Their legacy lives on in the Iditarod, a (roughly) thousand-mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome that takes place every March. Most of the competitors live in Alaska, where sled dogs are still commonplace. But some of the entrants come from further afield. And last year, Blair Braverman and 14 of her furry friends represented Wisconsin.
Braverman, 31, and her team followed the same route that heroic dogs like Balto and Togo ran along all those years ago. Past mountain ranges that rise like jagged teeth from either side of the trail. Through frozen river beds studded with sled-busting rocks and boulders. Along the frigid, ice-clogged coastline of the Bering Sea. And while she admits that competing in the race was one of the most difficult things she’s ever done, Braverman says that her dogs – who were literally jumping for joy at the race’s starting line – loved every minute of it.
“They were wonderful,” she says. “They really came together as a team.”
Braverman lives in a tiny Northwoods town with her husband and about 20 energetic Alaskan huskies (not all of them made the Iditarod A-team). She’s been interested in mushing since she was a kid in California; she’d line up her stuffed animals and pretend that they were sled dogs.
After graduating from high school, Braverman waited a year to start college so that she could enroll in a Norwegian folk school north of the Arctic Circle. There she learned how to care for a team of sled dogs, and how to survive in punishing, subzero conditions.
It was a lesson that served her well in the Iditarod. “Day and night became meaningless,” she says, explaining that she and her dogs rested just long enough to recharge for the next leg of the race. They typically ran for about 40 or 50 miles at a time. Then she’d feed them (they can each burn 10,000 calories a day or more while on the trail), massage their sore muscles and let them sleep while she tried to catch a little shuteye herself, often alongside them in the snow.
While navigating one of the most technically difficult sections – a sudden descent into a narrow gorge where teams must zig and zag across bridges of ice that span open water – Braverman lost her balance on a patch of glare ice. Her sled skittered sideways, and she and her team started sliding toward a hole in the ice large enough to swallow at least part of her sled.
Fortunately her lead dog, Pepé, knew just what to do. She threw her weight against her harness and bought Braverman enough time to scramble to her feet. “She’s a genius,” Braverman says. “It feels like she’s another human managing the team.”
After 13 days, 19 hours and 17 minutes on the trail, Braverman, Pepé and the rest of the team crossed the Iditarod’s finish line, cold and tired but otherwise happy. “It was amazing,” she says. “It was surreal seeing these dogs that I love have the confidence to tackle the trail.”
Braverman won’t be entering the race again this year. But she still spends several hours outside with her dogs each day. And her husband, Quince Mountain, will be competing instead.
Both writers, Mountain and Braverman met at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Mountain was a horseback rider who admired Braverman’s adventurous spirit. Braverman appreciated the tenderness with which Mountain treated his horse. And when they graduated, they moved together to Mountain – a town in northeastern Wisconsin’s Oconto County that, yes, shares his name.
“We turn heads,” Mountain (the man) says with a chuckle, explaining that most of the roughly 800 people in Mountain know who they are and are now used to seeing them racing around town with their dogs. Each year they give at least 100 local kids rides on their sleds.
Mountain wasn’t initially as interested in mushing as Braverman. But he loved his wife, whom he describes as his best friend, and decided to try to get into the sport so that the two of them could spend more time together. Soon he was hooked, too.
When asked what makes mushing so appealing, he thinks for a moment before describing the jumble of emotions that he feels at the beginning of a big race. “The dogs are howling at the start because they’re so excited,” he says. “Then it all goes silent and you just hear their breathing and the wind through the trees.”
He and Braverman have seen wolves on their runs. Caribou too. But they live for the quiet moments on the trail when they’re alone with their dogs and their thoughts, and everything feels right with the world.
When they aren’t on their sleds, Braverman and Mountain can often be found at their computers, writing. Braverman’s memoir, Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube, has received both critical and commercial success. Mountain is working on a memoir of his own and has written for The New York Times.
One of the best-known sled dog races in the Midwest is taking place in Wisconsin this month.
The Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race: Feb. 1-2 in Bayfield
The first major competition that Braverman entered, this event is made up of several races varying in length from 6 to 80 miles. Visitors who come to cheer on the mushers can also sign up to eat dinner with them (lasagna Saturday evening and tacos Sunday night). And “voluntourist” packages are available to purchase, too.