Host program helps sled dogs, mushers rest easy

Do sled dogs dream?

Nestled up while snowflakes fell on a back road between Soldotna and Kasilof, four teams of sled dogs had few — if any — disturbances packed soundly into boxes bedded with straw.

“I think they have to dream,” said Jackie Pearce, who often watches her dogs twitch and grumble while they slumber.

But do sled dogs dream of the snow, the trail and the race ahead? Can they feel the stress, worry and the logistical puzzles their mushers undergo the night before, prepping, packing and perfecting?

“They must be, they live for it, but I think it’s up for debate,” Pearce said. “Or are they just so in the moment?”

While a handful of house dogs dream at the Pearce property regularly, there were many more of a different variety Friday night as Jackie and her husband Steve opened up their property and homes to four out-of-town mushers, a few helpers, their dogs, equipment, cars and gear the night before the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog race. Two of the mushers began the T200 and two started the T100 on Saturday morning.

“I’m going to believe they do (dream),” Jackie said with a smile, wrapping up leftovers from a meal of ham, potatoes, corn and other fixings cooked for her guests.

Earlier, Roger Johnson, 63, of Devils Lake, N.D., and his wife Nancy, 60, arrived at the Pearce’s land with longtime mushing coach Jamie Nelson of Togo, Minn. and Malinda Tjelta, a 15-year-old musher from Sheyenne, N.D. Nancy and Malinda — who hopes to run the junior Iditarod — signed up for the T100, while Roger and Jamie will compete in the T200.

“Make yourself to home and do whatcha want,” said Steve, as he gave the group a tour shortly after arriving.

Such is the message of the new Host-A-Musher program put on by T200 racing staff, said president and race director Tami Murray.

“It is not really the first year it has been done, but it is the first year we have promoted it and reached out to people,” she said. “It is really a good thing.”

This year six families in the area volunteered to host teams and Murray said she had many calls even after they had enough host families.

It means a lot to the musher — who must already juggle so many intangibles — to have the “comforts of home,” she said.

“Mushers are parasites and we look for a host,” Roger said with a laugh.

The Johnsons and company traveled 2,800 miles up the Al-Can Highway to Willow before training for a few days with Nelson.

“The dogs are going to rest really well here tonight and we know they are in a safe neighborhood, we’re not at a motel with all kinds of cars coming and going with motel lights shining,” he said.

Jackie said she is interested in the sport and signed up to host a family because they had the empty space.

“I said I got space for two, she said how about four? Why not?” she said with a laugh.

After arriving and decamping, the mushers dropped their dogs, scooped poop, intervened in some growling amongst the team, packed the dogs back up and retired for the evening.

“It is a nice way to PR for the sport,” Nelson said. “Because dogs can be messy, they can be real messy and, you know, if you can show people that they aren’t, if you can be a good representative of the sport, it is good.”

Before retiring, Roger stopped to compliment the Pearces on their hospitality — Steve loaned him several pieces of gear and odds and ends. “So I’m good because of my host,” he said hoisting a dog into the truck.

“This blows my mind,” said Seward resident Jay Robertson, who was along to help as a longtime friend of Tjelta’s father, Pete. “Blows my mind. Can you imagine doing this, opening up your home to, what are there, seven of us and all these dogs?”

After a night’s rest, the mushers woke. Dogs were dropped. Dogs whimpered, barked and whined with morning enthusiasm. Breakfast was served. Dogs were packed. And the crew headed in for their breakfast of leftovers, coffee and orange juice where they talked about other races and in what order they’d race their dogs.

The trucks rumbled to life. And before the sun crested the hills, all said a prayer for the safety of the mushers and the dogs who would soon get to run.

No more dreaming.

Race time.

“They absolutely know what’s happening,” Roger said. “They know we are at a race. Dreaming? That might take it a bit too far, but without a doubt they know where we are at and all of a sudden we switched into a whole different mode.”

** Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect the correct spelling of Sheyenne, N.D.

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.

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