Kodiak Island may be more than a thousand miles from Nome, where Iditarod mushers will cross the finish line, but the island does have a connection to the 900-odd mile sled dog race.
Dave Allen ran the Iditarod with a 20-dog team back in 1991. That’s the same year he moved to Kodiak Island, where he’s lived ever since. He has a lot of memories from that race, but one sticks out above the rest.
“You can’t be afraid of the cold,” he said. “You’ve got to be operating in the cold. You have to put dog booties on in the cold.”
And Allen’s race was especially cold. Mushers battled through white-out blizzards for days on end and temperatures hovered around negative 40 degrees. On the section of trail known as the Happy River Steps that switchback down an icy, narrow track, Allen came across a fellow musher. Her sled had rolled and she was bloodied and bruised and her nose was crooked.
“I said, ‘It looks like you have a broken nose.’ And she just said, ‘I’ll just have a vet look at it at the next checkpoint.’ What a tough gal,” said Allen.
Allen’s wife, Jolene, had given him a radio at one of the earlier checkpoints. He hunkered down in his tent while a blizzard roared around him, listening through static as veteran musher Rick Swenson crossed the finish line. Swenson won that year’s race, and Allen passed through the Burled Arch four days later, finishing 30th.
“When I pulled into Nome I was met with Jolene and my little girl about a mile and a half from the finish line,” he said. “My little girl, Tianna, wanted to ride with me. So, she rode with me for the last mile and a half or so.”
Allen got hooked on mushing a few years before that. He and his wife landed in the village of Teller – about 70 miles north of Nome – in the 80s. They were new college graduates with teaching jobs in the Bering Strait School District. That’s where he met mushers Joe Garnie and Libby Riddles. Garnie had already run the Iditarod nearly 10 times by 1990 and had a handful of top 10 finishes, and Riddles was the first woman to win the race in 1985.
“In that environment I learned a lot about dogs, a lot about mushing dogs,” he said. “And every Saturday morning I was invited down to have some sourdough pancakes with Joe and Libby and I learned more about dogs and they sucked me in. I didn’t have a prayer.”
Garnie took Allen under his wing. And as a former Division I All-American wrestler in college – he couldn’t get enough of running sleds. He won the Knik 200 back in 1991 when it was still a qualifier for the Iditarod – and set a course record in the process. That was a sprint race though, and enduring the 1,000-plus miles to Nome was a different kind of sufferfest.
“I was nursing a sick dog team probably two thirds of the race, and I had a dog with a pretty cut foot, and it was a lead dog,” he said “So, it was a pretty important individual, that’s like your quarterback. We had to drop her I think in Koyuk. She made it that far in the blizzard.”
It was Allen’s last race, but it wasn’t the end of his days working with a team. He coached the Kodiak High School girls’ softball team to a state championship in 2008. His daughter, the same one who rode to the finish on the back of his sled in Nome, was the pitcher. There’s overlap between the experiences, said Allen, remembering advice a mentor gave him back when he first started running sled dogs.
“He taught me, ‘Dave, you’re working with your dogs, they do not pull from the head. They do not pull from the fear of you. They pull from the heart, they gotta love you,'” he said. “And that’s almost with everything. You don’t shout down a person to build them up.”
Allen works a lot of nights as a truck driver now, and says he doesn’t get to keep up much with the race. Dallas Seavey could become the winningest musher of all time if he makes it to Nome first this year, passing Rick Swenson’s record of five wins. Allen said he wishes the best for him and the other mushers. Running the race once was a privilege, according to Allen, but he’s glad he won’t need to listen for this year’s results through the crackle of a radio from the course.