A Day with an Iditarod Musher

A Day with an Iditarod Musher

Originally published in the Alaska Dispatch New Visitors’ Guide to Alaska.

When Jerry Sousa comes to the dog yard, the excitement is palpable.

Some dogs pull on their leashes to get closer, some seek higher ground atop their houses for a better look, some wag their tails so fast that it drums out a muffled beat on the packed snow. All 60 call out their greeting — a mix of soprano-style yips and the baritone “aaarooof.”

They know the boss is here. The chief. The alpha. And they’re excited.

The arrival of Sousa means two things: another hearty meal of salmon and beef and a good long run.

Sousa, a dog musher and Iditarod racer in Talkeetna, walks amongst his dogs, showering affection of each individually, trading ear scratches for sloppy licks. Eskimo, a handsome husky with a cream-colored face wreathed in dark brown fur jumps up and catches one of the many holes in Sousa’s coat, expelling more of the feathers. When Sousa kneels down and wraps her in a hug, she leans against him and rests her muzzle on his shoulder.

“Good girl,” he says as he ruffles her face with mittens the size of boxing gloves. He has no problem admitting she’s his favorite.

As he walks through the yard, he points out the various dogs and shares stories about each of them. The big black one on the side is the sire to the pretty puppies out front, that one over there is a lead dog, to the left is a dog so strong he once broke the link in a single step, and those three over there are Yoda, Chewy, and Chewbacca — Sousa’s son, a big “Star Wars” fan, named them.

We wind our way back to the supply house and in an arctic version of playing dress-up, we don a pair of bibs, a coat that would make Santa look trim and boots so large they require shuffling, rather than walking. All the while Sadie, the shop cat, is looping figure-eights between us.

Back outside, 10 dogs are being hooked up to the rope, two-by-two. Charger and Sequoia, the lead dogs, were the first to be tied in and they’re anxious for the rest of the team to get there. By the time Horse and Toren get hooked into the last two spots, they’re raring to go, wriggling with excitement. They really want to go. Want to pull. Want to feel the chill of the Alaska air as they surge through the woods and field and over rivers and roads.

As I get zipped into the red canvas covering the cargo basket of the sled, Horse turns around, his long, salmon-colored tongue lolling out and gives a look as if to say, “Are you ready for this?” Or maybe he’s saying, “Wait, who are you?”

Sousa steps onto the runners, releases the brake and before he can even say “go” the gangline snaps taut and the dogs are off, tearing through skinny spruce trees on a well-worn trail. All of the excitement from a moment ago has been replaced with a single, concentrated thought: run.

As they zip down the trail, Sousa calls out “haw!” and “gee!” to steer the dogs to the left and right, respectively.

He doesn’t use the word “mush” — that’s a common misconception — and hesitates to use “whoa” to stop. He explains later that during his first Iditarod he fell asleep standing up on the runners as his team was coming  down the Yukon River. When he woke, his team had stopped and all the dogs had turned to look at him. They thought his snoring was a new command. Since then, he keeps his instruction simple.

As the team breaks through the tree line and into a open field, Sousa shifts his weight on the runners to adjust the speed. He knows Charger, the lead dog on the left, won’t start trotting until they’re at nine miles and hour and Sequoia, the lead on the right, will follow at 10. He watches them to sleep the pace even.

Soon it’s just the shhhhh of the runners sliding across the hard-packed snow, the view of Denali, washed in a pink light from the waning sun, and the steady trot of the dogs.

Sousa is quiet, too. Sure, there’s the occasional directional call, but he too is in the zone.

It’s racing season and Sousa’s mind is on his dogs. How he’ll train then, what he’ll feed them and who will be in upcoming races. For him, it’s a full-time job.

But more than that, it’s his favorite activity.

“There isn’t anything like mushing,” Sousa said. “The dogs are all pitter-pattering down the trail and they don’t want to stop; they want to keep going. And you get to see that develop. That team effort, the work, all coming together. There’s no other feeling like it.”