Monday, March 9, 1998
Copyright 1998 Anchorage Daily News
More than a dream
Halter joins elite and is real threat
By LEW FREEDMAN
Daily News Reporter
The man whose spic-and-span dog truck has the words "Dream a Dream Dog Farm" written on the back seemed as calm as still waters before what may be the grandest adventure of his life.
You couldn't walk five feet down Fourth Avenue Saturday morning without someone telling you how great Vern Halter's 1998 Iditarod team is, how he's the man to watch. The buzz spread faster than flu germs. Nothing like being an overnight sensation after 20 years of hard labor.
Dream a dream.
It's the same dream for 63 mushers in the 26th annual Iditarod: Get to Nome first. Be the toast of the town, the hero, Alaska's favorite musher for a season. For some the dream is closer to hallucination. For a select few the dream is the ring on the merry-go-round you might grasp with one desperate lunge.
For the first time since Halter moved to Alaska from South Dakota in 1977, he is one of those elite mushers. He knows it, he feels it, and everyone around him senses it, too. Halter has notched four top-10 Iditarod finishes, including the last three years in a row. But in the year since he placed fifth, his status has elevated. From being in the mix, he has become someone to fear.
"I'd like to think we're a contender," said Halter, a twinkle in his blue eyes. "They can worry if they want."
"They" are three-time winner Martin Buser, two-time champ Jeff King, 1995 winner Doug Swingley, and the handful of other savvy, veteran mushers with swift teams who are acknowledged threats to capture the 1,100-mile dash between Anchorage and Nome.
Whether those mushers are worried or wary doesn't matter, but no one pretends that the 48-year-old attorney from Willow is a pretender. They know he could halt their domination. Halter and his wife, fellow musher Susan Whiton, have nurtured this franchise. They've raised dogs and run dogs, carefully chosen No. 1 draft picks from litters and gone out and purchased talent, too, shopping in the kennels of former Iditarod mushers Art Church and Lavon Barve.
"I never had a bench before," said Halter, who first raced the Iditarod in 1983. "I have more depth throughout the whole team."
People have noticed.
Zack Steer, an Anchorage rookie, got an up-close look at Halter and his dogs during the Klondike 300 and gushed more than Dick Vitale when asked to analyze what he saw.
"He's my pick to win," Steer said. "He's gonna win. He's got a darned good team. At the Klondike 300, he blew us all away."
Linda Joy, a Willow neighbor who has some Halter dogs in her team, said he has done a magnificent job piecing together his group of huskies.
"It's his year. It's a gut feeling," Joy said. "He picked the cream of the crop of other kennels."
Day One predictions are frequently based on early season results in middle-distance races. A win wows, but the reality is that most victories at 300 miles are meaningless indicators for forecasting the Iditarod. The Iditarod is its own animal and usually top Iditarod mushers enter shorter races for specific reasons. Perhaps to learn if certain dogs are worthy racers. Perhaps to test the speed of certain dogs.
"They really don't mean nothin'," Halter said. "Everyone's got their own agenda."
Still, winning the Klondike with young pups was the kind of feel-good bonus that adds a layer of confidence.
"That was a pleasant surprise," Halter said. "They just took off and kept improving."
A slightly built man with a brown beard and a wide grin, Halter grew up in South Dakota and those are not forgotten roots. Some of his major sponsors are based there and not only does Halter annually tour South Dakota schools to lecture children, he appears at the state fair.
South Dakota and Alaska supporters surrounded Halter as he hooked up his team with startling efficiency in three minutes, but one face was missing. The greatest backer of Halter's mushing, of his pursuit of the dream he was dreaming, was his mother, Anna, who died in December.
"This race is for her," Halter said. "No matter what happens, I'm gonna follow her spirit."
All the way to Nome. Lew Freedman is the Daily News sports editor and an opinion columnist.
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