Anchorage kids make mushing sport of choice

Anchorage Daily NewsFebruary 20, 2012 

The Goddard-Vaughan family has been trying to answer a question lately, one they never quite imagined would surface in their suburban Anchorage lives: Should they move from their home off Tudor Road in order to expand their sled dog kennel?

The engines behind such a plan are the Goddard-Vaughan girls, Lila and Reni, ages 8 and 11.

Both are students at Winterberry Charter School and, to their parents' initial surprise and now delight, aspiring mushers. The pair figure among a growing number of Anchorage kids embracing sled dog racing, rather than hockey or soccer, as their sport of choice.

For 4-year-olds to teenagers, urban mushing has become an increasingly popular pastime. Races in the Junior Alaskan Sled Dog and Racing Association range from a one-dog, quarter-mile sprint to a seven-dog, 8-mile loop for older mushers.

Lila and Reni spent the past weekend at the Junior World Championships, which drew nearly 50 young mushers from as far away as the Yukon territory to the Tozier Track on Tudor Road for three days of races that finished Sunday.

Ebullient Lila placed third in the one-dog race. She said she's learned to adopt a firm tone when talking to her dogs, not "a high little voice," and to hold on tight when a corner comes up. Her dog "likes to lean on people and get petted and always wants to be a part of everything," she said.

Some of the participants at the weekend races have mushing in their blood and cart their teams in professional dog boxes.

They come from mushing hot spots like Willow and carry storied names like Redington. But others, like the Goddard-Vaughan family, live far from the Iditarod heartland of Knik. Their sled dogs are house huskies; their dog truck is a family Subaru parked in a Midtown driveway.

About half of the families in the Junior Alaskan Sled Dog and Racing Association live in the Anchorage area, said Christine Tozier, the organization's president.

Tozier's father, Richard "Dick" Tozier, was known as the "dean" of sprint mushing in Alaska. The Tozier track is named for him.

Bringing new families into the fold is crucial to guarantee the sport's future, Tozier said. Urban Alaska is increasingly a source of that growth.

New families tend to tiptoe into the sport, competing first with borrowed sleds and borrowed dogs, Tozier said.

Chris and Donna Bacon and their two daughters Alison, 12, and Sophie, 8, live in Bear Valley. They've been in the game long enough to have acquired eight dogs and a dog truck with "Bacon Bits Kennel" painted on the side.

Their involvement started when their older daughter at age 6 became "obsessed" with all things dog-related. They found a local musher willing to lend dogs and sleds.

Soon the family acquired more and more dogs. Soon mushing was a full-time lifestyle.

"It's with us 365 days a year," Donna Bacon said. "It's not like a pair of skis you can wax and hang up on the wall."

The family forgoes vacations to Hawaii because they can't leave or board their dogs. Each year, they spend about $4,000 on specialized dog food they buy in bulk from Alaska Mill and Feed.

It's all worth it, Bacon said.

"I pick my kids up at school in the dog truck and they're tired, crabby and hungry," she said. "After a run at the dog track they come back happy. It nourishes them somehow. It's just the kind of sport that makes them glow."

The dogs are housebroken and live mostly inside the home, Bacon said. "They are pets-slash-sled dogs."

It's actually not as hard to be a musher in Anchorage as one might think, Tozier said.

"It's always been easier for juniors," she said. "They can have smaller kennels. They can even be house dogs."

Many of the events can be run with teams of just two or three dogs.

The city allows up to four dogs at a home without a special permit, according to animal control officials. You can have more dogs with a special license but the density of the Anchorage Bowl makes it hard to operate a full-scale kennel. Mushers are notoriously noisy neighbors.

Pili Goddard-Vaughan, a massage therapist at a natural health clinic, says she was initially skeptical of her daughters' desire to run dogs. She only saw the costs and the hassle.

But musher friends in the Valley helped get them started and even gave them a dog. Now Goddard-Vaughan loves the way the sport emphasizes independence and helping others at the same time. When a kid's dogs get into a tangle on the trail, others almost always stop to help out.

Reni is so devoted that when her new sled arrived at the house in pieces, she took it downstairs and put it together before her father had a chance to lend a hand.

"It teaches her to care for something beyond herself," Goddard-Vaughan said.


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

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