The Alaskan Iditarod is supposed to be about huskies having fun, but that's not what animal rights groups think.
| Most people think the place to be at an animal contest is at the starting gate. If you really want to know what's going on at a sled dog race, though, you should hang around the parking lot. On March 5, in Wasilla, Alaska, the official starting point of the 1,049-mile Iditarod marathon race that Doug Swingley won last week for the third time, the local ball field was a noisy assembly line slapping together cross-country dog teams for the tremendous task ahead. Discarded booties littered the snow; handlers muscled dogs out of transport trucks; vet techs counted dogs; more than 1,000 huskies gave voice to the ceremonial tension, with helicopters adding to the din. The atmosphere at the announcer's booth was all hope and heroism. The buzz among the mushers was something else again.
Animal rights groups couldn't be expected to know what dog racing is all about, competitors said, and yet here they were, trying to wreck everything. They'd persuaded people on the East Coast to spam a sponsor, and that had resulted in the company's yanking its support the day before the race. Mushers blamed the Humane Society of the United States and its even wickeder cousin, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "They don't think we should run dogs at all," fumed one competitor. "They say we beat the teams to make them run themselves to death."
It's common knowledge among Alaskans that champion Rick Swenson had once lost a dog mushing through an icy stream and hadn't been appropriately apologetic, and that Jerry Riley reputedly hit a dog with a snow hook 10 years ago. As the media got increasingly into the act, race watchers were saying, the Iditarod was going to have to withstand more public scrutiny, and the big test was sure to come up. But here in plain view at Wasilla was the material from which all the stories were made -- the mushers, the dogs, the start of the trail -- and everything looked great. The teams were doing their damnedest to drag their handlers off their feet, to lose the mob and run. No cues were needed at the end of the starter's countdown, when the handlers scattered and the musher stood off the brake. They all took off like furry mercury, heads down, all business.
Swingley was grinning his head off as he left the starting line. So was three-time champ and dog-care wizard Martin Buser. DeeDee Jonrowe, sponsored by clothing retailer Eddie Bauer, mushed out to noisy cheers. Everybody was a fan. Lynda Plettner, revered for her dog sense and exuberant straight talk, high-fived everybody as she rocketed out the chute. One man sped off with a carnation in his teeth. People with the biggest sponsors had color-coordinated harnesses, parkas and even booties. Jerry Riley, who claims he started mushing "at conception," showed up in a stretched-out sweater. Australian Neen Brown wowed the crowd with the only team of matched Siberians. The Russian entrant, Anna Bonderenko, sported huskies the color of milky tea. Some dogs wore capes to reflect the sun, all wore protective booties and all were towing a three-day supply of their own food, in case they got stormbound or lost.
Native Alaskan Mike Williams, who mushes to promote sobriety -- a big issue in the bush -- was kissed by his wife in her magnificent beaded parka as he departed, his sled crammed with little local kids. Three-time-winner Jeff King got his usual huge send-off. The day before, at the ceremonial start in Anchorage, he had mushed down Fourth Avenue with a noticeably pale young girl standing with him on his runners -- this year's Make-A-Wish Foundation child. King does this every year; some of his passengers have since died. One was buried in an Iditarod shirt.