Iditarod mushing addict races for the dogs

Posted: Friday, January 19, 2001

ANCHORAGE -- For eight years, Ted English stood on the sidelines of the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race without a dog team, wondering if he'd ever race again.

After finishing 24th in 1988 -- his seventh race for Nome at that point -- a divorce forced him to sell his team and he moved from Chugiak to Anchorage for odd carpentry jobs.

But English, a former dog trainer born and raised on a farm in Alabama, missed working with the dogs.

So when he met his current wife, Paula, a kind-hearted woman who happened to have 27 dogs, he found a way back into racing. English had five dogs at the time, and with Paula's dogs and some others, he pieced together a team and got back on the trail in 1997.

''It was like I'd run it the year before,'' said English, 62, who lives in Willow. ''Once you run that race a few times, you don't forget where things are.

''I figured it'd be rougher than it was. I really enjoyed that. I knew I was home.''

Good friend Raymie Redington, a veteran of the first Iditarod in 1973, said: Once a musher, always a musher.

''Most mushers, when they quit, they get back into it,'' Redington said.

English has hardly been competitive since his comeback, scratching three times since his return in 1997 and finishing 32nd in 1998. But winning is not why English returned to mushing.

''I just love dogs,'' said English, one of 86 mushers signed up for this year's race. ''I just wanted to get back racin' with the guys.''

English has a long history of working with dogs. In his youth, he trained hunting dogs with his father in Alabama. English trained Doberman pinschers and German shepherds for sheriff's departments in Florida and Arizona, and in Arizona he ran an obedience school and raised dogs for the Army.

''He's a hell of a good trainer,'' Redington said. ''If I had a top-10 team, I wouldn't be afraid to let him train them.''

Upon moving to Alaska in 1974, English discovered huskies and sponsored an Iditarod musher in 1975. With his long history of working with dogs, English felt something was missing by not running the Iditarod.

English demonstrated his touch with dogs after a recent training run up Hatcher Pass. One by one, English coaxed the shy huskies out of their dog box on the back of his pickup and chained them to wooden posts next to doghouses lined inside with straw. As he pulled out the lead dog, Tiger, the huskies howled and barked in shrill cries of salute.

English, his electric-blue eyes blazing, held up one hand. ''That's enough!''

As if coming to the attention of an orchestra conductor, the chorus of huskies instantly fell silent.

''They're like a pack of wolves,'' English explained. ''And Tiger is the alpha male.''

English says that his huskies are ''like my kids'' and that his enjoyment of running the Iditarod stems from being with dogs rather than winning any sort of prize. English said he doesn't push his dogs as hard as some mushers do and often rests his team when others might push forward. English admitted that may have cost him in the end.

Former Iditarod champion Dick Mackey ''told my ex-wife that I'd never win a race because I never push the dogs that hard,'' English said. ''I won't push my dogs through another hour to make up an hour. That's just me.''

For various reasons, English has scratched in six of his 11 attempts to run the Iditarod. His best finish was eighth in 1987, for which he earned honors as most improved musher.

In 1981, his first Iditarod, English hit an icy stump and crashed his sled near Rabbit Lake, about 50 miles out of Wasilla, and injured his kidney and spleen. In 1984 he got caught in a blizzard near Shaktoolik and lost the trail in whiteout conditions so bad that he couldn't see a marker 10 feet away. When he finally found the checkpoint in Shaktoolik, 171 miles from the finish, he decided he and the dogs had had enough.

Redington said English has experienced a lot of bad luck, but if things went his way, he could be a top-10 finisher.

''Ted's one of those mushers that could be right in there or way back,'' Redington said. ''I don't think he'll ever win it, but if the trail's good and everything goes his way, he could be right there.''

Last year English was the first musher to scratch after crashing his sled on an icy patch near Eagle River. English struck his head on the snow hook and injured his leg during the wreck. In 1999 he quit a quarter of the way through the race at Rainy Pass after battling pneumonia and a particularly rough 30-mile stretch of trail.

That experience left English wondering if he ought to give up the Iditarod entirely.

''I'm done with this race,'' English said at the time. ''Let those young guys have at it.''

English said he thought about retiring for two or three days, then decided against it. He had all the equipment and all the dogs and wasn't ready to give up dog racing just yet.

''You just get addicted,'' he said. ''It's like a drug.''

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