It was below zero outside Pinedale, Wyo., and Rachael Scdoris had spent the night burrowed in her sleeping bag after tending to her 10 Alaskan Huskies. Up before dawn, she readied the dogs for the next leg of the 12-day, 442-mile sled dog race known as the International Pedigree Stage Stop. When the 16-year-old from Alfalfa, Ore., (pop. 250) finally crossed the finish line 19th out of 22 racers, she became the youngest musher (dogsled pilot) to have competed in the grueling event. More remarkable still, Scdoris is legally blind.
Born with congenital achromatopia (color blindness), Scdoris has less than 20/200 vision and can’t see at all in bright light. She relies on instinct and extremely limited sight to sense problems.
“If a dog isn’t pulling in the traces, I can feel something in the tension that isn’t right,” says Scdoris, who helps care for and train the 90 dogs that belong to her father’s sled dog tour company, Oregon Trail of Dreams, in central Oregon. “Besides, I know each individual dog like a parent would know a child.”
Jerry Scdoris nurtured his daughter’s early love for mushing by strapping her in a backpack in his sled when she was 18 months old. At 8, her father let her try a foolproof trail with his oldest, most experienced dogs. “She must have run that trail a hundred times,” he says.
Three years later, Scdoris placed fourth in her first sled race. She returned the next year and won.
Mushing dogsled teams isn’t Scdoris’ only talent. To get in shape for sledding, Scdoris became a runner. “I hated track at first, but by my freshman year it became my passion,” she says. Now ranked third nationally in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters by the United States Association of Blind Athletes, Scdoris has her sights set on the 2004 Paralympics.
She also dreams of racing in the famed 1,150-mile Iditarod in Alaska in 2003, when she turns 18. To help her gain experience, Dan MacEachen volunteered to ride a snowmobile in front of Scdoris. MacEachen is a veteran of seven Iditarods and owns the Krabloonik Restaurant and sled dog tour company in Snowmass Village, Colo. He met Scdoris in 1997 when her father ran the Stage Stop race.
“He would say, ‘There’s a switchback to your right 100 yards ahead,’” says Scdoris, who jokes that she also had 16 seeing-eye dogs. The fact is Scdoris was their trail guide, relying on MacEachen’s two-way radio communication to navigate 10,000-foot mountain passes and tricky turns.
“I would go ahead to coach her through a trouble spot and be there to catch her dogs if they got loose, but that never happened,” says MacEachen. “I didn’t do anything for her physically. I was there for insurance in case she had a problem.”
Rattling over an icy track and careening across Wyoming meadows at speeds up to 22 miles per hour during the Stage Stop race, Scdoris proved her mettle. Her brake broke during the 58-mile run from Dubois to the Elk Ridge Lodge, and her sled flipped several times. She untangled the harnesses and pushed on. Forced to run with broken equipment the next day, Scdoris forged ahead.
“She accepts the fact that she can’t see well as a challenge, not an excuse or something that can stop her,” says her father, a survivor of polio.
Scdoris admits to being “scared out of my mind before the (Stage Stop) race.” Once it started, she relaxed; halfway through, she celebrated her 16th birthday. When she mushed into Lander, Wyo., all the elementary school kids were there lining the street, singing Happy Birthday to her.
The next step for Scdoris is running the 150-mile Junior Iditarod near Anchorage, Alaska. MacEachen would be honored to mentor her again.
“I admire her,” he says. “She might only be 16, but she is one of my heroes in life. I think she has accomplished a lot more than I have.”