EAGLE — Mushers may be considered the face of their teams, but the dogs will always be the heart, soul and driving force.
The Yukon Quest 1,000-mile International Sled Dog Race is the ultimate stage for dogs to showcase their talent and determination. That has continued to be the case during the 35th running of the race.
Each team has its top dog and, in some instances, a leader can be the class clown, too. Veteran Paige Drobny knows that whenever her team needs a push, she can count on 4-year-old Chevelle.
"Chevelle is sort of our MVP," Drobny said. "She's the dog that'll bark when we're moving. If we're going too slow up a hill, she'll bark and it'll make everybody go faster. It's because of her our speed is always faster than I sometimes want it to be."
Although Chevelle, who leads the team alongside her brother Cuda, loves to push her teammates to run faster, she's also the one whose antics consistently bring a smile to Drobny's face.
"Coming in here, the last mile or mile and a half was all just glare ice," she said of her entry to the Eagle checkpoint, the fifth stop on the trail. "There wasn't really any marks where to go and they were slipping and sliding all over the place. (Chevelle) was barking the whole time and thought it was the coolest thing ever. It made me laugh."
Drobny said Chevelle is nicknamed after the Chevy Chevelle, a classic muscle car that was highly regarded for its speed and style in the 1970s. Cuda also is the nickname for another car from the same era, the Plymouth Barracuda, which was often referred to as a 'Cuda by car enthusiasts.
According to her kennel's website, squidacres.com, Chevelle also goes by the nickname Gazelle. It is the perfect name for a dog who loves to run fast and be out in front.
While some mushers have their favorite leaders, it's not uncommon for the lineup to change each race or even in the middle of the commute from checkpoint to checkpoint.
Matt Hall knows all about shuffling dogs. He was forced to find a replacement for Anchor, who won the Golden Harness Award for guiding Hall's team to a Quest title a year ago.
Hall, from Smokin' Ace Kennel in Two Rivers, has been using various lineups throughout the race, although he said he has been most impressed by his group of five 2-year-olds that he calls the "Critter Litter."
"They're all doing pretty incredible right now," Hall said. "But I'm most proud of the 2-year-olds. There's five of them and they're monsters. It's really exciting to see and know the future of those guys running in this race and others is great."
Cash, Cocoa, Cougar, Costello and Carhartt make up the Critter Litter. As much as Hall misses Anchor, he's been pleasantly surprised to see the five rookies have success in their first Quest.
"(Anchor) is what won us the race last year. Not being 100 percent, I can't ask him to run the way that we did last year," Hall said. "I don't expect them to be the new Anchor for this year's team, but to get us through the race with Anchor being sore is pretty, pretty incredible."
Two-time champion Allen Moore said he has the luxury of having 13 dogs on his team that are capable of leading the pack. Although he changed his leaders five miles before reaching Eagle, he has counted on a certain experienced duo to handle the duty for much of the race.
"Commando is 4 years old and he's run like six 1,000-mile races already," Moore said. "He's not in the lead right now, but him and a dog named Kodiak, 4, have been the leaders all the way until about five miles out. They're just awesome dogs."
Although he loves all of his dogs, Moore also noted that the Quest is the one race that sometimes makes him forget who it is he's giving commands to.
"When I get sleepy, I'll start to yell a dog's name (and) for some reason, in just this race, I can't remember their names," he said. "I don't know why."
This story originally appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.