Hundreds of sled dogs are running across Alaska this week as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race plays out over 1,000 miles from Willow to Nome.
While the teams race to the finish line, we’re featuring a sled dog a day on our Iditapod podcast. (Subscribe here to catch the latest episodes, and to hear stories about the dogs from the mushers themselves.)
You can also meet Forrest, Sarah Jane, Sparky, Jeep, Juke, Morrow, Mask, Dodge, Kiwi, Emmit and Tempest below. And check back soon for even more dogs.
Forrest, a very hard worker
Forrest is a 5-year-old team dog with Monica Zappa. A team dog basically means Forrest doesn’t run in the front or in the back. He’s in the middle. Zappa, of Kasilof, said Forrest always wants to run — it doesn’t matter the place or the time.
“He’s a solid, hard-pulling dog. His first year was the year I had to scratch, and he was the only one, when we were sitting out on the ice outside of Shaktoolik, that just would not lay down for like five hours,” Zappa said about the 2017 Iditarod. “He always wants to go.”
Sarah Jane, the queen of the dog yard
Sarah Jane is a 5-year-old lead dog on Meredith Mapes’ team, and she’s the queen. Mapes, of Palmer, said Sarah Jane always rides in the cab of her pickup truck and sleeps in her bed. In the morning, she runs out to the dog yard to check on her teammates. She can be a bit bossy.
“She’s very commanding,” Mapes said. “She knows that she’s the queen of the dog yard. So if somebody is doing something that she doesn’t like, she yells at them for stepping out of line and things like that.”
Sparky, the sensitive soul
His real name is Sparky, but he actually goes by Sparky Dooh Dah, and he’s a 6-year-old lead dog on Aliy Zirkle’s team. His parents are Nacho and Olivia. Zirkle, of Two Rivers, said Sparky Dooh Dah needs a lot of attention.
“He definitely needs TLC,” Zirkle said. “Just like people, there’s the hardcore kind of guy football player who’s just like, ‘Ugh. Just leave me alone, I’ll do it.’ And we’ve got a couple of them. But I would have to say Sparky is not that. Sparky needs like, ‘Hey, Sparky. How are you doing? Good boy. Do you need a little massage? Is it OK?’ And then he works perfectly.”
Jeep, a high-energy leader with sentimental roots
Jeep is a 6-year-old sled dog. At exactly 59 pounds, he’s the heaviest dog on Brent Sass’ team. Sass said he has a special connection to Jeep. Jeep belonged to Joee Redington Jr., a sprint musher and a mentor who died in 2017.
“He loved this dog Jeep. And he always told me that, ‘This dog can run a distance race. I’m confident that he has the head to do it,’” said Sass, of Eureka. “But, he’s like, ‘Oh, you’re never going to get the chance because he’s my favorite dog.’ But after Joee passed away, I had the opportunity to buy Jeep.”
Jeep has been a staple in Sass’ team ever since. He led the team to victory in the 2019 Yukon Quest. Sass said it’s a testament to Redington and the sense he had about dogs. He described Jeep as a high-energy, fun-loving and positive sled dog.
Juke, the life of the party
Juke is Karin Hendrickson’s loudest, biggest and most excitable dog. He’s the life of the party and he never seems to get tired, Hendrickson said, as Juke jumped on her truck at the Iditarod ceremonial start.
Hendrickson, of Wasilla, would like Juke to step up and lead the team more. But, she said, she also has to keep telling him who’s boss.
“He’s a 2-year-old male so he thinks he’s the toughest dog around, and I have to keep reminding him that I’m the toughest dog around,” she said.
Morrow, the superstar
Morrow is an 8-year-old superstar. Morrow led her team and her musher, Pete Kaiser, to victory in the 2019 Iditarod. Kaiser described Morrow as a “late bloomer” who didn’t hit her stride until she got older. Now, she’s top dog, said Kaiser, of Bethel.
“She sure has blossomed into a cool dog, and she just has funny personality quirks,” he said. “It’s fun to travel down the trail with her again.”
Mask, the teacher’s pet
Mask has raced the Iditarod every years since she was a year old, said Willow musher Wade Marrs. Now, she’s nine, and the oldest dog on Marrs’ team. This might be her final trip to Nome before she retires, Marrs said. But she already has another gig lined up: Professional school visitor.
“She loves to go to schools and visit with kids,” Marrs said. “She’ll let a whole entire assembly full of kids pet her and play with her and when the last one leaves she gets really angry and starts barking like, ‘Where did they all go?’ So she’s she’s a really cool dog to have, and I’m excited to take her again this year on Iditarod.”
Dodge, the focused knucklehead
Dodge is a 6-year-old dog who’s kind of a knucklehead and a little bit obnoxious, but also very happy, according to Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the 2018 Iditarod champion who’s from Norway and lives in Willow. Dodge is always looking for something to get into, Leifseth Ulsom said. He’s also always moving. But when Dodge decides to focus on something, he really, really focuses. That makes him a good leader — at least when his mind is on racing.
“If we’re running, that’s all he’s thinking about. And if he can hear kibble in the food bucket, that’s all he can think about,” Leifseth Ulsom said. “So he’s kind of one-track, but he’s a really cool dog.”
Kiwi, the goofball who randomly freaks out
Kiwi is a 4-year-old goofball on rookie Iditarod musher Quince Mountain’s team. Kiwi is usually in wheel — the dog position closest to the sled. He’s a big, shaggy, weird and wonderful dog, said Mountain, from Wisconsin.
Kiwi is also a dog who occasionally freaks out, Mountain said, comparing him to a horse that might randomly spook at a mailbox.
“Or something random that you could have passed a hundred times, but if the wind blows, suddenly you’re flying out of the saddle and the horse jumps 7 feet or you’re grabbing the horn trying to hang on,” Mountain said. “And that’s how Kiwi is, and I’ve never seen a dog like that.”
For Kiwi, it’s chunks of snow that can be suddenly startling.
Emmit and Tempest, the insane duo
Emmit (above) and Tempest (below) are 3 years old and 2 years old, respectively, and their musher, Jessie Holmes, described them both as “nuts.”
“They’re insane. So putting them in lead in the right place, when it’s time to make a move, is going to be critical,” Holmes said. “Once they get on the trail, they’re barking and screaming and yelling at everything, trying to drive the team harder.”
The two dogs look very similar, with almost entirely black coats, but if you look closely, you can see that Emmit has blue eyes and Tempest has brown eyes.
KNOM’s Ben Matheson and Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove and Zachariah Hughes contributed reporting to this story.