Alaska News

Babe will strut her stuff to Nome one last time

For eons, men have gone to pieces over babes.

But how many have fallen apart at the mere mention of a geriatric Babe, a four-legged Babe who can outlast a ground blizzard, a Babe who knows her way to Nome better than most babes know the way to a designer clothing store.

Yet there was Ramey Smyth of Willow at the podium of the Iditarod finishers banquet in Nome last March, unable to speak because his 10-year-old lead dog Babe had just earned the Lolly Medley Golden Harness Award, which is named after Smyth's mother, who used to sew the golden harnesses herself.

Choked up, Smyth tried to compose himself but left the podium without uttering a word. Moments later, carrying Babe adorned in her Golden Harness, the Willow musher returned.

"Receiving this award," he said, holding the microphone in his right hand, "is more I think than winning the Iditarod will ever be. This dog has kept me out of the poor house. She's paid the mortgage and put food on the table -- and I'm not joking."

Nor is Smyth kidding when he says that Babe will make her final run to Nome when the 37th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race begins on Fourth Avenue on Saturday morning.

"She's still in the lineup," said Smyth of Babe. "But this will be her last year, I'm sure of it. You can tell that this is the first year it's been hard for her. She didn't start training until late in the year (after a difficult pregnancy), and she's behind."


Using the old saw that one dog year equals seven human years, Babe, now 11, would be 77. Others say that conversion isn't accurate because dogs reach adulthood within the first couple of years. They suggest 10.5 dog years per human year for the first two years, then four dog years per human year for each year after. That puts Babe at 57.

Either way, she's no pup.

But Babe is the best lead dog Smyth has ever owned, and even at her age Smyth figures there's no substitute for the experience of a dog that's reached Nome eight times.

"She'll be my hole card," said the Willow musher, who finished a career-best third in last year's Iditarod, his 14th. "Any time there's a technical area, she'll show the way. Up over Rainy Pass and through the (Farewell) Burn, there's a lot of touchy stuff.

"It saves time to have someone who knows what they're doing. It's safer for everybody."

Like Babe, Smyth knows what he's doing. Though only 33, the balding musher is midway through his second decade of Iditarod racing, and he's been marked as a musher to watch since upsetting a pack of Iditarod champions in the Kuskokwim 300 as a 19-year-old. Father Bud Smyth is a highly respected dog trainer who finished 12th in the first Iditarod in 1973 and raced five others. And his mother, the late Lolly Medley, joined Mary Shields to become the first women to finish the Iditarod in 1974.

And that rich mushing heritage is expanding.

When he spoke by cell phone Friday afternoon, Smyth was in the middle of what he called "a logistical nightmare." He was driving to Fairbanks to meet his wife, Becca Moore, who was about to finish 17th in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. Eight days later, with some of Moore's nine finishers in harness, he expects to be in Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

He won't have his usual passenger.

Two-year-old daughter Ava has already become comfortable accompanying dad on training runs as long as 40 miles.

"She did incredibly well," said Smyth, who is a custom log cabin builder during the summer. "She usually falls asleep, and back home she doesn't like naps that much."

On such training runs, the dogs aren't the only ones who need attention.

"You have to change diapers out there on the trail," he said. "It's been real. But if you can change a diaper in a driving snowstorm and give the child water and nuts, you're OK."

At least until that child starts mimicking dad.

"She's learned to say 'hike' and 'whoa' and does it at very strange times -- and she's learned to mimic my voice," he said

As much joy as Ava has brought Smyth, there's little doubt his life is more complicated than ever these days.

"I'm trying to keep a family together and a business together while at the same time concentrating on the dogs -- and sometimes there's just not enough time," he said.


"My expectations are lower, but my aspirations are not. If the opportunity to win arises, I'm going for it."

And if the race comes down to the final few miles, bet on Smyth. He's won the award for the fastest closing time from Safety to Nome six times.

But it's only 22 miles from Safety to Nome. The other 1,078 miles usually determine the Iditarod champion.

"There's some weird phenomenon involving peaking with dogs that's very hard to predict," Smyth said. "The main thing is perseverance and luck.

"I'm much more efficient now. I have more judgment for what the dogs can and can't do, and that helps. I have more judgment in training. This is not a young person's game."

And when the race is on the line, expect veteran Smyth to turn to veteran dogs like Babe, her brother Dude, Flame and Sand.

"It's quite an experience to watch the old-timers be like, 'Well, let's get it on here.'

"There's always some young ones on the team. But it's strange, the old ones are crazier than the young ones. They're the ones that are the cheerleaders, so I just can't leave them at home. It's like they're saying, 'It's a blast, lets's go do it again.' "


Smyth can barely recall when Babe, as a 2-year-old, ran her rookie race. He dropped her in Takotna that year, but she came back to finish eight consecutive Iditarods.

"She's run it almost as many times as I have," he said. "Maybe she's the one who should be on the sled."

Reporter Mike Campbell can be reached at or 257-4329.


Mike Campbell

Mike Campbell was a longtime editor for Alaska Dispatch News, and before that, the Anchorage Daily News.