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Iditarod veteran mushes in cyberspace

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2000

FAIRBANKS -- It is possible, virtually speaking, to mush the 'Net.

Although the two don't seem to have much in common, the rather primitive in-touch-with-nature sport and the ethereal world of computers converge in cyberspace in hundreds upon hundreds of Web sites dedicated to riding the runners.

Jacques Philip stands at this nexus, a champion dog racer in the real world, with part of his livelihood based on his skills as a software programmer in the world of the Internet.

''I like to keep on learning,'' said the 44-year-old Philip with his distinctive French accent. ''It's physical work I'm doing with the dogs, working outside. I think it's important to keep training your mind also.''

Despite the glaring lack of a land-based phone line for Internet access, Philip and his wife, Magali, run a small cyberspace-based company out of their Parks Highway cabin that sits more than 30 miles from town.

Philip's first foray into the code-writing world was a kennel management program that made keeping track of large groups of dogs a snap.

Philip began his career as a Parisian doctor, but has moved on to designing Web sites with a few local businesses and organizations as his first clients. The couple recently built home pages for Cold Spot Feeds, one of the more successful mushing-oriented operations in Fairbanks, and Jim and Ivana Nolke's Howling Dog Alaska, a young business in its second year.

The site has given the Salcha start-up an international visibility.

''Today, I just got one from Switzerland,'' Ivana Nolke said.

''They both know what they're doing on the computer. I have no idea what to do.''

''The only real thing you have to watch with them is their English,'' Jim Nolke said.

The Philips tend to master most things they undertake. Their 94 sled dogs are a testament to that. Jacques Philip was into sled dogs well before the two joined forces in 1993 and married in 1995. After buying his first dog in the winter of 1980 during a trip to Alaska, Philip began taking French Championships regularly in 1982.

From there, he became the first French musher to finish the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, in 1985, and three years later earned his place in the international pantheon of mushing greats with an eight-year run in the Alpirod that included three consecutive titles and no finish worse than sixth.

In 1992, Philip pulled off an interesting feat, winning both the Alpirod, a stage race that consists of 40- to 60-mile runs in the Alps of Europe, and the Kobuk 440 out of Kotzebue, one of the toughest mid-distance races in the state.

Around the time the Philips married, they bought a cabin off the Parks Highway near Skinny Dick's Halfway Inn. Over the years, bit by bit, they have added square footage and land. A few more years and things will be just right.

It's a future they blueprint in small pieces, adding details little by little until their way of life makes them happy. How else can you explain Jacques Philip's career divergence, a travel plan that has brought him from the Parisian suburbs and the practice of medicine to the near wilds of Alaska and a dog trail that leads out the back of their 18-acre spread?

''It didn't happen all at once,'' Philip said. ''One day, I didn't decide to stop doing medicine. I had already come to Alaska as a student. I would study for six months, go back to Alaska, study for six months ... .''

As they settled into a permanent Alaska residency, the Philips began to look for ways to support their lifestyle without having to work full-time. In the years since, they have become a distributor for sleds and sled dog supplies.

''Everything itself is little,'' Magali Philip said, ''but together it allows us to survive.''

Jacques Philip turned an interest in computers into a sideline of that business after taking college courses in the craft.

''There just isn't enough prize money to be a full-time musher,'' Philip said. ''I had an interest in computer science before and since we needed to do something else.''

He began tinkering with ways to make the computer help him track the complicated accounting, husbandry and historical records of a large, working kennel. His kennel maintenance program started modestly, helping mushers track genetic histories, nutritional formulations and training mileage. The program has gotten increasingly complicated (and helpful) over time.

Little by little, Philip has added functions and details to his program, just as he has in life. He now can punch the ingredients and amounts for his dog yard's dinner into the program and get accounting figures down to the penny.

''And the price per dog,'' he said of a single feeding, ''is the most important.''



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