Hundreds of sled dogs are running across Alaska this week as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race plays out over 1,000 miles from Willow to Nome.
While the teams race to the finish line, we’re featuring a sled dog a day on our “Iditapod” podcast.
Meet Forrest, Sarah Jane, Sparky, Jeep and Juke — five exceptional sled dogs with a lot of personality.
Forrest: A very hard worker
Forrest is a 5-year-old team dog with Monica Zappa. A team dog basically means Forrest doesn’t run in the front or in the back. He’s in the middle. Zappa, of Kasilof, said Forrest always wants to run — it doesn’t matter the place or the time.
“He’s a solid, hard-pulling dog. His first year was the year I had to scratch, and he was the only one, when we were sitting out on the ice outside of Shaktoolik, that just would not lay down for like five hours,” Zappa said about the 2017 Iditarod. “He always wants to go.”
Sarah Jane: The queen of the dog yard
Sarah Jane is a 5-year-old lead dog on Meredith Mapes’ team, and she’s the queen. Mapes, of Palmer, said Sarah Jane always rides in the cab of her pickup truck and sleeps in her bed. In the morning, she runs out to the dog yard to check on her teammates. She can be a bit bossy.
“She’s very commanding,” Mapes said. “She knows that she’s the queen of the dog yard. So if somebody is doing something that she doesn’t like, she yells at them for stepping out of line and things like that.”
Sparky: The sensitive soul
His real name is Sparky, but he actually goes by Sparky Dooh Dah, and he’s a 6-year-old lead dog on Aliy Zirkle’s team. His parents are Nacho and Olivia. Zirkle, of Two Rivers, said Sparky Dooh Dah needs a lot of attention.
“He definitely needs TLC,” Zirkle said. “Just like people, there’s the hardcore kind of guy football player who’s just like, ‘Ugh. Just leave me alone, I’ll do it.’ And we’ve got a couple of them. But I would have to say Sparky is not that. Sparky needs like, ‘Hey, Sparky. How are you doing? Good boy. Do you need a little massage? Is it OK?’ And then he works perfectly.”
Jeep: A high-energy leader with sentimental roots
Jeep is a 6-year-old sled dog. At exactly 59 pounds, he’s the heaviest dog on Brent Sass’ team. Sass said he has a special connection to Jeep. Jeep belonged to Joee Redington Jr., a sprint musher and a mentor who died in 2017.
“He loved this dog Jeep. And he always told me that, ‘This dog can run a distance race. I’m confident that he has the head to do it,’” said Sass, of Eureka. “But, he’s like, ‘Oh, you’re never going to get the chance because he’s my favorite dog.’ But after Joee passed away, I had the opportunity to buy Jeep.”
Jeep has been a staple in Sass’ team ever since. He led the team to victory in the 2019 Yukon Quest. Sass said it’s a testament to Redington and the sense he had about dogs. He described Jeep as a high-energy, fun-loving and positive sled dog.
Juke: The life of the party
Juke is Karin Hendrickson’s loudest, biggest and most excitable dog. He’s the life of the party and he never seems to get tired, Hendrickson said, as Juke jumped on her truck at the Iditarod ceremonial start.
Hendrickson, of Wasilla, would like Juke to step up and lead the team more. But, she said, she also has to keep telling him who’s boss.
“He’s a two-year-old male so he thinks he’s the toughest dog around, and I have to keep reminding him that I’m the toughest dog around,” she said.
Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove contributed reporting to this story.