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

The results of his effort to build the perfect running, barking, Iditarod-winning machine.

DOUG SWINGLEY LOOKS a little like Bruce Willis—with more hair, that is, and a sharp-cut nose—and his 40-acre spread resembles something the actor-cum-gentleman rancher might call his clubhouse: a former hunting guide's log cabin fronted by a golden meadow. Behind, national forest land rolls 150 miles to the Canadian border. It's all the training ground he needs.

It costs about $30,000 to run the Iditarod, but it costs a lot more to win—up to $200,000. Like most elite mushers, Swingley maintains a kennel of 50 to 80 dogs. It's a full-time business financed with prize money (the Iditarod winner takes home upward of $60,000 and a three-quarter-ton Dodge Ram pickup), sponsorship deals, personal appearance fees, and dog sales.

Like auto racing, sled-dog racing tends to be a family affair. At the track you've got the Petty and Unser dynasties; on the trail you've got the Redingtons and Mackeys, dog-smitten families that have turned out generations of mushers and hordes of huskies. This clannishness tends to make interlopers like Swingley, who didn't start racing until he was 36, all the more conspicuous. But what his opponents don't seem to realize is that he's been preparing for the race most of his life.

Swingley's parents, fourth-generation Montanans, owned a cattle ranch in Simms, a few miles west of Great Falls. In classic Western tradition, they raised their three daughters and two sons to be hard-driving athletes and experts in animal husbandry. Doug won a baseball scholarship to Stanford; his brother, Greg, two years younger, competed in gymnastics at the high school and college levels. After graduating from Stanford with a business degree in 1975, Doug returned to Montana and animal husbandry. He started a mink ranch, got married, had a couple of kids. By the late 1980s he'd built up one of the biggest mink operations in the state, but he was burning out. At the time, Greg had just taken up the mushing game, studying at the knee of Terry Adkins, a Montana dog breeder who had run in the Iditarod since the mid-1970s. Doug soon came down with mushing fever. In 1991 he sold the mink farm, signed on as Greg's partner, and began investing in huskies, traveling to remote Alaskan villages to seek out promising pups. One summer day he showed up on Joe Runyan's porch and talked his way into the dog yard. "Doug understood genetics and the importance of bloodlines," recalled the 1989 Iditarod winner. "He'd raised horses, cattle, rabbits, bird dogs, mink. And mink are real touchy animals."

The Swingleys took a team of rejects from the kennels of Adkins, Runyan, now-retired four-time-winner Susan Butcher, and Rick Swenson, and quickly turned them into overachievers. While Greg became a perennial front-runner in premier mid-distance tests like Minnesota's Beargrease 500, which he won twice (he stopped competing three years ago), Doug set his sights on the 1,100-mile-long monster of the north.

In March 1992, the Montana rookie shocked Iditarod fans by bolting out of Anchorage and pacing the field for the first two-thirds of the race. Three years after entering the business, in his first Iditarod and only the fourth dog race of his life, Doug Swingley finished ninth. Always tight-lipped, he let his actions tell the story: Gentlemen, I'm not racing poodles here.