Dent tries to forget last year

Posted: Friday, March 03, 2000

ANCHORAGE -- Dan Dent's dream of finishing the Iditarod Sled Dog Race didn't end last year when his hands were badly mauled in a dog fight. His dream lives on.

Dent, a 58-year-old investment counselor from Baltimore, will start the race Saturday when cold, wet noses in Anchorage point toward Nome. His goal is to get himself, and every one of his 16 dogs, to the finish line 1,150 miles away through Alaska's wilderness.

''Essentially, this year for me is basically an effort to bury the ghost from last year and to have a good race. That was a very unfortunate situation, a bad experience,'' Dent said, remembering the dog fight not long after the start of last year's race that forced him to scratch.

''I didn't want to end my mushing the way it ended last year, a bloody mess. I am looking forward to having a real nice race, going real slow, ... and enjoying it.''

Dent's hands were badly mangled when two of his dogs attacked another dog, ''Storm,'' who got tangled in the harness. As fast as Dent could pull the dogs off, another one would attack. He realized unless he freed Storm from the sled's tug line, the dog would be killed. Dent threw off a glove to chip ice from the clip. His hand was vulnerable for just seconds.

''That was enough time for me to get chewed up,'' he said. When a race official at the next checkpoint saw Dent trying to lift a dog food cooker from his sled with his forearms, Dent was told he needed to withdraw because he couldn't take care of his dogs. He thought about it, then agreed. He was quickly ferried to an Anchorage hospital for treatment.

Dent blames the fight on a last-minute decision to add a female to the team that had not trained with the dogs before. That, and the stress of the start of the race, pushed the team over the edge.

This year's team is different, Dent said. Only Camilla, a strong lead dog, is back from last year's team. More importantly, the dogs get along and have been training together for the better part of a year.

''It is a wonderful group,'' Dent said.

He takes comfort in the fact that many of the dogs are Iditarod veterans who ran the race with other mushers. When the going gets tough, Dent is hoping they will take mercy on the rookie hanging onto the back of the sled and lead the way to Nome.

''The weak link of the team is on the runners of the sled,'' he concedes with a chuckle.

Dent's wife, Mary, and five children all plan to be at the race start. Around his neck he'll be wearing a dog tag, a gift from his family, that reads: ''Good luck, Dad, you can do it. Love, your family.''

The team includes dogs purchased from Iditarod winners Doug Swingley and Martin Buser, as well as several other top mushers. The dogs were available to Dent because they're older dogs, just past their prime and a step slower.

The team trained on Godwin Glacier on the Kenai Peninsula last year to get ready for this year's race.

''These dogs were up there running on the glacier all summer, not training hard, but when they came into the fall season they were in really good shape,'' Dent said.

The dogs aren't the only ones who have been physically prepped for the race that goes over two Alaska mountain ranges, crosses frozen rivers, and travels miles of wind-swept Bering Sea ice.

Dent, whose hands are completely healed, spent the summer biking in the rolling farmland of northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. He's dropped nearly 20 pounds since Thanksgiving. He came to Alaska three times to train with the team. He even got laser eye surgery so he won't have to worry about his glasses fogging up or getting knocked off during the race.

''We are pulling out all the stops this year,'' Dent said.

Dent had dogs growing up in Baltimore. He got interested in dog mushing when he came to Alaska to take part in the 1996 Joe Redington Iditarod Challenge, a trip by non-competitive mushers who followed the Iditarod teams to Nome. Dent was hooked when he saw the late Redington, considered the father of the Iditarod, and his team going up the trail.

''I just saw Joe going up and that looked neat. They just looked like a caravan going up, and I though that's the way to do it. I thought I could do the whole Iditarod Trail.''

If he makes it to Nome this year, Dent doubts he'll do the Iditarod again. It takes too much time away from his family and business. The idea of not making it doesn't enter his mind. He has that much confidence in this team.

Dent said when he feels like giving up, he's going to think of the hard work the dogs put in all year to get their chance to run the Iditarod trail, maybe for the last time.

''These dogs are all so great,'' he said. ''I think the thing this year is never, never, never give up.''

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