Sunday, March 22, 2015

About that Iditarod post concerning Siberians

Over the years I've been a bit baffled by Iditarod fans being so enthusiastic on the one hand but knowing so little about the sport on the other.  This year it finally dawned on me that the likely reasons are: 1) many of the fans are fans of the race, not of distance mushing more generally, and 2) if you rely on Iditarod for most of your information you're going to find yourself in the weeds fairly often.  Yesterday's "Eye on the Trail" post on Siberians and Siberian mushers was a pretty stellar example of the latter.

There were a number of smaller problems (misspelling Yvonne's name, identifying Lev as a purebred musher) and some enormous ones.  Failure to mention Lisbet Norris, who finished earlier the same day, is the scion of the oldest Siberian Husky kennel in the world and one that's been incredibly influential, and whose grandfather ran the Iditarod with dogs from the same kennel back in the 1980s, is probably the most glaring error in judgment, but a nod absolutely needs to have been given to Isabelle Travadon, who also ran a purebred team and who did a very creditable job when things got difficult under circumstances that led others to scratch.

Also: YES, Rob Cooke became the first Siberian musher to finish both the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year.  He did it with substantially the same dogs in both races.  Rob is a friend and we are so proud of him we could bust.  This is a big deal, and the author of that blog post should have known it.  I think it's also worth mentioning that Rob did not have a good Quest, that it started out badly and he worked through it, solved his problems and got his team to the finish.  That, I think, is a huge deal and speaks to the kind of dog man he is, which brings me to my real beef with the Iditarod post.

Shortly after I moved up to Two Rivers and before Chris arrived I needed to travel for work, so I boarded my eight (!) (at the time - I'm up to 20) Siberians at a kennel in the neighborhood.  The fellow who owned the place was chatting and said "I used to run Siberians," so I said "oh?," curious to see where this was going to go.  He went on to say "but Siberians have too much sense of self-preservation.  They'll sit down on you.  Alaskans will just go until they drop."  That was a bit of an exaggeration but not completely.  Siberians will leave a little in the tank (okay, sometimes a lot in the tank) when calling a time-out, and it takes a certain kind of musher to successfully run a Siberian team 1000 miles.  It is not a coincidence that Mike Ellis in particular but also increasingly Rob Cooke and some other up-and-coming purebred mushers are known for exceptional dog care.  The people who successfully run Siberians in 1000-mile races tend to be very fine dog people, in part because they have to be.

At this point it should not be a secret that the two things that what people who don't know better say about Siberians, that they're slow and they're pretty, annoy a lot of Siberian mushers.  Siberians have some traits that are highly valued in sled dogs: they have excellent feet, they're easy keepers, and they do extremely well in genuinely frigid conditions.  They're tough dogs, but with an enthusiasm a friend describes as "joie de husky."  And yes, they're pretty, but focusing on that is a bit like saying "What a pretty face!" or giving someone a Miss Congeniality award.  It's a bit condescending and it's failing to acknowledge their qualities specifically as sled dogs.  These are great dogs and tricky dogs and they're often being driven by great -- and underappreciated -- mushers.

I think this is a really great time for working Siberians and that it's just getting better, and I'm excited to see more purebred teams running Quest.  In the meantime, when you see a purebred team finishing a 1000-mile race looking happy and ready for more, do not say "What pretty dogs."  Instead, say "What a fine, fine dog musher.  And wow, those dogs are pretty."


  1. Great article for someone new to mushing. I am learning, listening, reading and hopefully by next year will know more. I love Sibes. I have a couple mixes who are the smartest dogs I've ever had and can understand your whole article. Thanks for more informative to add to my knowledge base.

  2. GREAT post thank you so much for standing up for Siberians!

  3. I confess, that blog post made me uncomfortable, not just for the glaring omissions (I don't think Karen Ramstead was mentioned either) but for the whole focus on pretty, and neglecting the survivability and toughness of the breed. The mushers running purebred teams are my heroes.

  4. I love this article. I also am a huge fan of Terri Hanke, the Insider Eye-on-the-Trail. I followed Rob through the YQ, and got to meet him and his dogs at the vet check. I was cheering him on all the way for both 1,000 mile races.
    Thank you for opening my eyes and broadening my perspective. I am glad that Terri's article inspired you to share this deeper and more critical perspective. It's unfortunate that most fans only get to see the Insider articles, but it only will change if people like you continue to speak up. I love your FB page, and this is an excellent blog!