After 30 hours of travel, I landed in Fairbanks Alaska meeting a well-renowned musher named Sebastian. Sebastian and I had exchanged a couple of emails and had two phone calls, and I felt like he was very capable of taking myself, with no dog sledding experience and within ten months of training teach me everything I need to know to compete in the Iditarod. The Iditarod is called one of the world's toughest races traveling 1000 miles from Anchorage to Nome. The entire race is self-supported with no outside help allowed. The race takes between 9 and 12 days where you and your dogs sleep outside in -40 degrees Celsius temperatures.
This challenge is not one; I am taking on lightly because there is not just myself I need to worry about, however, 16 dogs that are on my team pulling me. The health and wellness of these dogs are critical, and I well need to learn how to address and solve medical issues with the dogs or they could become seriously injured or die.
Sebastian arrived at the airport in a 1980 Mercedes wearing a Canadian goose jacket and greeted me with a large smile. On the hour drive to his kennel, he regaled me with his past stories of winning the Yukon 1000 and getting second place in the Iditarod. Being 7:30 in the morning he explained because it's January the sun doesn't come up until around 10:00 am and it's pitch black at 4:00 pm. We arrived at his home welcomed by 29 dogs excited to see us. Before I could even throw my stuff into the house, he put me to work cleaning up dog poop in the yard. He said this is a necessary task each day. During this, “Necessary task” he showed me how to approach the dogs by getting low and putting my hand out for them to sniff. Giving the dogs time to warm up to me.
After throwing my stuff into the house and finishing breakfast, Sebastian dressed me in some really warm snow gear. The first thing he wanted to do was attach the sled behind the snowmobile and take me through the trails to teach me the needed dog commands and see if I could stay on the sled. I asked him a couple of times techniques on how to say on the sled, and he wouldn't even entertain the question. He said, “You will have to figure out what works best for you!” He also threw in there a couple of times, “If you mess it up the dogs will pull you directly into trees, and it hurts!”
With the sled attached to the snowmobile I gave Sebastian the call to start moving forward, "Ready, let's go!!" As we moved forward, I held on for a good 15 second until we went around our first turn and I immediately fell off the sled letting go and landing into the snow. Sebastian came running over to me explaining you can never let go of the sled. If you let go the dogs will keep running, and you will be left without anything.
“Shit!” I want this guy to teach me how to compete in one of the toughest races in the world, and I fell off the sled within 15 seconds.
Shaken up, I jumped back on the sled determined not to let go no matter what. Sebastian took it slow with me going over the commands to start and stop the dogs. We soon arrived back at his home without me falling off again.
It was now time to attach dogs to the sled. Sebastian went over how to put the harnesses and booties on the dogs, where each dog position in the team is and how to attach the dogs to the rope or gang line which then attaches to the sled. Within about an hour we had his team of 12 and my team of 7 dogs set up and ready to go. I was excited and looking forward to what's about to come. We stood on the backs of our sleds and gave the command to the dogs, "Ready, let's go!!". The dogs started to move forward. I figured to stay on the sled I would keep my knees bent and try to stay on the inside of every turn. That plus what I later learned by using the break a little bit around the turns I could control if I was on the inside or the outside of the turn. Probably a good technique to learn so that I could avoid hitting a tree. We stayed on mostly flat land going through fields, side of the road, over frozen rivers, and through the forest. The temperature was above normal, and the sun seems to be always setting. We traveled 30 miles with the dogs today, and without me falling off or hitting any trees, I consider that success. At the end of the run, Sebastian said, “What we did today is what he would normally do with people on day five.”
“You need to be at level 100 to win the Iditarod or level 70 to complete it. After today you are level 2. Pretty good.” he said, “For your first day!”
Over the week Sebastian showered me with knowledge to the point I knew I had to come back again next year to complete the qualifying races to run the Iditarod in 2018.