Dog is My Copilot

Look out, Alaska: Doug Swingley is coming back. And this time he's… happy. The author picks the brain of the greatest musher in the Lower 48 and reveals his cunning plan to slay that 1,100-mile-long monster of the North, the Iditarod, for the fourth time.

Mar 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

Judy Walgren

TWO HOURS INTO THIS MORNING'S workout, the tongues are flying like little pink scarves. The huskies bite snow for water; they crap midstride. As the team trots down the road, a couple of miles from home, Fungus lifts his tail and adds a piquant fragrance to the morning air, giving Swingley an immediate report on his gastrointestinal health. Stool formation: excellent.

People unfamiliar with sled-dog racing think the Iditarod is won by the best musher. Mushers will tell you it's won by the best dogs. The right bunch of huskies could pull Pavarotti to Nome. (He wouldn't win, but he'd get there.) Two years ago, in fact, Swingley fractured his ribs on the first day of the race—took a corner too sharp and drove a battery pack into his chest. He survived the next eight days on Aleve. And won.

Back when it was just him and Greg, it was solely about winning. These days, it's about building the perfect running, barking, stool-producing machine, and having a good time doing it. Beyond that, Swingley doesn't divulge much about his victories. "To be honest," he says, "by the time you get to Nome, you're so damn glad it's over that winning is just a bonus." But ask him about his dogs—now there's a juicy topic. "I've got this dog named Elmer," he says. "Named him after Elmer Fudd, 'cause he'd make a great cartoon character. One ear flips up, the other flips down, and he's got a dorky looking nose. But he's run seven Iditarods, six as my leader, twice as champion. We bred him with 15 or 20 females, and now his kids and grandkids are on my first team—his son Peppy, daughter Stormy, granddaughter Cola. That dog loves his work more than anybody."

A great football team takes on the character of its head coach, and the same can be said of a great dog team. There's a lot of Swingley in Elmer, and now there's a lot of Elmer spread around the team. Elmer's 77 in dog years. Later this month he'll run the Iditarod again, the old man breaking in Swingley's yearlings. His coach expects nothing less of himself. "I'm already the oldest Iditarod champion," Swingley says. "And if the dogs keep getting better, I'll still be winning in my sixties." Not that winning is the point. "The race—ahhh, I can take it or leave it sometimes. But it allows me to keep working with the dogs, to do what I love the most." He smiles. "That's what makes me so dangerous.

Contributing editor Bruce Barcott lives in Seattle.