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

Leader of the pack: Swingley at home in Montana.

IDITAROD MUSHERS ARE to Alaska what NASCAR drivers are to the South. Entire towns are known for them. Utter the name Shishmaref and people think of Herbie Nayokpuk, the legendary "Shishmaref Cannonball." Mention Galena, they recall the late Carl Huntington, the only musher to win both the Iditarod and Anchorage's Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sprint. But Lincoln—where's that again? When Swingley went up to Alaska with his Montana dogs and snatched the silver cup in 1995—the first non-Alaskan ever to win the 1,100-mile epic—the locals were nonplussed. It didn't help diplomatic matters much that this usurper of the dogsled throne also managed to embarrass the field with a record time: nine days, two hours, and 42 minutes.

"I heard a lot of people commenting, 'We can't let an outsider win,' " recalls three-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser, who moved to Alaska from Switzerland in 1979. "Alaskans take it pretty seriously. Sometimes I joke that when I'm doing good I'm from Alaska, and when I'm not doing so good I'm a Swiss immigrant."

Outsider: In Alaska, it's a loaded term, denoting not just an alien quality, but a certain naïveté and softness. An outsider may have the steel spine to survive up there, but until he cashes his Permanent Fund check—an annual oil-revenue dividend issued to residents who survive a full year in the state—he's not an Alaskan. Outsiders have been a regular staple in the Iditarod ever since it started, in 1973, but strictly as comic relief. They're the heartwarming feature story, the English dandy running poodles—not serious competitors.

But this outsider refused to go away. He posted second-place finishes in 1996 and 1997. In 1999, he won again. The 1,500 residents of Lincoln threw a parade to thank him for making their town known for something other than Crazy Ted. Alaskans offered no such tributes. The day Swingley pulled into Nome, Leo Rasmussen, former mayor and then-president of the Iditarod Trail Committee, made noises about race winners needing to prove themselves as "true champions." True champions? In eight straight Iditarods, Swingley had never finished out of the top ten. Still, the grumbling was that the Montanan hadn't paid his dues. "It may be hard to quantify," wrote Anchorage Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman that March, "but the anybody-but-Doug feeling is real."

Swingley let it all roll off his back. "The hard-core Alaskans had a difficult time after the '95 win," he says. "Now they seem more resigned to the fact that I ain't going anywhere."

Last year the champ returned to Anchorage with his strongest team ever, and a new strategy. Top mushers are always spying on each other, looking for ploys to shave time—like how the other guy gets 64 booties on and off his dogs at a rest stop. Swingley had seen Rick Swenson, a five-time Iditarod winner, pull psych jobs on others, so he decided to try a little mind game of his own. For the first 500 miles of the race, he deliberately maintained a sluggish pace. "Everybody's coming up saying, 'Y'know, Doug, everybody says you've got a good team, but it's not as good as the one you had last year,'" Swingley recalls. "And I'd say, 'Yeah, I guess you're right. I dunno; sometimes you get kennel blind.' "

After five days of sandbagging, Swingley took his foot off the brake and floored it. Two hundred miles from Nome, Swenson was asked to gauge Swingley's lead. "Nobody's going to catch him with dog power," he said ruefully. Swingley beat his '95 time, clocking in at nine days and 58 minutes. It was a new race record, and tantalizingly close to the Holy Grail of the sport, the four-minute mile of mushing: an eight-day Iditarod.