Musher Eric Kelly hails from Barnard, Vermont, and this weekend he and his team of dogs will begin their rookie run of the Alaskan 1,000-mile sled dog race known as the Iditarod. .
VPR’s Connor Cyrus spoke to musher Eric Kelly about training dogs at his family kennel DayBreak Mushingand his journey from Vermont to Alaska, mushing and Iditarod.
Eric Kelly: Well, I’ve always dreamed of Alaska, I think a lot of people do. And I actually left Vermont and went to live in northern Arizona for about 10 years. From there we came to visit a friend who was in Alaska, and it was November 2007. And we just loved it. Me and my wife and kids. And I found a job, by accident, while we were here. So we returned to Arizona and decided to move to Alaska. And we’ve been here for about 15 years now.
Connor Cyrus: There is a strong dog sledding tradition here in New England. In mid-February, the town of Laconia, New Hampshire hosted the World Dog Sledding Derby Championship, but I understand you didn’t catch the mushing bug in Vermont. So how did you end up in the sport?
Well, my son must have done a school newspaper article on the Iditarod, and a friend of ours knew a musher, whose name was Newton Marshall. He’s actually from Jamaica. Not Jamaica, Vermont, but actually Jamaica, the island. And he was getting ready for his fourth Iditarod, and I started talking to him, and he needed some help. So, I just started helping him that winter, and that got us to where we are now. So yes, few people were probably inspired by a Jamaican musher. But that’s how we got involved.
For home listeners who may not be familiar with mushing, can you explain the basic concept?
The concept is that you have a team of dogs and the dogs pull your sled. This is the basic concept.
What I like is team building, it’s the connection with the animals. It’s being in the desert, away from the city, you’re right there with your dogs, even when you’re in a race. Most of the time, you are alone, with your team of dogs, unless you are at a checkpoint. So I think the concept is basically being out in nature, with amazing animals.
The original mushing was more of a means of transportation, a way of getting supplies to and from villages, getting medicine to Nome – people probably know that story of Balto in the serum race– but the basic concept here is that I’ve built a team around me that has dogs that I love, dogs that love me, and we work together in the wilderness.
You have to be ready to do it all yourself, you have to feed and care for your team in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, when your next checkpoint could be 100 miles away and a snowstorm could happen. What do you love about it and why are you and your team getting into it?
I have always sought adventure. After working so hard with these dogs, I like to see what we can do. Because we are such a fluid team. And I trust my dogs. My dogs trust me.
We just ran a race earlier this year, we are on the track, the winds were blowing 75-80 miles per hour. And I really don’t like the wind. But I was with my team of dogs. And we got there with no problem. It was, in fact, for some reason enjoyable, the dogs thrived and we were great. So it’s just about taking the challenge. That’s why I do this, for the challenge, for the adventure of being in the Alaskan wilderness. It pushes and pushes you to work hard and make it happen.
What does it take to train for a 1,000 mile race like the Iditarod? It’s obviously a race, but even the fastest winner takes more than a week on the track to finish. So what happens in training?
It starts with lots of small steps. In the summer, the dogs are somewhat at rest. We run them free in the yard, they stay fit, but they don’t shoot. In early fall, we start running about two miles. And we do it until the dogs are comfortable. Usually takes about a week. Then we’ll overtake at four miles, and we’ll continue to overtake. Until we get to where the dogs are comfortable running 35-40 miles. Sometimes we’ll push further into 60-70 miles on a run. And dogs will get to where they feel comfortable running about 100 miles in 24 hours. That’s kind of what we’re aiming for.
And then what must be done to qualify for the Iditarod?
To qualify for the Iditarod, you have to run 750 miles of middle-distance races. The way I did it was, I ran a 150 mile race and then two 300 mile races this year. The dogs all have around 2,300 miles of training miles on them right now. We keep track on a spreadsheet, so we know what everyone is doing. We will train three days, rest two, train two days, rest one. And we just stay in that cycle. They just get used to it. They know what to expect. They know when every time we stop they get a certain treat. They know that every time we stop, that’s when we put down the straw they’re resting on, or when they go home. It’s strong teamwork. Dogs know what to expect from me. I know what to expect from them. It’s really cool, cool stuff.
So the most important question I think I can ask is, how much dog food do you buy each day? Or, do your dogs eat every day?
Each dog eats about a pound or two of food per day. So we basically go through a 40 pound bag of kibble and then we mix that in with some meat, so 50-60 pounds of food a day for the team. When we run, the 14 dogs eat 100 pounds of food a day.
Oh wow. So what does your dog food bill look like each month?
It’s probably around $2,000 or $1,800.
wow. It’s a good year for you, because it’s your first Iditarod race. Some mushrooms have run the race for decades without finishing in the top 10, let alone winning the race. What does a successful run look like to you?
For me, a successful race is, I want to arrive in Nome with happy and healthy dogs. I don’t care where I end up. One thing you get at the end of the run is there’s a belt buckle you get, it’s like the prize, I guess it’s the belt buckle. No matter where you end up, you get the belt buckle.
So I made my goal is right I want to get to the belt buckle we’re gonna be in the race but we’re gonna do this more like an extended camping trip we’re gonna take our time we’re gonna rest a lot , we will learn the track. You know, I’m a rookie. So I have a lot to learn. And I listen to a lot of experienced mushers that I know, and they kind of said to me, take your time, this is your first. Enjoy it, your dogs will appreciate it. So that’s our goal is to get the belt buckle.
Listen to the full interview to learn more about Kelly’s training conditions in Alaska this winter and how he’s having fun while hanging out alone with his dogs on the 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome.
Broadcast on Friday, March 4, 2022 at noon.
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