For Susan Wilson, guiding her sled dog team is always suspenseful. Sometimes it is also magical and maddening or fulfilling and frustrating, often during the same run, whether she is training or competing in a race.
“You never know what will happen,” said the Pocatello musher while harnessing her team during one of her three weekly training runs in the Caribou National Forest near Pocatello in southeast Idaho.
“When I started, other mushers gave me advice. They told me, ‘Everyone who mushes loses their team at some point,’ and ‘You either cross the finish line with a great time or a great story.’ And they were right.”
Wilson and her team have been chased by a bull, have survived a head-on collision at a race, and have lost each other for 24 hours.
As she harnesses them, they lunge and bark, a joyous canine cacophony.
“They’re so excited, but once we’re off, they’re silent. All you hear are the runners skimming across the snow. A lot of times, we’re the only ones out here. It’s soul-soothing and magical to be out with them,” said Wilson, 64, a pharmacist at Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello.
Not merely a winter pastime, mushing is a lifestyle Wilson has embraced for more than a decade. A frequent speaker at schools, she said she hopes her tales from the trail entertain, educate, and teach life lessons.
“For me, it’s part of a musher’s responsibility to spread correct information about the sport and to encourage new participation. I love everything about it—the relationship with my team, caring for my dogs every day, the solitude and beauty of the trail, the sense of accomplishment, and the self-confidence you can’t help but develop.”
In 2010 she ran her first race at the American Dog Derby near Ashton in eastern Idaho. The annual event is the oldest sled dog race in the lower 48, and established in 1917. She plans to race her six-dog team in the derby’s 12-mile class on February 17 and 18. Last year, she placed second.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the Iditarod and read about it, but had no idea there were competitions in the Lower 48 until someone at work told me about the derby,” she said.
In 2009, she went to Ashton to watch. “It looked so easy to me. It’s a good thing I was so ignorant because I naively thought it would be simple to learn.”
She gleaned advice from www.sleddogcentral.com and found a mentor, Jon Bunderson in Soda Springs, who advised her about buying dogs. Her lead dog Raoul, an Alaskan huskie, had competed three times in the Iditarod and made up for her inexperience.
“He was wise and taught me and the other dogs,” she said. “If the dogs didn’t do something right, he’d correct them. They tend to learn better from a dog than a person.”
In 2010, with Raoul at the helm, Wilson ran her first race at Ashton “and got hooked.”
Unfortunately, seizures claimed Raoul’s life in the summer of 2014 when he was 10.
“He’s not physically with us, but he’s always there in spirit,” said Wilson.
Bunderson suggested she replace Raoul with Dawson, a trainee of renowned Canadian musher Buddy Streeper, a seven-time winner of the Open North American Championships in Alaska.
“Jon had purchased dogs from Buddy and was bringing in new dogs and thought Dawson would be a great addition to my team.”
Although Dawson has retired from running, he plays an important role as a sled dog ambassador and accompanies Wilson when she gives presentations.
“Dawson is always a hit,” Wilson said. “He’s friendly, gentle, and loves to be petted and get attention. When I received thank you notes from children, one boy wrote that he was normally afraid of dogs but that Dawson was different, and he really liked him.”
Lessons from the team
At presentations, Wilson shows students her truck with kennels and sledding equipment. She also introduces her dogs of mixed lineage that have been bred for various characteristics—strength, speed, hardiness, sociability with other dogs and people, and fur coat. Her team averages about 13 miles per hour.
“Dog-racing friends tell me about dogs that are available,” she said.
Two of her dogs, River and Ranger, were bred by Lance Mackey, a four-time winner of both the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
“Each dog has a different personality and skill to strengthen the team,” she said. “I remind students—just like each dog on my team has a job—that they, too, are unique, have a talent, and are important.”
People tend to ask about the lead dog, Wilson said, but the wheel dogs closest to the sled are important, too.
“They’re the strongest and do most of the pulling and turning,” she said of Fenrir, named for Odin’s wolf in Norse mythology, and Borah, named for Idaho’s tallest peak. Jackson is her current lead dog.
She also tells students that dog sledding is all about problem-solving.
“Sometimes you have to repair a line or your sled, or they veer off, or the sled tips and they drag you. You have to be creative, imaginative, brave, and persistent.”
Tails from the trail
Wilson said students ask her to tell them of her ordeals and adventures.
During the Dog Derby in 2016, she and another musher were halfway through the race when they negotiated a head-on pass and collided. She and the other musher and their dogs were fine, but her light-weight racing sled was damaged.
“I lost one of the hand grips and cracked a major support piece and one of the runners. We limped through the rest of the course and managed to come in 12th out of 16 teams.”
On the second day of the derby, she was forced to use her backup sled.
“Our final placement of seventh was determined by adding together the times from the first and second day’s runs. Considering the collision, I was delighted.”
Another time while training, an energized team popped the sled’s hook that had been set in the snow and disappeared down the forest road. “I watched the sun set, the moon rise and set, and the sun rise. I walked 16.5 miles looking for them.”
Finally, she found four of the 10 dogs tangled and happy to see her.
“Then I went out with a friend on a snowmobile and found the sled and the other six dogs.”
The hook had finally set and stopped the sled. The dogs had chewed out of their lines and were curled up under a tree to wait.
Last winter shortly before the Ashton race, Wilson and her son Bruce, who helps handle the dogs, had a humorous (in hindsight) runaway. At the end of a training run, Wilson hopped off her sled like usual near her parked truck and yelled, “Truck.”
“This has been happening for over a decade and NEVER have the dogs gone past the truck. However, this time as I walked into the parking area, I saw with panic in my heart that my dogs were nowhere to be seen.”
Jumping on the four-wheeler, Bruce took off down the paved road to look for them.
“Several people saw me and not understanding what was going on, waved cheerily at me but kept going,” Bruce said. “I almost stopped the team once, but was dragged behind them on the road until I finally lost my grip. After chasing them for about two miles, I was finally able to get the sled hooked with an emergency line we keep with the four-wheeler and stop them.”
Unfortunately, several dogs had torn their pads on the asphalt. It takes about three weeks for pads to heal, and Wilson needed six dogs for the Ashton race two weeks away.
“I did everything I could with ointment and wraps on their paws to help them to heal,” Wilson said. “Fortunately not all the dogs had damaged pads—an example of a reason to train with extra dogs. Miraculously I had six dogs to run at Ashton. They were not necessarily the ones I would have picked first to make up the team, but they were the ones that could do it. I was worried and disappointed. Amazingly, we came in second place.”
Wilson said she is grateful her three sons, Robert and twins Bruce and Bret have all been handlers at different times, although they have never raced.
“A dog handler is the real name for a real job, an assistant to a musher to help with anything needed,” Wilson said.
At a race, the handler is vital for getting the team out of the truck, harnessed, hooked up to the lines, and delivered to the starting line.
“It usually takes one adult per every two dogs to hold the team back while moving from the truck to the race start line. The dogs are so excited,” said Wilson. “Without handlers they would otherwise be off and down the trail instead of starting in a somewhat orderly manner.”
Each team takes off every two minutes. An electronic sensor on the sled marks the time each musher starts and returns.
“So the first team in is not necessarily the winner,” she said. “The last team to go out could have the fastest run time.”
Training Fall, Winter, Spring
To maintain a competitive six-dog team, Wilson has 11 dogs—nine that run and two retirees.
“You really only need six dogs, but it’s always smart to have a few extras. I like to train with eight to 10 dogs.”
Wilson is eager to run the Ashton race.
“Due to COVID, we lost races in the area that have not been restarted. Ashton, however, has maintained their race, with a lot of credit to the organizers,” she said.
After snow has melted, Wilson uses a four-wheeler instead of a sled to keep her team in shape during spring and fall.
“They get a three-month vacation in summer because it just gets too hot for them to run.”
For Wilson, the occasional frustrations while running her dogs are outweighed by the pleasure of heading down a trail wondering what might happen.
“There are mushers on the circuit in their 70s,” Wilson said. “I’ll be doing this as long as the enthusiasm keeps flowing. That could be a long, long time.”
With dogs in their harnesses, she releases the sled’s hook, and the dogs really do become quiet as the content human-canine team disappears into the distance. ISI
More information about the Ashton race may be found at americandogderby.com. To vicariously run the Iditarod, read “Winterdance,” a truthful, tumultuous, and humorous book by Gary Paulsen, who completed the storied race twice.