Of all the adventure sports, activities and dreams, one of the most enduring is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. At 1,112 miles through the tundra of Alaska, featuring sleds pulled by specially trained Alaskan huskies, the race is as much about endurance as it is about time.
The Iditarod first ran to Nome in 1973, after two short races on part of the Iditarod Trail in 1967 and 1969. The idea of having a race over the Iditarod Trail was conceived by the late Dorothy G. Page, who was intrigued that so many settlers, miners, mail carriers, ministers and judges all used the Iditarod Trail to travel between the many small villages via dog teams. Since 1983, the race has started in downtown Anchorage. Run in early March, it generally takes between nine to 12 days to complete.
In the 2006 race, a rookie, who'd never even owned a dog, was a bushy-bearded redhead named Trent Herbst, who moved to the Wood River Valley late last summer. He is a fourth-grade teacher at The Community School in Sun Valley.
Herbst, 36, his wife, Candida, and their 3-year-old daughter, Kali, traveled a mighty distance before settling in the area. Born in Wisconsin, Herbst has always been a teacher and traveler. He taught at international schools in Argentina and the Dominican Republic, where he met his wife, an engineer. They then moved on to Germany and Switzerland, where his daughter was born.
After he taught in Switzerland for a couple of years, the family decided to take some time off.
"I'd always dreamed of doing the Iditarod," he said. "It's mind blowing when you start following it. I read 'Winter Dance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod' by Gary Paulson and I was sold. It's an hysterical story. That's kind of the inspiration."
Moving back to the Midwest, he became the dog handler and protege of Dr. Richard MacAuley, in Michigan's Upper West Peninsula, where dog sledding is a popular recreational sport. In 2005, he had progressed as a musher and was running the sled dogs and dreaming again about the Iditarod.
"He offered it to me if I kept training, so I trained his team and my team," Herbst said. "I ended up qualifying and he didn't. He paid for it all."
Fifty dogs were trained in Michigan, with 24 making the trip to Alaska where he trained for another two months, while also building a cabin near Homer out of recycled logs. The day before the race, he chose his final 16 dogs, 14 of which finished the race with him: Marmaduke, Thor, Kate, Gator, Gritz, John, Silky, Tweety, Salty, Scout, Dobie, Wager, Star and Piston. Generally, mushers finish with about eight dogs. "We didn't push the dogs, we ran it conservatively," he said.
Between Anchorage and Nome, there are 22 checkpoints, every 70 to 200 miles. Sometimes these are villages, while some are just a tent pitched in the wilderness. Mushers try to run four or five hours, Herbst said, then take a four-hour break, which is partly spent in taking care of the tired-out dogs. Mushers themselves only sleep a few hours at a time. He said preparing for the race is one of the hardest aspects, since you have to cut up the food for the dogs, and yourself, and must have it sent out with bush pilots to be dropped in advance at each site.
"It's warmer on the earlier part because you're inland and on one side of the mountain range. You need a different food for those days. After the second day, the temperatures get down to 55 below, but you're on the river, so it can be even cooler. It's the coldest I've ever been.
"You're pretty alone most of the time. You might see other mushers as you leave a check point and they're just leaving, but toward the end I was all alone."
The winner, Jeff King, finished four full days before Herbst. Out of the 91 racers who started, only 71 finished, with Herbst in a respectable 65th place.
After the race and the very palatable high, Herbst received a call from an old friend whom he taught with in Germany, Laura Kennedy. Now the head of The Community School elementary school, she suggested he come down to the lower 48 and consider teaching at The Community School.
"I thought I'd go back to teaching and climbing, but I'm bored," he laughed. Dogs are in his blood now. "I'm putting together 18 yearlings (pups) to train them this year. I plan to run it again next year."
His mentor, MacAuley, is still in the picture. "We're totally beginners. He started three years before me. He'll be racing the team I raced last year, and I'll take the pups and train them at a kennel I'm putting up in Fairfield. A friend in Alaska will come down to handle them here."
Herbst plans on entering the trainee pups in some races in Idaho this winter. He said the oldest in the lower 48 takes place at Priest Lake, in northern Idaho, and there are more in Wyoming and Montana.
As for living in Sun Valley, it's a big change from Upper Peninsula, where they had no electricity or running water and they'd run dogs all night long.
"Sun Valley is the perfect place," he said. "It's the happy medium. Candida will get the warm weather and I'll get snow. A friend said Idaho is the best kept secret for dogsledders."