MindWise Musher by Mitch Seavey
As an Iditarod Musher I meet and talk with a lot of people. It’s expected, of course, at events, presentations, and races but hey, in the convenience store? Standing at the urinal?
“Hey Mitch! How’s it going?”
I look down and think to myself “A little slower than when I was 18,” — but I cheerfully respond with my signature sarcasm (still looking down) “Depends on who you ask.”
“How’s the team? Gonna beat Dallas this year? Us old guys gotta stick together.”
“Old?” I think, “Speak for yourself. I don’t feel any older than I did 10 hours ago.”
“Dallas who?” I respond.
“I’m Fernando Schplittensalmon, nice to finally meet you.”
I’m thinking “Do we have to shake right now? Hands, I mean.”
“My pleasure, thanks for supporting the Race.”
So, Fernando isn’t leaving any time soon, which is fine because I like him already and I need to wash my hands. Twice.
“Who’s your leader this year? What do you feed them? How many dogs do you have in your kennel?”
The echo fades off the bathroom tile and the men’s room falls silent, except for that toilet that won’t quit running. Thank goodness for the electric hand dryer – you know the one with the three instructions on the front and someone has added number 4 with a pocket knife: 4) Wip hands on pantses.
I obey number 4 and try to escape, but Fernando is no quitter.
“160……?” He follows me out.
“Ok Fernando, grab us a coffee and we’ll sit down over there. 24-ounce, black.”
Here’s how it works:
I usually raise about 30 pups a year. (Dang this is hot!) Best possible breedings I can do. They are harnessed up the first time at 9-12 months and they all run and pull like “beings possessed.” 100% crazy pullers, so they all have a future as sled dogs.
It’s kind of like a Labrador Retriever and water, or a Border Collie and sheep. They just can’t help themselves. Put a true sled dog pup in a pack and start moving and 100,000 years of instinct kicks in. They will run with the pack.
Most of the dogs at our kennel at any given time are not going to race with me. We have two major summer tour locations which means there are approximately 150 dogs giving rides all summer. Short rides – two miles. Almost any sled dog can enjoy doing that – even dogs not totally sound – but especially youngsters. There are 30-40 more on “week off” at the main kennel. We maintain a rotation so if anyone gets tired or bored they can go on holiday.
“Wait, you said 150 plus 40 at home.” The math contorts Fernando’s features. That’s, that’s …. more than you have, right?”
Fernando’s wife is honking the horn so I don’t actually do the math either. Anyway, Fernando’s math is spot on. I do use more than I have. So, I use other mushers’ dogs for summer tours as well.
We also do winter expeditions. Last winter we had a big tour on the Iditarod Trail ahead of the race, so combined with three teams in the race, we had 100 dogs on the trail at one time.
Because of the success we have enjoyed (and because our dogs are awesome) we are able to sell as many dogs as we want. I usually limit sales to 20-30 per year to maintain the kennel size but demand for dog sales far exceeds my ability or willingness to meet it. It’s worth pointing out that most sled dog kennels aren’t into racing at all, and their needs are different than those of a top racing kennel. A good honest puller that may not make a racing team still contributes mightily to a weekend camping team. Handled correctly, every last one of my dogs is a good honest puller. And, I race against a lot of my own dogs every year.
So, I have the luxury of selecting my favorites for my race team as they progress through the program. Puppies are raised in our large pens by Sasha the “Prince of Pups” and regularly loosed in our big run pen. Yearlings run 1500 miles for the season, capped with a few camping trips or a minor race in the spring.
The “pup team,” consisting of mainly two-year-old dogs, runs the Iditarod every year. These are the guys looking to make the A-team the following year, if there are openings. I select the dogs I want for my team. The rest become part of the tour group or are sold.
Fernando’s wife honks again.
“How do you do all of that by yourself?” he asks, “You must work around the clock.”
Presently there are six of the best dog men I have ever worked with helping me with the kennel. Sasha, Seth, Ryan, Pete, Grayson, and Hal. These guys are crazy in love with dogs and the toughest “cowboys” anywhere. I don’t ask what they do on their day off but “come Monday” they are helping create the phenomenon of the long-distance sled dog of the future.
I usually work seven days a week, either with kennel management or directly with my A-team. Ryan is the A-team handler and he and I work exclusively with the 26 dogs in the main race group. As training intensifies and the race draws closer these guys become my entire focus.
“Do you want to hear their names?” I ask. Fernando’s objection is weak so I forge ahead.
Pilot, Port, Train (three littermates at the top of the list), Bug and Glitch, the only two in a rare unscheduled litter, hence the names. (Their father amazingly dragged a 150-pound dog house over 40 feet to get to the female.) Kevlar and Zin, another pair of brothers. Kevlar is the one that never goes in a dog house….
Fernando breaks eye contact.
Mrs. Schplittensalmon, having abandoned the horn, rounds the potato chip rack hands on hips. Fernando’s hands raise instinctively.
“Oh, it’s Mr. Seavey! I just love following you and your brother on the Iditarod”
“He’s my son.”
“Well, he sure is handsome.”
“Thanks, I guess.”
“I just always wonder what happens to those magnificent dogs when they get too old to race,” she demands.
Fernando tries to shush his wife, but Mrs. Schplittensalmon is not a woman to be shushed.
“Well?” she insists.
The main race dogs live out their whole life at our kennel. The rest are mostly sold when they are much younger and contribute to other teams.
Mrs. Schplittensalmon is already eying the coffee machine.
Retired A-team dogs do tours, help train the pups and some live in the shop and sleep on Sasha’s bed with the cat. (We’ve recently added on to Sasha’s room.) Some find homes as pets.
Mrs. Schplittensalmon has made her move on the coffee and as she takes a seat beside Fernando, I smell vanilla hoity-toity something or other and her car horn goes off. Car keys and panic button in the pants pocket, I’m guessing.
She and Fernando energetically search their respective wardrobes for the offending key fob. I drain my coffee cup. Lowering it, I see they have progressed to searching each other’s wardrobes.
I should have ordered a 12-ounce but I forego a stop at the little boy’s room in favor of a hasty retreat. I need to stop down the road and let the dogs out of the truck anyway.
I realize our fans have questions and they deserve answers. Driving along, I resolve to get more information out to our friends who support us.
Ah, at last a quiet, lonesome roadside pullout. Ah …. ;o)
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