One of the best lead dogs Iditarod musher Jeff King ever had was also one of the best bargains of his mushing career. In exchange for 100 pounds of outdated hamburger, the then-struggling young musher acquired Hickory, a feisty brown puppy whose best friend was a cat and who learned how to run while balancing himself on the gangline like a tightrope walker.
"Hickory was one of my favorite and most spectacular leaders that I could steer like a car around obstacles," said King from his home in Denali National Park, where he has run dogs for nearly 35 years.
King, a four-time Iditarod champion running his 22nd Last Great Race this year, said Hickory helped lead him to the finish line of the Iditarod, Yukon Quest and countless mid-distance races during the dog's time at the front of the pack.
Ask any dog musher what it takes to make lead dog status -- the equivalent of becoming the star pitcher on the baseball team or the first chair in an orchestra -- and you'll hear a variety of responses. They need to be smart. They have to be strong. They must be dependable. They need to have speed. It helps if they are good eaters, and it's imperative that they are tough mentally.
While all of those characteristics are invaluable, said King, none of them amount to much without one key trait: desire.
"I say it over and over. It's not their gait, it's not their coat, it's not even their brains," King said. "It's what I call the 'big D,' and it's 'desire.' "
The lead dog is, essentially, the key to a successful dog team, and its desire can set the mood for those who follow. The leaders will be the ones to guide their teammates across overflow and around open water. They'll navigate the treacherous winds and whiteout conditions of such barriers as Solomon Blowhole, a desolate coastal region less than 30 miles from the Iditarod finish line. They'll communicate with their driver in a subtle ballet of ear pricks, head nods and gait changes, letting their driver know they are in this race together.
Lead dogs like Hickory -- along with Salem, Jenna, Tommy and countless others who have helped King in subsequent races -- are not always born into their status. While some have natural ability, others are late to bloom. While others show promise early on, they may fade when the pressure gets too hot.
"I have a dog in my team now named Merlot, and one last year named Booth, who both as yearlings were showing ridiculously exciting signs to me that they are going to be a good leader," King said. "Through their evolution and maturing into adolescence, neither one of them wants to take a step in lead now."
King said the dogs' early signs of leadership -- energy, inquisitiveness and desire -- may be waning now, but he won't discount them yet.
"It's not like a slam dunk, but it's not too late either," he said.
One of King's best leaders was a team dog named Tommy he bought from Susan Butcher, a four-time Iditarod winner and considered one of the sport's most accomplished mushers.
"Tommy was not sold as a leader, but I would often try him in lead, and it was clear he wanted nothing to do with this," King said. "I would continue over the years to give Tommy a try. There was a day, I remember that day, that Tommy looked way OK, and I put him up there, and he went. That dog led for the next several years, and was an exceptional winning leader."
At almost 5 years old, Tommy was an example of a late-bloomer, King said.
"There are no assurances that at a young age you can tell who does and who doesn't have it," he said.
Sheep Mountain's Anjanette Steer is running her first Iditarod this year and said her leaders will be crucial to the success of her run. While she has for nearly 15 years helped train and race the kennel she and her husband, Zack Steer, share with fellow musher Robert Bundtzen, she has never been on the Iditarod sled-runners herself. Her leaders will be especially invaluable, she said.
"Many of them have seen the trail before me, so they aren't rookies," Steer said. "I'm the rookie in this race, so I will be depending on them."
To better prepare for the race, Steer said she has tried to stack her team with potential leaders. She is pinning her hopes on upcoming leader Envy and her more experienced brother, Gluttony (siblings from the Seven Deadly Sins litter); Blitz, an older leader and veteran of the Yukon Quest and Iditarod; Colt, a strong leader on loan from musher Sven Haltmann; and Parsley, an 8-year-old leader who may be a bit slow but is mentally tough.
"She may be critical," Steer said of her older dog's experience.
For Steer, who has watched as Zack and Bundtzen have built a competitive Iditarod team (Zack Steer's best finish was third in 2007), a valuable leader is a priceless combination of several qualities.
"They always have to have a great attitude and lots of energy, and a good appetite even when they're tired," she said.
A good leader is consistent too, she added. There's nothing worse than hitting a gnarly section of overflow and having a leader balk at crossing the unpredictable surface. When that happens, teams get tangled. And when teams get tangled, all sorts of problems -- from injuries to fights to lost time sorting out a huge mess -- can follow.
"When they're consistent, it really helps," Steer said.
That consistency can come with pacing too, she added. One of her lead dogs, Dolmar, can tow the line, no matter the conditions. When she's traveling in wide-open trails, for instance, Dolmar will not wander or snake the team over the terrain.
"He is right on the stakes, and that helps to keep the speed consistent instead of doing S's out there. It really cuts your time in half."
Like King, though, Steer said she has learned to recognize that the very most important aspect of a stellar lead dog is attitude. There's just something peppy about a lead dog's personality, she said.
"I don't mind if they're a little bit of an alpha male or alpha female, as long as they have that spunk," she said. "You can just see ... they just have that energy. They run around in circles when their neighbor doesn't. They show you who they are."
In early February, King had just finished a training run near his home, while Steer was just preparing to leave for her all-day dog run out at Sheep Mountain. Both had just come off of successful mid-distance races -- Steer winning the Northern Lights 300 and King placing second in the Tustumena 200 -- and both were anticipating the month ahead, their final push to the start line of Iditarod.
"I feel OK, the dogs have been working hard, and I'm just going to try to run a consistent race," Steer said.
King, who sat out his first Iditarod since 1991 last year, is looking forward to his return.
"On our training run, we went through a little subdivision I've been building over the years, and I thought of my leaders from years past," King said. "I noticed all the street names are named for my leaders -- Falcon, Jenna, Kangaroo, Salem. They're all so special.
"One of the real joys of my mushing and dog-training career is when we see really good leaders develop. To see their joy, how they get excited to see what's down the trail. There's nothing better."
Melissa DeVaughn is a freelance writer and recreational musher who lives in Chugiak.