The granddaddy of all sled dog races kicks off in Fairbanks this coming weekend. What? Are they re-doing the Iditarod? No: it is the 69th running of the Open North American Sled Dog Race. This race is the oldest continuously run sled dog race in the world. Andy Kokrine won the first one in 1946 and this years' Rondy champ, Arleigh Reynolds, took home the ONAC trophy last year. This race is viewed by many as the toughest three days on the sprint circuit.
There is a good reason for this. The North American features a couple of 20-mile heats, followed by a run on the third day of nearly 30 miles. This is a significant difference for a dog. He will now be asked to continue his wide-open pace for half-again as far as he did on the previous two days. If you are a dog, you don't know that.
"How far?'" says the dog. "Trust me," his driver says.
The dog has believed Egil Ellis more often than anyone else. Ellis has won the ONAC 12 times. George Attla also convinced his teams to believe; he won eight times over three decades.
When most folks think of racing sled dogs, they think of the Iditarod. However, the Iditarod is a relative newcomer to the racing scene. The first sled dog race with codified rules was the 1907 All-Alaskan Sweepstakes.
Sprint races are much faster today. A winning time on a course of 25 miles would be in the neighborhood of 80 minutes, instead of the 2¼ hours it took at Lake Placid. Today's dogs are different. They look more like greyhounds than traditional huskies. Indeed, they have a very strong pointer influence.
What we think of as traditional huskies, such as one sees on the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, are a far different dog than those of decades past. No longer is the heavily furred dog that curled up comfortably outdoors during a January in Fairbanks in demand. Dogs with heavy coats and big bodies get too hot to maintain the speeds necessary in today's competition. If you have a good sprint team, you will have a lot of housedogs or you need a good dog barn.
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