With the Iditarod just around the corner, mushers are making final preparations with their dogs. Finding the right dogs for the job begins months, sometimes years before the race. KSKA reporter Daysha Eaton visits with a woman who has had 15 top-10 finishes in the race, DeeDee Jonrowe and her team to learn what makes a good leader.
It’s the perfect place to raise sled dogs – in the woods, about an hour and half North of Anchorage, just outside the tiny town of Willow. That’s where musher DeeDee Jonrowe breeds, trains and lives with her dogs – all 80 of them.
Jonrowe is one of the foremost female mushers competing in the Iditarod. Her career spans three decades. This will be her 30th Iditarod race. She says her dogs have had a lot to do with her success. Every dog is important, she says, but it is critical to have a good leader.
“Good Leaders pick themselves. They’re the ones that see the task at hand, take to it … they want to please but they have that independence,” Jonrowe said.
This year her lead dog is Omnistar.
“Omnistar is an Alaskan Husky. He weighs between 49 and 52 Pounds and this will be his sixth Iditarod – he’s 8 years old,” Jonrowe said.
The lanky husky the color of creme brulee is named after a Pokemon character, along with the rest of his litter. He’s a far cry from a classic Husky.
“He’s got beautiful brown eyes. And his ears, one stands up kinda straight and the other kinda folds over a little bit. His legs are long, his back is long. He’s almost dear-like,” Jonrowe said.
He’s also quieter than the other dogs – rarely barks. And when he sees Jonrowe he delicately rests his front paws up onto her shoulders and hugs her, almost like a human.
“Very, very, very sweet,” she said.
But Jonrowe says he also has another side.
“He can be very, very, very much of a knot head. Which a leader has to be. A leader has to have a little bit of rebellion in them. A little bit of I’m doin’ it my way. If they don’t have that self esteem, that confidence, that, you know, I’m always right kind of a thing, it’s hard to get them to lead in difficult situations,” Jonrowe said.
Like when it’s icy or when they encounter another dog team, or a moose, or when the going just gets tough. It was a situation like that when Jonrowe first noticed Omnistar had potential to lead in the final stretch of an Iditarod several years back.
“We’d left Unalakleet and we were heading over to Shaktoolik and now we had less dogs that really sure what was going on. And he was pulling really hard in swing and then I moved him over to lead, to see if he would pull as strongly in lead and in fact he took to it really well,” Jonrowe said.
Six Iditarods later, Omnistar is set to lead Jonrowe’s team to the 2012 finish. Something she says has to do with breeding and luck.
“Yeah, I’ve been working on it a long time. And I think this is a gorgeous team, just beautiful. Now we’ll have to see what the racetrack gives us,” Jonrowe said.
Now it’s time to exercise the dogs and Jonrowe gets out the booties.
“Omnistar — come here budy … that’s my boy … get your boots on,” she said.
She pulls on the harnesses and starts hooking them up. She puts Omnistar in lead. He sits patiently while Jonrowe connects the rest of the team. The other dogs can’t stay still – they’re pacing and pulling, yelping and whining – their barking reaches a fever pitch until it’s time to go. The team quiets down and they follow Omnistar down the trail.