Today we went off to meet a rock star. Well, a rock start of the mushing world. Jeff King of Husky Homestead who is recognized as the “Winningest Musher in the World.” (OMG the grammar!) His victories include, not only the 1,049 mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race in 1993, 1996, 1998, and 2006, but he has also won over two dozen other sled dog races all across Alaska. And let me tell you, Jeff is quite the character – he was born and raised in California and was a huge Jack London fan (the author, that is) so as a young man he came to Alaska to see all the places London talks about in his books, and he’s never looked back.
Mushing dogs, racing them, breeding them, training them, caring for them and teaching others about them appears to be his whole life. The Husky Homestead sprung up around an interest that tourists have in the sled dog teams and how, and perhaps more importantly… why?? do people, like Jeff, put themselves through the very gruelling experience that is the Iditarod Race, year after year.
The short version is that the Iditarod is a trail that has existed for many more years than the 40 odd that they have been holding an annual sled dog race along it each year. The Iditarod trail has traditionally connected small villages all the way from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. It’s a supply line and a snow highway in the winter that keeps these people in touch. The 1200 mile race runs across very rugged and unpredictable terrain and during some of the most extreme weather conditions imaginable. These guys really go through hell and back – only that’s a bad analogy… because they might go the entire way in sub zero temperatures freezing their ‘nads off, racing through ice and snow, blizzards and rain, and all on barely 4-5 hours sleep a day causing severe sleep deprivation for the better part of two weeks.And they do it for fun! Every year! Sure there is a prize pool at the end of it and the prestige of having won the gruelling endurance race. But for every musher who is literally ‘in it to win it’ – it sounds like there are ten more who are there for the experience alone.
So, as I said, Jeff is a bit of a rock star in the mushing world, having been recognized for his contribution to the sport of sled dogging that spans the last 30 odd years. He is by no means the oldest active musher – that dude has never won but has entered for 37 years straight and is now in his 80s. He is probably not even the most famous – a woman named Libby Riddle was the first woman to win the race in 1985 and was followed up by Susan Butler who won in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1990 (after this spate of female musher champions, apparently there were t-shirts going around everywhere in the early ’90s saying: “Alaska – where men are men and women win the Iditarod!”) but Jeff is widely known for his impressive collection of other mushing titles, his several Iditarod championships, but also very importantly, his breeding and training programs, and his excellence with the dogs.
Part of Jeff’s success and renown has been due to his efforts in the local tourism industry, sharing his knowledge, his experiences and his very amusing anecdotes about the Iditarod. He also shares a lot about the life of a musher, and the role of being a sled dog ‘coach’ with his visitors at the Husky Homestead. Jeff’s philosophy is that he, himself is not an athlete – his DOGS are the world class athletes that get him across the line. His breeding program is strictly controlled, yet none of these dogs have purebred pedigrees. They are cross bred from various breeds including, but not limited to, Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Huskies, Labradors and Border Collies to name but a few. These dogs are not bred to be pretty, these dogs are bred to be smart, sturdy and most importantly because they LOVE to run. These dogs are so strong and sturdy and healthy, that Jeff likes to brag that of the 30 odd adult dogs he might have at the Homestead at any given point in time, his vet bills are less than those of his brother in California who keeps three purebred dogs as house pets!
Literally from the time they are puppies, all they want to do is run, Jeff has a purpose made hamster wheel for the pups to run in from the time they are a couple of months old. They also need lots of affection and socialization and that is where Jeff and his staff make the tourism work for them… the first thing they do when you come to visit is hand you a gorgeous little two or three week old husky puppy. The more people the puppies are exposed to, the less skittish they are, and the more socialized they become, and of course all the visitors love the puppies.
The Husky Homestead dogs all have various paths laid out before them – some will become sled dog champions on Jeff’s team, some will be sold to other competitive dog teams, and some will be sold as working dogs to the parks and properties of people who use dogs to patrol the land when the land is impassable by regular vehicles. Regardless of their destination though, you can tell these dogs are going to have happy lives, so long as they get to run. Even in retirement the dogs will still get to run, effectively teaching the younger dogs how it’s done. I’ve never seen 20 odd highly strung (and let me tell you they look about as tightly wound as a pro football team before a finals game ALL the time) all in the one space and getting along so well together, and a lot of that is due to the socialization they get on the property, from the visitors, the staff and of course with each other since birth.
Jeff’s informative presentation on sled dog racing and the famous Iditarod in particular, makes me want to come back to Alaska in early March and watch these amazing teams stream out across the Arctic tundra. Even though I live in the tropics and are used to the heat and humidity, I would totally go back next March if I could afford it – It must be such a sight to see! The way he describes the 75 teams each with 16 or so dogs all in a two block radius in downtown Anchorage just all raring to go and the air electrified with energy sounds like incredible. Going to see the Iditarod is definitely going on my Bucket List!