One step into his dog lot carved beneath a grove of birch trees, and 2012 Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey's voice is overtaken by the excited yips, barks and wails of his furry fleet. Ears perk. Eyes squint. Tails wag. In worn Carhartt jeans and a pair of running shoes, the star athlete and dog driver moves past his adoring fans, taking time for a head pat here, an ear scratch there -- moments of affection between teammates.
At 25 years old, Seavey's accomplishment this March as the youngest musher to ever win the Iditarod -- a nearly 1,000 mile mountain-to-sea sled dog race across the rugged expanse of the Last Frontier -- isn't lost on him. But there is a business-like, matter-of-fact side to the former wrestling champion, who brings as much precision as he does passion to his racing strategy.
Four months after pulling under the burled arch in Nome in the lead, Seavey is as busy as ever. The same mind that built a championship kennel with second-hand dogs, affectionately known as "the scrubs," over the course of only four years is now in multi-tasking hyperdrive. In addition to keeping his dogs fit and tending to puppies, the husband and father is making celebrity appearances, creating promotional videos, running marathons, writing a book and trying to widen the fan base for the sport of mushing.
"We are trying to make the sport more inviting to new fans," he said on a July afternoon at his home in Willow, a lush, woody community north of Anchorage that's popular with mushers and recreation seekers.
"I am not trying to rack up as many wins as possible. If you race just to win the Iditarod you're going to be disappointed. I race dogs because I love the lifestyle," he said.
The lifestyle isn't Hollywood glamour and glitz. It's hard work and endless chores. If you're Dallas Seavey, it's living in a two-story yurt in Alaska where mosquitoes are so thick you hang a bug zapper inside your living room, about 10 feet away from where your toddler's swing hovers above a couch. And it's where a pound cat named "Smoke" meanders underfoot, a mouser destined to be a shop cat only but which, with no front claws and a 2-year-old who's in love with it, now gets to live inside with the humans in what the Seaveys call their "Yurt mansion."
Here, there is little room for bravado and a lot of space for big dreams. Seavey's wife, Jen, has a "no trophy" rule for the compact home. Instead, it is in the same shop in which he builds sleds and repairs snowmachines that Seavey's career can be tallied in trophies and keepsakes. Plywood walls and floors are the backdrop for the athlete's growing "wall of fame." Trophies from his fourth, sixth and eighth place Iditarod finishes sit side by side on a shelf. The first sled he ever owned hangs adjacent to a yellow harness, an award given during the Iditarod each year to an outstanding lead dog or dogs. This year the honor was bestowed on Seavey's dog, Guinness. In another corner hangs a giant replica of his $50,000 winner's check.
Beneath all of this is a table saw, supported by a sturdy wooden shipping crate. Unless Seavey told you, you'd never know inside the crate is his 2012 Iditarod trophy, a symbol of his rise to fame he has yet to unpack.
'Born to Mush'
Later this summer, Seavey plans to release his autobiography. The current working title is "Born to Mush" -- fitting, since Seavey comes by his racing genes honestly. He is the grandson of a third place finisher and the son of 2004 winner and career contender Mitch Seavey.
Seavey says he got hooked on mushing when he was just 5 years old. For the young Seavey boy, a washed up sled dog of his dad's named "Buster" was the center of his world. "As far as I was concerned he was the best sled dog that had ever been," Seavey said.
Seavey describes his memoir as an easy, inspirational read geared toward young readers that's centered on believing in one's self and having the guts to do what's necessary to achieve your dreams. It's both a history of his life growing up in a mushing family (which he likens to ranching), and part motivational message, the story of how he built his kennel from scratch and went on to become a young champion of not only the Iditarod but also of Alaska's other grueling distance race, the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. The themes are similar to what he says he tells schoolchildren: maximize your own potential and not someone else's idea about what your abilities or limitations are, and make sure you're reaching for your own dreams.
"You can't lie to yourself," Seavey said.
The message parallels the business side of "Seavey, Inc.," whose main racing sponsor is an Outside company specializing in risk management and regulatory compliance. It's not exactly the intuitive fit that a dog food manufacturer or airline might be for a sled dog kennel. Dogs need to eat and people need to get from point A to point B. But Seavey and J.J. Keller and Associates have figured out there are more substantial themes to build on. The company began its Seavey sponsorships to salute the trucking industry and its drivers and original forms of long-distance transportation. But the relationship has grown to incorporate more of the motivation and commitment it takes to succeed as a musher into the company's overall brand and the way it interacts with clients and employees.
Which means nowadays the Alaskan finds himself boarding flights for V.I.P trips to Wisconsin, where the company is headquartered and where Seavey gives talks to clients, employees and their family members, an Iditarod export building his brand.
"We have to take the mushing life out of Alaska and transport it to where their company is," Seavey said.
Second-hand dogs become superstars
Seavey's knack for developing motivational messages has its origin in the approach he takes with assembling and managing his canine team. His guiding principle is to "maximize the individual athlete" -- developing dogs with superstar racing genes into top rate marathoners. Good genes alone aren't enough. A dog's personality and motivation can help or hurt the team as a whole, depending on the race style of the musher it's running for. Seavey prides himself on being able to see the diamonds in the rough -- finding and releasing a dog's championship spirit and ability.
Doubters need only look at Seavey's Iditarod 2012 win for proof he's on to something. The entire team was made up of dogs other people had for various reasons been willing to say goodbye to, rejects and cast-offs that didn't make the top tier cut in their home kennel.
"I didn't think it was possible to be looking for Iditarod winners," Seavey said, explaining his main focus in choosing dogs was to find ones that would be good breeders, matriarchs and patriarchs capable of producing champions. "I was quite wrong."
Some dogs came as part of a complete team and were top race finishers when they entered Seavey's world. He bought a team from fellow musher Aaron Burmeister in 2010.
Seavey also picked off a few good ones from the kennel of his dad, Mitch Seavey.
There's Derby, a male dog Seavey bought from his dad in 2007. Derby's got a punky attitude, short tail, gastric issues (he gets stress-induced diarrhea) and can be a high strung bully. But Derby's energy was good and he's made the Seavey team every year. There is also Crockett, another male who was given up because he's too jumpy and spooks easily. But Seavey found the good-sized dog to be a strong, reliable athlete.
Seavey is hard-pressed to name favorites, but three have moved Seavey in ways others haven't. He adores a black and tan dog named Beetle for being "a dog you never notice," a laid back guy who "always gets the job done." And Diesel, a 2012 Yukon Quest finisher who stepped up to replace other dogs that had to be dropped. Until then, Diesel hadn't been a crucial team member. But when he was needed most, he shone.
And there is Guinness, the now veteran racer who came to Seavey from his dad's kennel because she was small. Seavey saw physical potential in her, an aloof dog he says has never been super friendly or star struck. Yet Guinness has loyally propelled Seavey throughout his entire adult racing career. Through their trials and triumph the small dog has gained Seavey's utmost respect, perhaps because she loves the sport as much as he does. She has an "absolute, unstoppable love for mushing. She is the goingest dog I have," he said of the leader who was the 2012 Iditarod's Golden Harness winner.
Seavey's competitors can predict that the young musher will enter any race with tenacity and focus. Two things have to come together for a champion to cross in first place: You must have a capable team, and you must drive them well. The X factor this year will be Seavey's team.
2012 may be the first year that dogs born and raised in his kennel race alongside the adult dogs he hand groomed and transformed for victory. If he's done this well with dogs he didn't rear, imagine what's possible when he assembles a team he's lead from birth.
Even at two weeks old, Seavey is conscious of developing a relationship with the pups he says already show evidence of "the racing gene." Scrambling to suckle a teat, their paws madly paddling them toward mom, they're already in what Seavey calls "forward drive -- running to nurse." He likes to handle puppies at this early age to get them used to his scent.
Taking a walk away from home with a pair of 9-week-old pups lumbering alongside him, the young dogs grabbing sticks, nipping at leaves, tumbling and rolling as they play and keep up, Seavey explains the method to the fun. By taking the puppies away from the kennel, away from mom and into unfamiliar surroundings, he becomes the familiar element in an otherwise foreign place. The musher-to-dog bond strengthens, and the pups learn to trust the man they may one day haul all the way to Nome for another Iditarod win.
Harness training begins at around a year old, and dogs start learning to run as part of a team. Seavey is stunned that so far of 20 dogs he's done this with, only one needed the encouragement of a person running ahead as motivation to follow. This month, a group of one-year-olds with beach names like "Surf," "Tide" and "Reef" took their first runs. For Seavey, it was thrilling. He said the dogs -- getting to do what they were born and bred to do -- seemed to hit a magic moment.
Older home-grown kennel mates will for the first time ever have a chance to make the cut on the 2013 Iditarod team. Seavey has a group of 2- and 3-year-olds he says will train alongside the veterans. If their physical conditioning and temperament hold up, they've got a shot at a spot on the team.
The trick isn't just picking the best 16 dogs, but picking the best dogs who will work together. Seavey offered the example of what might happen if a team was made up of dogs from veteran racers and fellow champions Martin Buser and John Baker. Buser's teams are fast and need a lot of rest. Baker's are slower, but can go for what seems like forever and need less sleep. Throwing the teams together would be useless, Seavey said.
When the time comes, Seavey will take stock of his dogs and decide which 16 he needs to ensure the best 10-to-12 make it to Kaltag, so that the best eight cross the finish line. "Nobody is for sure on my dog team until we take off from the starting line," he said.
Seavey's serious about expanding the fan base for dog mushing. His book is one way to attract younger enthusiasts. But he's also branching out. He's competing in athletic events, mostly marathons. Fitness for mushers matters. Those that can run with their team ease the burden on the dogs, and Seavey has been known to jog alongside his sled.
This summer, he ran the Trent Waldron half marathon and the full Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage, finishing 16th in his division with a time just under four hours. And he's planning to test his grit at the Tough Mudder obstacle course race in Washington state this September. It looks tough, but Seavey isn't convinced it's "probably the toughest event on the planet," as the race bills itself, since it can be completed within a few hours. Mudders beware: unless you do this crazy event in sub-zero temperatures and with little sleep, mushers will be hard to impress.
Impressions, however, are part of why Seavey is putting himself out there at extreme events, hoping to tap into the camaraderie that elite athletes share and get them intrigued in the Iditarod. "We are trying to connect with this other group of athletes," he said.
Seavey is also working methodically to build his official Facebook page, and plans to feature incremental videos that offer a look at the life of a musher and the stages of developing a team from puppyhood to race day. Thinking even bigger, a reality TV show -- more documentary than drama -- isn't beyond the scope of what he envisions, he said.
Meanwhile, he's chipping away at the daily tasks of maintaining what he has now. He's hired a handler he's hoping will learn the ropes well enough to become a trainer. And he still plans to offer sled dog tours this winter, a tourism-based business that is the bread and butter of the kennel's financial health. Although kennels do make some money by selling dogs and through stud fees, Seavey says he hasn't done either.
"Mushers don't have money. It's not a rich sport. It's not cycling. It's not golf. Racing is a hobby, but you can make a business out of the mushing lifestyle," he said.
With so much at his fingertips, what will the Dallas Seavey of 2022 look like? Don't count on a huge empire, he said. He's in it for the love of the sport, and will be happy with just enough to be comfortable along the way.
"I want to look back on a lifetime of enjoying mushing. And if we do that, wins will happen," he said.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com