John Schandelmeier: Sled dog racing goes back beyond the Iditarod

John Schandelmeier
Gwen Holdman of Fox, Alaska, and her team cross College Road Friday, March 17, 2006, in the 2006 GCI Open North American Sled Dog Race.

The granddaddy of all sled dog races kicks off in Fairbanks this coming weekend. What? Are they re-doing the Iditarod? No: it is the 69th running of the Open North American Sled Dog Race. This race is the oldest continuously run sled dog race in the world. Andy Kokrine won the first one in 1946 and this years' Rondy champ, Arleigh Reynolds, took home the ONAC trophy last year. This race is viewed by many as the toughest three days on the sprint circuit.

There is a good reason for this. The North American features a couple of 20-mile heats, followed by a run on the third day of nearly 30 miles. This is a significant difference for a dog. He will now be asked to continue his wide-open pace for half-again as far as he did on the previous two days. If you are a dog, you don't know that.

"How far?'" says the dog. "Trust me," his driver says.

The dog has believed Egil Ellis more often than anyone else. Ellis has won the ONAC 12 times. George Attla also convinced his teams to believe; he won eight times over three decades.

When most folks think of racing sled dogs, they think of the Iditarod. However, the Iditarod is a relative newcomer to the racing scene. The first sled dog race with codified rules was the 1907 All-Alaskan Sweepstakes. Soon after, the American Dog Derby in Ashton, Idaho, came onto the racing scene. The sweepstakes would go by the wayside after a few years but the Dog Derby did not. Other than a break for WWII, it remained an extremely popular event until the early '60s. Snowmobiles took over the racing headlines for some years until the American Dog Derby came back to stay in 1993.

I ran the Derby in 1995. The streets in Ashton were packed and vehicle traffic was nowhere to be found. A continuous slate of events took place on the main street while the teams were out on the trail. In spite of five feet of snow, it was hotter than blazes. I finished in a T-shirt.

Ashton isn't the only long-running sled dog event. The New England Sled Dog Club has been hosting races since the '20s. Sled dog racing was a demonstration sport in the Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1932. A Canadian, Emil St. Goddard, won that race and Lenard Seppala was eight minutes back. Col. Norman Vaughn was back in the pack some three hours off of the pace. The Olympic heats were only 25-miles. In today's sprint races, only a few minutes or even seconds separate top teams.

Sprint races are much faster today. A winning time on a course of 25 miles would be in the neighborhood of 80 minutes, instead of the 2¼ hours it took at Lake Placid. Today's dogs are different. They look more like greyhounds than traditional huskies. Indeed, they have a very strong pointer influence.

What we think of as traditional huskies, such as one sees on the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, are a far different dog than those of decades past. No longer is the heavily furred dog that curled up comfortably outdoors during a January in Fairbanks in demand. Dogs with heavy coats and big bodies get too hot to maintain the speeds necessary in today's competition. If you have a good sprint team, you will have a lot of housedogs or you need a good dog barn.

Our kennel has both, but we still have no sprint team. However, I have wanted to race the Anchorage Fur Rondy and the Open North American since I listened to those races on the radio back when Roland Lombard and George Attla were dueling it out in the '60s. So, this is the year for my slow and steady Yukon Quest team to watch the big boys go by me at the ONAC. By next Sunday, there will be one fewer race on my bucket list.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.


John Schandelmeier