In March 2017, Mitch Seavey and his dog racing team completed the Iditarod in eight days, three hours, forty minutes, and 13 seconds. The first place returned prize money in excess of $70,000, and he established a world record that stands today.
Go to Seward, Alaska, and you can visit the home of that racing team, be pulled in a golf cart by the dogs through woodsy terrain and meet the future stars in all their adorableness.
“The dog cabins are much nicer than our crew cabins, but we don’t talk about that,” Allikz, our guide tells jokes. “They have running water, Wi-Fi, and air-conditioning. The crew cabins basically have insulation.”
The dogs enjoy fine dining (by canine standards) as well. They are fed a special kibble called Dr. Tim’s Fusion Mix, and receive chicken skins and turkey skins, chicken fat and beef fat, salmon, halibut, and moose, amongst other culinary delights. They serve it uncooked as cooking “takes the nutrients out of it.”
Like many others involved in the operation, Allikz is part of the Seavey family. Her father Danny drives the shuttle bus which picked me up in the town of Seward and drove the roughly-15 minute ride to the complex, which consists of a handful of the cabins and pens, a small visitor center, and a covered deck where the pre-ride talk takes place. Along with me are another 11 people, including a family of five that will end up being my riding companions.
Allikz shows us a map and recounts a brief history of the Iditarod. People in Alaska, particularly those from Native villages, used dogs as a means of transportation and daily activities. The 1960s saw a decline as the snowmobile gained popularity. Dorothy Page, a chairwoman of the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee, had the idea of a race over the Iditarod Trail, a historical route from Seward to Nome. Two other individuals, Joe Redington, Sr., an experienced dog musher, and his wife Vi joined in the vision. The first Iditarod occurred in 1973.
The Seavey family came to Alaska soon after it became a state. The family has had seven Iditarod winners across four generations. They’ve given tours for the last three decades. Their operations are not limited to the Seward location, but the tours only happen here.
Each cabin holds up to seven dogs. They always keep two out in the pen, never more because they can get too riled up. The genders are kept separate for obvious reasons, but the boys “develop crushes on one another.”
Some of the dogs have already been in the Iditarod, including the 2017 championship team with Mitch, and most will be in the coming year. They are not pure-bred Alaskan Huskies, but rather a combination of breeds, including Siberian huskies, German shepherds, and hounds.
The dogs appear too skinny to many people, but they’re not. Fully grown males weight between 45 and 65 pounds, females between 25 and 45 pounds. Males and females can pull the same weight.
“They are really small dogs for what they do,” Allikz says. “If they look skinny, it’s because your house dog is overweight.”
But don’t think the dogs are all work and no play. After telling us how the humans alter the routes on a regular basis because otherwise the dogs get too smart for their own good, Allikz calls out “Axel, why do you have a glove?”
Axel stops, realizes he’s been seen, and trots back towards the cabin with the glove still in his mouth.
The group is split into two and I’m in the middle of three rows, behind two kids. For the ride, we have Cayla as our guide. She lays out the harnesses, all connected like rungs on a rope ladder. The dogs are put into position, in six rows of two, and stir with excitement. The barking, and yelping, whining, and howling starts.
Then in the neighboring pen, the other team of dogs is brought out and hooked up. The noise from both teams fills the air, and the guides open the gates. The guide removes a wooden block, climbs on the back of the cart, and with a simple command the dogs are off and running. Our lead dogs are none other than that glove-thieving Axel and one named Rocco. They are each about a year old, which is noteworthy because typically a dog that age that’s in the lead is paired with an older dog.
The golf cart lurches forward, and we quickly gain speed. A steering mechanism in the back, which resembles a giant shovel handle, is connected to several tie rods under the cart, allowing the guides to turn the front wheels. The dogs are determining the direction; the guide is there to shift the cart away from overreaching branches and the like, and to command the dogs to stop or to go when necessary.
As we careen down the paths, a network of dirt and gravel roads through woods that now and then reveal impressive sights of mountains and a stream, the wind rushes into our faces. The ride is bumpy and fast. Amelia, the little girl in front of me, could just fly out of the seat, but she’s laughing and loving every second. At several points, the dogs stop to investigate and to mark the territory. Some of them eat shrubbery or pick up sticks.
After coming around one corner, the guide tells us they’ve selected the “Rollercoaster Trail,” so-called because of the significant rise and dip in the terrain. At another point, a Seavey employee waits alongside the road with a phone and takes a video of us passing by (later the video is air-dropped to us).
After the ride, it’s time to meet the puppies. There are two collections of these, separated by age. First, we visit the younger ones, about seven weeks old, who clamber to the edge of their pen to meet us. They have an even coat of light brown, similar to a golden retriever, and it is super soft and fluffy. We get to hold them.
The other group is about 10 weeks old and have an entirely different energy. They seem like young teenagers who can’t wait to get into the adult world. Here we walk among them, and though there are only six it feels like a dozen or more. The pups’ mother is the daughter of Pilot, the lead dog from that 2017 record-setting team.
Amelia cries when she is knocked down by one of the dogs. After some minutes of comfort and a hoist upon her father’s shoulders, she’s back to laughing and smiling. These puppies love to chew – shoelaces, clothing, camera cases, even cameras themselves as one of our party finds out. A few well-loved toys are there to throw or kick about, but the attention of any one dog is diverted every few seconds to a person or to another dog.
The tour ends, and we go the visitor center which has a few souvenirs, pictures, and more information. Danny gives me a ride to the train station. On board is Danny’s other daughter, a school-age child. As the late afternoon inches towards evening, and we cruise along the highway, I can’t help but wonder if she will someday work with the dogs at the Seavey homestead, continuing the generational trend.