Musher builds hopes on family, dogs

Posted: Thursday, March 02, 2000

Mitch Seavey

Age: 41

Home: Sterling

Experience:

6 Iditarods

Best finish:

4th ('98)

Iditarod fast fact:

The 2000 race marks the first time that the first five teams to the halfway checkpoint will share $10,000.

"We are as ready as we've ever been, although it has been difficult to train this year," said Mitch Seavey.

The Sterling musher is set for his seventh run in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Last year, he placed 11th on a harsh trail, down from his fourth place in 1998.

He took the setback in stride.

"You can't be disappointed if you do the best you can do," said the 41-year-old. "There are so many factors that dictate where you place."

Seavey noted the complex interactions of dog behavior, trail conditions, weather and serendipity that can take the race's outcome out of a musher's hands.

Mushing is not a sport like basketball or track where everything rides on one person's conditions or actions. In a sense, he feels more like a coach and cheerleader for his team of canine athletes, he said.

Tuesday evening he was working on his roster, deciding which 16 dogs from his kennel of 60 to take to Anchorage for the race start. He planned to have half his team made up of young dogs. They have been up the trail as part of his "puppy team," but this will be their first year on his race team. The rest are dogs with more experience but perhaps less speed, he said.

Seavey rotates leaders. Among them will be Joe Joe, originally from the kennel of the late Joe Redington Sr., and Dolphin, who has finished six Iditarod races.

"I have raised all but two of the dogs I will be racing," Seavey said.

Poor snow conditions on the Kenai Peninsula have added to the training challenge. Seavey has run his dogs all over the state this winter and expects that varied experience to help them on the trail this year.

Conditions on the Iditarod Trail change from day to day.

"You can almost plan on encountering everything you can think of," he said.

Seavey said he is optimistic that plenty of snow in the Interior will offer a fast run this year, better than the ice and bare ground that made it hard to control sleds last year.

"I think the trail is going to be pretty good," he said.

In January he ran the Grand Portage Passage in Minnesota, a race he won in 1999.

After leading much of the way, he lost out to defending Iditarod champ Doug Swingley in the final leg.

"The facts speak for themselves," Seavey said. "Doug has a good dog team, no doubt about it. He is obviously a competitor."

But Seavey said he was using the Minnesota race -- his only competition this winter -- to check out pups in a real race situation. A few didn't come through in the end, but most did well, he said.

"I was pretty happy with them. I like to use those preliminary races as a proving ground," he said.

That long-term approach of team building applies to the human side of the equation as well.

Mushing is definitely a family affair for the Seaveys.

Mitch's parents moved to Alaska from Minnesota when he was 4. His father, Dan Seavey, brought the family to sled dog racing.

"We got our first dogs right away. He was involved in the founding of the Iditarod," Mitch Seavey said of his father.

The elder Seavey has run the Iditarod three times.

Mitch Seavey said his best crew of helpers is his wife, Janine, and their four sons. The oldest, Danny and Tyrell, already have proven to be serious competitors in the Junior Iditarod.

In the summer the family lives in Seward, where Mitch grew up, and runs the IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours for tourists. The other eight months of the year they live in Sterling so he can run his dogs on the snow.

The Seavey family plans to enter three generations in the 2001 Iditarod, with father Dan -- returning to run his first race since 1997 -- and son Danny joining Mitch on the trail.

But this year Mitch's companion will be his protege and family friend, 18-year-old Caleb Banse from Moose Pass, running as a rookie with a team of Seavey's pups.

Seavey said the lifestyle means more to him than a first-place finish, but that passing under that burled arch in Nome is the focus of his entire effort.

"My goal is to win the Iditarod and to make a career and life with sled dogs," he said.

For all that, he said he is not one to fret over what the other mushers are planning or to try to forecast how the coming race will go.

"We try to get to the finish line as quickly as possible," he said. "That is what it boils down to."



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