Glenwood musher heads north to Alaska
Sled dogs know not only their own names, but the names of teammates in front, in back and beside them.
“If I say `Good dog’ to one, the one next to it will generally turn around, look at me and sort of say `What about me?'” said long-distance sled dog racer Bill Pinkham.
Pinkham, and his 39 sled dogs, live on a hillside above Dry Park Road, approximately five miles southwest of Glenwood Springs. The 44-year-old New Jersey native has been a sled dog racer since 1999, and in late February he’ll load up 19 of his best dogs and head to Alaska to compete in the world’s best-known sled dog race – the 1,000-mile Iditarod.
“The Iditarod is the ultimate,” Pinkham said, as he fed his barking dogs Monday afternoon. “It’s the best-known race, and something you need to accomplish. I have to say I’ve done it.”
Pinkham’s two-story log home is surrounded on two sides by dozens of Alaskan huskies he has staked among pinon juniper trees, and in pens.
As he dispensed the chow, Pinkham made his way up and down the hillside, in and out of circles where the dogs’ leashes have rubbed the ground to dirt.
Kneeling down, Pinkham petted Snowy, one of his favorite dogs. “He used to be a leader, but now he’s getting a little slow. Your fastest dogs are your leaders,” Pinkham explained.
After the dogs were fed and they started to settle down, Pinkham headed inside the house to a kitchen table full of afternoon work, much of it pertaining to the Iditarod.
“I’ve got the times for all the racers for the past two years,” Pinkham said, as he picked up Iditarod papers and settled into his wooden chair. “I’m trying to work on a schedule. When I’m going to be where, how long I’ll rest. The clearer it is in your head, the easier it is for you,” he said.
Pinkham’s roomy house looks down on Dry Park Road and the surrounding valley. To the south he has views of Mount Sopris, and to the north there are the Flat Tops. His nearest neighbor is more than a mile away, near the intersection of Dry Park Road and Four Mile Road. Lately, Pinkham has been wearing an Iditarod cap he got during an orientation session for rookie racers.
“It’s to make sure racers without experience don’t slip through,” said Pinkham, who has twice competed in the Yukon Quest (aka “The Other 1,000 Race”), plus five other multi-day events.
Iditarod contestants are allowed up to 16 dogs on their race teams. There are a variety of factors that determine which dogs make the cut and get to travel to Alaska, and which ones are left at home.
“It’s a lot of little things … who is keeping on weight … If you have a lot of female dogs you may want to drop one or two. … The older dogs might be showing their age, or the younger dogs might not be mature enough,” he said.
Workouts for Pinkham and his dogs started last summer, when he hooked them up to an ATV, and they pulled him up and down the sparsely traveled Dry Park Road, which leads to Carbondale. When the snows blanketed the Four Mile area north of his house, Pinkham got out his sled and started training runs. Lately, Pinkham has taken the dogs on 30-mile training runs, but this week he boosted that to 40 miles. Later, he’ll hit the Sunlight-Powderhorn trail for overnight stays at Electric Mountain Lodge and Alexander Lodge.
“Then we’ll run all the way home. … That’s 80 to 90 miles,” Pinkham said.
Alaskan huskies weigh on average 25 to 30 pounds. Top speed for the dogs is about 20 mph for short stretches, but they average 10 to 12 mph. Pinkham, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 200 pounds, usually rides the sled, but sometimes gets off and helps pull the rig up hills.
“The dogs appreciate it,” he said.
Pinkham is big for a musher, but his size isn’t unheard of. “Martin Boozer, the current champ, is big, so it can be done,” Pinkham said.
Pinkham has been involved with athletics his entire life. “I’m pretty competitive.” He ran track and played defensive back and receiver on his high school football team, and also played football in college. After moving to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1980, he played for the Gentlemen of Aspen rugby team. These days, Pinkham plays volleyball, rides his bike and practices yoga.
“After 20 years of rugby, and football before that, my body seized up and wasn’t working as well as I wished it would. … My body is much healthier now. Yoga rejuvenated me,” he said.
Last year’s Iditarod winner completed the 1,000-mile course, which runs from Nome to Anchorage, in just under eight days. It took the last racer 14 days to complete the course. The race is grueling, and competitors sleep outside with their dogs in sub-freezing weather.
Pinkham knows that no matter how well he prepares, there will be surprises. He’s already been through some fire and rain, however, in his two appearances in the 1,000 mile Yukon Quest.
“For me, the Iditarod isn’t a big deal at this point,” Pinkham said.
For one thing, the Yukon Quest is a month earlier than the Iditarod, which starts March 1. “So there’s less light, and it’s generally colder in the Quest,” he said.
The Quest checkpoints, where racers stock up on supplies, are every 100 to 200 miles, compared to the Iditarod where the longest distance between checkpoints is 90 miles. “That’s a big difference,” he said.
In the 2000 Yukon Quest, Pinkham was the second-fastest rookie, and the event went fairly smoothly, even though he realized he didn’t have much of a plan until he was 500 miles into the race.
Last year, the Quest was much tougher. “I had young dogs, and they were sick most of the time. One dog got injured early in the race, and the females were in heat. I was going through some personal stuff, and the dogs picked up on that. I was stopping and starting for 1,000 miles,” he said.
As Pinkham prepares for the 2003 Iditarod, he realizes there is only so much he can do because there are so few long-distance sled dog racers in Colorado with whom to train and share information. For example, his dogs aren’t accustomed to passing other teams, or being passed.
“There will be 84 teams in the Iditarod to pass, and who will be passing us,” he said. “It will be difficult for the younger dogs to get used to it.”
Without other local sled dog racers to learn from, Pinkham hooked up with veteran sled dog racer Ray Gordon, of Rock Springs, Wyo. “He’s 66 years old, and was looking for someone to share his knowledge with,” Pinkham said.
Iditarod racers are often asked the one-word question, “Why?” Aside from taking part in the world’s best-known sled dog race, for Pinkham the event is an opportunity to put himself “in a whole ‘nother world,” far removed from other people and outside issues.
“You don’t think about it (the world). I might call my mom from the halfway point, but you don’t want that contact. You’re enjoying it. You’re with your dogs. Everything else is left behind,” he said.
The isolation, and the physical drain of being dragged 100 miles a day on a sled, followed by freezing nights with as little as three hours sleep, can haunt competitors for years.
“It’s like soldiers coming out of a war, only on a smaller scale,” Pinkham said.
Pinkham knows one Iditarod competitor who still wakes up thinking he must feed his race dogs. “And it’s been years since he has run those races.”
Pinkham admits he has a lot to learn about sled dog racing, and he isn’t gunning for the Iditarod champ. A top-20 finish would be great.
“This is a learning year for me. I want to have a good race, but I’m looking forward to meeting new people, and enjoying it, and seeing new places.”
As for the future, Pinkham has a five-year plan. “I’ve got a young team. I want to do the Iditarod for five years to see how well I can do.”
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