Help or hindrance? Mushers seek competitive edge with trailer attachments

HUSLIA -- For sled builder Dan Schlosser, the weeks leading up to Iditarod 43 were a whirlwind.

Not because the Willow-based owner of Sled Dog Systems LLC was working to build more race sleds but because he was busy filling orders for 4-foot-long sled dog carriers that attach to the backs of racing sleds.

"We could have built a lot more, but it was too short notice," he said at the Fairbanks restart last week.

The carriers appear to be a growing trend among racers. While it's not uncommon to see racers with a sit-down section of the sled in which they can carry gear, what's different is the idea of having a long carrier specifically designed to haul dogs. With the race reroute traveling along what appeared to be easier, flatter sections of river trail, many mushers scrambled at the last minute to get the sled attachments.

Schlosser said at least six carriers that he had built for mushers are in this year's race, though other mushers developed their own carriers.

At least a quarter of the teams have some form of the long device attached to their sleds -- from back-of-the-packers Gerald Sousa and Yvonne Dabakk to current leaders such as Dallas Seavey, Pete Kaiser, Thomas Waerner and Aaron Burmeister.

But it was four-time Iditarod champion and noted gear innovator Jeff King who first introduced the carriers to the mushing scene several years ago. The carriers gained notice last year when King managed to drive the contraption through the perilous Dalzell Gorge.

King, famous for creating the "sit-down" sled, praised not only the ability to rest dogs along the way but also the maneuverability of the sled.

"It is a monumental change in the improvement of the sled; I think you'll see more and more of them," King said.

But the biggest change comes in how the trailer changes the strategy mushers use to rest dogs. The 1,000-mile race is a constant game of running and resting, and mushers are always looking for ways to maximize rest. Some mushers have used similar strategies by placing one or two dogs in the sled bag to allow them to recuperate as the rest of the team carries on. With the additional space, mushers say the new trailers can hold up to four, allowing more dogs to rest at any one time.

In theory, if trail conditions are right, it could be a way to cut overall stopping time along the trail and potentially speed up the race.

Fairbanks racer Ken Anderson said he played with the idea of having 10 dogs in the team and carrying six -- two in his sled bag and four in the trailer. He even went so far as to come up with a belt with four leashes so he could walk down the line, attach each dog and then bring them over and load them into the trailer.

But with soft snow along the Yukon River trail, Anderson hasn't been able to deploy that strategy.

Anderson said the idea was that with resting dogs in the trailer, a musher could travel almost nonstop. For example, a team could run eight hours and rest for two if the dogs had cycled through the trailer for four hours at a time.

"The question is how much time did you lose going slower or how much down time do you lose swapping dogs around?" he said.

Dallas Seavey said he's been resting dogs in his sled bag since 2009 but didn't deploy a carrier until last year. He destroyed his first one on rough trail between Rainy Pass and Nikolai but managed in Takotna to build another version of the trailer, which he used until Galena.

Seavey said using a trailer makes up for some of his team's weaknesses, noting the rest advantage the team gets by being able to carry more dogs.

"Once you start carrying dogs, you start seeing a lot of possibilities," he said. "But you need the right trail."

He added that it's a strategy that must be used cautiously. If it takes seven minutes to load a dog that rests for one hour, he noted, that's seven minutes every other dog misses. If you have 15 dogs, that's 105 minutes of lost rest versus only 60 gained for one dog.

But additionally, he said, resting dogs for 20 miles at a time makes an 80-mile run look like a much less intimidating 60-miler.

"If you can cycle through your whole team, it can make a big difference," he said.

Seavey didn't give much credit to the trailer for helping him win last year but said looking back he wouldn't change having the contraption with him.

"Would the team have not won without a trailer? I have no idea," Seavey said. "It was too close to call, even with it, so it's hard to say."

Fairbanks musher Aaron Burmeister, who was the first to the halfway point Thursday night, carries a trailer but said he only uses it for extra gear and straw along the way. He likes how having the device helps spread his weight and said it makes it easier for the team to carry the sled.

But for him, the idea of carrying dogs unless they're hurt or in need of a serious break doesn't make sense. Putting the recharged dogs back into the team that's been running for eight hours only seems to put more stress on them as a whole, he said. It's not a strategy that works for him but not one he's totally discounting.

He did point out that many who had the carriers last year didn't finish -- including King.

"We'll see. Time will tell," Burmeister said on the strategy. "I won't discount anything but I'm not sold on it yet."

Suzanna Caldwell

Suzanna Caldwell is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in 2017.