TAKOTNA — Hundreds of sled dogs are racing across Alaska right now in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Meet five of the sled dogs that took a break Wednesday in the village of Takotna, at Mile 329 of the 1,000-mile trail.
Driver is the first dog to get excited about leaving a checkpoint, said musher Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers. Sure, maybe he's not the sharpest dog on the trail. But he's amiable and he just loves to run.
"He is dumb as a box of rocks," Zirkle said, cupping her hands over Driver's ears in an effort to prevent him from hearing the insult. "But he loves being a sled dog. He like loves doing what he does. He's the understated team player."
This is 5-year-old Driver's third Iditarod. Zirkle said he first raced with her husband, Allen Moore, who runs the kennel's "JV team" in the Iditarod. Zirkle promoted Driver to the varsity team.
"He just wants to go," she said. "I don't know what's in him that makes him do that. I don't know. He's not trained to do that. He just likes to run."
Gel sort of has a split personality.
One second, she wants love. The next minute she's growling and showing her teeth, leading you to think she could "bite your face off" if she wanted to, said musher Kelly Maixner of Big Lake.
"That's the funny thing about her," he said. "You go up there and she starts licking your face, but then she'll growl at you two seconds later. She's very growly, but she'd never bite. It's just her personality."
Maixner said 4-year-old Gel is an upbeat leader and always "ready to go." She's just, well, a bit complicated.
"She's a weirdo," he said. "She's crazy."
This is Gel's second Iditarod.
At 8 years old, Ranger is fearless, said Iditarod musher Jessie Royer, who splits her time between Fairbanks and Montana.
"He's one of my main, number one lead dogs that will go through anything. No matter what kind of crap weather — wind, whiteouts, drifts — whatever we run into on the coast, he goes," she said. "He's just an amazing dog."
Ranger has already run the Iditarod several times. If he's anything like his mom, he has a few more races in him.
Ranger's mother, Kuling, finished her last Iditarod at age 12, Royer said.
Brown the sled dog is actually black and white.
"She's from a 'bear' litter," said musher Charley Bejna. "So I had four dogs — Black, Brown, Grizzly and Kodiak."
Brown, age 5, is Bejna's first pick for a lead dog. She's smart, quiet, hardworking and "a real sweetheart," he said.
"In all my races, she's my go-to," he said. "She's going to make the decisions pretty much for all of us. If she's tired, I know everybody else is — because she's definitely a go-getter."
Brown has run three or four Iditarods, said Bejna, who splits his time between Illinois and Knik.
He didn't always know Brown was meant to lead the team.
"When she was first born, I thought she was way too small and I just kind of put her on hold for about a month because, I said, 'She's so small, what is she going to be able to do?'" he said. "And then I said, 'Well, let me try her.' And now she's my main lead dog."
As a leader, he said, Brown can get picky about who she runs next to at the front of the pack. She likes to stand next to her sister or four other dogs on the team. Bejna said he knows when he has hooked up the wrong dog next to Brown because she transforms from dog to statue — she sits down and will not move.
"She's real anal about who she runs with," he said. "I think that's what makes her so special."
Mask is 5 years old and on her third or fourth Iditarod, said Wasilla musher Ray Redington Jr.
She is an explorer by nature.
"She likes to go. She likes the adventure," Redington said. "She just likes the adrenaline and likes the country."