Efficiency allows Little to tackle new job, maintain kennel

Keeping it simple

Posted: Friday, January 17, 2003

Jon. Even the name itself smacks of efficiency. The "h" is a nice letter and all. Tall. Stout. And graceful in its curve. But when it comes to Jon, the "h" is not needed. Three letters. Three sounds. Perfect.

Need to finish fourth in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race even though your kennel is one-half to one-quarter of the size of most big-time mushers?

No problem if the name is Jon.

What about fitting in all this mushing while still holding down a full-time job reporting for the state's largest newspaper?

If you're Jon, 39-year-old Jon Little living in a basic 20-by-24-foot cabin in Kasilof, it can be done.

But what happens when it comes time to decide between two dream jobs? What happens when both of those dreams jobs will affect your ability to compete in the Iditarod, a passion which has gripped you since you moved to Alaska 15 years ago?

Suddenly, things don't move so quickly. Suddenly, it's time to spend three months making one decision.

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For Jon Little, things began to get interesting in March of last year, when, wearing bib No. 4 and racing in his fourth Iditarod, Little shocked everybody by finishing fourth.

In the 2002 Iditarod, Little lopped 11 places and more than a day off his previous best finish. His time of nine days, seven hours and 22 minutes made him one of fewer than 50 mushers to crack the top five in the race's 30-year history.

Problem was, Little always thought of the Jeff Kings and Rick Swensons as people to look up to, not people he would one day beat. While those professional, full-time mushers can keep kennels of up to 100 dogs, Little's kennel last year was at 24 dogs.

But last year, Little put himself in elite company by posting a time that was the ninth-fastest in Iditarod history and bested winners of 25 of the previous 30 Iditarods.

Little was a journalist working in the Kenai Peninsula Bureau of the Anchorage Daily News, but he also was looking an awful lot like a professional musher. He was the only semiprofessional musher to finish in the top five last year.

Now what?

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Little was not a typical full-time employee at the Daily News. Starting in mid-December, he would start to take three days off a week instead of two. Then in March, Little would take the month off to run the Iditarod.

"We really supported Jon in doing what he was doing, but we also had to deal with the reality of having one reporter cover Kenai for us," said Pat Dougherty, the senior vice president and editor at the Daily News. "When Jon wasn't doing that, the paper wasn't as good as when he was."

Little understood his employer's position.

"Essentially, the Daily News put up with a guy who couldn't give 100 percent for three or four months at a time," Little said.

While the two were searching for a solution to the problem, Cabela's, a well-known outfitter of hunting, fishing and outdoor gear, contacted Little with a job offer in early fall.

Cabela's was looking for someone to write articles about hunting, fishing and mushing in Alaska for its Web sites, www.cabelas.com and www.cabelasiditarod.com.

"It wasn't like it was Cabela's vs. the Daily News, and it wasn't like I was forced into a decision by the Daily News," Little said. "In fact, they would have let me run (the Iditarod) again this year."

After a couple of months of weighing his options, by early December Little had decided to leave the Daily News and take the Cabela's job.

Little's last day with the Daily News was Dec. 27, and within a few weeks he was working for Cabela's.

"The Daily News was a great place to work," Little said. "I like everyone there.

"It's a dream job, as far as I'm concerned. But this is a dream job, too."

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Little's new job at Cabela's won't allow him to become a full-time musher. Little isn't another Jeff King, the three-time champion and full-time musher heavily sponsored by Cabela's.

The new job will have Little keeping office hours in his cabin to write the weekly articles about hunting, fishing and mushing.

"Our goal is ... increased attention to Alaska," said Sam Webb, the Internet communications manager at Cabela's. "Will it drive more people to hunt and fish in Alaska? I assume it will.

"Down here, everyone I talk to wants to hunt and fish in Alaska."

Little said financial compensation will be in the ballpark of what he was getting at the Daily News, if he remains careful. A big difference is the job at Cabela's does not come with benefits, like health insurance.

Finally, Little's new job will keep him from running the Iditarod in the three years after this year. Little will run the race this year, then cover it the next three years for the Web site.

"It's a risk, a huge risk," Little said of his new position. "I'm only on a four-year contract."

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The most shocking aspect of Little's new job is that it will keep him from running the Iditarod for three years. Little is an up-and-comer in the event, finishing 36th as a rookie in 1997, then going 23rd, 15th and fourth.

It has become his passion precisely because of the efficiency, or the lack of "h's" in one's life, that the event has demanded of him for 15 years.

In 1987, Little came to Alaska to work for the Peninsula Clarion. In 1988, Little watched Ninilchik's Tim Osmar start at the Iditarod and something clicked.

"He was 3 years younger than me," Little said. "I remember thinking, 'If I ever want to do this, I better get started soon.'"

So at the age of 28, Little accepted five dogs and a sled from Osmar and got started.

Little worked for the Clarion until 1995, then the Daily News after. Those are two jobs that demand time, and do not compensate with exorbitant amounts of cash.

Thus, Little's whole mushing program developed based on being efficient with time and money.

Because he worked five days a week, Little would run his dogs 25 miles on work nights, then do long runs on the weekends.

He also had no money for large kennels. If a dog's not making the cut, most mushers will hang on to him or her.

Not "h"-less Jon. Little, who comes from farmer's stock and has always adored dogs and cats, developed a knack for noticing which dogs didn't cut it. Such dogs were immediately offered to a good home.

Mushing also shaped Little's life. Little, who is dating kennel partner Brandi "Bree" Krosschell, did not have time to have a family. He did not have time to go play soccer with friends on weeknights. He didn't dawdle around at the office conversing with co-workers.

"What I've done isn't complicated," Little said. "I think a whole lot of people could do it.

"If you want to spend all your time working and running dogs, you can do it. But how many people would be willing to do that?"

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In 1997, Little began to see how much the Iditarod loves those who take the "h's" out of their lives.

The Iditarod, too, can be simple. Last year, Little excelled by keeping to a basic schedule of six hours running, six hours resting.

"My whole motto was to keep it simple," Little said. "Dogs love patterns and predictability."

But we are talking about the Alaska backcountry here. There are variables. What about illness? What about sleep deprivation? What if a six-hour run puts you smack-dab in the middle of the Yukon River, facing subzero wind? How you gonna stop and rest your dogs six hours there?

For Little, this was a familiar game. These were all just "h's."

"I do have a talent for getting things done," Little said. "That's often the name of the game when it comes to racing.

"A lot of people don't like that. They like the romance of racing. The thing I like about racing is the challenge of being more efficient."

And the more efficient Little is, the more the dogs love him.

"I don't ever have a goal of finishing a certain place," Little said. "That's not why I race.

"The part I really love is being out there with the dogs. I want the team to do the best it can without me getting in the way. I achieved that last year."

Jon and the Iditarod. A name without "h's" and an event that demands no "h's." How can he give it up for three years?

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Cabela's will still allow Little to run other races, and Little said he's considering the Yukon Quest in 2005.

But all those other races aren't the Iditarod, which Little says is pretty close to being the end-all and be-all of his life.

Will spending 15 days on the trail covering the race satiate his appetite, or will it only whet it?

"I don't want anything to rule my life," Little said of the Iditarod. "I don't want to be a gambler throwing his life away for an addiction.

"I'd like to think I can stop, if I had to."

But is he too addicted at this point to stop?

"It doesn't feel like it to me," Little said. "But then again, smokers always say they can quit when they want to."

For three years, at least, racing the Iditarod will have to be another "h" Jon can do without.

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