Talk to an Iditarod musher and they’ll wax on about their dogs. Dogs, in fact, are the true heroes of the legendary sled dog race known as The Last Great Race on Earth. The Iditarod attracts the most famous names in the sport to contend in a race against time and extreme arctic winter conditions, on a trail of more than 1,000 miles over some of the most remote and severe wilderness terrain in the nation. Televised around the globe, the Iditarod is the most popular sporting event in Alaska. Committed to traditional culture and the preservation of this historical race, it traces its roots to the most famous event in Alaskan mushing. The “Great Race of Mercy” was the 1925 dog-relay run from Seward to Nome to deliver serum, when a diphtheria epidemic threatened this isolated town, located on the edge of the Bering Sea. Today, the race travels from Anchorage (or Fairbanks, depending on the snow) to Nome and attracts worldwide press and sponsorship from the world’s top brands.
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But, there’s another hero that mushers will also tell you about—their trucks. We joined rookie Iditarod musher Gwenn Bogart, of Wasilla, Alaska, for a number of sled dog training runs over the last two and a half years, and again just before she started on the 2015 Iditarod. “Mushers need trucks!” said the 5-foot 1-inch tall Vermont native, who has owned a number of trucks over the years, when she was a top riding competitor, trained horses, and owned a stable in Manchester, Vermont. Three years ago, when she married Fed-Ex pilot and Alaska resident Dave Bogart, she was thrilled that the groom came with an ’09 Silverado 1500 extended cab that she could use for the myriad tasks that are part of a musher’s life when running dogs.
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“When I’m training and competing in sled dog races, I need a truck for a wide variety of tasks associated with mushing,” said Bogart, who met her husband on a trip she took six years ago to follow the Iditarod by airplane from Anchorage to Nome. “Not only do you need to transport your dogs but, you also need to transport your sled, your gear and supplies and, frequently, you have to carry an ATV and/or snow machine.”
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Starting in the fall, when the temperatures begin to drop but, often before snow covers the ground, mushers begin “dry-land training”. “We use ATVs and, unless you have a dog yard with a great trail system right out your door, you have to transport your dogs, their gear, your gear, food and supplies, plus an ATV,” explained Bogart, who has trained with top mushers Ray Redington, Jim Lanier and Jason Mackey. “Then, when winter comes, you begin training with your dog sled and often have to travel to find good snow, and that means loading up all that’s necessary in your truck. It’s also not uncommon to have help on the training runs, when going out for a long distance and that means someone comes along on a snow machine (or ‘iron dog’, as they are sometimes called in Alaska), which gets loaded on a truck,” said Bogart, whose husband Dave joined her for many practice sessions on either an ATV or snow machine.
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While some mushers build their dog box onto the bed of their trucks, most tow their dogs on a trailer set up with a dog box and an enclosed compartment for dog food and supplies. Bogart’s brother, Kurt Wisell, of Lake George, New York, spent two weeks in Alaska building Gwenn’s dog box to her specifications and the needs of a dog sled team.
“So, many things are important when you think about the purchase of a truck. Of course, having four-wheel drive is critical in Alaska. You’re often traveling on snow-covered and icy roads, and you want to make sure you are safe and you give your live animals a safe and comfortable ride,” recalls Bogart, who is not new to hauling “precious cargo” after towing horses for many years. “You also need the appropriate towing capacity and tongue load to carry your trailer and weight, as well as integrated trailer brakes.”
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“Sled dogs are very valuable in Alaska and we really have to count on the truck to take us where we’re going,” said Bogart, who pointed out that there are sprint mushers and others who run dogs for sport or recreation. “Owning a truck and pulling a trailer is really a way of life in Alaska. There’s hardly a yard without pickups that are used for everything from serious work to play. Alaska has the greatest number of private pilots per capita in the world, and they typically have to have a truck to buy and haul their fuel and support the lifestyle of private pilots.”
As millions around the globe follow the Iditarod, and school children take lessons from the trail’s “traveling teacher,” many will appropriately praise the sled dogs and mushers of the Last Great Race. But, those of us in the know are well aware of another hero on the job that often goes unnoticed—the work truck!