Handlers perform unglamorous tasks, but mushers would be lost without them on race day

Zaz Hollander
Wayne Curtis’s sled dogs Scorpio and Hook look over the scene at an Iditarod start dog handler training in early February.
Bob Hallinen
Patty Bedacht and Richard Speakman practice handling musher Wayne Curtis's dog team at Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla. Iditarod volunteers conducted a start line dog handlers training in early February.
Bob Hallinen
Allen Lau practices handling Wayne Curtis’ sled dog team during dog handler training at Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla early this month.
Bob Hallinen
Iditarod Anchorage start coordinator Karl Heidelbach gives instructions to Erin Quinn and Nick Olivares at a volunteer dog handlers training session Feb. 2 in Wasilla.
Bob Hallinen

Dog handlers do a musher's dirty work.

They scoop poop, slop food and snag loose sled dogs at 25 below.

But handlers also get immersed in the mushing life without the stress of footing the bills for dogs, food, gear, travel and equipment. They learn breeding, training and sled handling.

They get room and board in exchange for some hard-earned time on the runners.

"It's really a very good way for people to learn one of two things," said Wayne Curtis, a five-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race finisher from Wasilla. "Either they want a whole bunch of dogs and the lifestyle, or they don't want a whole bunch of dogs and the lifestyle."

As a handler for four-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser, James Volek fed dogs morning and night. He handled kennel health care, cut meat, fixed doghouses and learned the Buser school of dog training: ignore the bad, reward the good.

Now he's running his first Iditarod with a Buser puppy team -- all-expenses paid.

"I've noticed some other people my age buy a team and jump right into it," the 25-year-old Volek said. "Three or four years along they can't afford to feed the dogs, they're bankrupt, they've lost their boyfriend or girlfriend over it. This is a really good opportunity."

Handler magnet

Dallas Seavey fields scores of offers from eager fans ready to drop everything, come to Alaska, and work as a dog handler in his kennel.

Seavey, 25, last year became the youngest winner in Iditarod history. Seavey's father is 2004 champion Mitch Seavey. Grandfather Dan is a race pioneer.

He tries to provide a reality check for those wannabe dog handlers.

"A lot of people come with a very romanticized vision of mushing and an underestimation of how much work goes along with it," Seavey said. "I generally try to discourage most people from coming, make sure they realize what they're getting into."

Seavey, who said he often finds handlers at online mushing hub Sled Dog Central, looks for a combination of personality, work ethic and sled-dog experience, which he called important but not essential. His seven handlers this year range in age from 23 to 28.

One of the seven is Australian musher Christian Turner. Turner hopes to qualify for the Iditarod in 2014, with a "very nice dog team" courtesy of his boss. Seavey praised his handler's familiarity with large kennels, his comfort level taking a position of authority, and his ability to work with other people.

"Ideally I'm looking for people who want to do this as a career, not a one-year experience," Seavey said. "That way they are going to be coming back and they're dedicated and they're dedicated to learning."

Volunteer contingent

The Iditarod rolls out its own corps of volunteer dog handlers every year. Dog-mushing aficionados from around the United States and the world journey to Alaska for a hands-on immersion in the Last Great Race.

But over the last few years, race entrants have started bringing their own handlers to help out at the ceremonial start in Anchorage and at the restart in Willow. Sponsors want in on the action. Top names bring along a small entourage.

Before that trend started, each Iditarod volunteer handler had to hustle to help six or eight teams make their way to the starting line. Now it's more like one or two teams per volunteer, said Sara Lamont, handler coordinator for the Willow restart.

"It's a lot less demanding than it used to be," she said.

Still, volunteer dog handlers account for about 100 of the roughly 800 people who volunteer in some form during the race, according to Iditarod spokeswoman Erin McLarnon, a veteran handler and musher.

Each volunteer gets a certification card earned through a safety briefing and hands-on handling exhibition.

"We want to make sure people know what they're getting into," McLarnon said. "You think about Fourth Avenue -- the teams in the middle, they're coming down six or seven blocks, trying to somewhat control 10, 11 dogs. That's a lot of power and a long way to go, especially in loose snow."

Dog handling 101

About 50 dog people -- rookies, experienced handlers and local mushers -- spent a February morning learning the basics of race-day dog handling at Iditarod headquarters in Knik.

To hear Karl Heidelbach tell it, the art of handling Iditarod teams is part canine telepathy, part close attention to mushers and part last-minute sled-avoidance judo.

"If you fall, let go of the dog and roll out of the way. The sled is coming and it's going to hurt," said Heidelbach, the race's ceremonial start coordinator. "If you're stuck in the team, something's going to fur-ball and that's when bad things start to happen."

The group of volunteers packed a log-walled meeting room at race headquarters. Officials set them straight on race-day details.

Wear layers to account for unpredictable wind and weather. Wear warm, comfortable shoes. No spikes or cleats: dog paws take priority over handler footing. Say something if you spot a loose dog.

Oh, and one more thing. The ceremonial start isn't racing. It's touring.

Willow is racing.

Smaller teams of 10 or 12 dogs in Anchorage turn into a full sled of 16 at Willow. Mushers might be relaxed and enjoying the atmosphere in Anchorage. By Willow they're locking in, running over last-minute checklists, and saying goodbye to friends and family they won't see again for at least eight or nine days.

"They get short with people," Heidelbach said. "Don't take it personally. They're trying to leave. In a hurry."

'Fight, bite and breed'

The crew of volunteers stomped outside to practice their handling skills on Wayne Curtis' team of eager pure-bred Siberian Huskies, strung out in harness on a trail next to the headquarters building.

Ed Sundeen, a former sprint musher from Meadow Lakes with 27 years of experience as an Iditarod volunteer, observed the controlled chaos and recalled a story of his own.

Sundeen was handling for Charlie Boulding. A foot of fluffy snow made for terrible traction. One by one, each handler dropped out. Then there was one. Sundeen. The team started dragging him down the street.

"Charlie said, 'Just go ahead and let go. We'll make it,' " Sundeen said, smiling. "I know how to tuck and roll and get out of the way."

Meanwhile, Curtis had halted his sled. The dogs were getting a little balled up. That could spell trouble for some teams, Sundeen noted: "They'll fight and bite and breed."

The handlers straightened out the Siberians without a problem. First-time volunteer Patricia Hensmanns, a 31-year-old Anchorage transplant from a small town in north Germany, came away breathing hard and smiling.

"I was surprised how hard it is to run in the snow," Hensmanns said. "It is pretty exhausting."

From volunteer to veteran

Karin Hendrickson is about to embark on her fifth Iditarod.

Hendrickson juggles a full-time job as a state pesticide regulator with the demands of training, breeding and maintaining a 28-husky kennel near Willow.

But back in 2003, Hendrickson was a married, employed 33-year-old homeowner in Idaho with an itch to have some fun before life got too settled.

Escape came courtesy of a stint as a volunteer dog handler on Fourth Avenue helping escort hepped-up dog teams past the crowds and mayhem of the ceremonial start.

Hendrickson caught the sled-dog bug. She packed up her truck and spent the next two winters handling dog teams for two Iditarod veterans before becoming a musher herself.

Now she has a message for other rookie handlers.

"I got sucked in," Hendrickson said. "I always warn 'em: you never know what could happen."

Zaz Hollander is a journalist who lives in Palmer.

On the Web

• ADN.COM/IDITAROD: Follow the race from Anchorage to Nome with daily updates, photo galleries and minute-by-minute coverage with updated standings on our leader board and trail map.

Iditarod start

• CEREMONIAL START: 10 a.m. Saturday, March 5, in downtown Anchorage at Fourth Avenue and D Street

• RACE RESTART: 2 p.m. Sunday, March 6, on Willow Lake.

Daily News correspondent