Dallas and Jen Seavey are two of the Iditarod Trail Race's up and coming stars. Their stories while different are not so unique to so many in Alaska enjoying a lifestyle focused on dogs and mushing.
Dallas is a third generation Iditarod musher, with his grandfather Dan Seavey and father Mitch Seavey having both competed in the "Last Great Race on Earth". Mitch won the Iditarod in 2004 while Dan's best finish was the inaugural race in 1973 when he finished third.
Dallas competed in the Junior Iditarod in 2005 and turned 18 years old just days later to make him eligible to compete in that year's main race just a couple of weeks later. He is the youngest musher to compete in the Iditarod Trail Race and the only person to compete in both in the same year. Just last month (Feb. 2011) Dallas won the difficult Yukon Quest as a race rookie. The YQ is another 1,000+ mile endurance race with teams traversing the harsh winter conditions from the Yukon Territories in Canada to Fairbanks, AK.
Jen came to mushing from an entirely different path, growing up on a ranch in New Mexico. As a young girl she knew she wanted to venture to Alaska and learn more about sled dogs and the Iditarod. The year after Mitch Seavey won the Iditarod, she decided it would be their kennel that she would attempt to sign on with. With an offer to join Seaveys, she bought a one-way ticket from New Mexico to Alaska. After working with the Seaveys she trained to run the Iditarod herself, completing the race in 2009.
Many in mushing approach the mushing lifestyle in this manner as a handler or kennel hand doing menial tasks like cleaning kennels as well as exercising and feeding the dogs. If you are interested in learning more, a great read is Lisa Frederic's "Running with Champions" telling her story of working with four-time Iditarod Champion Jeff King of Denali. The Midwest native worked for Jeff for a couple of years, until she was offered the opportunity to take one of his younger dog teams to Nome. She ran the Iditarod in 2002, finishing 47th in a field of 64. For Lisa, it wasn't what place she finished as much as she accomplished the goal of reaching the burled arch of Nome with her dog team.
As for the Seaveys, Dallas and Jen were later married and now own a successful kennel that includes personalized mushing tours near Willow and in the summer, Seavey's Wildride Sled Dog Rodeo in Anchorage. Many have spoken great things about their dinner show in Anchorage that features an entertaining demonstration of the strength and intelligence of these fantastic four legged athletes.
With Dallas out on the Iditarod trail, Jen was a most gracious hostess when Jane and I arrived for our tour on Monday afternoon. Working with handler Dale, she hooked up a team of eight yearling puppies and an experienced leader named Porter, for our run. She explained to us the role of each dog in their position on the line, as well as how puppies are trained running with older, more experienced dogs.
The dogs were all jumping and excited, hoping that they too would be picked to be harnessed. The barking and pouncing demonstrated how much these animals love what they do. With the tandem sled hooked up and ready to go, Dale led Jane and me down the small hill where Jen would bring the team down to begin our trip.
Since I had mushed previously, I encouraged Jane to actually mush the team and that I would ride in the sled basket. Ordinarily, couples mushing together like this will swap riding and mushing at about the midway point of the trip. I was more than happy to let Jane mush the entire length of our trip, as it provided me with additional opportunities to take photos. Jane did great in spite of what was later admitted to be a bit of uncertainty.
The ride was great, with the views of Mt. McKinley in the distance on the sunny clear day. We stopped a couple of time along their home trail in order to let the dogs cool down as Jen said that at 30F it was a bit warm for the dogs. They did great too, including an up and coming leader named Sierra who shared lead dog duties with Porter. He did a great job of keeping her inline and on task leading the other seven around the loop trail.
I know a lot of people visit Alaska in the summer and many kennels, including Dallas' dad Mitch, have summer tours offering mushing experiences on dirt or gravel trails utilizing specially designed sleds on wheels. For me, there is nothing like mushing on the snow, in the cold. I think I've been spoiled and cannot imagine summer mushing being nearly as enjoyable as what we experienced on this beautiful and crisp March afternoon.
Many kennels throughout Alaska offer mushing tours as this is one way that they can earn extra money to help support their kennels and racing expenses. I have read about those that allow guests to mush without the security of a tandem sled led by the experienced guide, as well as those that only allow guests to ride in the basket. I’m sure from a liability risk perspective of the later is the safest for the kennel owner, but may also be less exciting to those looking to feel the wind and snow in their face. I would not hesitate to do another tour and mushing experience with Dallas & Jen Seavey.
If you look around on the internet you can find plenty of kennels to consider as well as tour operators who have established relationships to offer such experiential tours. Expect to pay between $100 and $300 for a genuine sled dog mushing experience . . . and don’t forget to tip your kennel handler.