Born to Run: How retired sled dogs came to make their home in Stillwater

Vixen

Photos provided by Dr. Doug Aichele unless otherwise attributed.

A barren landscape, blanketed by ice and snow stretches out in all directions as far as the eye can see. There is no one and nothing around for miles except the unforgiving terrain and the frigid wind that whips up the dust of snow obliterating any hint of visibility in the Alaskan backcountry. You are all alone, except for your sled and a team of sixteen dogs traveling a thousand miles from Anchorage to Nome. You are running the world famous race, the Iditarod.

Dog Sledding has been taking place in Alaska for hundreds of years before the first Iditarod race took place in 1973. Portions of the trail were used by Native Alaskan peoples long before the arrival of Russian fur traders in the 1800s; however, dog sledding reached its peak between the 1880s and 1920s with the arrival of coal miners and the gold rush. While steamships were the quickest way to get supplies, the ports were closed down by ice from October through June every year and the only way to move mail and supplies was via the sleds drawn by the hardy, athletic dogs bred for that purpose.

Sled dogs were an important part of the history and culture of the Alaskan frontier. The most famous event associated with dog sledding was the diphtheria epidemic that threatened Nome in 1925. Nome’s supply of antitoxin had expired and was unusable. A call was put out for a supply of antitoxin and the nearest supply was located a thousand miles away in Anchorage. It was too cold to fly the supply using the early open-air cockpit airplanes of the time and the ports were blocked in by ice. The only way to get it there was via dog sled. The twenty pound cylinder of serum was shipped by train for the first 298 miles from the southern port of Seward to Nenana. On January 27, 1925, it arrived just before midnight and was handed off to the first of twenty mushers and more than one hundred dogs who relayed the serum 674 miles from Nenana to Nome.  

No dog ran for more than one hundred miles and Gunnar Kaasan and his dog team led by Balto arrived in Nome on February 2 at 5:30 a.m. just five and half days later. Balto’s praises were sung around the world and a statue was erected in Central Park in New York City that same year. While Balto was the most famous of the sled dogs to run “The Great Race of Mercy” most mushers consider Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo the true heroes because they covered the longest and most hazardous stretch of the route.

With the advent of small aircraft and the adventurous bush pilots who flew them, the sled dogs were gradually replaced until they were nearly completely phased out by the snowmobile in the 1960s.

Then in 1964, a committee was formed in preparation to celebrate the centennial of Alaska becoming a U.S. Territory. The committee’s chair, Dorothy Page conceived the idea for a commemorative dog sled race over the historically significant trail between Anchorage and Nome.  Joe Redington, Sr. and his wife Vi also had an interest in preserving the history of dog sledding and the gold rush and mail route so they supported Page’s efforts. Page studied and documented the history while Joe worked to clear the trail and put the race together.

Every year since 1973, the Iditarod has begun on the first Saturday in March.

Vulcan and Vixen are siblings. Their sire is Goodboy Gumbie.

So what does Oklahoma and Stillwater have to do with a thousand mile race run 3,650 miles away?  According to local retired OSU Mathematics Professor Dr. Doug Aichele, “There are some Oklahoma connections to the Iditarod that are kind of cool.”

For the first one, let’s revisit Joe Redington–the “Father of the Iditarod.” Redington was born in Kingfisher, Oklahoma at the end of World War One. He spent at least the first six or seven of his years there before moving away.

For the second Oklahoma connection, we return to Dr. Aichele. Doug is a lifelong dog lover who, through a series of different events and circumstances, developed an interest in sled dog racing. Long time readers may remember a story about Dr. Aichele featured in the February 2014 issue of Stillwater Living.

Dr. Doug Aichele

Dr. Aichele taught in the OSU Mathematics Department for forty-five years before retiring. He first became interested in sled dogs when a malamute followed Doug home from the lake one day. While trying to learn more about the breed, he learned that the Alaskan malamute is one of the oldest of the northern sled dogs.

Then, while teaching at the University of Alaska, Doug’s wife, Kathryn, picked up a book about Joe Redington Sr. She thought that the subject, combining dog sledding and the founder of the Iditarod who happened to be originally from Oklahoma, would be of particular interest to her husband.

Then, one year Doug visited their son in Alaska where he was completing an internship. While visiting the Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla, Doug met Ramey Redington the son of Joe Redington Sr. The two men hit it off and became friends. Doug got to meet Joe Sr.’s widow, Vi, and visit Ramey’s kennels. Doug was hooked.

Doug became more involved with the sled dog racing world, making friends, and working with mushers and kennel owners. He eventually became friends with Warren and Kate Palfrey, the owners of NorthernStar Kennels out of Quesnel, British Columbia. Doug began handling dogs for the Palfreys on the racing circuit and researching the canine athletes.

Vulcan and Vixen racing in 2012. Vixen is nearest the sled, right behind Vulcan.

Most sled dogs these days are Alaskan huskies. The Alaskan husky is not a recognized breed like its predecessor the Siberian husky or the Alaskan malamute. The Alaskan husky is bred for its athleticism and stamina not its looks. Typically it is approximately 55 lbs with long, strong front legs. It has a double coat to keep it insulated and warm in the extreme cold. Most of all, the Alaskan husky loves to run.

Another Oklahoma tie to the Iditarod and sled dog racing is OSU Veterinary Science professor Dr. Mike Davis. Dr. Aichele worked with Dr. Davis to understand the metabolism and water requirements of the canine athletes. Through their research they tried to understand the causes of ulcerations, which was causing some sled dogs to drop out of races and in many cases resulting in the dogs’ death. Through their research Davis and Aichele determined that dogs were becoming dehydrated and how to combat it. They also did complete blood profiles of the dogs and found that certain markers are good indicators of whether a dog will finish a race or not. Through their work, they were able to drastically reduce the number of sled dog deaths caused by ulcers.

In 2009, Doug was at the Iditarod helping the Palfreys with their sled dogs when he first met Goodboy Gumbie. The Palfreys’ sled dog team had recently finished the thousand mile Yukon Quest race and was getting ready for the Iditarod. It was here that Doug noticed Gumbie, a beautiful, yet shy, Alaskan husky. “When I stood near him, he stood up and placed his front paws on my chest. I leaned over and he licked my face,” Doug said with a smile as he shared the fond memory.

Painting of Goodboy Gumbie by Mary Dianne Bunch

Gumbie was not known for approaching strangers. He was selective about the people he approached. Kate Palfrey observed the interaction and according to Doug, Palfrey exclaimed, “He just picked you!”

By that summer, Gumbie came home to live in Stillwater with Doug and his family.

Over the next nine years, Doug and Gumbie shared the history of sled dog racing and what it takes to care for these athletes with the community. Each year, Westwood Elementary teacher Celeste Fox invites Doug and Gumbie to visit her second grade class when they study the Iditarod. The students choose a book about the race to read, they each choose a Musher to learn about, and follow his or her progress on the race. The students learn about Alaska and sled dog racing and in the process they also learn history, math, and reading, all while being enthralled by Doug’s stories and a visit from Gumbie.  

Vulcan


Eventually, Gumbie’s son Vulcan retired from racing with Jerry Bath (Bath Racing Kennel, Lander, WY) and joined Doug and his family in Stillwater. Two years later,  Vulcan’s litter-mate and Gumbie’s daughter, Vixen joined the Aichele family when she retired from racing with Becky Barkman (Lucky Cat Dog Farm, Gunnison, CO). Vulcan looks a lot like his papa and is by far the most affectionate of the two. Vixen is more standoffish and resembles a wolf in the watchful way she carries herself.

Vixen

Sadly, Goodboy Gumbie passed away last summer on June 20, 2018 at the age of fifteen. He leaves behind a rich legacy of bringing the history of sled dog racing and the Iditarod to life throughout the Stillwater community. Vulcan and Vixen now carry that legacy forward with Doug’s guidance. They visit groups and give talks to groups of all ages from second graders to college students to an upcoming OLLI Town Hall set for March 5, 2019.

Doug’s interest in sled dogs and racing began before he met Gumbie, but with his addition to the Aichele family, Doug’s interest grew into a mission to educate others about what it takes to care for these animals during and after their racing careers.  For Doug, it was and will continue to be “all about the dogs.”

Doug, Vixen, and Vulcan in Pitkin, CO.

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