HILAND MOUNTAIN CORRECTIONAL CENTER -- As long as anyone can remember, Iditarod dogs that are too tired or sore to keep racing have been shuttled to a safe place in Eagle River: the Hiland Mountain prison.
There, women in lockup for drugs and assault and murder ladle out kibble, scoop dog poop, pile straw into beds, and massage trail-weary pooches.
"It gives me like a sense of hope," April Krause, 25, said Sunday while cuddling with a dog named Burglar in the prison's Iditarod dog yard. To be in prison and be able to help -- that's a terrific feeling. "Because some of these dogs are injured. Some of them are happy and friendly. And some are just scared."
Hiland houses Alaska's long-term female inmates. Krause, who has been in and out of custody over the years, said her most recent troubles began a couple of years ago when she ran away from a halfway house. Her main problem was drugs, she said. She's gone through treatment and now is in a faith-based prison program. Her dream is to work in the veterinary field.
Caring for dropped dogs connects the inmates to Alaska's most famous sporting event at a level few people experience. They watch over four-time champion Martin Buser's dogs as well as those of Norwegian rookie Magnus Kaltenborn.
"I get to be associated with some awesome athletes, that's what I get out of it," said Dana Hilbish, 51, who is serving time for murder. She killed her common-law husband in 1991 and still struggles to talk about it. She's been at Hiland since 1997 and by all accounts has thrived there. She's a lead gardener in the prison greenhouse, plays cello in the prison orchestra, and is training a golden retriever pup named Sophie to be a service animal. She has more than five years left to serve.
For this year's Iditarod, Hilbish is one of the inmates keeping the "handler's book." She tracks the dogs as they come onto the prison grounds. She jots down their unique tag numbers and maps the spot where each one is chained.
Inmates tell Iditarod vets which dogs are eating and drinking and eliminating, and which ones aren't. They point out a dog that won't lay down and others beginning to perk up.
"It's stepping outside yourself," inmate, Daphne Morningstar, 27, said.
The dogs rest their heads on inmates' laps. One put his paw on one of the women, as if to keep her from walking away.
"It's a therapy thing for us," said inmate Terri Nolan, 29, who has volunteered for the Iditarod almost every year since 2006. She most recently ran from a halfway house; her history before that includes drug, assault, forgery and theft convictions. Her 18-month-old son was born when she was in prison. She expects to get out in September and enter a treatment program, her son by her side.
Nolan said she's thankful the Iditarod trusts the inmates with the dogs. They aren't bad people, though they've done bad things, she said.
Only minimum-security inmates are allowed the privilege of working with the dogs, said Sgt. Walter Crawford, a Hiland shift supervisor. Their behavior improves as the Iditarod nears because everyone wants that job, he said.
"We have long-term inmates. Their emotions go up and down and the dogs seem to settle them, give them a purpose, give them a responsibility," Crawford said. "They all want to snuggle with them."
The Hiland prison role is essential to Iditarod logistics, said Kate Swift, the race's longtime dropped dog coordinator. Dozens of dropped dogs flown into Anchorage are brought initially to the Millennium Alaskan Hotel in Spenard, where Swift, veterinarians and other volunteers care for them. Most are chained up outside behind the hotel. That's not a secure spot for overnight, Swift said. So they are moved to Hiland.
"How can you compete with a prison with ... armed guards and a fence," she said.
Over the weekend, Hiland was quite the scene after more than 75 dropped dogs arrived late Friday. The dogs usually stay in a covered area but with an overflow crowd some were staked out in the snow. Inmates hooked the dogs to chains attached to a front end loader and warmed them with blankets and extra straw. Hilbish didn't finish her paperwork until 4 a.m. Saturday. Inmates and a sergeant formed an assembly line to get them all fed that morning.
Most of the dogs were picked up within hours.
By Sunday afternoon, just 10 dogs were left. They barked and howled occasionally but mainly seemed happy to lay still in the sunshine. There was Garlic and Burglar, Flash and Roy. Well, not much flash, Hilbish said.
"I'm glad to see them go. I wouldn't wish this on anybody, really," Hilbish said.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER