Dallas Seavey [all photos courtesy of Loren Holmes; http://lorenholmes.com]
Last week, 25-year-old Dallas Seavey became the youngest musher ever to win the Iditarod. A third generation musher—his father and grandfather (one of the race’s founders) are past Iditarod champions—Seavey grew up dog sledding and completed his first race when he was five. When he crossed the finish line on March 13 in Nome, after nine days and 975 miles on the trail, he edged out Aliy Zirkle, 41, by one hour, one of the narrowest margins in race history.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Sullivan caught up with Seavey and Zirkle, while they were still in Nome, to find out how they got into the sport and how young mushers can, too.
Seavey & co on the go [photo: Loren Holmes]
What was it like to run such a close race? Truly a nail-biter!
Aliy Zirkle: With 22 miles left to go, I realized winning wasn’t a possibility. We could see Dallas but not quite catch up with him.
I imagine that was pretty bitter sweet.
AZ: Bitter [pause] sweet, you could say that [laughs].
What was it like the first time you went out on a dog sled?
AZ: This was about 20 years ago. I went out with a good friend on a four-mile loop out to the lake and back. I remember the lead dog’s name was Moses. I was hooked from the get-go. For me, it’s always been all about the dogs—the way they slide down the Yukon River and perk their ears up. They are gorgeous.
Seavey and Zirkle (r) during a rare moment of rest mid-race [photo: Loren Holmes]
Dallas, how old were you when you started mushing?
Dallas Seavey: I’ve been around the sport my whole life, but I did my first one-dog race with Buster when I was five years old. He was ancient, 12 years old, but to me he was the best dog in the world. It was a straight shot, 1,000 yards long. A parent let go at one end and then the other parent was on the other end.
Do you remember the first time your dad put you in a sled?
DS: No, but there are some pictures of me in a car seat in a sled.
Aliy, how'd you get into mushing?
AZ: I was in my sophomore year of college in Philadelphia, and I saw a sign on the biology lab door, “Why would you want to be in Ddowntown Philadelphia studying biology when you could be in Alaska?” I decided right then and there I would go, and took a semester to go study with Fish and Wildlife Services. I fell in love with Alaska, the people, and the dogs. I went back to school, got my degree, and then tuck-tailed it back to Alaska and got a biology job. I was not young enough, compared to some of the guys! Dallas—he was little-little. But I have always been a dog person. I’ve had dogs pulling me around on scooters and skateboards since I was six.
What advice would you give to parents who are helping their young ones navigate the sport?
AZ: Dogs and kids go hand in hand. You need an outdoor area where you have the freedom to put hiking trails and snowmobiling trails together with kids and dogs. At first you can start by having the kids ski with their dogs. Then, you can put the dogs in harness and pull the kids on skis using one dog or two dogs—just a short run so that they have a good time and you have a good time. Then go out for a longer ski trip. But, obviously you need big areas—you’re not going to do this in Central Park or a small downtown park. And for kids, you have to make it comfortable. They need to be dressed appropriately. When kids are outside and warm and they’re playing, they come indoors with a smile on their face.
Dallas, has your 20-month-old daughter Annie started mushing yet?
DS: Yes, we’ve taken her out in the sled. She’s kind of a daredevil. She stands up and reaches her hand outside of the sled.
Dallas's dogs [photo: Loren Holmes]
What's your relationship like with your dogs?
AZ: The dogs are like people. They have pluses and minuses. Some of them are really smart: They know what they want to do and what I want them to do. Some aren’t that smart, but they want to please you, so they work to figure out what you want. Others are independent and want to tinkle on a bush. You can’t get frustrated with the dogs, they are like people: they are who they are and doing the best they can. I give them a chance to be themselves, and that is why they were so successful this year. They shined.
DS: There’s bond after thousands of miles of training and racing. Derby has been with me for the last five out of six Iditarod races, and I would not have gotten out of situations without Guinness’s strength and expertise.
Do you have any tips for aspiring young mushers?
DS: It’s a great sport that teaches responsibility and animal husbandry. I encourage a young person to get involved if they like dogs, but it’s not like a soccer ball that you can kick around for a week and then toss the ball in the closet when you get bored. Having a dog is a commitment to be respected. To get involved, be around the sport at least a winter to realize the time and responsibility it takes to do it properly. We have junior mushers and older people come and work in the kennel to learn. Our workdays are 12 to 14 hours long, doing vet care, preventative measures, mushing; it’s heavy work.
Do you mentor young mushers yourself?
AZ: I sponsor [a young musher named] Ruth Ann. She’s 11 years old, and I send her a little bit of money so she can do 20-mile races. There is also the Junior Iditarod, but I love the little races where you get the four- and five-year olds on a little one dog sled and they do quarter-mile track and hang on with huge smile on their faces. Our dog, Stormy is very patient with youngsters, so that’s important. We take the step nephews and grandbabies out, and holy cow they are a handful. They are the best part of it.
What if you want to be a musher, but don’t live in Alaska?
DS: There are camps available in some places [Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin], and within Alaska there are 4H clubs. Most mushing communities want to help young people get into the sport and do this by having them help out as an apprentice. We had a father and son from New York come out for over a month, and now they have a few dogs. Most top mushers are willing to help and support others getting into the sport. I’d love to see the Iditarod grow and survive and invite more people to join us who will respect the sport and its athletes.
What’s the first thing you ate when you got off the trail?
AZ: Nome is known for its seafood, so my family checked the crab pots and brought back ten king crabs. They were so fresh we didn’t even need to eat them with butter. Just crab and bread.
DS: I was starving coming off the Iditarod. Thankfully, my wife knows me pretty well, and she had a giant double bacon cheeseburger waiting for me at the finish line that hit the spot.
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
DS: Home. That sounds real nice about now.
—Elizabeth Eilers Sullivan