Call of the Wild

Training’s done and it’s time for the real thing. Dallas Seavey and his team begin the 1,150-mile Iditarod.

What do you do when you are fully loaded, ready to start a long, hard haul in extreme conditions and your power plant is a dog?

If you’re Dallas Seavey, you add 15 more dogs and let ‘er rip!

On his 20th birthday, Seavey mushed 16 sled dogs off the start line of Alaska’s 2007 Iditarod sled dog race and headed out into 12 days of extreme, often unpredictable adventure across 1,150 miles of scary desolation and stunning beauty. With him went one of the best-known names in the trucking industry: J.J. Keller.

“If it hadn’t been for the Keller sponsorship I could not have raced,” says Seavey. “I was very fortunate; I had the best sponsor. I’d raced in 2005 and I wanted to race again, but I couldn’t afford it. That sponsorship made a dream a reality.”

J.J. Keller’s president and long-time Iditarod fan James J. “Jim” Keller met Seavey in Alaska six months earlier when Keller and his wife took their 30th wedding anniversary trip, an Alaskan Cruise.

Rosanne Keller found the Seaveys’ dog team tour business online and set up a tour at a cruise stop.

It was a teenage Seavey who picked up the Kellers in Seward, 125 miles south of Anchorage, and in pouring rain he and his dogs took them on a summertime tour, pulling them on a wheeled vehicle because of the lack of snow.

Jim Keller came away from that brief meeting with an idea buzzing in his head: “This young man uses some of the oldest hauling equipment known to man, and he’s going to be in an extreme race – and one of our products is an extreme solutions package for the transport industries. Hmmmm.”

Keller’s company, J. J. Keller & Associates, helps trucking companies manage risk and liability, satisfy complex government regulations, and implement safety and compliance best practices.

Keller gave the Seaveys his card, and when Dallas phoned him two weeks later, they set up the company’s sponsorship of his 2007 run.

J.J. Keller’s support includes food and veterinary care for the dogs, food and health care for Seavey, and health, clothing and protective wear, including products to keep the dogs warm and their feet safe from sharp ice.

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“We work at the family dog team tour business in summer in Seward, but in the winter all I do is train and prepare for the race,” Seavey says. “I train 24-25 dogs at a time, all year. It takes way more money to get ready for it than you could ever win.”

Training includes bonding between musher and dog.

“These dogs have to trust their musher, to know that he will never ask them to do something they can’t do,” Seavey says. “And the musher has to trust the dogs, because when you are 200 miles from anywhere, they are your only lifeline. We have no GPS, no cell phone, no satellite or any other form of communication.”

Seavey, who in 2005 became the youngest musher (18) to finish the Iditarod, was born in Virginia, but his family moved back to Alaska when he was 6. His grandfather raced in the first Iditarod 30 years ago; his father Mitch is an Iditarod veteran, 2004 champion and a fellow racer this year; and two of his three brothers have raced. (The other brother is 10 years old, and there’s no doubt he’ll race one day.) At 20, Dallas Seavey was the youngest in the 2007 event.

Keller rode in Seavey’s sled for the 12-mile preliminary stretch that gets the teams and mushers loosened up for the next day’s official start at Willow Lake, 75 miles north of Anchorage.

The J. J. Keller team served as handlers in the starting chute and was the last to say good-bye to Seavey as he began the long northern journey to Nome.

Jim Keller recalls bursting with pride as Seavey raced away. Rosanne Keller recalls, “I was feeling like a mother; you can’t help that when he races out of sight into that huge, empty, dangerous place. To me it was incomprehensible that someone could do this, and for someone so young. I held my breath at every stage and exhaled every time he made it to the next checkpoint.”

Seavey says the race was not too tough on the dogs. “But it was cold and windy,” he says, “and that made it rough on the mushers. We had 80-90-mile winds at the top of Rainey Pass going over the mountains with zero visibility. And we had a 100-mile run on frozen tundra with no snow and tundra tussock everywhere. That stuff can be the size of a pineapple or the size of a basketball, and it’s frozen, and when there’s no soft snow to cushion it [the dogs] have very uneven footing and have to work real hard.”

The earliest Iditarods took more than 20 days, and now the record is less than 9 days. Seavey says the records are not the result of high-tech equipment – “we don’t use that stuff” – but of better-bred dogs, better nutrition for the dogs, and “most importantly, we are understanding more and more about how our dogs handle extreme conditions.”

Seavey finished the race in 41st place out of 58 finishers. Another 23 racers failed to finish, and one was disqualified. His father Mitch placed 9th. The race was won by Lance Mackey.

“This time I wanted to provide experience for the dogs, not to win the race,” Seavey says. “Mr. Keller understood that. The average age for dogs in a winning team is anywhere from 3 to 8, but mine were all 2 years except for one. I wanted to give them confidence on the trail, to let them see and feel the trail and to help their bodies build.

“They are very smart animals. They’re athletes, and I’m their coach. I want their confidence as high as it can go, and I think this year’s race did that. They think they’re unstoppable now.”

Who’s Who
Who raced the Iditarod with 20-year old Dallas Seavey? His fellow athletes were:

The Last Great Race
Iditarod mushers and their teams of between 12 and 16 dogs travel 1,150 miles from Anchorage to Nome, covering some of the roughest terrain you can imagine – mountains, forests and tundra, frozen rivers and coastland open to howling winds. Sometimes the weather reduces visibility to zero. Sometimes it brings body-numbing cold.

The race trail harks back to trails used by dog sleds to deliver mail and supplies from coastal towns to interior mining camps. Part of the race trail became the site of a dramatic life-saving dash by mushers in 1925 when isolated Nome was hit by a diphtheria epidemic and the medicine needed could only reach the town on sleds.

Mushers train their dogs much like thoroughbred trainers with a stable of racehorses.

They have to train themselves for the race, too. The rules require mandatory rest stops and stops at checkpoints, and every musher must take certain items along – a special ax, food for himself, food for the dogs, a special heavy parka and sleeping bag, and boots for the dogs’ paws in case they hit sharp-edged ice or hard-packed snow.

“These guys are not wealthy athletes,” says Jim Keller. “By the time they finish, most mushers have nothing left in their checkbooks. The winner this year (Lance Mackey) won a new pickup truck, and that was the first new one he’s ever owned. Most racers have to work all year to pay for the thrill of being in the race. But they wouldn’t have it any other way. And they don’t want modern gadgets like cell phones or GPS or satellite communications, because if they race, and if they win, they want to know they won the same race the old-timers did, that they’re just as hard, just as tough, just as good.”

This is not a racecar format – mushers do have to run the same trail, but they can, within some parameters, choose how to run it. For example, they can choose, again within the regulations, which hours to run and which to rest. Dallas Seavey says mushers can start with 12-16 dogs, but most will leave some behind at checkpoints (attended to by volunteer veterinarians if they are tired or injured) and 8-10 is the ideal number for the finishing miles. Seavey began with 16 and finished with 14 as he worked to get them experience, leaving behind only a tired dog and one with a minor toe injury.