By Jenny Neyman
Eagle Summit got the best of Kasilof musher Jon Little three years ago in his rookie running of the Yukon Quest.
Little was leading the 1,000-mile sled dog race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to Fairbanks when his team reached the base of Eagle Summit in between Central and Chena Hot Springs.
The dogs took one look at the climb from 935 feet up to 3,685 feet and decided that was a good time for a nap.
“They started basically pulling off and taking little naps in the snow,” Little said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like, ‘We’re done. We’re tired.’”
It took Little an hour to figure out how to get the dogs moving, by playing lead dog himself and getting out in front of the team. It took another hour to get them up and over the summit. By then, four teams had passed him, including former Kasilof musher Lance Mackey, now of Fairbanks, who went on to his first of four consecutive Quest wins. Little finished in fifth place.
In 2009, Little is going back to conquer the climb.
“I don’t want them to quit going up that hill this year,” he said. “I’m really working on building team unity and we’re gonna get a lot of practice. When we get to that point in the race it’s going to be no big deal. That’s my goal.”
Little and fellow Kasilof musher Colleen Robertia are the first two Kenai Peninsula mushers to sign up for this winter’s Quest, which begins in Whitehorse on Feb. 14.
Little said his decision to run this winter was a culmination of factors.
“Basically it’s kind of like the stars aligned. They’re not all perfectly aligned, but if I wait for that I’ll never run the Quest.,” he said.
The longer race format appeals to him, since there’s less stress, in a way, because you can immerse yourself in the race for the duration instead of needing everything to go perfectly in the mad dash of a shorter race.
“I love thousand-mile races. And I’m going to be 45 years old. You wonder how long you can wait as the years tick by,” he said.
Little took third in the 2007 Kuskokwim 300, and has placed 15th, fourth and 13th in the Iditarod in 2001, 2002 and 2003, respectively. He hopes to cover the Iditarod as a journalist again this year, so the Quest was his only 1,000-mile option.
His dogs are ready for it, with many of them having performed well in the Iditarod and other races in the past three years — just not with Little.
“I’ve been leasing some of my dogs out the past couple years. It sort of gets under your skin a little bit. You want to use your own dogs. I want to be the captain.”
Building a cohesive team out of his 24-dog kennel is Little’s immediate challenge, especially since he doesn’t have a lead dog singled out yet.
“It’s too early to tell. They’re a good group of dogs. I have to see what I have for leaders. Every team looks great in September. The goal is always to do the very best that the dogs can do.”
Still, early is when a long-distance race can be won or lost. Even though it’ll be nearly five months before Little’s team faces Eagle Summit again, he’s starting the figurative climb now.
“It starts early. If you do well there it’s because things have gone well all year. If you do poorly there it’s probably because things have not gone well all year,” he said.
Robertia also has begun her Quest well in advance. After a first-place finish in the Chatanika Challenge 200, 11th-place finish in the Tustumena 200 and 16th-place finish in the Copper Basin 300 last winter, Robertia wants to move on to her first 1,000-mile race.
“You’re always looking for the personal challenge thing to take on with the team,” she said.
The Quest certainly provides that, as it winds through some of the coldest, darkest, most isolated conditions of any sled dog race in Alaska.
“I’m definitely worried. It’s not just the distance as the challenges that come along with the Quest,” she said.
“It’s just kind of the next progression when your dogs are ready for it. On the flip side of that there’s stresses to the thousand-mile race but there’s a lot of stresses to shorter races because you’re constantly looking over your shoulder.”
She plans to approach the Quest like she did the Copper Basin 300, where her only goal was to finish with a healthy team.
“I really just wanted to have a good experience and not hurt my dogs and get through something that tough, and we did it and it was such a blast,” she said. “I’m hoping it’ll be like a two-week camping trip with my buddies.”
Robertia, like Little, has a relatively small kennel with 30 dogs, so her challenge is going to be fielding a 14-dog team. She and her husband, Joseph, put ethical treatment of their dogs above anything else. Almost every dog in their kennel is a rescue, and if a dog is injured, too old or for some other reason can’t run anymore, they still keep the dog and take care of it.
It’s an animal care philosophy they’re devoted to, but it can make forming a competitive team a challenge.
“I think I can get 14 together,” she said. “I think as far as something that’s a thousand miles, I have a couple of dogs that can’t run 10 miles an hour all day long, but they can run 8 miles an hour forever. They’re straight out of the Kenai Animal Shelter. I don’t even know if they’re huskies. They’re furry.”
Two of their rescues, Ping and Pong, show promise as the possible 13th and 14th spots on the team.
“They’re amazing leaders. They gee and haw on a dime. … I used to have to run in front of the team, that’s how we’d teach them to lead is I’d run and they’d chase me with Joseph on the four-wheeler until I’d get tired, then Joseph would go. It’s amazing just to see what they’ve become as sled dogs.”
Other mushers have offered to lend her dogs if she needs them, but she’s hoping to make it to the start and finish lines with her dogs.
“There’s still something about getting your own small kennel to do it without having to borrow dogs,” she said.
“I just want to finish. It’s like I go back and forth from waves of nausea to waves of excitement.”