March 13, 2013 update: Mitch Seavey, 53, today became the oldest musher to win the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. His son, Dallas, 26, who placed fourth, last year became the youngest musher to win the race. Here’s a story about the Seaveys, a three-generation dog-sledding dynasty.
Dallas Seavey, 23, walks into the kennel at the WildRide Sled Dog Rodeo in Anchorage, Alaska, and fastens a leash to one of his favorite teammates, Tater, a 3-year-old cinnamon-colored Alaskan husky that was born to run.
“He has a very good chance of running with me this year. He’s very young, but he’s an incredible athlete,” says Seavey, a third-generation musher who at age 18 became the youngest person to complete the 1,049-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
In Alaska, the Seavey family is synonymous with dogsledding. Dallas’ grandfather Dan raced in the inaugural Iditarod in 1973, and his father, Mitch, has competed 17 times in the grueling marathon from Anchorage to Nome, winning the acclaimed race in 2004.
On March 5, Mitch and Dallas are expected to hit the rugged, snow-covered Iditarod Trail again, in hopes that their athletic canines and dogged determination pull them across the finish line in nine days or less.
“I’m in it to win,” says Mitch, 51, who has helped raise and train 20 generations of the family’s sled dogs. “I find I can’t fully appreciate the Iditarod unless I’m in it to win.”
Dogsledding has been part of the Seaveys’ way of life since Dan and his wife, Shirley, moved in 1963 from Minnesota to Seward, Alaska (pop. 2,830), to pursue a job—and adventure—in the Last Frontier.
“We used the dogs to haul wood and water in the winter,” recalls Dan, 73, a retired high school teacher and wrestling coach.
“And to haul moose out of the woods,” adds Shirley, 71, explaining how her husband fed his family of five in the early days.
In 1973, Dan and a group of dedicated dogsledders helped Joe Redington Sr., the Father of the Iditarod, put their love of mushing to the test when they organized the first long-distance race from Anchorage to the frozen Bering Sea.
“Most people thought we wouldn’t get to Nome when we started out,” recalls Dan, noting that many people had forgotten that dogsleds had hauled freight, mail and prospectors to Alaska’s remote gold mining camps in the early 1900s.
Dan, who today is a member of the Iditarod Trail Committee, finished the first two Iditarod races, placing third and fifth, respectively, and when his son, Mitch, began competing in the sport, it was the beginning of the Seavey family’s dogsledding dynasty.
“I’ve literally lived in a dog pack since I was 4 or 5 years old, as have my kids,” says Mitch, who lives in Sterling, Alaska (pop. 4,705), with his wife, Janine, 52, and their sled dogs.
Three of Mitch’s four sons—Danny, 28, Tyrell, 26, and Dallas—have completed the Iditarod. In 2001, Danny joined his father and grandfather to become the first three-generation family to finish the celebrated race together, and Dallas’ wife, Jennifer, 23, ran the race in 2009. The youngest Seavey, 14-year-old Conway, will compete with the family’s sled dogs this winter, racing in the 160-mile Junior Iditarod.
When the Seaveys aren’t dogsledding, they’re sharing the sport with others interested in learning about—and experiencing—the mushing lifestyle.
Soon after the winter racing season is over, the Seaveys offer dogsled shows and tours. From May through September, the Seaveys and a 40-member staff keep 200 sled dogs conditioned by taking guests on rides across an alpine glacier near Girdwood, Alaska, and on wheeled-cart tours through the spruce forest in Seward. The family also offers kennel tours and a comedic, action-packed Iditarod-themed dinner show in Anchorage where the hardworking sled dogs and their cuddly pups are the main attraction.
“It didn’t occur to people that we could mush in the summertime,” says Mitch, noting that his father pioneered dogsled demonstrations at their home in Seward in the 1980s.
The Seaveys’ summer tours and shows provide the family with income to feed, care for and train their dogs; buy sleds, winter clothing and gear; transport the mushers and their 16-dog teams; and pay entrance fees to as many as 10 races each winter.
“It’s a perfect fit,” says Danny Seavey, 28, manager of IdidaRide Sled Dog Tours in Seward. “We make money all summer and spend it all winter.”
Driven to race
After nearly 50 years of owning, training and racing Alaskan huskies, the Seaveys are recognized as expert dog breeders, knowledgeable dogsledders and staunch competitors. They’re as comfortable driving a sled dog team through a blinding blizzard and camping in subzero temperatures as most people are driving a car to a roadside motel in a raging rainstorm.
“I like being out in the middle of nowhere with sled dogs,” says Dallas, adding that learning to tolerate pain and overcoming hardships along the trail are what make the sport rewarding.
Dallas’ father, Mitch, plans to continue mushing as long as he remains competitive and can endure traveling long distances without sleep over frozen, unforgiving terrain in brutal winter weather.
“I’m still extremely fit and healthy, and every year I become a better musher,” he says, noting that sleep deprivation and fatigue are the greatest challenges along the trail.
Last year, Dallas finished the Iditarod in eighth place, edging out his father who came in 10th. While a friendly father-son rivalry exists between the Seaveys, Mitch says he’s proud that his sons have followed in his sled tracks, and he’s certain Dallas will win the Iditarod if he keeps racing.
“I’d like nothing better than to be racing neck-to-neck with him coming down the coast to Nome,” Mitch says. “In that scenario, I’d feel like a winner regardless of the outcome.”