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The Yukon Quest may be the toughest dog sled race ever run.

“It goes from Alaska into Canada over three mountain ranges,” said Muleshoe resident and musher Darwin McLeod. “The toughest part is the American Summit out of Fairbanks into Canada. It’s a steep, steep rough mountain, and the backside is seven miles, almost straight down.

“I had to stand on my claw brake, fully braked, to keep from running over my sled dogs.”

Born in Florence, Texas, McLeod, known to his friends as Mac, grew up in the Muleshoe area, attending schools in Lazbuddie and Springlake before graduating from Texico.

Like many young men, McLeod moved to Alaska seeking fame and fortune. He and his brother worked in the oil fields in the winter and on commercial fishing boats in the summer.

“The pay was good,” he said. “There always seemed to be a shortage of hands, so we all had good jobs. Once people know of you, once you establish a reputation for being a good hand, you’ve always got work.”

McLeod’s interest in sled dog racing was immediate.

“I flew up in 1968 and landed in Anchorage in January. They were running the Fur Rondi (Fur Rendezvous) on Front Street in Anchorage,” he said.

In 1986, McLeod’s wife Patricia Marie developed cancer, and he took time off from working to care for her.

“During that time Dean Osmer – he won the 1984 Iditarod – asked me if I’d be interested in running a team of puppies. He brought over some old leaders off the Iditarod team with six pups that had run just a little bit.”

The popular image of a sled dog is that of a husky, but the breeding is more complex than that.

“At turn of the century, people would steal dogs and ship them to Alaska to be used as pack animals. Alaska is full of multi-breed dogs that, through time, bred with the original huskies in Alaska,” McLeod said. “They came up with a dog between 38 to 60 pounds with that long-haired, husky look.

“Different mushers began to breed dogs with trotting quality for long distances, loping for short distances. For long distances, you’re looking for trotters and good eaters. You want them to eat well on long distances. You don’t want a picky eater.”

Iditarod teams are required to start with 12 to16 dogs. As the race progresses, dogs can be dropped and left at checkpoints along the race route.

“When I ran the Yukon Quest in 1990, you could only go with 12 dogs. You had to finish with eight, or you were disqualified,” McLeod said. “You need the strength of extra dogs in the mountains, and the larger dogs have the advantage there. The smaller dogs are actually faster as you get down on the ice and level ground. Your bigger team just doesn’t pull as uniform as a smaller team. You actually practice with eight dogs. Few people can handle 16 at the start.

“Actually taking care of the dogs is a big responsibility. You feel better once the team drops down. You’re picking out dogs that are starting to cut their feet, that are not eating well, not producing. Smaller dogs can speed up where it’s more uniform on the ice.”

Race officials try to keep the tracks open, but extreme weather conditions can affect the racers and their teams.

“Weather conditions can be extreme sometimes, and heavy snow can close the trail on you. Snow

machiners try to keep the trail open, but you can get in trouble with deep snow or a really wet, sloppy trail,” McLeod said. “So, where your dogs really work the trail, you’ll use different leaders under different conditions. On really hard, icy deals, you have to have boots on your dogs, or they’ll cut their feet. It’s mandatory to have booties on your sled, enough for all your dogs. It’s the musher’s priority to take care of the dogs in every aspect of it.”

Caring for the dogs, the sled and the musher requires a number of supplies, which McLeod’s friend Osmer helped him organize.

“You need head lamps, dog booties, food for yourself and food for the dogs. You pack several kinds of meat including beaver, horse, hamburger, wienies, fish, chicken liver, anything to keep the dogs fed well. You ship all of that in. Extra batteries, extra socks, extra head lamps, you name it, it was covered,” McLeod said.

Beyond icy temperatures and beautiful scenery, Alaska is known as a habitat for wildlife. Moose, especially, can be a problem on the trail.

“The guy that’s winning the Iditarod right now, had to shoot a moose on the second day of race this year,” McLeod said. “Susan Butcher got entangled with a moose in a dog team and had to drop out of the race. Animals on the trail will raise havoc with your teams.”

According to online reports, after shooting the moose, Dallas Seavey gutted it out and continued the race. His dog Faloo was critically injured, hospitalized and is now recovering at home. Seavey was penalized for improperly gutting the moose, but went on to win the race anyway. Susan Butcher was the second woman to win the Iditarod.

During the off-season, mushers and dogs train like any athletes.

“We used to pull a four-wheeler in sand on the beach to strengthen our dogs,” McLeod said. “For the guys that race now, it’s year-round training.”

Although he lives in Muleshoe, McLeod keeps up with the Iditarod.

“I check the race standings at the Muleshoe Library,” he said. “They’re great, a good bunch of ladies. Every year when the Iditarod is run they start the computer up for me.”

McLeod placed 22nd in the Iditarod in 1988 and 7th in the Yukon Quest in 1990. He recently spoke to patrons and showed some of his memorabilia at the library.

Now 80, McLeod was in his 40s when he competed in dog sled races. He acknowledges that he has always been a competitive person, participating in several sports back in his high school days.

“The Iditarod was right down my alley. I miss not racing dogs, but I’m blessed in the fact that I did get to do it. It seems like yesterday.”

Gail M. Williams

Muleshoe Journal Correspondent

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