Sled Dog Girl
A cacophony of 100 barking sled dogs is the first thing you hear when you approach Cali King's '07 Alaskan home.
The spacious cabin, hand built by her Iditarod champion dad, Jeff King, is nestled in the woods a mile off the highway, a stone's throw from Denali National Park. In the summer, the home's big windows look out onto a lake. Today, in late March when the temperature stubbornly refuses to climb above six degrees Fahrenheit, the lake is completely frozen and covered by a blanket of snow. Out here in the Alaskan bush is where Cali grew up to become a sled dog girl.
In the dog yard, dozens of barking dogs dance in a circle on the hard pack snow around their wooden houses. For warmth, the boxy dog shelters are raised off the ground. Each dog is tethered to a lead that allows the animal to move 360 degrees around the structure, leap onto its top or go inside.
Two sleds are anchored in the snow, tow lines strung out in front awaiting dogs. Jeff, who has just returned from placing second in the Iditarod, the Indy 500 of dogsled racing, scans the dogs in the yard. He calls out, "Get Conan and Alberta. Take Jersey."
Cali and her younger sister, Tessa, scramble to retrieve each chosen dog and hook it, two abreast to one of the sleds. The girls are dressed in thick boots and fur-lined parkas with the name Cabela, one of their major sponsors, emblazoned on the front. They move with sureness and practiced efficiency. Handling these canine marathon runners is some-thing they've grown up with.
As the spots along the tow lines are filled, the barking, jumping and lunging increases, each dog begging to be selected. These are Alaskan sled dogs and there's nothing they like more than running sleds.
Two lines of dogs stand ready in front of each sled. Jeff conducts a quick assessment of his daughters' work, checking the lines and ruffing each dog's head and neck as he passes. Satisfied, he steps behind the lead sled and calls out, "Ready?"
Tessa pulls the parka hood over her head and steps onto the second sled's runners. With a smooth motion, Jeff releases the claw-like anchor and the dogs sprint off. Following close behind, Tessa's sled careens out of the yard. As she disappears around a sharp bend, the howling begins. First one dog, then all join in a mournful chorus.
"They're sending them off," Cali says, grinning. "It's their way of saying goodbye."
She should know. Cali's an expert in Alaskan sled dog behavior. Before she could even walk, she was cuddling and playing with sled dogs. Each summer, she and Tessa name and raise about 30 puppies. "There are pictures of us when we're just a couple of years old with the puppies," she says. "The dogs are all pretty friendly. They should be after putting up with being dressed in our doll clothes all summer long."
The breed is Alaskan husky - small, lean long-distance athletes who have happy dispositions and few health problems. "The AKC doesn't recognize Alaskan huskies because they all look different, but they're not a mixed breed," explains Cali. In the summer, she leads tours around the King's kennel and gives talks to tourists interested in the sport of dog sled racing. "Alaskan sled dogs are not mutts, but they can look like border collies, Siberian huskies or German shepherds. Because they're not inbred like purebreds, they don't have problems like hip dysplasia, weeping eyes or hot spots."
Cali loves the dogs and says working with them has taught her how to live. "The dogs are really happy," she says. "They get along with their neighbors. They're resilient and they have a passion. They're great examples for anyone."
It wasn't until she was a high school sophomore that she became interested in sled dog racing. Cali attended Tri-Valley School, a K-12 school with about 200 students, located 20 miles from her home in the small community of Healy. She'd participated in gymnastics, basketball, soccer, volleyball and dance before she decided to give sled racing a try. "Being 5'3", I couldn't really be a basketball or volleyball star and dance wasn't competitive," she says. "I was at a plateau as an athlete so I decided to take advantage of our excellent dogs and my dad's racing knowledge to enter the Junior Iditarod."
The race is a two-day, mini-version of the original Iditarod Race that traces the historic Anchorage to Nome route used to deliver vaccine that saved hundreds of people from an epidemic. Open to teens 14-17 years old, the Junior Iditarod is approximately 170 miles and follows the Iditarod Trail route from Wasilla to Yenta, the first checkpoint, and back.
During the first day, Cali ran the dogs seven hours and then rested the mandatory 10 hours at the checkpoint. On her return trip, she left at 2:00 a.m., mushing through the darkness to come in seven hours later at the finish. Although it was her first Junior Iditarod, she came in second by a mere 34 seconds. In addition to promotional prizes like hats and lanterns donated by local businesses, she earned a $2,500 scholarship for her effort.
In her senior year in high school, Cali set her sights on the grueling 1,100-mile Iditarod. Unlike the two-day junior version, this race can take mushers up to 15 days through some of the harshest conditions in Alaska. Once she turned 18, she had to run at least 500 miles of qualifying races sanctioned by the Iditarod Board. In one month, she raced in two 300-milers to qualify.
That kind of performance is typical of Cali. She possesses the essential characteristic of successful sled dog racers - determination. "Once I decided I was going to race, I was going to do it," she says. "I knew if I started the race, I'd finish it."
Following a race-rest schedule she worked out with her dad, Cali and 15 dogs raced through the Alaskan bush from Fairbanks to Nome. (Snow was scarce so the start of the race was moved from Anchorage to Fairbanks.) Because sun reflecting off the snow can overheat the dogs, she often ran at night. "Darkness doesn't stop dog mushing," she says. "Most of the top Iditarod mushers run at night because their dogs run better in colder temperatures."
At the 22 Alaskan village checkpoints, she bedded her team down on straw and slept on the floor of churches or community halls. "I've learned to sleep anywhere," she says, laughing at the memory. "You don't get your own quiet little room. People are milling around, going about their business, eating and talking all around you."
A couple of times during the race, she slept outdoors alone in the bush. She says she wasn't afraid. "I wasn't really alone with 15 dogs," she says. To ensure she'd wake on schedule, she tucked a small alarm clock inside her parka's hood. "You take your boots off and sleep fully clothed on the sled. It's very comfortable."
The excellent conditioning of her dogs and her own ability to read the dogs' moods and needs served her well. She came in 32 out of 65 mushers who finished. More than a third of those who started didn't finish the race. Among rookies who finished, she came in second.
Cali says completing the Iditarod made her more prepared for Willamette. "Mushing teaches you to be serious about what you're doing and you have to be serious about academics at Willamette," she says. "In the dog mushing world, you have to be able to go to people for advice and help. It's one of the great things about Willamette - you can go to your professors and classmates for help."
It has also made her a true sled dog girl. "I'm more independent," she says. "And I'm more comfortable being by myself now."