As Karen Land stood in front of a room full of parents and children Saturday morning at the Crawfordsville District Public Library her four-legged friend Borage made sure to greet everyone.
Borage is an Alaskan huskie and was one of 16 dogs to guide Land across the frozen landscape of Alaska during an Iditarod race.
Land, who is a three-time Iditarod competitor, shared stories from the famous endurance race that leads mushers and their teams of 12-16 dogs across 1,049 miles in nine to 15 days from Anchorage to Nome. Teams frequently race through blizzards, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds.
Her first race was in 2002 and she was terrified going into that race.
“It was difficult,” she said. “I had heard so many horror stories though that I envisioned the worst going into the race. My strategy was just to hold onto the sled and finish.”
When she did, she was hooked.
That first year she lost four dogs due to illness. She went on to compete in 2003 and 2004. Her best finish was 12 days, six hours.
Although she hasn’t taken part in the race since then she hopes to run it again someday.
For the past year Land has been living in Indianapolis, where she is taking care of her parents. She left many of her dogs behind in Montana, but brought Borage and Lolo with her. Borage regularly accompanies Land on her presentations because he likes all the attention.
Land’s love for dogs started at a young age when she got her first dog Misty, a Beagle/Collie mix. While working for a veterinarian hospital in Indianapolis during college she rescued a stray — Kirby, a Catahoula mix. It was Kirby that she credits with getting her interested in hiking and the outdoors. Land would often take Kirby on long walks to expend his boundless energy.
After college Land was looking for an adventure, so she hiked the Appalachian Trail with Kirby by her side. While on that hike she picked up the book “Winter Dance” at a library along the way. The book was about Gary Paulsen’s rookie run at the Iditarod.
“What touched me was his connection with his dogs,” she said. “It was then I knew I was going to be a dog musher.”
While working on her doctorate degree Land met Terry Atkins who had run the race 21 times.
“He told me if I wanted to be a musher, then I should come work for him,” she said.
So she moved to Montana to begin work at his ranch.
Preparation for the race is year round. Mushers begin training sled dogs in the spring, teaching them to pull four-wheelers before they ever get hooked to a sled. They put 2,000 miles on a four-wheeler before the dogs are hooked to a sled.
Each musher must compete in qualifying races to take part in the Iditarod. She said these qualifying races are to make sure mushers know how to care for their dogs.
The most difficult part of running the race is staying awake, Land said. During the race there isn’t much time to sleep. At every checkpoint mushers have to tend to their dogs to keep them well. They must massage each of the dogs, feed them and make sure they are warm. This leaves only a few hours for sleep before it is time to get back on the trail.
Each musher is required to carry a specific list of supplies, including everything they would need to keep the dogs warm. Mushers have specially-made coats, booties, underbelly covers and ear muffs for the dogs. During an average race the dogs go through 2,000 booties.
The annual race begins the first Saturday in March in downtown Anchorage. The first 12 miles of the race is unique. During this first leg mushers give sled rides through downtown Anchorage to people who pay for this special opportunity. Land said that was a little intimidating her first year, not wanting to hurt the person riding with her.
There are two golden rules every musher follows during the race. The first, never let go of the sled. The second, if someone needs help along the trail, attempt to help.
She said competing in the race is a lot of fun when you aren’t real competitive.
“I have a lot of friends in the small towns,” she said. “As we enter each town there are always children and adults cheering us on.”
Yet the best sound of all is the “the siren sound heading into Nome,” she said. As each musher arrives a siren sounds and residents stop what they are doing to cheer them on.
“When you hear the siren out on the sea ice you know you are getting close to the finish,” she said.