Sunday, March 15, 2009

Iditarod 2009: The Happy Story

Note: This is an excerpt from my contributions to the SP Kennel Dog Log

This isn't just a happy story, this is the Happy story. It's a difficult story to tell in this format of still photos and video clips, and I've been working on it all week to try to do it justice. It's also a long story, but I think you'll find it worth your while...

A couple of months ago when Aliy and Allen starting forming up their Iditarod teams, Aliy picked all the "top dogs" as candidates for her "A-Team" and handed the list of the rest of the dogs to Allen for him to make his selections. Now, you all know that it has always been the plan for Allen to run a "B-Team" of young and inexperienced dogs to help develop them for the future. He is really quite happy to be doing this, but that doesn't mean he hasn't taken a few shots at getting a little sympathy along the way.

Looking at the list of dogs that remained available for for his team, Allen said playfully, "I'll never get to Nome! There's nothing on this list but kids and kooks. Heck, I might as well take Happy!" At that, Aliy and I laughed so hard we had tears streaming down our faces. Of all the dogs in the Kennel -- perhaps in the entire sport of sled dog racing -- Happy is by far the least likely dog to run the Iditarod. To understand why, you need to know a little about Happy and her history.

A couple of years ago, Aliy was mushing through some of the remotest regions of Alaska and in some of the coldest, nastiest weather on record. After pulling into a tiny village she stopped in front of an old log cabin, simply astonished by what she saw. Among all the other dogs in the yard who were hunkered down and trying their best to stay out of the blizzard, there was a puppy who was chained to a boat motor, hopping up and down on it's hind legs, waving joyfully at her and barking out a welcoming greeting.

As Aliy tells the story, "I was so amazed by this puppy I determined right then and there that I wanted to have it. I knocked on the door of the cabin, and after several cups of coffee with the owner I said, 'I'll give you fifty bucks for that puppy.' We did the deal, then I put the puppy in my sled and headed down the trail. I immediately named her Lucky -- as in lucky to be alive and lucky to be out of that village -- and brought her back to the Kennel."

Aliy soon discovered that no matter what the circumstances, "Lucky" was always happy. She never seemed to be bothered by cold or discomfort and she would always do a little "happy dance" every time you called her. She quickly got the nickname "Happy Dog" and Aliy eventually just renamed her. Happy truly is the happiest dog you'll ever meet.

Aliy also soon discovered, however, that Happy is far from the typical husky sled dog. She doesn't look like one -- having more of a "hound dog" appearance -- and she doesn't really act like one either. For example, whenever you go out into the yard to harness dogs up for a run, they all come out of their houses and make a racket to get attention and be picked for the team. All of them, that is, except for Happy who stays in her house. You literally have to go over and knock on her box before she'll look out at you with an expression that says, "Can I help you?"

As you stand there for a few seconds, she seems to slowly realize something is up. Finally, she quite happily comes out of her house and sits while you put on the harness. The whole time, however, she looks up at you as if to say, "I love you and I love all this attention, but what exactly are you doing?" When I first got to the Kennel I thought this was because Happy doesn't get to run as often as most of the dogs and that she had adopted an attitude of low expectations to avoid disappointment. I quickly came to the conclusion, however, that she simply forgets from one day to the next that she lives in a sled dog kennel and that mushing is what goes on there. In truth, I realized that Happy is kind of an idiot.

When I asked Aliy about Happy she said, "Yep, Happy is an idiot. She's especially an idiot out on the trail. We'll be running along and all of a sudden she'll bolt sideways like she's chasing a rabbit or something. Sometimes she'll just stop running, like she's forgotten what she's doing. She'll turn around and look at me as if to ask, 'Who are you? Where am I? Why am I running?' It's really a hoot!" When I asked Aliy why she kept such a dog at the Kennel, she quickly responded, "Happy is the sweetest, happiest dog in the world, and a joy just to have around. Plus, she never seems to run out of energy. No matter how far we run, she gets back to the Kennel and is still ready to go. The other dogs may be lying down and panting, but she'll be there doing her little Happy dance. She really grows on you. You'll see."

True enough, Happy has become one of my very favorite dogs at the Kennel. So when we were all laughing out loud about Allen's joke of taking Happy on the Iditarod, it was with a great deal of affection that I said to him, "If you take Happy on your team and she makes it to Nome, I will kiss her bottom... Right there at the finish line on Front Street, right in front of everybody!" This made Aliy laugh even harder, but there was a little twinkle in Allen's eye when he quietly said, "We'll just have to see about that."

It didn't dawn on me the next day when I was harnessing Happy up for a training run, or the day after that. But after a few days in a row of Happy going out with the team, I started to realize that Allen might be seriously looking at her for his team. I made the offhand comment that "You're sure giving Happy a lot of work" to which he quickly replied, "I have to, she has an appointment in Nome!"

And so it came to pass that as I was loading up the dogs to drive them to Anchorage last Thursday, I found Happy's name on the list. As I lifted her into the box, I tried to recall if she'd ever even been in the truck before. The only time I could think of was just a couple of weeks earlier when she rode into Fairbanks for her blood test and EKG. You see, Happy has never run a race before. That's right, she is making her racing debut in this year's Iditarod.

To illustrate a few highlights of Happy's Iditarod experience, I've put together the little video below. The first part is just a few quick clips of Happy at the dog truck in the hotel parking lot. In it you will get a little sample of "the Happy dance" and a clear example of how she is very, very different in behavior and attitude from the other sled dogs. I think you will also see why we say she is so sweet and such a joy to have around.

Second, before the Official Iditarod Start last Sunday, Allen did some interviews with the media, beginning in the usual manner of posing with his main leader Hoss. When that segment was done, the reporter pointed to an energetic dog behind him and asked, "What's the story with that dog?" In his customary casual way Allen replied, "She's one of our young dogs." Well, the reporter knew that Allen was running a team of young dogs and was probably looking for a scoop on a "rising star" so he asked to film another interview. I'm sure you've guessed by now that the dog he had pointed to was Happy. Everything Allen says in the interview is true, of course, and if you didn't know "The Happy Story" you'd probably think this was just a modestly interesting little clip. Now that you know the rest of her story, however, I think you'll find it sweet, ironic and even a little hilarious: "Happy, the up and coming sled dog... Film at eleven!"

Third, I watched the Iditarod Insider clip about Aliy and Allen being reunited in Takotna and was touched by the special attention Aliy paid to Happy. Suddenly, though, I laughed so hard I spit coffee out through my nose. I can't show you the video, but I've ripped down the audio and put a sequence of still shots over it. Just in case you miss what Aliy said out loud and on camera, I've repeated it a few times. That's really all I can say here without spoiling the surprise! Enjoy!

As I write this, Happy is running on the Yukon river. I know in my heart that I will see her here in Nome in just a few days. I hope so. I suppose I could say, "Me and my big mouth" but the truth is that I'm already puckering up to kiss her bottom, on camera and in front of everybody at the finish line on Front Street. It will be an honor.

I've been around enough to have learned that you just never know where you'll find your inspirations. Happy truly is an inspiration that it doesn't matter where you're from, how bad you've had it or how dumb you are. If you face every run in your life like it's your first, and if you keep a happy disposition all along the way, there's no limit to what you can do or how far you can go. You can even run the Iditarod and get to Nome. Believe in yourself and others will believe in you, too.

And that is "The Happy Story."

1 comment:

Becky and Husky Ryn, from Iowa, U.S.A. said...

Just reading about Happy has brought a smile to my face. Bless this sweetie! Every dream remains a dream until someone believes in you and helps you make it come true ---- even if you didn't know that was your dream! Hugs for Happy!