Saturday, April 16, 2016

Debbie Clarke Moderow on the Iditarod Trail with Her Alaskan Sled Dogs

Debbie Clarke Moderow talks to Alexander “The Engineer” Lim, host of AuthorStory by about her book, Fast Into the Night: A Woman, Her Dogs, and Their Journey North on the Iditarod Trail.

“The real heart of the journey lies not in actually in getting there, but in working through the challenges.” ~Debbie Clarke Moderow

Debbie Moderow with two dogs. Courtesy of Doug Sonerholm.
When her children were still young, Debbie and her family adopted a retired Iditarod husky named Salt, even though she was somewhat depressed at the time, and from there, they created their own dog team. Debbie’s children learned how to mush before Debbie and her husband, Mark, did, and it was after her children had participated in the Junior Iditarod, and after her son, Andy, did the actual Iditarod and told her that she needed to do the race, that she considered running the Iditarod, particularly since she was starting to look at her empty nest at the time.

The Iditarod was started in the 1970s by a man named Joe Reddington, who settled into Alaska in the mid-1900s. He was inspired by the way dogs had connected Alaska in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as by the epic diphtheria serum run in the deep winter of 1925 to Nome by dog teams and their drivers. The race itself takes place on the first Saturday of March each year, and the course runs a thousand miles, from Anchorage to Nome, and has twenty-two checkpoints along the way, where both dogs and mushers can get checked and rest. Each team needs to send a package - a “drop bag” - of their own supplies at each stop, and preparation takes years.

Debbie notes that full preparation for the Iditarod requires three to four years, that one has to be mentored by a musher, that one has to know their dogs very well and that one has to be dedicated to the lifestyle of living with and raising sled dogs. Debbie says she requires assistance from a ranch hand as well as veterinarians and masseuses to keep her dogs in top form.

Debbie remarks that the humans who undertake this race travel with “sixteen good friends,” and that each dog plays various roles, from leaders to swing dogs (who run right behind the leaders) to wheel dogs (who run right in front of the sled), comparing her dog team to a sports team, where each player has a particular position to fill. She also remarked that there is a social dynamic that comes into play, as each dog has its own particular personality, and it is up to the musher to nurture these and place them in the positions where they are most effective in the team. She notes that running is innate to huskies, as nine-month-old pups who are first put into harness know instinctively how to do so, in the same way Labrador retrievers instinctively know how to swim. Debbie’s dogs are Alaskan Huskies, which would find twenty degrees Fahrenheit hot and are well suited to the rugged, cold, northern latitude environments.

Debbie remarks that the driver needs to know her dogs as well as the dogs know the musher for the team to work effectively. As an example, she knows that, when one particular dog’s ears perk up, that that dog is detecting either another dog team or a wild animal nearby, whereas, when another dog looks at the dog running alongside, that that dog is annoyed with the dog she’s eyeing. She notes that routine and consistency are part of the race, so that, when they are in the race, the dogs know that, once they run into a checkpoint, they’ll get rested, massaged, and looked after, and that, every two hours, Debbie will give them a snack.

During Debbie’s first run, she ran for six or seven hours and then rested eight or nine, which she admits wasn’t efficient, and things didn’t go as planned when they reached a stretch of sea ice under whiteout conditions, and the dogs refused to go any further. Debbie rested less during the second run, and while they initially balked when they reached that same leg where they stopped in the first run, Debbie managed to get them moving and finish the race.

Finishing the Iditarod on her second run made her realize that she had just lived a story she didn’t fully understand, and it was only when she was writing the book that she fully came to understand the story she had lived, as well as her own life to that time. She hopes that people who read her book will understand what it takes to collaborate with a group of sled dogs, as well as inspire them to set out on big goals of their own, goals that might be difficult to get to, but having the kind of journey that still makes the attempt worthwhile.

Debbie is presently working on a book on climate change, as she feels that Alaska’s climate is already being affected by global warming.

Debbie Clarke Moderow’s website for her book, Fast Into the Night: A Woman, Her Dogs, and Their Journey North on the Iditarod Trail, is

Purchase from Amazon: Fast Into the Night: A Woman, Her Dogs, and Their Journey North on the Iditarod Trail

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