Hundreds of sled dogs and their 52 mushers are readying for Sunday’s official start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Each musher has a story, and so do their huskies.
On Saturday, the Daily News asked seven mushers to introduce us to one of the dogs on their teams.
Meet Mustang, Apok, Cassette, Radar, Finn, Pam and Mud:
Mustang is “always on high alert,” said musher Ryan Santiago. Some dogs are relaxed, and just hang out. Not Mustang. His head darts back and forth, staring at anything that moves. It’s kind of endearing, Santiago said.
“He is always 100 percent aware of everything, and he’s so shy at first but the minute that he trusts you, he’s the most affectionate dog,” Santiago said. “He’ll jump on you and lick your face and stuff. He’s kind of been the one that I have a little bit of a soft spot for. He’s so sweet.”
Weighing in at about 49 pounds, Mustang is small compared to his teammates.
“So you kind of feel like you could put him in a purse and carry him around,” Santiago said.
Mustang and Santiago are both running their first Iditarod this year. Santiago works at the Seavey’s IdidaRide Dog Sled Tours, based in Seward. He’s running a team of mostly young dogs from the kennel: All 2 year olds, except for one 6 year old who has made it to Nome previously with three-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey.
“At least one of us knows the way,” Santiago said and laughed.
Apok is happy, tough and gets along with most of his teammates, said musher Martin Apayauq Reitan, of Kaktovik.
“He’s really friendly,” Reitan said. “There’s a couple dogs he has beef with, but we just keep them apart.”
The 5-year-old dog makes hard runs look easy, Reitan said. About a month ago, Reitan and his sled dog team were competing in the Yukon Quest 1,000-mile International Sled Dog Race and struggling on a steep climb in strong winds.
“The dogs were sick and tired of the wind and going up the mountain, but I noticed him: He was wagging his tail and being happy,” Reitan said.
The team finished the Quest in about 11 days and 6 hours, placing 14th. This is Reitan’s first Iditarod, but he’s no stranger to the race. His dad Ketil Reitan has completed seven Iditarods, finishing in 14th place last year.
Cassette is in charge. Don’t tell her otherwise, said musher Robert Redington of Willow.
“She’s very bossy. She doesn’t like any of the other girl dogs,” he said. “She makes eye contact with another girl and she growls at them.”
Sometimes, at the beginning of runs, she’ll turn around and growl at the dogs behind her.
“She wants to be No. 1,” Redington said.
Yes, she’s bossy. But she’s also a fearless lead dog who has helped navigate the team through storms, Redington said. Cassette is 4 years old.
This is Redington’s fourth Iditarod start.
Radar is an athlete and “a beauty queen,” said musher Jessica Klejka, a veterinarian in Big Lake.
“She’s our beautiful blonde,” said Klejka. She turned to Radar and cooed, “Are you a platinum blonde?” She kissed Radar on the forehead. “So pretty.”
Radar is 3 years old and Klejka’s lead dog.
“So she’s the most popular and probably the most gorgeous, but also my best friend,” Klejka said.
Radar loves to go inside and hang out with humans. She also loves to go outside and run. She’s fast, and they’ve had to practice slowing her down and keeping her at a good pace, Klejka said. If turned loose at home, Radar runs around the yard to play with the other dogs and amps them up. Luckily, they don’t seem to mind.
“The other dogs are OK with Radar being queen,” Klejka said. “I’m always worried, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to get jealous.’ But everybody likes her.”
This is Klejka’s first Iditarod.
Finn is showing a lot of potential as a leader, said musher Cindy Gallea from Minnesota.
He takes charge at the front of the team and doesn’t get discouraged by difficult trails or slogging through snow. He’s also 3 years old, outgoing and just “a really nice boy,” Gallea said.
Finn is from a litter of puppies named after characters from “Star Wars.” His grandfather, Pilot, was also a good lead dog, Gallea said.
“So I keep telling him to just channel his grandpa,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does.”
This is Finn’s first Iditarod start and Gallea’s 15th.
Pam likes to start fights and loses every time, said Girdwood musher Nicolas Petit, who placed second in last year’s Iditarod.
“Never wins, but always recovers,” he said. “She’s always trying to figure out the pecking order and we don’t have a pecking order.”
Pam (named after Pam Redington of the famous mushing family) especially likes to argue with Kristy (named after Iditarod musher Kristy Berington), Petit said.
Pam is 2 years old and starting her second Iditarod.
Last year, her race ended in White Mountain, 77 miles from the finish line. Pam had “started a food fight and lost it,” Petit said. Another dog bit her on the foot and Petit decided she wouldn’t continue the race. It wasn’t a big deal, he said, but he didn’t want to risk an infection. Instead, Pam got flown back to Anchorage.
Volunteers later told Petit that after he left the checkpoint Pam wouldn’t stop barking. She wouldn’t sleep. She wouldn’t relax. “She just wanted to go,” he said.
That aggressive energy helps make Pam a good sled dog, he said. Once she calms down, she has a smooth trot on the trail.
Mud is cool, laid-back and easygoing, said musher Aaron Burmeister, who lists his hometowns as Nome and Nenana.
Burmeister described 6-year-old Mud as “the old man of the team.” That is, until Mud gets his harness on. Then he’s all business.
“He’s a workhorse,” Burmeister said. “His head is in the game all the time.”
This is Mud’s 4th Iditarod and Burmeister’s 18th.