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Iditarod dogs on the edge

Mike Williams Jr. arrived in Nome in 13th place on March 16.
Jill Burke photo
Mike Williams Jr feeds his team during his stop in Anvik on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
One of Mike Williams Jr's dogs rolls in the snow as the team checks in to Iditarod on Thursday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Mike Williams Jr. pulls into the checkpoint in Iditarod on March 10.
Stephen Nowers photo

ANVIK -- In only the second Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race of his young career, one of mushing's rising young stars learned that the nuances of dog care for long-distance marathons can take more than just being in tune with your team. By the time Mike Williams Jr. reached this checkpoint, his dogs were noticeably thin. Veterinarians worried they bordered on being too thin, an observation that intensified the scrutiny the 26-year-old experienced in each successive checkpoint along the Yukon River to Kaltag, and from there, overland to Unalakleet and then along the coast of Norton Sound.

The teams of two other mushers -- rookies Brennan Norden from Kasilof and Mike Santos from Cantwell -- also caught the attention of Iditarod veterinarians, teams of which occupy all the race checkpoints. Williams' team would make it to the Nome finish line in 13th place. The teams of Norden and Santos, however, would not finish the race. The race’s chief dog doctor, who was traveling the trail with the Iditarod front runners, said after his arrival in Nome that Norden's and Brennan's dogs just weren't healthy enough to keep going.

Realizing this, Iditarod head veterinarian Stuart Nelson said, the mushers decided to pull out of the race.

Williams Jr. managed to hang on thanks to advice from some of the sport's top competitors and veterinarians, who offered advice on changes to the food for his team. Despite their slim frames, Williams' dogs paced with the best of the pack and early on were alongside the top athletes. While he wasn't quite able to keep up with this year's early hot shots in the very front -- mushers like eventual race champ John Baker from Kotzebue and Hugh Neff from Tok, or former four-time Iditarod champions Lance Mackey from Fairbanks and Martin Buser from Big Lake -- he did hold his own among some of the race’s toughest competitors: two-time runner-up DeeDee Jonrowe, 2011 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race winner Dallas Seavey from Wasilla and five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers, the Iditarod's only five-time winner.

It was in this same gang of top-tier mushers that Williams Jr. found a few new guardian angels, whether he wanted them or realized it. These mushers, who collectively have raced dozens of Iditarods, knew Williams Jr. must endure this race on his own.

But their adherence to the code of sled-dog racing and sportsmanship led them to gently mentor him.

Lean dogs in the middle of the Iditarod race are a concern to everyone because they may not have the reserves they need to both run hard and keep themselves warm if the weather gets too windy or too cold. The race's veterinarians have the power to sideline an entire team should they deem it necessary. They've done it before -- not often -- but they have done it, according to Nelson, the Iditarod's chief veterinarian. And in this year's race, he gave his vet teams orders to keep a close eye on Williams' dog team as well as a few others closer to the back of the pack.

The situation placed Williams Jr., an Akiak musher and modern heir apparent to a long legacy of Alaska Native mushers, in the middle of a situation so sensitive that Nelson didn't want to speak openly about the team's condition during the race itself. The Iditarod has long been dominated by non-Native mushers. Yanking from the race one of rural Alaska's few bright and rising stars is a decision no one would take lightly. Although Nelson would not say at the time whether this was something veterinarians were actively considering, there were a lot of miles yet to journey between Anvik and the finish line, and dogs generally continue to lose weight as they jump between checkpoints on their way to Nome. Later, with Williams' comfortably having finished his second Iditarod, Nelson admitted that had Williams' team not rebounded, removing his team from the race would have been a real possibility.

"If he would have progressed he probably would have reached that point," Nelson said from Nome.

The vigil begins

After the teams had run nearly 500 miles and gone just past the Iditarod mid-point to Anvik, Nelson first voiced his concern to Williams Jr. about how thin the dogs looked. Nelson at the time believed his talks with Williams Jr. didn't go so well. Or so he thought. So for help he turned to Mackey, who at the time was still defending Iditarod champion, and who was known for superlative dog care. Nelson consulted with Mackey in Anvik as Mackey looked after his own dogs. Leaning across Mackey's resting dog line, Nelson, a tall man, hunched over and told the lean, almost jockey-sized Mackey that Williams Jr.'s dogs were very thin and that they weren't getting enough fat.

"It's hard to get that message to him," Nelson told Mackey, wondering if Mackey might have better luck conveying the concerns of vets to Williams.

"We do want him to do well and we are trying to help him," Nelson said about his decision to call in other mushers as back up.

"He's the head vet and if the head vet can't get through to him maybe one of us can," Mackey later said. "Sometimes the head vet can put it in terms that make you feel incompetent. We can maybe say things to another musher without offending them."

Mackey wasn't the only one helping out. Sometime after his chat with Nelson, another veteran was seen to lean in for a talk with Williams Jr. in a quiet corner on the second floor of the Yukon River village checkpoint's headquarters.

In addition to being a woman known for slugging it through hard times and never giving up, Iditarod veteran Jonrowe is also known as an ever-present soother to the down trodden. In Anvik, it was Williams Jr.'s turn to take shelter under her wing.

"They treat me like I'm some dumb rookie, and I'm not some dumb rookie," she said Williams Jr. shared with her as she counseled him.

It's no exaggeration to say Williams Jr. has mushing in his blood. And he's far from a "dumb rookie." He is the son of Mike Williams Sr., who between 1992 and 2009 ran the race 14 times. The elder Williams' best showing was an 18th place in 1997. The younger Williams, who grew up around mushing, helping and watching his dad race, is also the nephew of Iditarod musher Walter Williams, who ran once in 1983 and placed 31st. Adding to the regional legacy are the Owen brothers – Ivan and Robert – who are themselves from Akiak and were top 20 finishers during the 1970s.

As an Iditarod rookie last year, Williams Jr. finished in the top 30. Then, early this year he nearly beat out Iditarod veteran Paul Gebhardt in the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race in Bethel. On his way to a second place finish, he did best a lot of other top mushers. And had he been one minute faster, he would have won.

"He won the respect of the older mushers and the admiration of an entire region," reported the Tundra Drums of Williams Jr.'s stunning upset.

And this is why the nervousness about the health of Williams' dog team, and what to do about it, was palpable on the sidelines. He's one of the modern race's rare Alaska Native sons, and a hometown hero who, by that Friday evening in Anvik, had managed to respectably position himself in 16th place.

"He is a folk hero. I want him to get the recognition he deserves," said Jonrowe, who thinks a mushing revival could solve a lot of the generational problems and boredom in the Bush. "The chance of being a world class basketball player from rural Alaska is pretty slim. The chance of being the best musher in the world is a real possibility."

After her chat with the young musher, Jonrowe came to some conclusions of her own. "There definitely is a culture clash," she said. "I've known Mike since he was a little boy. I think sometimes people don't understand Yupik people. He's listening to what they say and trying to do it," she said. "His dogs are thin. They are offering to help him get more fat. He feels like they are coming down on him."

Williams Jr., a carpentry student who enjoys playing guitar and is also a newlywed, could very well be the race's shyest musher. He's quiet and soft spoken, and it would be an error to lump him, personality-wise, in with the race's gang of boisterous big talkers, including Mackey. But like the rest of them, running the Iditarod has been his lifelong dream.

Before talking to the vets, he had been feeling upbeat about his race. "From Willow to here is some of the best trails I’ve been on all year," he said as he made himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in Anvik's race headquarters.

Hard packed snow and plenty of it was not something of which his coastally-trained team had seen much. He thought the race up to that point had been "awesome." His dogs seemed to be eating well and only one, a yearling, he thought might not have the oomph needed to make it to Nome. He was pacing a few hours faster than 2010, and was adjusting rest and run times as seemed fit for each leg of the race.

As for the course ahead to Nome, Williams Jr. said then that flexibility would be his guide. "I have a plan about what I want to do but we'll see how the dogs are doing," he said. "We still have half way to go."

In preparing for his second Iditarod run, he said, he’d taken advice from seasoned mushers, including his dad, but he believed the best lessons came from first-hand experience. He admitted, though, that he was still learning about training, feeding, routines at the checkpoints and about taking care of the dogs.

On some level Nelson must have known this about Williams Jr. It could be why he employed other mushers to help him help the young musher.

More fat

A major concern for the veterinarians appeared to be ensuring that Williams Jr.'s dogs were eating enough fat. Fat has more than two times the calories of protein, and thin dogs gearing up for more monster runs need calories. They cannot afford to use their own body for reserve energy should they run out of gas.

Late in the afternoon at the Anvik checkpoint, Williams sat in the sun and prepped his dog team with a final big meal before heading out, picking from a stash of kibble, beef, salmon and beaver meat. Sometime later, Jonrowe, who was parked beside him, tossed a bag of fat to him. "I've got this. It's extra and it's easy to mix because it's ground," she said.

The bag landed next to another bag of fat with the name "Lance" on it, presumably having come from Mackey.

Nelson said it was all part of a conscious effort by the more senior mushers to rally around one of their own.

"Hopefully with input from well respected mushers, we'll convey the message and it will be a good learning experience," he said.

At the time, there was no telling how Williams Jr.'s dogs would fare over the next 450 miles. They might maintain their weight and make it to Nome just fine. They might not. And some mushers believed the head veterinarian was being hyper-vigilant, out to repeat last year's record-breaking achievement of no dog deaths during the race. This year, Nelson readily admitted, he hoped that would happen again.

"It's pre-emptive," Nelson acknowledged about the close attention his vet teams were paying to every musher's dogs.

From Anvik forward, the vet teams were to keep an eye not just on Williams Jr.'s team, but also, farther back, those of Norden and Santos. Weight and hydration would be closely measured. More fat and more food, if necessary, would be made available. But the only team Nelson was personally monitoring was Williams Jr.'s, since the young musher from a small Alaska’s village was performing so well. Had Williams Jr. been farther back, Nelson would not have been there to personally hawk over him.

"We want Native people to do really well in the race and you don't want to convey a negative message," Nelson said, "but in the end we need to be concerned about the dogs."

Williams Jr. pulled out of Anvik about 7:15 p.m. Friday, March 11, to take on the 20-mile section of trail to Grayling. He left one dog short, deciding to drop a blonde Husky mix after he discovered it had an infected foot.

"It's nice to see Native young men running. It's amazing. And he's doing so well," said Julie Walker, an Anvik elementary school teacher who had come to cheer on the mushers from the sidelines.

Behind him, a group of school-aged children waved goodbye.

Iditarod mushers know their dogs

By the time Williams Jr. made it to Unalakleet on the coast, 115 miles later, things were improving for the young musher. 

"(The team) had improved substantially," Nelson said. "They looked a lot better."

It was no accident. Williams Jr. knew, even before the vets mentioned anything, that he needed to maintain weight on his dogs, he said. "They’ve been kind of on me about it, actually," he said of the talks with him from race vets about his team's thinness. "But I'm pretty aware of it. I was snacking them about every hour on the way here."

Feeding more and resting more was how Williams Jr. turned things around, where earlier in the race he had been cutting rest to keep up with other teams.

"I know it's good to be cautious about keeping the weight on the dogs," he said.

"As much as they were eating, they were getting kind of skinny," Williams Jr. added. "They were eating just about everything I was giving them."

He had noticed his dogs had lost weight, and increased their fat intake to compensate. But that gave them diarrhea, he said, so he backed off and hoped to phase in more fat in their meals. At one of the checkpoints, a vet had cautioned Williams Jr. that this was a choice between two evils, and that it was probably best to keep the calories high despite the concerns over the side effects.

Looking back later, Nelson said he could see how his first interactions with Williams Jr. didn’t seem to go well.

"I had repeated myself so any times that it was intimidating to him," Nelson said. "He didn't know how to respond."

Since weight loss is an issue that even the most experienced mushers must cope with and manage,  Williams Jr. is far from alone in dealing with the issue. But how come his team succeeded when others facing similar issues, like Norden and Santos, did not? Nelson couldn't say. He wasn't there to personally oversee those teams. He also wouldn't say whether the teams were forced to scratch at a veterinarian's urging. The decision, he said, is a mutual conclusion arrived at after consultation between the mushers and the veterinarians about what's best for the team. When asked whether the teams would have been allowed to continue had the mushers chosen to stay in the race, Nelson said no. The dogs must meet basic health criteria to continue, and he indicated the teams of Santos and Norden and fallen beneath that threshold.

For his part, Williams Jr. said the race was "awesome." He finished better than last year, saw country on the Iditarod's southern route he'd never seen, met people he'd never met, and learned new approaches to feeding and caring for his dogs.

"It's fun going from short village races to the Iditarod," he said in the dark, early morning hours just after finishing the race.

As Williams sat and rested on a bale of hay in Nome, his father, former Iditarod racer, Mike Williams Sr., fed and looked after the dogs. Williams Jr.'s dad called this year's run "very impressive" and pointed out that his son is the only true "village musher" in the race. Most others either come from cities on the road system, or larger rural hubs like Bethel of Kotzebue. If they set goals and work hard, rural Alaskans and indigenous youth can achieve their dreams, Williams Sr. said.

"It's good to accomplish a goal. But it's tough," he said.

Williams Jr.'s status as a serious competitor is in part why the chief vet paid so much attention to him. Had he been further back, they would not have crossed paths. Race officials call Williams Jr. and musher Pete Kaiser of Bethel, who is also Native and who finished in eighth place, the "shining stars” of the sport. Both appear poised to follow in Baker’s path.

"Those two are incredible mushers," Baker himself said after his win this year.

He also recalled how Williams Jr. had not too long ago purchased some dogs from him. "(The) next race he beat me. (It was) one of my proudest moments," Baker said.

It is because Williams Jr. is on the cusp of what could be an amazing career that people are doing what they can to help him get there, even the vets who, in the heat of the race, may at times feel more like adversaries than allies.

"(Williams Jr.) has a really good future ahead of him, and it’s important to learn how to take care of his team so he can one day win the race," Nelson said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com