Boulding: The musher's musher

Sports views

Posted: Tuesday, March 08, 2005


  Kasilof, Alaska musher Lance Mackey and his dog team take a break in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race at the Rainy Pass, Alaska checkpoint during the second day of the 1,100-mile sled dog race. AP Photo/Al Grillo

Kasilof, Alaska musher Lance Mackey and his dog team take a break in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race at the Rainy Pass, Alaska checkpoint during the second day of the 1,100-mile sled dog race.

AP Photo/Al Grillo

RAINY PASS, Alaska — Charlie Boulding, a man who reinvented himself a few times and came out of the woods to change sled dog racing, ought to make his next career in Hollywood now that he's running his last Iditarod.

His is the face of a great character actor — weathered by Alaskan summers and winters along the Tanana River, featuring a magnificently bent nose, bushy gray eyebrows, twinkly hazel eyes, a wise smile, all framed by cascades of gray hair — some flowing wild, some braided — and eight inches of shaggy gray beard.

His is the soft drawling voice of a North Carolina native who left one life behind — a family, a farm, a construction career — headed West, found another life briefly among oil rigs in Montana, then discovered still another life, fishing and trapping, mushing and raising sled dogs in Alaska.

His is the demeanor of a 62-year-old man who has lived deeply yet simply in a subsistence lifestyle, forsaking electricity and running water, going without telephone or TV in a log cabin with his 39-year-old wife, Robin. They emerge into public life a few times a year when he competes for cash in sled dog races.

He can be talkative or taciturn. He's eccentric, but he's clever. He's polite, but he's tough, winning the Most Inspirational Musher Award in 2003 after starting the race following surgery and treatment for colon cancer.

He's so far from citified, and so lacking in pretense, that Hollywood is probably the last place he'd think of going. In fact, he's already bought a 32-foot sailboat in the British Virgin Islands and plans to spend a couple of months each year with his wife cruising the Caribbean.

But if Robert Redford ever wants to making a mushing movie, he should look no further than Boulding, the musher's musher.

''I fully believe I'll be right up there in the top 10 this run,'' Boulding said as he began his 12th Iditarod. ''This is going to be my last year because my knees are shot. The left one's worse than the right. Unless they come up with some new miracle thing to fix my knees, I won't be running this again.''

Despite his age and balky knees and the still tiring aftereffects of colon cancer, the tenacious Boulding most likely will finish among the leaders. He wasn't far behind them Monday morning — sixth among 79 starters after reaching the third checkpoint in Finger Lake, 928 miles from Nome.

He rested on the way to the next checkpoint at the Rainy Pass Lodge by Puntilla Lake, 78 miles farther up the trail, dropped to 29th then pushed on to move up to 18th by late evening.

In first to Rainy Pass, a busy, noisy spot with dozens of small airplanes shuttling fans in and out, was DeeDee Jonrowe, running her 22nd Iditarod. She was slowed, though, after breaking her sled an hour earlier in a collision with a snowmobile stopped on trail.

''The guys were working on the trail,'' she said. ''Bless their hearts, they're trying to make it better for us. But it was stopped at a spot where the dogs couldn't get around it very well. So when the dogs did get around them, or jumped over them, I hit the front of my sled and sheared the bolt that connects the runner to the bottom of the sled in the front. The guys felt really bad but that doesn't make my sled run better.''

She contrived a quick fix with plastic ties and tape, borrowed a bolt at Rainy Pass to fix it better after getting some sleep, then planned to switch sleds two checkpoints later in Nikolai.

Jonrowe, who fell to 11th by evening, also dropped one dog with a sore shoulder. Mushers can replace sleds twice but not dogs.

''He is a young leader, Thoreau, one of my poets,'' she said. ''This was his first Iditarod. He had brown urine, which is an indication it's more than a small muscle injury. It's a major muscle deal that needs to go home. He'll be fine but it's not appropriate to try to keep him in the competition.

By late evening Monday, Norwegian Robert Sorlie reached the Rohn checkpoint first to take the lead. Sorlie, the 2003 winner, looked mighty weary, saying he hadn't slept in two days. Then again, he couldn't sleep the first few days two years ago and still won.

Alaskans Ramy Brooks and Cim Smith (who also dropped a dog) were second and third, respectively.

Boulding has been in the top 10 in eight of his last 10 Iditarods. He finished third in 1998, fifth three times and was sixth last year after leading until a storm slowed him down.

Boulding has the respect of all the mushers for the ways he has improved sleds and sled dogs. He came up with the Easy Rider sled about 15 years ago, a design that nearly everyone else copied because it allowed for better steering. On his 30 acres along the Tanana, he keeps close to 100 dogs, breeding them for toughness and speed.

Boulding never planned this sort of life.

''It's just a way to make money,'' he says, referring to breeding and mushing. ''You've got to have some cash flow. I used to make it trapping and fishing and both of them sort of went to hell in the '80s.

''I never planned to race dogs. I started going into it in village races and made a little money. So when one income went down, the other one went up, and I ended up doing this. We fish all summer and dry the fish so we have enough to feed the dogs in the winter.''

Boulding plans to sell his team when he gets to Nome. He might race other dogs in shorter events from time to time, but never again in the Iditarod. The only question is whether he will miss the race more than the race will miss him.

''There's probably no musher who is respected more, or who inspires more people, than Charlie,'' Jonrowe said. ''We're all going to miss him.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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