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A dog's life: Warrior still running strong

Notes from the trail

Posted: Friday, April 08, 2005

 

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  Warrior, center, takes a break from a trail run to pose with musher Fox Michaud and Toshtego, another dog from Mitch Michaud's kennel. Submitted photo

Jon Little's lead dog Warrior jumps with enthusiasm at the start of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race in February 2001 as part of Kasilof musher John Little's team. Since retiring from competitive distance racing, Warrior has founda home in Mitch Michaud's kennel.

File photo by M. Scott Moon

Editor's note: Since first appearing in the Peninsula Clarion in 2001, a photograph of the dog Warrior, then a part of Jon Little's team for the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, has run several more times in the paper, most recently on the cover of the Clarion's Iditarod special section. Warrior has retired from competitive distance racing, but his current owner, Mitch Michaud, submitted the following column to update readers on the sled dog's career.

Warrior is one of the better-known dogs on the Kenai Peninsula thanks to his buff physique, his "let's get 'er done attitude" and a photograph that has shown up in several Clarion features on dog mushing. I am sure that Warrior would be embarrassed if he saw his picture as often as we all see him — that is, if dogs got embarrassed.

The story of Warrior is much deeper than one photo and that is why I am writing this. I want Warrior fans to know what has happened to this wonderful dog whose picture we see all over the place.

I now take care of Warrior, now 11 years old. I got him from Kasilof musher Jon Little, who also took care of him for a while, but originally this big white dog came from Dave Shear.

Dave's breeding line is well-known on the Kenai Peninsula. These dogs are white to blonde in color and are noted for their speed and their drive. This breeding line is often called the Spirit Line or Shear Spirit Dogs. They are also noted for their skittish and shy behavior.

Jon acquired Warrior and other dogs from Shear as he was building his race kennel. Warrior became a full-fledged member of his 1999 Iditarod team.

The story of his Iditarod experience goes something like this: Warrior was doing really well on his first Iditarod race, but as the race progressed the musher decided to drop Warrior.

He was still a very young dog and Jon didn't want to ruin him for future races to Nome. The decision was to have Warrior finish that race on a high note, a very good call for a young dog.

The following year, Jon saw a strategic opportunity so he left Warrior, not the fastest of his dogs, so he could do the sprint to Nome on a fast trail. This move left Warrior once again at the same checkpoint and with yet another uncompleted Iditarod.

Warrior ran his next Iditarod the following year. The story continues with Warrior looking really good. He was a two-year veteran of the Iditarod, now with thousands of miles of training behind him. When he reached the checkpoint where he had been dropped twice before, however, he stopped running.

According to Jon, Warrior arrived there in wonderful shape, but then just sat down — apparently he thought the Iditarod was only 800 miles long.

So, Jon took off his harness and waited for the Iditarod Air Force to fly him back to Anchorage. Warrior had run his last Iditarod at the age of 6.

Long-distance mushers begin each and every race with a team of dogs that all have the capacity to run the entire race. Warrior may have been physically prepared for 1049 miles, but mentally he would probably always see that checkpoint as the end of the race.

I arrived in Warrior's life shortly after his last Iditarod. Placing uncompetitive dogs is a constant chore for competitive kennels. Finding good homes where the dogs will continue to thrive and have a meaningful existence is both difficult and heart-wrenching for many.

A few dogs don't have wonderful post-racing lives, but many dogs do and this is a testament to the professional dog mushing community.

 

Warrior, center, takes a break from a trail run to pose with musher Fox Michaud and Toshtego, another dog from Mitch Michaud's kennel.

Submitted photo

I went out and met Warrior and learned that he was once a promising lead dog but had a bad experience meeting a brown bear on the trail. He got the nickname "Worrier" for his demeanor that allegedly began after an encounter with three brown bears while on a training run.

This dog was also noted for being a good team dog and being a dedicated worker, but he was extremely skittish and shy.

He was big and well muscled as I tried to pick him up and place him in my truck. Even today he is one of the bigger dogs in my kennel.

After a few weeks of slow integration into my non-competitive kennel, Warrior quickly started to find his place on the team. His wonderful breeding and great instruction from past ownerships have provided me with all I could ever need in a sled dog.

He does brief periods as a lead dog, especially when I need an experienced dog that knows how to find a lost trail on a windswept Mackey Lake, or when a dog is needed to take direction from my 7- and 9-year-old mushing children.

Today Warrior is not quite the hunk of a dog he was in the photo. His weight is kept down to between 55 and 60 pounds. I think at his prime he was almost 70 pounds.

He still runs weekly, doing 20-mile runs in the Soldotna area, but he has developed an arthritic leg, possibly from a fracture that occurred as a puppy.

He has lost a bottom fang, but still will chew down bones and frozen salmon like a hungry puppy.

Also, he is now blind in one eye from cataracts. We make sure we always place him on the right side of the team so his good eye works the side of the trail and we watch his leg carefully for stiffness.

He gets regular exercise and we hope to keep him running for another three or more years. He may not be an Iditarod runner any more and he may not lead the team down the trail, but he is an excellent swing dog (dogs placed immediately after the leaders) and has a permanent place in my dog team and my home.

Warrior may be older, but he still gets as excited as he was that day the photo was taken at the Tustumena 200. Every so often he still does jump up, slams his chest in the harness and barks loudly, trying to get the rest of the team going.

He may never run the Big Race again but he's one of those dogs that continues to challenge dog mushers to be the best they can be just for the dog's sake and always leaving mushers feeling inadequate when they compare their own commitment and drive to that which the dogs put into the sport.

For those of you that want to see Warrior you can come visit him at the Peninsula Sled Dog and Racing Association trail head at the Soldotna Airport on weekends.

You also can see Warrior in the comfort of your home, since Warrior made another public relations breakthrough. He made the big screen — television. He is in the recent Peninsula Winter Games promotional video and in an episode of "Exploring Alaska" and can be seen pulling my son down the dog mushing trail.

You can pick him out easily — just keep a copy of the Clarion nearby and when you see a big white dog on the TV, compare the photos to see if its Warrior — one of the most famous dogs on the Kenai Peninsula.

Mitch Michaud, in addition to being Warrior's current owner, is the president of the Peninsula Sled Dog and Racing Association.



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