Judy WalgrenLet's go play in the backyard: A team of Swingly's huskies hits the trail at their owner's Montana ranch
YOU CAN HEAR THE HUSKIES HOWL. Deep in the Blackfoot Valley of Montana, a pack of sled dogs raise their muzzles and bawl in a chorus that could make the dead cry mercy. They know the man is coming. They know it's time to run.
Doug Swingley, 47, three-time winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, parks his four-wheel ATV in the middle of the dog yard and hitches a gang line to its front end.
"Are we A and C today?" asks Melanie Shirilla, Swingley's 28-year-old girlfriend and mushing protégée.
"A and C," says Swingley.
If it sounds like code, it is. By splitting his 27 racing dogs into three teams of nine, he can train every day and rest each dog every third day. Today groups A and C will run; tomorrow, B and C; then A and B. Now that Swingley is here, though, the yard is an exercise in Pavlovian conditioning run amok. "Diesel over there," Swingley says, pointing out the dark-haired wheel dog that powered his Iditarod 2000 team to the fastest race time ever posted. "He'll stand on his doghouse to get our attention. The howler, that's Copenhagen." Bundled up like a dairy farmer to fend off the 22-degree chill, the maestro stands amid the cacophony and plugs his ears.
As Shirilla goes about hooking up 18 of the strongest racing athletes in the world to the Kawasaki Bayou 300 for a strength-training run, Swingley tosses me a blaze-orange vest. "Here," he says. "Put this on so you don't get shot." It's late October, the third day of hunting season, and we're heading into prime Northern Rockies elk territory. If Lincoln, the closest town, rings a bell, it's probably because the Unabomber used to live nearby. This is get-yourself-lost country.
I zip up the vest and park myself on the back of the Kawasaki. The huskies are now yapping, howling, and hopping in the air. Swingley throws his leg over the saddle. "Hold on now," he mutters. As soon as he releases the brake, the rig leaps forward and I nearly tumble into the mud.
"All right, there you go," Swingley says—to the dogs, not me. He clicks his teeth—"ck-ck-ck"—and we're off, careening through the ponderosa pine–sweetened air of Stonewall Mountain.
About nine days after the mushers set off on March 3, the winner of the 2001 Iditarod will glide to a finish under the burled wooden arch in Nome, Alaska. Sportswriters and local wags will trade wisdom about how the race was won between Galena and Nulato, or maybe out on the windswept ice of Norton Sound. Yet if Doug Swingley rides to his fourth victory this year—and his third in a row—he will have won it not in the frozen interior of Alaska, but right here on the logging roads of northern Montana. And to the half-million Alaskans who live and breathe Iditarod, that just ain't right.