Mixed-breed dogs are changing the face of the Iditarod.

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Along the Yukon River, the historic sled dog of the North is a dying breed.

Where once the Siberian husky ruled, a collection of mixed breeds that trace their ancestry back to hounds, pointers and retrievers now rules the trails.

Only three teams of huskies entered Iditarod 2000.

''Sloberians'' is what some mushers now call these once proud symbols of the North.

Though the big Siberians -- along with McKenzie huskies and malamutes -- remain the image of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, they have nearly all been replaced by smaller-boned cousins with thinner coats.

Siberians are sled pullers bred for strength and endurance. They have heavily muscled bodies perfect for moving big loads of freight. They have long, thick hair that makes it possible to curl up in the snow and sleep in comfort.

But power and durability are no longer ideal for an Iditarod dog. To win this race, mushers need dogs built for speed and endurance.

Thus there has been a trend toward dogs with slight frames and thin coats to prevent overheating at quick trotting speeds.

Today's top Iditarod dogs resemble greyhounds and German shorthaired pointers more than the Siberians of old.

Because of their short hair, some animals must regularly wear coats to protect them from the weather, and some veterinarians worry about what could happen to these dogs in a fierce Bering Sea coastal storm that makes it difficult for mushers to take care of themselves, let alone their dogs.

Yet the trend toward lighter, leaner, shorter-coated dogs continues. The few who buck it do so mainly for sentimental reasons.

''There's always a place for the past,'' Karen Ramstead of Perryvale, Alberta, said during last year's race.

She was just leaving McGrath behind one of the two Siberian teams doing well in the 2000 Iditarod. These teams weren't burning up the Alaska wilderness, but they were moving steadily.

A jolly little Santa Claus-like elf of a woman, Ramstead said she was having a great time heading for Nome with her Siberians.

''They're happy. They're having fun. How can you not love that attitude?'' she asked.

''I love the breed, their personality and temperaments, as stubborn as they can be. It'd be a shame if we lost the breed, but we are losing them as working dogs. People don't understand what it takes to be a working athlete.''

Ramstead sees this from two sides -- as a musher and as a regular competitor at dog shows. Three of the Siberians in her team were Canadian show champions. Two are still going strong.

She'd had to drop one that tired, but overall, Ramstead's team was doing fine.

The Siberian team of Blake Freking was doing better.

Freking is a long-haired Minnesotan who looks more rock musician than musher. He was running a team of Siberians he trained for Earl and Natalie Norris of Willow. The Norrises are among the best-known Siberian breeders in North America.

Earl took a team of Siberians to victory in Anchorage's Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race, winning in 1947 and 1948.

That was before other Alaska mushers abandoned the breed or crossed it with other breeds in the effort to create a superior sled dog.

The Norrises stuck with pureblood Siberians.

Over the years, a lot of mushers have run Norris' dogs north. Martin Buser of Big Lake got his start with a Norris team in 1980. The visitor from Switzerland took a Siberian team to Nome that year in 17 days, 6 hours.

He came back the next year thinking he could do better and made Nome in 14 days, 2 hours in 1981, finishing 19th and collecting $1,200 in prize money. He concluded that if he was going to be competitive in the Iditarod, he'd need a different breed.

Given the stiff competition in Iditarod 2000, Freking harbored no dream of a high finish -- he finished 46th. But given improvements in training and nutrition over the past 20 years, he thinks Siberians can significantly improve their earlier race times.

He hoped to make it to Nome in less than 12 days. He actually finished in 12 days, 6 hours and 47 minutes.

Natalie Norris said the old record by a Siberian team was 12 days and 8 minutes, set by Shawn Sidelinger in 1998. He finished 34th that year.

Ten years ago, a 12-day finish would have put a musher in the top 10.

Fifteen years ago, a 12-day finish would have won the race.

A lot has changed.

Freking understands this. He loves his dogs, and he can't say enough good things about the Norrises. But when asked if he will stay with Siberians if he stays in this sport, the young musher gives a guarded answer.

Ramstead is not so circumspect.

''I don't ever see myself going over to the dark side,'' she said.

Siberians may not be the fastest dogs on the trail, but they offer some advantages, she said.

''Every time I come into a checkpoint,'' she said, ''the vets comment on how good their feet look. Every time I go to leave, they say, 'Aren't you going to bootie?' I bootie problem dogs.''

Most of the Siberians, she said, have feet so tough that they don't need booties.

''And it's a good thing too,'' she added, because she's not good at it.

Other mushers are better at that chore, but it's time-consuming for everyone, which might be why the Siberian, though largely gone from the racing scene, isn't completely forgotten.

''Martin (Buser) did a breeding last year at the Norrises,'' Freking said.

Freking figures Buser was trying to breed back tougher feet. Tougher feet and sometimes thicker coats could have advantages for an Iditarod front-runner.

When other dogs tried to rest curled up in straw and covered with blankets in subzero temperatures in McGrath, Ramstead's thick-coated Siberians sprawled out full length and exposed their stomachs to the sun, looking perfectly comfortable and at ease in the frigid air.

But then these are the true dogs of the North.

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