Iditarod History: Legendary lead dogs of the Iditarod

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When the Iditarod sled dog teams leave the starting line in Anchorage, they pass by a statue honoring brave sled dogs and mushers, including of the most famous sled dog of them all, Balto, the lead dog of the team that ran the final leg of the famous Serum Run in 1925, that delivered life-saving medicine to the children of Nome in 1925.

Photos courtesy Jeff Schultz

Through the years of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race, other lead dogs have built their own legends.

During his 38 years on the trail, photographer Jeff Schultz has captured thousands of images of those famous lead dogs, and their mushers.

"The mushers have just an unbelievable bond with their dogs, and to me it's just amazing how much they know about these animals" Schultz said. "It's one thing for me to know about my two kids and their birthdays and stuff, but when you start talking to these mushers and they not only know who that dog is, and when it was born and where it was born, they for sure know the blood line of the dog and they know, 'You know, it used to run swing in Joe Blow's team five years ago, but now I've got it running lead and it's doing much better, its personality changed a little bit,' and they know everything about these dogs. It's incredible how much they know."

As he showed us a photo on his computer screen of Iditarod champion Lance Mackey and his lead dog Larry, Schultz said, "you can just see it on his face, how much emotion he has not only for winning but for that dog...both of them."

Larry raced in 10 Iditarods and Yukon Quests, winning seven. On the winner's podium in 2007, with Larry by his side, Mackey said "Larry is six years old. He's done eight 1,000-mile races in six years and still going strong. I owe it to them."

It's a bond that former Channel 2 sports director John Carpenter saw during his many years on the trail covering the race. "It's almost like they consciously know what their musher is thinking, what drives their musher to be the best and to win. So that drives the dog," Carpenter said.

Four-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser shared a similar bond with his famous lead dog, D2, which stood for Dagger II., the leader of Buser's winning team in 1992 and 1994. "D2 would quietly make up the gap between the team in front of him, and then at the heels, literally at the heels of the musher that was about to be passed he started vigorously barking" Buser said during a recent interview at his kennel. "He would snap up his tail and his hackles would go up, and that inspired the other dogs, his litter-mates, to do the same thing and they would put it in overdrive. And he didn't want to be near that team so he would go out in the deep snow and he'd pass and he'd be kinda trash talking the other dogs as he's going by," Buser said with a grin.

Andy, musher Rick Swenson's lead dog in four Iditarod championships, had a similar disdain for being behind any other team. "So, if Andy saw a team in front of him, he would pick up the pace just enough to pass that team, maybe in five miles or eight miles or two miles or whatever," said Schultz.

The bond between Swenson and Andy was so strong, Swenson named one of his children after his lead dog. "To me, it was just amazing and humorous that Rick named his son after his lead dog. You usually have people naming things after their children, but in this case it was the opposite. That to me that underscores that deep, deep bond," said John Carpenter.

After Andy's death, just a few days short of his 20th birthday, Swenson had Andy mounted, and this legendary lead dog is on display at the Iditarod Museum in Wasilla.

Another lasting tribute to the bond between musher and lead dog is a children's book about Granite, Susan Butcher's lead dog.

Butcher began writing the book about the skinny but scrappy puppy that led her team to three-straight Iditarod wins, but she died in 2006 from leukemia before it was finished. Her husband, Dave Monson, finished writing their story after Butcher passed away. "His litter-mates pushed him around," Monson said in an interview with Channel 2 news in 2007, "but Susan had great confidence in him, because she saw kind of a spark in him."

It's that kind of spark that has forever placed the names of these, and other power-house lead dogs, into Iditarod history.

John Carpenter summed it up this way: "They are the generational athletes of the Iditarod. They're not just great athletes-- they're super athletes with a super heart."

2007 Iditarod champion Lance Mackey and his lead dog "Larry" with champion roses around his neck at the Nome awards banquet. (photo courtesy Jeff Schultz)

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