It was a bright sunny fleece and light jacket sort of day in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when I had the good fortune of walking through the dog yard at Nature’s Kennel. Ed and Tasha Stielstra host an annual Musher Symposium and Teacher’s Conference late in September and this was the Sunday morning session, open house at their kennel. Ed & Tasha have a lot of sled dogs. There are the puppies, there are the tour dogs and there’s Ed’s racing team. It’s pure joy to visit the puppy pens and cuddle with the young wanna-be Iditarod athletes. Walking down the rows of houses in the main dog yard, the touring dogs and the racing dogs are as interested in the visitors as we are in them. They are hams and lovers, always ready to have their ears or belly scratched, plant a tender juicy kiss, pose for a picture or show off their athleticism. It was in a row of touring dogs that I noticed four handsome canines – Zyle, Schultz, Stu and Nordman. Having been a volunteer for Iditarod for the past ten years, I recognized those names.
Kennel owners often choose a theme for naming litters of puppies. It helps mushers keep track of the siblings as they grow up and work into the various teams within the kennel. Stielstras get name suggestions from students, friends and sponsors but sometimes they come up with ideas themselves. It was Ed’s turn to pick a theme for the litter born on February 21st of 2013. He chose to honor four people who have made significant contributions to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Thus the litter took Iditarod personnel names, Zyle, Stu, Schultz and Nordman. The Iditarod puppies are going on a year old now and Stielstra says they are true to their Alaskan Husky genetics and are naturals at what they love to do the most – pull. Who are the namesakes of these very handsome sled dogs?
Zyle (aka Jon Van Zyle) is the official Iditarod Artist. After Jon completed his first Iditarod in 1976, he approached the Iditarod Trail Committee with a fundraising idea of creating and selling yearly Iditarod posters. The first, produced in 1977, was a hit with race fans. After completing his second race in 1979, the dog-mushing painter was given the title of Official Iditarod Artist. Since the early 80’s Jon has also produced an annual print to further support the race. Ask Jon what his passions have been over the years he’s been associated with Iditarod and he’ll say the dogs, the race and painting. Van Zyle was inducted into the Iditarod Hall of Fame in 2004. The title of the ADN article announcing his induction says is all, “Jon Van Zyle: A picture-perfect race supporter.” In that story, Dick Mackey credits Jon and his artistic interpretations of mushers, dogs and the Iditarod trail with bringing the race notoriety and much needed funding. Jon’s annually created official prints and posters allow Iditarod enthusiasts to bring the race into their homes wherever home might be.
Schultz (aka Jeff Schultz) is the official Iditarod Photographer. After meeting Joe Redington Sr. and learning about the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Jeff’s camera lens became focused on yet another aspect of rugged Alaska, Iditarod. Schultz found a pilot with an adventurous spirit similar to his own and shot his first race in 1981. He donated the images to the Iditarod Trail Committee and has photographed the race and countless other Iditarod events ever since. No matter what the weather or the time of day (night), Jeff can be seen along the trail at easily accessible locations but more often at tough to get to spots capturing the essence of the race. Through his talents, never ending energy and boundless enthusiasm for Iditarod, race fans can experience the thrill and challenge as well as the rugged beauty of the trail along with the character of the canine athletes and their mushers. Schultz maintains an online library of 15,000 Iditarod photos at www.iditarodphotos.com but has over 50,000 Iditarod photos in his entire collection. A couple years ago at the Junior Iditarod start, Jeff was a top an 8-foot ladder capturing just the right perspective of the dogs and mushers as they charged out of the starting chute toward their Yentna Station layover. The leaders of one team took an intense interest in the ladder with the human, camera and high-powered zoom lens perched on top. As the team charged at high speed straight toward the photographer, spectators could hear the frantic junior musher shouting, “Haw, Haw, HAW.” Not to be denied a great shot, Schultz remained on the ladder snapping in continuous mode until the last possible moment to bail. In one athletic move, Schultz jumped to the snow, grabbed the ladder, twirled closckwise and made room for the curious canines to pass on by. A cheer rose up and it’s hard to say who was wearing the biggest smile – Jeff, the dogs, the musher or the spectators.
Stu (aka Dr. Stuart Nelson Jr., DVM) is Iditarod’s Chief Veterinarian. Before taking over the top vet spot for Iditarod in 1996, Nelson served as a volunteer trail veterinarian for nine years. He’s always been interested in animals as athletes and has virtually dedicated his entire career to the sled dog, especially those competing in the Iditarod. Each year he organizes and oversees a cadre of vet techs and 40 – 45 trail veterinarians who volunteer from all over the world. One of the Chief Vet’s primary responsibilities is to educate mushers and veterinarians about medical conditions affecting racing sled dogs. Dr. Nelson promotes research studies geared at gaining a better understanding of the sled dog as an athlete in order to protect their health and wellbeing before, during and after the race. He’s a charter member of the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association. Annually he organizes the ISDVMA Sled Dog Veterinarian Training Seminar in Anchorage. Thanks to the efforts and dedication of Stu Nelson, Iditarod sled dogs receive the most thorough and up-to-date care of any elite athlete on earth. Nelson’s love for and knowledge about sled dog athletes are invaluable assets to all who participate in Iditarod. In his non-Iditarod time, Stu does relief veterinary work in Alaska and Idaho and does solo wilderness river trips. Having shared many breakfasts at checkpoints along the trail with Stu, he’s an oatmeal guy.
Nordman (aka Mark Nordman) is the Director of Race Logistics and Competition. That’s his long title. The short title for Nordman’s very big job is Race Marshal. Mark oversees the competition, making sure it’s safe, the rules are followed and the competition is fair. He also directs the logistical aspects of the race, transporting food, gear and race personnel on the trail before, during and after the race. Mark, assisted by a troop of judges and other key race personnel, has his finger on the pulse of all aspects of the race and he’s the perfect guy for the position. Nordman has been to Nome by dog team in four Iditarod races. He’s been a race judge as well as marshal not only for Iditarod but also for races in Canada, the Lower 48, Argentina, Spain and other European countries. Basically, if Nordman hasn’t seen it or experienced it, then it hasn’t happened in a sled dog race. Nordman, a big burly bearded guy with a heart of gold, has a passion for the race that’s fueled by seeing mushers realize their dream of completing the Iditarod. He’s been under the burled arch and understands the sacrifices and work that goes into completing the Iditarod. Mark played goalie for the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gopher’s Hockey team.
Considering the time and talents given to Iditarod by the four giants, Zyle, Schultz, Stu & Nordman the young dogs of Nature’s Kennel Iditarod litter have big boots, shoes or booties to fill. There’s a great possibility that in 2015, Zyle, Stu, Nordman and Schultz, will be running in Stielstra’s team on the Iditarod trail while their namesakes carry out their official Iditarod duties. Ed’s 16-dog team may be rounded out with dogs from the princess, shoe, bread or seashell litter.