"The toil of the traces seemed the supreme expression of their being, and all that they lived for and the only thing in which they took delight." --from "The Call of the Wild" by Jack London
Four thousand miles from the Yukon and 20 years past his last Jack London novel, Doug Keefer stood behind an ashwood sled in a snow covered forest and urged his seven Siberian huskies to mush on.
With 100 other sled dogs--Great Pyrenees, malamutes and Alaskan huskies--howling in the Pocono Mountains around him, Keefer and his team started down the trail as if it were a record run to Nome. Then the lead dog took a right turn and headed for the warmth of Keefer's truck.
"You've got seven dogs, seven individuals and each one of them is trying to outthink you," said Keefer, a black-bearded, 51-year-old army operations analyst from Frederick who spent last weekend in Pennsylvania competing against sled dogs and drivers from six mid-Atlantic states. "The hardest-working dog on the team sometimes is the driver."
Sled dogs that blazed Alaska's frozen frontier, and became the stuff of pulp novels and canine legend in the process, have lately been traveling some unaccustomed trails in this country. While the Eskimos have traded in their huskies for snowmobiles, a new breed of sportsmen and women, who wouldn't know an ice flow from an igloo, have adopted the dogs of the northwest.
"We've got more sled dog racers in the mid-Atlantic states than anywhere else in the world, including Alaska," said Joe Feyti, a musher from Pennsylvania, which has a competitive club of 100 members. Feyti spent Saturday racing dogs over an eight-mile course of hills and hemlock through a nearby state forest. Saturday night he nursed his cold bones with medicinal shots of 100-proof Yukon Jack and bragged on two of his dogs he claims are direct descendants of King, the husky that saved Sgt. Preston from a thousand radio and television deaths.
In the last 10 years sled dog racing has expanded into an international organization in seven European countries, nine Canadian provinces and 42 states. Racers have their own magazines and a competitive tour with occasional big-money events such as last weekend's $25,000 competition at Saranac Lake, N.Y. The biggest race each year is the 1,100-mile Iditarod run from Anchorage to Nome in Alaska. CBS reportedly has purchased television rights for this year's March 6 race for $100,000.
But if sled dog racing has achieved a certain organizational strength and international fervor, the biggest names in the sport are as unknown to the general public as the names of their dogs. When Keefer passes joggers on a three-wheeled training run along Maryland's C&O Canal, the response is stride stopping.
"In the electronic age with fast cars and computers, it's hard for people to conceive that something from the old world is still alive," says Feyti.
The Pennsylvania meet took two days with races for three-, five- and seven-dog sleds and a weight pulling event. Sixty dog teams competed before an audience of about 100 people each day. Except for the weight pull, however, it was not a spectator's sport.
The dog teams, attached to lightweight sleds by harnesses of cloth, pulled away from the starting line with wild yelps, disappeared from sight and returned 30 minutes later with their tongues hanging out. At least two sleds came back in separate pieces after unplanned rendezvous with trees.
The best-looking dogs were the Siberian huskies, with thick coats of black, white and gray hair and pale blue eyes. But the best-running dogs were the Alaskan huskies, an astounding mix of breeds that might give evidence in one dog of Siberian husky, Walker coon hound and Irish setter with a touch of wolf mixed in.
"The Alaskan husky is a loose description of a nondescript dog that can run like hell," said Keefer, who consistently loses races because he refuses to give up on the Siberian dogs.
Leonard Bain, an architect with the American Institute of Architects in Washington, is another Siberian devotee. He has had more success competing against the Alaskan dogs on the circuit that takes him to a different competition in a dozen states every weekend during the winter season.
"What I'm trying to do is get a little respect from all the half-breed dogs," said Bain on Sunday after his seven-dog team had finished fourth out of eight teams entered.
Bain got into sled dog racing the way most do. He bought a Siberian as a pet, began breeding the dogs for show and then caught the racing bug during a heavy snow.
"I was really green when I started," said Bain, who has a trim brown heard and blue eyes just a few shades darker than a Siberian's. "I got lost three times in the Allegheny National Forest in one week. When it gets dark in the forest and 15 degrees below zero, there are no lightbulbs in there."
Between races, the dogs curled up in portable kennels built atop pickup trucks while the mushers gathered in knots to trade stories and keep alive dog days past.
"The Japanese guy (Naomi Uemura) who went to the North Pole solo five years ago, he didn't do it behind a Snow Cat," said Warren Amason, a sled dog racer from Loudoun County, Va. "He went by dog."