Conway Seavey held the black and white dog Skunk between his knees.
“This isn’t like NASCAR where you pull your dogs in, jack the sled up and get going again,” Conway said to a Texan family of five that sat in a garage along row of folding chairs June.
He pulled a boottie over the dog’s front foot. It prevents snow and ice build up, he told the family, during the roughly 1,000-mile route of the Iditarod the dogs run once a year.
He slipped a legging over her front paw. That piece of gear protects from freezing too, he said.
Then the harness over her neck and down her back — it has special spreader bars to prevent hip rub — a quick check of the wrists and shoulders, the Velcro wrist strap, and then a pink shoulder coat with pockets for hand warmers to heat her muscle in the below zero temperatures the dogs run in.
Mushers, he explained, begin with 16 dogs on their team, all 40 to 50 pounds like Skunk. The race will whittle the animals down. All the clothing prevents injuries. It keeps them limber and warm.
“The first race,” he said, “they didn’t know it was possible to go that far by dog team.”
The 16-year-old himself has never competed in the Iditarod — the race his father has won twice and his older brother once. Conway is still too young. About a month ago, the Sterling resident begun managing a branch of the family’s Ididaride sled dog touring business.
The business operates in Seward and Girdwood, and now in Sterling where Conway lives with his parents, Mitch and Janine Seavey.
Most days, Conway meets his clients at 9 a.m. by the family garage and runs them through Iditarod trivia; sled dogs burn the caloric equivalent of 32 Big Macs daily when racing; mushers only sleep about two hours a day during nine days out on the course; without Velcro the Iditarod may not be possible.
Conway then loads them in a red Polaris Ranger, hooks a dog team to the vehicle’s front end and mushes the families for 2 ½ miles in the “glorified sled.”
When they return, he brings them to the kennel where the husky puppies sleep. That is often the client’s favorite part, he said.
By now, the name Seavey is nationally known. A Google search quickly produces a picture of Dallas Seavey, Conway’s older brother who won the 2012 Iditarod. Also, National Geographic recently produced the show “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” which features, among other Alaskans, Tyrell Seavey, Conway’s oldest brother.
But despite the family’s Alaskan-celebrity status, there are aspects of his family’s life that remain quiet. The country knows about the Iditarod, they know about the Seavey’s “but they don’t know what the dog’s life is like,” Conway said.
About a 30 minutes later, Conway and a hand pulled dogs from a combined pack of 60 dogs belonging to him and his dad from behind the garage and clipped them into the Ranger’s leash. The five Texans sit in the vehicle, spinning with great-race trivia. The Ranger lurched harder against the parking brake with each dog added.
“You ever seen this many dogs in one place before,” he asked them, the other dogs yipping, barking, yanking on chains, some chewing rocks in the gravel lot.
Conway hopped in the driver seat and released the Ranger’s break.
“Ready?” he asked. “Alright.”
He gassed the vehicle to 8 mph — a good mushing pace — and the dogs tore off.
Conway feeds, trains and scoops up the poop of all the race dogs. And, he takes aimless and energetic pups and guides them to Iditarod-quality athletes.
He is a “coach-slash-best friend.” He enjoys that most, and sharing the process with Ididaride clients is rewarding, he said.
“I love running dogs; I love the lifestyle it provides,” he said.
The Seavey’s began their Ididaride business 21 years ago when the family returned from Virginia. They’d been out of the dog mushing trade for a while, and it was a way to fund the lifestyle they were returning to, Mitch said.
Danny Seavey now oversees the entire operation, and Mitch advises. Handing the Sterling-management to Conway has been a great choice, Mitch said.
“Life is responsibility, and that starts at a very young age,” Mitch said.
Conway has worked summers commercial fishing in Prince William Sound with Tyrell, and others running the Seward Ididaride business with Danny. Conway is passionate about music, and now that he’s home summers, after he guides, cares for the dogs, and completes his chores, he has time to practice, Mitch said.
“I think it’s been a really good way for me to grow up,” Conway said.
About 45 minutes later, Conway steers the Ranger back into the gravel lot, the dogs panting, slobbering and clad in mosquitoes.
“Alright,” he said, stopping, pulling the parking brake and cutting the engine. “Welcome back.”
The Texans stepped down.
“You get a glimpse of our summer training here,” Conway said. “This is what we do everyday just to keep the race dogs moving.”
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org