February 22, 2018

Eye on the Trail: Teacher Conference Field Trip

There’s not a better day for the kids in school than a field trip day.  From the Iditarod Winter Teacher’s Conference, it’s safe to say there’s no better day for teachers either.  Teachers departed downtown Anchorage this morning to attend Vet Check at Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla, then have lunch at Settler’s Bay on Knik Inlet and visit with Matt Failor at 17th Dog Kennel.

Jodi Bailey of Dew Claw Kennel arrives at Wasilla Vet Check

This experience for the teachers is very unique in that it’s one of the few times they will have the opportunity to see the vets interact with the mushers and examine the Iditarod athletes.  The dogs go through blood work, EKGs and physical evaluation.  It’s only the healthiest of the healthy who will go down the trail.

Vets were nearly finished with Charlie Bejna’s team when our big bus arrived at HQ.  Even though Charlie was ready to depart he took time to talk with the teachers, pose with his lead dog Brown and talk to kids all over the world via SKYPE.  Thanks Charlie.  Wondering  how Charlie’s lead dog came by the name of Brown?   Those dogs were named after bears.  So there’s Brown, Black and Grizzly in that litter.

First year Veterinarian, Tami Hinderanger from Boise, Idaho was enjoying a few quality moments with Hank.  Tami is excited about working with the amazing canine athletes.  She says, it’s like vet school all over again, except in colder temperatures.  Tami started the morning in a brand spanking new parka and now a couple of hours later is happy that it has a few smudges here and there so it doesn’t look quite so new and out of place.  Chef Veterinarian Stu Nelson could vouch for the number of Vets that were on hand today for Vet check.  It was a speedy, very efficient process.  The rookie veterinarians worked beside veteran vets like Bill Simpson.

It’s always a question as to who is who when it comes to the identical Berington twins, Anna and Kristi.  After the vets were finished with both of their teams, they took a couple of minutes to help up out on that.  Anna has a red and black sled bag and has promised to wear a red and black headband on the trail.  Kristi has a blue sled bag and will be wearing blue headgear.  As you see pictures throughout the race, this color coding may help everyone tell them apart.

Rookie musher Mary Helwig was paying particular attention to her dog Basil.  Even though Basil has run Iditarod and has been through vet check with Jamie High and Matt Failor, the dog seemed a little nervous.  Being intensely in tune with her dogs, Mary came to Basil’s aid with some extra reassurance.  Helwig has had a very challenging year prior to Iditarod.  She lost her home and nearly all her possessions in the June Sockeye fire.  Literally just days later, Mary was at Iditarod Headquarters for musher signup.  She said, “2016 was the year I planned to run my first Iditarod and that is still my plan.”  After living in an RV since the fire, she was elated to move into the apartment above her newly framed and finished garage a couple of days before Christmas.  The heater in the RV was a little unpredictable and she often woke up to equal below freezing temperatures inside and outside the RV.

Rookie Kristin Bacon from Bacon’s Acres was loading up her team to head home from Vet check.  She came to iditarod as a volunteer.  For several years she’s been a member of the Skwentna Sweeties.  This is a group of miracle workers who feed and army of volunteers at the Skwentna Checkpoint every year as well as all of the mushers.  One year she was introduced to Ryan Redington.  Kristin had been giving some thought to getting into mushing.  Ryan supplied her with Libby who gave birth to a splendid litter of pups.  Bacon trained those pups and acquired other dogs to complete her team for this Iditarod 44.

Norwegian Ralph Johannessen is back for Iditarod.  He arrived at vet check with a trailer or very curious dogs.  Ralph earned earned Iditarod veteran status in 2014 on a snowless Dalzell Gorge, Buffalo Tunnel and Farewell Burn.  Ralph like many folks that year collected some serious bumps and bruises.  Last I saw Ralph was in Nome of 2014 complete with a couple of black eyes, a couple of broken ribs and a nasty scrap on his nose.  Ralph has mended and looks much better today.  Johannessen is considered the reigning champion of the Norwegian long distance races. 

The Beatles travel with 17th Dog

It’s either Matt Failor or his sled dogs who are fans of the Beatles.  Inside Matt’s rather  luxurious and well appointed dog trail, the Beatles keep watch over the dogs where ever and when ever they travel.  Failor and his Iditarod athletes made vet check this morning at 10:00.  He then returned north past Willow and up the Hatcher Pass Road to where 17th Dog Kennel is located to host the teacher field trip.  Matt showed off his puppies and talked about his Iditarod athletes as the teachers stood outside and admired the dogs, their houses and the impeccable kennel under very blue Alaskan skies.  

Teachers Visit 17th Dog Kennel, Home of Matt Failor

Teachers Visit 17th Dog Kennel, Home of Matt Failor

Relocating inside, Matt shared stories about the sport of mushing, his previous Iditarod experiences, kennel life and his life with dogs.  Matt talked about a sled he’d just finished and explained equipment required by Iditarod for the trail.  One story he shared occurred while running the Northern Lights 300 in late January.  Matt had just come off the river and was camped with his dogs when the 7.1 earthquake hit.  He, like many others awoke to the earth shaking which lasted about 30 seconds and felt the rumbles of several aftershocks.  Failor is excited about his fifth Iditarod.  He’s has an experienced dog team and considers himself a competitor this year.  Next year will be different as he’ll be running his younger dogs with the intention of creating strong teams for the future.  

Currently Failor has fifty dogs in his kennel which he says is a family venture.  His Dad comes up from Ohio for every race and most often his Mother there too.  His siblings and cousins join in too.  A couple of his best ambassadors were 2nd cousins who were in third grade.