to last year, which I am sure Mac remembers, this year’s situation was practically easy. Mismo picked up on this feeling and he now has complete confidence in windy situations.
Our run from Safety to Nome was in the middle of the day and their were spectators and fans everywhere. There must be thousands of photos of Mac and Mismo working together the last 22 miles. I have picked out a few photos that show how in tune these two dogs became. It’s really spectacular!
These last two photos are the best. Because no matter how much Mismo learned from Mac, he just couldn’t get the hang of sunbathing in Nome!