Two Rivers -- Sonny Lindner is ambitious again.
After a brief hiatus from racing and an even briefer rebuilding period, the dog musher is aiming to return to the pantheon of the long-distance racing. Anything less than a top-five finish in this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will bring disappointment.
He'd prefer to win, though.
"The last two years, that's what we've been training this outfit for, to get back up there," said the first Yukon Quest champion and the 1981 Iditarod runner-up.
"There were two years where we were just running yearlings and having fun. But the fun's over."
While much of the dog-mushing world has been whining over a lack of winter here in "Dogville, USA," Lindner has been putting mile after mile on his team, no matter how cold, icy, warm or windy it got.
When snow failed to come to the neighborhood, he packed up the team and chased the snow down to Paxson. As most of his neighbors were coaxing their teams up to 40- or 50-mile runs in January, he was "scaling back to 50 miles."
While training, the 53-year-old contractor is based out of a new house built on 40 acres of prime mushing territory about 25 miles northeast of Fairbanks.
The operation is designed with dog racing in mind. The entire first floor is a large workshop-dog barn-kennel kitchen. Out front sits the main dog yard with about 30 animals on the roster. Out back, there's an area for puppies and a second yard with 35 yearlings tucked away.
Four years ago, Lindner didn't own a sled dog. Today, he's got a racing outfit built with the future in mind.
"I'm in it for a while," he said.
Mention the name Martin Buser or Doug Swingley and the average dog mushing fan will perk up. Mention the name Sonny Lindner and the casual observer will usually return a blank stare.
Mention his name among his peers, however, and you're likely to get a smile in return.
"I think you'd be hard-pressed to find people who don't like him," said longtime Lindner friend Susan Butcher. "There are not a lot of people you can say that about in the mushing community.
"The mushing community is pretty tight-knit, but you do have bickering among the different personalities. You never hear Sonny in the middle of any of that."
Lindner's popularity is built on solid credentials. He is a dog musher's dog musher, an expert trainer, cunning competitor and helping hand. He entered the mushing world by using dogs as working animals to haul gear on his climbing expeditions to places like Mount McKinley and Mount Deborah in the early 1970s.
By the time he entered racing in the early days of the Iditarod, he understood the value of a well-trained and cared for dog team. Based out of the Johnson River area southeast of Delta Junction, Lindner would show up at races with a wealth of dogs who had seen far worse conditions -- in some of the Interior's coldest country -- than they ever would on the race trail.
He spent years among Alaska's top distance racers.
He began running the Iditarod with an 11th-place finish in 1978. By 1995 he'd finished five Iditarods, finishing second in 1981 and third in 1979.
In 1984, he started and finished the inaugural Yukon Quest with nine dogs, earning the first title in a race that still required the use of snowshoes and outdoor-survival skills. All the while, he made lifelong friendships with his rivals.
"I think it's mostly because he is a very good dog musher," Butcher said. "He takes extremely good care of his dogs. He has a good relationship with his dogs.
"He's always upbeat and he's always honest. If Sonny tells you something, you know that's the way it is. I've known him for 20 years, and he's one of the guys who I've always been able to say: 'That's a good guy.' "
Butcher and her husband, David Monson, think so much of Lindner that they've given him nine veteran dogs from their kennel to race this year. Butcher and Monson had intended to run both the Iditarod and Quest this year, but when they changed their minds, they called Lindner and gave him a canine booster shot they hope can push him into the winner's circle.
"I think I was standing in the right place when they were making decisions," Lindner joked.
Bill Cotter, a former Yukon Quest champion and frequent Iditarod contender, became friendly with Lindner quickly along the trail.
"He's one of the best trainers and racers," Cotter said. "One of the things I remember about traveling together is how fast he can build a fire. We'd have races. I don't think I ever had smoke coming up faster than he did.
"He's a great guy to travel with, a great woodsman."
Some of Lindner's contemporaries were able to walk away from the sport free and clear. Take Joe Runyan, for instance. He raced at the top of the sport for a decade or so, then retired. He's not tempted to return.
Lindner thought he was out, too, after finishing ninth in the 1985 Iditarod.
For a few years, he didn't own any dogs and was not governed by feeding or training schedules. He was free and clear. Sure, he thought about racing. He looked back at the Iditarod as a missed opportunity, and he knew he could still be competitive there and in the Quest.
When his friend, five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson, called in 1998 with an offer of a puppy team to run the following March, Lindner saw it as an opportunity to relive the past without actually having to own the team.
"First he goes, 'Why don't you come run my yearlings on the Iditarod?' " Lindner said. "Or, 'Hey, why don't you take this team and run it in the Quest?' He's good at that."
Lindner finished 24th in the 1999 Iditarod and realized two things:
Long-distance racing had changed more than he could have imagined;
He wanted back in.
He could feel the difference as a team of young dogs moved down the trail much faster than any group of veterans he'd piloted.
"I noticed it," he said. "I remember in earlier races it would take forever to get to some places, and now you're there in a few hours."
As he cast about for dogs, he quickly discerned the differences in the athletes he was breeding and training. His early race teams, known for their brains as well as their brawn, would fare well on a trapline.
But these new dogs, tiny huskies with a dash of hound thrown in, were racy little models with speed to burn.
"The ones then were much better at going off trail," Lindner said. "They were a lot better trained command-wise. Now you forfeit some of that for speed. It's not like having a big malamute up there."
That added to the challenge in some ways. Lindner would not be stepping back into the world he left. To return to the top five, he would have to change, too.
While many of his old compadres complained about how the races have changed from camping trips to forced marches, he found much of this change to his liking. Lindner has not strapped on a pair of snowshoes in ages.
"I don't mind too much how the race has evolved," he said. "There's trail, and the dog care's better. We had to (travel over raw trail). We didn't think anything of it because we did it at home. But I don't miss it."
So far, the results have been just as Lindner had hoped.
In 2001, he was 21st in the Iditarod. Last year, he moved up to 13th.
Along the way, he has found that the basic things he always liked about dog mushing haven't changed.
The goal is still to build a team and find a way to keep it moving down the trail.
"I think you forget that," he said. "You have to like traveling with dogs. You have to like dogs. Otherwise, I don't think you'd continue very long."
Chris Talbott is a Fairbanks Daily News Miner reporter and editor.