By Alan Sorensen
Iditarod mushers and their teams hit the Alaska trail Sunday, hoping to be the first to cover the 1,100 mile route from Anchorage to Nome.
At about the same time, Sam Pease and his daughter, Ja-Nal, were heading to the Bear Paw Mountains south of Havre to give their team a run through the snow.
Pease, who has been raising Siberian huskies for a five years, finally put together a team three years ago. He started working them with a sled with wheels then and started working them with a snow sled two years ago.
Pease's lead dogs are Icja (pronounced Ishwa), the mother, and Ringo, one of her sons. In line behind Icja are Peaches, Benitez and Meija. Ringo is trailed by Lopez and Varga, the father. To complete an 8-dog team, Pease frequently borrows a friend's dog.
Pease, who's spent the last few years training his dogs as they were bred, said the process of grooming a lead can begin when they're still very young.
"You start when they're young," he said. "You put on a harness and let them drag something around a small log, empty tire.
"If they come from sled dog parents, it seems that, instinctively, they want to pull. But if a few generations were in the show ring, they're not very good at pulling."
Nutrition is important for the working dog.
"The type of food that I use is from the National brand and it carries a high protein and fat content, along with other vitamins, minerals and nutrients," Pease said. "I usually feed that during the winter months when they're running hard and then go to a lesser protein and fat content in the summer when it's too hot to run them. They don't get over fed, they get portioned out by weight and they stay fit year around. It's better for them healthwise."
Those types of dog foods are comparable in cost when you're feeding healthy working dogs to cheaper brands that can be irritable for the dogs.
Today he has only his seven, five which belong to him and two that are relatives' animals. There's little doubt that they're glad to be in the mountains and about to go sledding. Each dog as it's set on the ground begins barking, crying or singing. Meija is the only that only one that doesn't immediately go to the side of the truck and wait to be hooked up. She has been a house pet at the Peases' and decides that she wants to roll around on the ground and play with Ja-Nal. Ja-Nal eventually prevails and Meija appears to be excited about the impending job of pulling a large one-man sled through the snow.
Pease constructed an 8-dog kennel for his pickup box. With four units on each side, the kennel is set high enough that Pease can load his sled, which only weighs 32 pounds, and other items on the pickup bed.
A contractor, Pease purchased many of the sledding equipment from Anandac Sled Dog Equipment of Olney. Other items he has jury-rigged himself, such as quick-release clamp for hooking the dogs up to the tow line, which he also made.
"I hook it on the end of the pickup; the rope goes through here, and when it's time to go, I release here and they're ready to go," Pease said, making the process sound simple.
Hoisting the dogs out of their rooms aboard the pickup and onto the ground and then lined up on along each side of the pickup is a major accomplishment. But it's a task that Sam and Ja-Nal seem to relish. Once the dogs are tethered to the chain link line running each side of the pickup, the Peases fit them with their cloth harnesses.
The sled is removed from the pickup and the line that keeps the string of dogs together is stretched out along the ground. The dogs are then led, one at a time, from the truck to the line and hooked up, beginning with the lead dogs and working back toward the sled. When the two are on the job together, Ja-Nal holds onto the end of the line opposite the sled and facing the dogs. She keeps them calm while Sam brings each one up and hooks it to the line.
"Sometimes, I'll take them out in a lone run, but most of the time (Ja-Nal) comes along with me to help out and handle the dogs," Sam said. "One time I was alone, I was three miles out and had to get them untangled, and they took off. I had to walk all the way back. They usually go right to the pickup."
The process is lengthy and seems to take forever, but Ja-Nal said it actually only takes a few minutes to get the team strung out.
"It depends on how their attitude is, probably five to 10 minutes," she said, "not too long."
When the dogs are all secured to the line, either Sam or Ja-Nal takes the sled by the handles and yells the commands that get the team going and keeps it going.
"There are some universal commands drivers use, for mule teams, horse teams; we use those," Pease said. "Gee for right and haw for left."
There are several required pieces of protective gear in dog sledding. One of those is the shock absorber where the line meets the sled. It is comparable to the spring action that allows skiers to adjust their balance when taking off on a t-bar.
"It's used when you have six or more dogs," Pease said, "so if they put a lot of slack in the line and take off, it's not such a jerk on the line."
The sled dogs are much like any other dog. Ja-Nal, who's on staff at Eagles Manor, said the dogs are a lot like pets. Her dad agreed, but added that they are trained hunters and can cause cats and other small animals problems when they get out.
"They were bred to be loyal to man and also as hunters," Pease said. "Once in awhile they'll get loose and I'll chase around the community. And we have real good neighbors."
Pease said Siberian huskies were first introduced in Alaska about 1924. Shortly after that, an epidemic broke out in the Alaska wilderness and the dogs were used to sled supplies and serum to the remote villages. "That's how the Iditarod started," Pease said.
While the Peases have yet to enter a race, they have done a lot of research and plan to enter some next year. Last year, they went to Polebridge and provided volunteer help for those races.
"They have races all around Montana," Sam said. "There's the 350-mile Race to the Sky. That originated in Helena and the last couple of years they run through the streets of Helena, then the 350-mile race starts in Lincoln and goes up by Seeley Lake and around."
Other races are the Whitetail Ranch race near Ovando the second week in December and one up at Polebridge. Most races are for six- and 12-dog sleds, Pease said. The six-dog teams usually cover courses ranging between 10 and 20 miles and the 12-dog sleds race from 20 to 45 miles. "It depends on how the course is rated, hard or flat," he said.
First-time racers must compete in a novice event, though, before entering a race, Pease said.
"They'll have a real small course sometimes set up for novice mushers," he said. "If you haven't run before, the officials want you to bring your dogs, let them get used to the other dogs, then run a four- to six-mile novice course to get used to it.
"They'd rather see the new people take that course, get the dogs used to running the trail or path and officials can get a look at how the dogs work with the trail, with the musher and around other dogs."
Pease said one of the great concern of officials and mushers alike is the dogs' safety. Care of the dogs is paramount.
Each musher is required to have particular gear on their sleds before setting off in a race.
"They have to have a dog bag in case a dog gets injured," Pease said. "You put the dog in the bag and let it ride on the sled."
Mushers also are required to have a sleeping bag, over-night survival kit, food enough to last themselves and their dogs a few days, a hot pot for melting snow so the dogs have water to drink.
Pease said he finds sledding invigorating and challenging and that he hopes to get community children involved. It's been a good family hobby; everyone takes an interest in the dogs.
By the way motorists slow to watch the pair with the dogs or the team in action, it shouldn't be hard to get kids and their parents interested, Ja-Nal said.
"There's a lot of people when we're out here who stop and watch us," she said. "A lot of people when the ski bowl is open."