Iditarod rookie runs city slickers

khopkins@adn.comFebruary 25, 2013 

Iditarod rookie Christine Roalofs ladled beef scraps into a steaming bucket of high-priced kibble on a recent weekday. A dozen pairs of brown eyes watched.

"Don't spill it!" Roalofs told a 5-year-old husky named Seven. "Watch," she said to a visitor. "He's going to pick up his bowl and spill it all over."

Other dogs waited outside the dog barn, breath clouding in the early morning chill and darkness. It's a scene that replays every day in every Iditarod musher's dog yard across Alaska.

For Roalofs, a pediatric dentist hoping to finish her first Iditarod this year, there's one big difference. Her 22 sled dogs sleep two blocks away from Boniface Parkway, in the middle of Anchorage.

Meet the city musher and her city sled dogs.

"That first night we woke up at 2 o'clock in the morning and it sounded like a pack of coyotes outside of the window," neighbor David Nanne said of his arrival to the Russian Jack neighborhood two years ago. He can sometimes hear Roalofs' dogs at feeding time, above the muffled rush-hour traffic of East Anchorage.

Alaska's largest city is awash in sled dogs this week. Last weekend, it was sprint teams running in the Fur Rendezvous world championships. Iditarod dogs are now arriving for the Saturday ceremonial start through the city. Teams will idle in McDonald's drive-throughs and pace the snow in slushy hotel parking lots. They come from Willow, Knik, Fairbanks or even farther off.

Three of the 66 mushers expected to begin the race next weekend live in Anchorage. "Mushin' Mortician" Scott Janssen keeps a few puppies at his home in Bear Valley, but races with a Kasilof-based team. Veteran Robert Bundtzen, a doctor who specializes in infectious diseases, keeps his kennel of 24 dogs in Stuckagain Heights at the edge of town.

"My neighbors, a number have commented that they like to hear them when they howl," Bundtzen said.

Only Roalofs' dogs live all year-round in the middle of the city.

"It's not near as common as it used to be," said four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, who lives and trains in Big Lake. "Anchorage grew up, of course, and people are not near as tolerant to dog lots as they used to be."

Unlike many mushers who can step on the runners from their backyard, Roalofs must load the dogs in her truck and drive to out-of-town trails to train.

 

'DIVINE INTERVENTION'

City law requires anyone with four or more dogs or cats to apply for a $100 to $150 kennel license. Of the 116 multidog permits active in the Anchorage Bowl, city officials estimate only a half-dozen are for people who have a large number of huskies.

"Those could be mushers, or they could just be people that really like huskies," said animal care and control spokeswoman Brooke Taylor.

No one has complained to animal control about Roalofs' kennel, a constant worry for the 46-year-old musher.

The yard is a fenced circle of dog houses surrounding a "barn" that the huskies freely enter to warm up or eat meals. Picture a shed with six doggie doors. A collection of security cameras could be used to defend against noise complaints, she said.

One neighbor is a member of the National Guard and gone much of the year. "The other house you can actually see," she said, looking down the hill. "He has a bunch of dogs that make way more noise than mine."

Nanne, who lives across the street from the dog yard, found the kennel to be surprisingly quiet after his initial surprise, he said.

He refers to the howling as the dogs' "happy song" and sometimes helps in the dog yard, recognizing the huskies by name.

"I really enjoy the playfulness of River. And the gymnastics of Avenger, who can like jump over six-foot fences, if he wanted to," Nanne said.

Raised in Kentucky, Roalofs moved to Alaska in 1999. She never planned to balance a growing dental practice with her reverse commutes to the Chugiak and Willow for training runs, she said. She first worked in Wasilla, where a friend from her church choir, Cindy Jicinsky, invited her to watch the Iditarod ceremonial start in Anchorage.

At the time, dog teams trotted from Fourth Avenue to Eagle River, a kind of pre-game parade before the race starts for real the next day. (They now go from downtown to the Campbell Airstrip).

"That looks like fun," Roalofs remembers saying.

Her friend: Do you have any idea how much work that is?

Two years later, Roalofs opened a dental practice in Muldoon and bought the home in Russian Jack. One day in 2004 she performed a procedure on a boy who had smashed his mouth on the handlebars of four-wheeler, charging only for the X-rays.

The teen's father, Wasilla musher Gary McKellar, invited Roalofs to the family dog yard.

At the time, the Muldoon practice was growing and Roalofs was spending up to 18 weeks a year traveling to treat children in rural Alaska towns and villages. But soon she began visiting Wasilla on weekends, learning how to harness sled dogs and shoveling McKeller's yard.

"You can call it a handler. You can call it a tourist," she said.

McKeller, who attempted the Iditarod in 2005, gave Roalofs her first three sled dogs. In 2007 she ran her first 200-mile race.

"I want to call it divine intervention, how it all came together," Roalofs said.

 

X-MEN PUPPIES

Roalofs attempted the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest in 2011. She was mushing at the back of the pack when a snowstorm slowed her progress on her way to Dawson, according to news accounts at the time. She pushed the help button on her GPS tracker, disqualifying her from the race.

She had run out of food for her dogs, Roalofs said.

A watershed moment came last month during the Copper Basin 300, when one of Roalofs dogs led four teams into the wind on the summit between Chistochina and Paxson, she said. She finished 26th of 31 finishers.

In January, she placed 14th of 25 finishers in the Northern Lights 300, which travels from Buser's Happy Trails Kennel in Big Lake to Finger Lake and back. "That was the race where I realized I've been doing this long enough to not be a true rookie anymore. I might be an Iditarod rookie, but when it comes to 200 and 300-mile races, I've been around long enough to be kind of figuring this stuff out."

Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman said he's been following Roalofs' progress and was "thrilled" to see her qualify for the sport's signature event.

"I know she's stumbled in other races and she continues to not give up," he said. "Here you have an individual that's worked so hard for this. Very busy. Training at night."

One potential leader, Inca, ran the Iditarod with Wasilla musher Ryan Redington. Other strong racers came from a litter of 10 puppies, all named after X-Men comic book characters, that she split with two-time Iditarod finisher and Roalofs' fellow pediatric dentist Kelly Maixner of Big Lake.

This year's Iditarod field includes at least two doctors, in addition to the dentist.

There's a reason professionals are well represented in the field, Bundtzen said. Mushing is a costly pastime.

"Even the people that win have a hard time making ends meet," he said.

After feeding the dogs Wednesday, Roalofs made the short drive to her Muldoon office, where she traded snow pants and flannel for dental scrubs decorated with blue palm trees.

"All right Mr. Preston, come here, handsome," Roalofs said. A boy in a camouflage jacket scooted on to the dentist's chair.

Although her dogs live in the city, finishing the Iditarod would be a homecoming of sorts for Roalofs, who spends several weeks a year working in Norton Sound communities.

In addition to her Muldoon office hours, Roalofs sees patients in Nome and the village of Shaktoolik, an Iditarod checkpoint. She has packed her drop bags with toothbrushes and stickers to hand out to her young patients and other school kids. She probably over-packed food for the dogs this time, she said.

Roalofs is scheduled for a day of surgeries on Tuesday, and will take the rest of the week off preparing for Iditarod. The ceremonial start begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, when mushers leave Fourth Avenue, heading east. The route passes about a mile southwest of Roalofs' dog yard.

"We do train a little bit at Tozier track, so they know some of the turns there," she said.

 

Twitter updates: twitter.com/iditarodlive. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.

 

 

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