Laura Neese - Nature's Kennel
Musher Laura Neese already knows who her Valentine will be on Feb. 14th: his name is Winkle.
“I jokingly call him my husband because I’m in love with the dog,” she said. “He’s awesome. If he were a person, he would be the perfect person. He’s quiet, kind of stays to himself, but when you’re around him, he’s super fun and happy. And he’s a hard worker, gets stuff done. He’s just awesome.”
As Neese gently coaxed her dogs out of harnesses and settled them into a bed of straw, she described the personalities of each canine team member.
She talked about Thomas, the dog that urges the team forward.
“Thomas is a true cheerleader, like climbing the summits,” she said. “Whenever we’d get to a really vertical spot and the team would slow down, he’d start barking, pounding in his harness, ‘C’mon guys, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.’” she said. “He likes to cheer the team on.”
Then there’s hyperactive Ramblin', prim and proper Aurora, and the ever-vigilant lead dog Maple.
She knows her dogs the way a person knows someone near and dear to them. Many long-distance mushers have this type of connection with their dogs since they spend an incredible amount of time together, both in training and during the race.
Like Neese, some mushers shared insights into the canine personalities that make the Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race such a colorful event in midst of a landscape of snowy white.
Maple and Elmer
Tim Pappas - 17th Dog
“Listen to this,” said musher Tim Pappas as he scratched the rear of his lead dog before heading out of Dawson. Superfly made low grumbling sounds of approval.
Pappas said he believes in getting his young team of dogs lots of rest and in not pushing them too hard. He said he’s happy to be doing so well in the race and attributes part of his team’s success to the 2 1/2 year-old Superfly.
“Superfly is superman,” said Pappas. “He’s just the greatest dog. He’s an incredible leader and he likes to go fast. He’s very enthusiastic and he’s all business …. and he likes to make noises.”
Superfly and Dirk in lead
Matt Hall - Smokin' Ace Kennels
Lead dog Anchor embodies drive, determination and a don’t-look-back, head down, charge forward attitude. Cocoa is always looking for trouble, especially if it smells like a fish rack. Little Rohn, a.k.a Pipsqueak, fancies himself the top dog of the kennel.
Matt Hall, who was the 2017 Yukon Quest champion last year, said all his dogs have unique personalities and it’s his responsibility to learn about them and connect with each dog. Making these connections, he said, is what builds loyalty and trust between dogs and musher.
“It’s every bit the dogs that win the race, but if you’re not there with your dogs and for your dogs the whole time, then you can’t expect them to do the same for you.”
Koyuk and Hamlet
Severin Cathry - Double E Kennel
Severin Cathry found a dog that he considers a perfect ten.
Her name is Tennis and she was born in Alaska on Oct 10, 2010. He explained that there are a couple “tens” in her birth date so “ten” became part her name.
She belonged to another musher before catching the attention of Severn Cathry. “She came up to me, leaned against my knee and looked for attention,” he said.
Cathry said Tennis doesn’t warm up to everyone, but that he and Tennis instantly connected. She’s has been a great sled dog for him ever since. Cathry doesn’t have his own kennel and is excited to bring Tennis back to Europe and possibly breed her.
“These blood lines of Alaska huskies – you don’t get them back home,” he said.
Claudia Wickert - Fox Creek Kennel
Claudia Wickert brought a lot of food on the trail with her.
“There was a sign for brownies on the trail, ‘Pick up your brownies,’” she said. “I’m like, I already have my brownie. It’s on my team.”
The two-time veteran of the YQ300 is a rookie in the 1,000 mile race. Quite a few of her dogs are named after chocolates and baked goods. When asked if she had a favorite dog, she said yes – all of them.
“Every dog is a bit different.” She added that many have cute eccentricities. Like Bagel: during the YQ300, he would rest his head on the shoulder of the dog next to him while still running.
“I think maybe he was sleeping while running,” Wickert said with a laugh. Or it could have been a sign of doggy affection. Bagel has yet to sleep-run during the 1,000-mile race, but there’s time yet.
She said her dogs are doing great on the trail. She did have to keep boys separate from girls during the first half of the race because two dogs went into heat. And the persistent cold was a bit daunting, but overall the dogs are doing well because they’re up for the challenge.
“They recover fast. They’re happy to go. They keep their speed,” she said.
Bernhard Schuchert - Porttikoski Kennel
There is a German story about a dinosaur egg that somehow survives extinction and Urmel the dinosaur hatches from it.
Bernhard Schuchert from Germany named one of the dogs on his team Urmel because he, too, is a survivor.
“Urmel was one of a litter that had a certain virus, and he was the only who survived,” he said.
Urmel is the son of one of Schuchert’s best leaders that is now too old to run the race. Handlers gravitate toward Urmel although they don’t really have a choice. The playful four-year-old chews on handlers, dragging them back into his company when they try to move on.
While some might term Urmel's behavior as immature, Schuchert said the dog has the mettle to compete in long-distance racing.
"He’s childish but he’s also a tough guy,” said Schuchert. “He’s still going strong, keeping his weight. He's a very solid dog.”
Vebjørn Aishana Reitan - Hulahula Kennel
Diva is anything but a diva. The female dog is a sweet, a fast runner that is always happy to see musher Vebjørn Reitan.
"She’s a really good motivator for me and helps keep me going when she’s happy,” he said. “She’s just a really nice girl. I really like her.”
She also doesn’t mind polar bears, which is a good thing since Reitan lives and seasonally trains in polar bear country in the northern Alaska island community of Kaktovik.
Reitan, who is Iñupiat and Norwegian, said he’s also partial to another sweet dog who is always ready to run. “His name is Niksik. It’s Iñupiat for hook,” he said. “When he’s running, his tail curls up and looks like a hook.”
Although Reitan appreciates how his dogs serve as his incentive to push forward, he hopes that he is returning the favor to them. “I want them to be mentally strong. I want them to pull hard and I want to be able to motivate them,” he said.