230 – Storm Kloud Alaskan Malamutes: Continuation of a Dream | Pure Dog Talk

The Storm Kloud Alaskan Malamutes headed for the start line of the Iditarod in 1994.

Storm Kloud team of Alaskan Malamutes proved their heritage in 1994

After two years and 3,000 hours of training, Nancy Russell’s Storm Kloud Alaskan Malamutes were ready to compete in the iconic Iditarod Race in 1994.

Storm Kloud Alaskan Malamute team at a check point on the Iditarod in 1994.

Russell shares her stories of this epic journey, noting that she was proud to show that “Our dogs can still go on and do what they were bred to do.”

Twenty below for eight days

Russell and her crew drove with the five females and 10 males, all but one bitch intact, that made the final team.  “It was 20 below zero when we left Minnesota. And it never got above that for eight days, all the way to Alaska,” Russell said.

“There was no snow in Anchorage,” Russell said “so they hauled in snow and put enough on the street to run the teams 15 blocks. Because  a driver would not be able to set a snow hook if they had trouble with a team, an extra person had to ride with them. Therefore I got to ride in the sled for the ceremonial start of 15 blocks that year. Jamie chose 5 Champions and Josh to run as only 6 dogs were allowed in the team.”

Dog aggression was a major concern for the race organizers, Russell noted. The Alaskan Malamutes of the day were considered very “tough.” Part of the hours of training was that “we had to be sure the dogs could pass (another team of dogs) without causing problem before would be *allowed* to run this team,” Russell said.

Show dogs to team

Another obstacle, Russell said, is that the “show dogs” had to learn to be part of a team. Of the 15 dogs on the team, 11 were or became show champions.

“Show dog is not a team event,” Russell said. “Going from ‘I am the coolest’ to teamwork was a huge issue for Jamie (Nelson, the professional musher who trained and ran the team) to overcome. She had a hard time getting the dogs past people with cameras… the dogs were so convinced they were cool…”

Russell was amazed that the dogs actually gained weight along the route of the race. She noted that the dogs would push away the straw put down for bedding and held up well in the arctic environment of their heritage.

Danger on the trail

“When Jamie arrived at Finger Lake she went into a Dodge Lodge (tent furnished for the mushers) to sleep,” Russell said. “Later she woke as she was cold and went to get her sleeping bag. She was unable to stand and crawled out and then realized they were being asphyxiated  from the stove. She crawled back in and turned it off and tried to wake the other mushers but could not wake them. She called for help and Beth Baker MD who was in the checkpoint heard her and they got them out. Jamie and Beth received the Sportsmanship award for saving the lives of the other  four mushers.”

Eskimo welcome

The native people were thrilled when the team arrived near their communities.

“When they got to the Eskimo villages, the school teachers let kids come out of school to see the Malamutes,” Russell said. “One elderly gentleman came and brought his grandkids. He said ‘you have to see these dogs. This is what we used to have.’”

The struggle, Russell said, was the dogs’ feet. The weather was unusual that year, she noted, with rising temperatures causing rivers to melt.

“The dogs went through the river,” Russell said, “but the conditions caused a number of dogs to have feet susceptible to injury.”

Feet are the foundation

Despite special boots designed for the dogs, the team was struggling with ice balls in their pads and swollen feet in the boots.

“I do feel people are breeding smaller, tighter feet because they are pretty, not because they are functional,” Russell said. “The snowshoe foot, as described in the standard, doesn’t look as nice in the show ring.”

The dogs’ feet were what caused them to end their run after 640 miles of the 1,500 mile race, Russell said.

“Here I was in Ruby, more than halfway through the race, trying to make the decision.  The dogs’ feet had gotten progressively worse in the last 300 miles. When I bootied them they swelled up. When I ran without, they snowballed within a few miles.  The vets and I had tried everything we knew. I was running out of options. It seemed such a shame. For the most part, their bodies were like fine-honed machines.  They could easily have completed the course. Only their foot problems were to let them down. Yet they were the feet that had carried me close to 600 miles in less than seven days through some of most rugged country Alaska had to offer. To take advantage of their willingness to please and push them on in their condition wouldn’t give us any more answers, only serve to inflict  unnecessary pain. I thought back now to the time we had spent training together. I had worked with some these guys for four years  and trained intensely for the better part of the last two years. They had taxed every bit of my knowledge on training. They had tried me every step of the way and through this I had grown to love these guys. But, it wasn’t just love I was feeling now, it was something else. They had developed a trust in me, a trust that I would always do what ‘s right for them. A bond of trust that is stronger than love or even life itself, a trust that once broken can never be regained. I went back and took another look at their feet, then I looked into their eyes, and the decision was made.” — Musher Jamie Nelson

By any calculation, 15 show dogs running in harness for 640 miles in the brutal arctic conditions is a tremendous accomplishment. Russell remains proud of her dogs’ ability to prove the breed can still do its job in the most extreme conditions. Listen to part one of this story here.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER — FRANCIS BACON

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