'Clown car' or doggie motel? Mushers find new way to carry canines

RUBY — Ramey Smyth of Willow threw snow into a bucket of hot water, dried dog food and liver. He stirred the meal for his sled dog team here Thursday while standing next to his black sled, which looked like any other Iditarod sled in the front. But behind where he stood on the sled runners was a large, plastic black box with circular holes dotting each of its sides.

That's where he rests dogs, using it as a dog kennel on sled runners. He uses the box the way a basketball coach uses the bench in a game, to rest his athletes along the trail.

Even though the Iditarod Board of Directors voted in late October to ban mushers from carrying sled dogs in trailers carted behind their sleds like a caboose, that hasn't killed the strategy. Smyth and a few other mushers, including returning champions Dallas Seavey and Mitch Seavey, all found a way to include dog compartments on their sleds.

[Why the Iditarod banned dog-carrying trailers]

"It's hard to stop a Seavey," Mitch said during this year's ceremonial start in Anchorage, promising to unveil a new sled at the official start in Fairbanks two days later.

Instead of hooking their sled to a trailer that sits on a second set of sled runners — as mushers have in the past, and which the Iditarod now forbids — mushers have attached compartments to their front pair of sled runners to haul dogs.

The new race rules allow mushers to haul dogs in the "front sled only," which mushers interpreted to mean on the first set of sled runners. As a result they have one sled rather than two separate pieces attached together.


"It's a nice, comfy box for two dogs," Smyth said of his new sled. Smyth hasn't run the Iditarod since 2014 but said he saw mushers like the Seaveys and four-time champion Jeff King effectively carrying dogs, so he decided to try it too.

"It looked like it would be a good way to give the dogs a break," said Smyth, who finished second in the 2011 Iditarod.

In practice, Smyth said he can rest dogs about every 45 minutes, but the process of moving dogs is time-consuming, so the compartment wasn't "as be-all and end-all as you may think."

Two-time champion Mitch Seavey has two compartments on his front sled runners to haul dogs, a plastic-bottom compartment behind where he stands on the sled runners, accessible by a small, swinging door and one in his front sled. He can carry four dogs between the two, he said.

"It's similar as far as hauling," he said. "But for me, it's harder for me to haul as much stuff — food and straw."

[What Iditarod race rules say]

Dallas Seavey has deployed a futuristic sled that he has likened to an F-22. It's a far departure from the heavy wooden sleds originally used on the Iditarod Trail, which were sometimes loaded down with plenty of freight.

Crafted out of carbon fiber and Kevlar on 10-foot runners, Seavey carries a large box to rest dogs and on the back of it, he's attached a cooker, allowing him to prepare his dogs' meals while moving on the trail. He also has another compartment in the front of his sled  to carry dogs. Seavey said when he strung along a trailer, both pieces of equipment were about 14 feet long together, so his new invention is a little bit shorter.

"It's lighter than my sled and trailer combo, but clearly it's not the smallest possible sled we could build," he said.

Because Seavey's team has a lot of power, resting some dogs allows him to control speed. While he might prefer to do that using a trailer, he said his team had adapted well to the new rule, though crafting the sled took time.

"It was definitely time-consuming and with only four months between when the rule was changed and when we have to get on the trail, it puts you in a little bit of a bind," the four-time champion said. "I like the ability to give a dog a rest when they need a rest. It allows me to do a better job driving my team because I can customize for the dogs."

At the first trail checkpoint in Nenana, Seavey unloaded four sled dogs, loading three different ones.

"It's sort of like a clown car," he said.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.