The Iditarod Sled Dog Trail Race is three weeks away, but rookie German musher Silvia Furtwangler already has one heck of a tale.
Last week, she noticed one of her dogs missing. This came hours after her plane touched down in Anchorage after she'd hauled herself and her dogs by car from Norway to Frankfurt, and, from there, by plane to Seattle and on to Anchorage where the team loaded up in a truck and headed for a training compound in Willow.
But when Furtwangler and her companions arrived in the small community North of Anchorage, she discovered her bright blue-eyed 3-year old named Whistler was gone. A venting screen had been punched out on one of the dog boxes mushers use to transport their teams, and Whistler was nowhere in sight. Word of the missing pooch spread quickly, and people began calling in sightings.
Most had spotted the distinct-looking dog along the Chester Creek greenbelt, which cuts through much of Midtown Anchorage, said Tracey Mendenhall, a friend of Furtwangler who helped organize a search. Whistler had been seen rolling in the snow and sprinting to and fro, but the marathon athlete conditioned to run nearly 1,000 miles remained elusive.
Furtwangler wasn't sure if she'd run the race without Whistler, the pup of a pound dog and a former Iditarod racer named Sharkie. By Monday morning, four days after he first went missing, someone finally caught up with Whistler. Employees of the Arc of Anchorage, located near the greenbelt and tucked into a quiet spot near the busy intersection of Northern Lights Boulevard and Bragaw Street, spotted the dog.
"I saw his eyes and I knew it was him," said Charlene Oliver, the Arc employee who eventually coaxed Whistler to safety, even though she was mistakenly calling him Whisper. "He has beautiful eyes."
Another Arc employee, Danny Parish, actually spotted Whistler hanging around the parking lot on Sunday, but didn't think much of it until he saw the same dog again Monday. He tried luring the dog with a few bites of enchilada. Parish said Whistler "really did love the enchiladas," but wanted nothing to do with him.
With Oliver, it was a different story. Whistler was skittish but more receptive. Oliver made a trail out of hard-to-resist food -- roast beef -- leading from the parking lot into a garage on the same lot. Once Whistler was inside, the staff closed the door on the dog's free-running spree. Oliver, a dog lover herself, then "loved, kissed and hugged," on him.
Furtwangler isn't surprised it took a woman's touch to get Whistler to come. She described him as a "mom dog," deeply attached to her. When the women first saw each other, they hugged and cried and Furtwangler thanked Oliver.
And for Whistler, Furtwangler played an iPhone clip of howling sled dogs from her team on speaker phone. Whistler may be a bit thinner than when he started his adventure, but otherwise he looked good. He'll get a day to rest and recover, but by Tuesday his pre-race training regime should resume.
As for Whistler's new choice of food, Furtwangler wondered if maybe it's not such a bad thing. Mushers often pack special treats to motivate their dogs when the race gets tough, and if Mexican food does the trick, so be it. "I am definitely sure I will have some Mexican food in the food drop now," she said.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com