In this edition we feature a dog who is no longer with us, but helped Iditarod musher Aaron Burmeister to become the musher and person he is today. In his own words, Aaron talks about his dog Rocky.
Rocky was out of our old breed of dogs, going back many generations back. I was 13-years-old when he was born in 1989 and I raised him along the golden beaches of Nome. He was a natural-born leader with a great appetite, incredible fur, excellent feet and an amazing amount of drive to get down the trail. His bond with me was as a best friend and loyal partner, he cared about my safety and getting me home every day through storms, open water and all kinds of conditions.
Rocky’s parents were Tooth and Frenzy. Tooth was out of Rodger Roberts’ — aka The Loafer from Ophir— old blood lines and Frenzy was out of Ali, a littermate to Susan Butchers ‘Granite’ and Pepi, George Attla’s famous leader.
Rocky became special to me as a puppy with the bond we shared, he was very alert, smart and ready to go. He always knew my moods and would cheer me up on a down day and was willing to please at all time. His attitude never tired whether it was 40°F above and raining or 40°F below and windy and stormy. He was always ready to go and take the team down the trail.
In the yard, Rocky was the boss. He would stand on his house and watch every step I took and was always the first dog out every morning waiting for his broth and morning chores to be done. When we ran our dogs loose, he would keep all the dogs in check and if they would stray, he would round them up and keep them together. The rest of the kennel respected him as the Alpha male and followed his leadership. He was also a “ladies man” and I remember the females in heat wanted nothing to do with other males in the yard, they all wanted the chance to be with Rocky. He sired a lot of good dogs over the years and most of my team today still go back to those bloodlines.
In 1992, I was training for the Jr. Iditarod and was 16-years-old at the time. Rocky was a 2-year-old and ran in the middle of the team, still learning the ropes with a lot of talent. I was on a normal, after-school training run and running down to Topkok, 44 miles East of Nome. It was a beautiful evening, light southwest winds and beautiful day for Nome in late January. As I was returning to Nome about 13 miles out, near Cape Nome I got caught in a terrible ground storm. The visibility was down to zero and I couldn’t even see the wheel dogs. The southwest winds were blowing 50-60 mph and it blew the ocean water in along the coastline. It began flooding the beach and the Hastings lagoon and the mouth of Nome River both had 2 to 3-feet of water on them. My team ran into the water at Hastings and stalled out, the dogs were nervous and didn’t know what to do.
I was young and became soaking wet, I was determined to get home, but nervous as well. With the visibility down to zero and not sure what to do, I looked over the team and Rocky was barking to go. I put Rocky in single lead and he took off charging into the storm, he brought the dogs up on an ice ridge and ran along the edges of the deep water to cross Hasting lagoon and charged into the storm headed for home.
As we approached the Nome River and found it flooded too, he turned the team inland and followed the bank of the river breaking trail until we were near the VOR, about three miles upriver from the normal trail crossing and he crossed and continued in a straight line for home.
Rocky didn’t need a trail, he had a natural sense of where he was and that day, all soaking wet, I had climbed into my sled bag into a sleeping bag to warm up and let Rocky take me home. The special part about it was that he knew I was in bad shape and he didn’t bring me to the dog yard, he ran the team right up to the back door of our house. My father was getting a search party together to go out and find me and he came out the door of the house to find the dog team strung out perfectly in our driveway with me shivering in the sled bag.
That day Rocky became a lead dog! He went on to be my main leader for many years we had many adventures together.
Rocky was a 65-lb male with long legs and a perfect conformation for a sled dog. He had tight feet, great fur and an incredibly smooth gait whether trotting or loping. He was rock solid and very hard-headed, he never had an injury in 14 years of training and racing and he ran his last Iditarod in 2001 as a 12-year-old dog, still leading the team with enthusiasm and his great charging attitude.
Rocky taught me many lessons as I was a young man and learning about mushing and racing dogs. His patients with me and his teammates was incredible. He would stand tall and line out the team while waiting for the next command. Charlie Boulding once walked through my dog yard and saw Rocky and he looked at me and said, “Aaron, that dog has an aura of confidence that stands out. I could win the Iditarod if you let me borrow him.” I kept him for my own team and wasn’t willing to loan him out.
In 1994, he led me to my first professional victory in the Goose Bay 200 against 40 other dog teams. That race was challenging as the Yentna River had overflowed and we had to race through 50 miles of open water to get to the checkpoint. The ice fog was so thick you couldn’t see 50 feet and we passed every team in the race that night going up the river in the dark and fog, we could hear dogs barking and splashing in the water, but couldn’t see them as we passed. It was sort of eery. I arrived at the checkpoint and my feet didn’t even get wet and all the other mushers arrived soaked. Rocky always had a way of sticking to the base trail in all conditions, it was a natural trait he had.
Rocky’s pups and offspring have been raced by many mushers throughout North America and Europe over the last 30 years. They are very loyal dogs to their owner and willing to do anything to please.
In the 1999 Iditarod, I was traveling up the Yukon River on glare ice, between Grayling and Eagle Island. It was a wind polished glare ice from bank to bank and no snow in sight, it provided no traction for myself or the dogs. I stopped to snack the team and put in my ice hook. As I walked up the team I had to hold onto the line to keep my balance while handing them their snacks and to keep from sliding away as there was a bowl like depression in the ice next to us where it had settled as the water below the ice had receded. As I returned to my sled that depression sucked me in and I slipped into it and stopped in the center 30 feet away from my dog team. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t climb out without sliding back down, at this point I was helpless and couldn’t get back to my team, I had Rocky in lead next to a young dog named Mojo. They began to bark and lunge ahead attempted to pop the ice hook, I stood there scared and worried they would pop the hook and leave me, I was talking softly trying to calm them down. Rocky became more excited and the entire team joined in and began banging to go.
Then, ‘Boom!” The hook popped and I helplessly watched the team continue up river leaving me behind. As I watched, Rocky pulled the team calmly into a big 1-mile arc in the middle of the river carefully making a wide loop to not get a tangle and came back towards me. He and Mojo pulled the team right by me without stopping and I hopped on the runners with tears in my eyes as he continued to make another big loop to turn us around and head back upriver towards Eagle Island.
So, if anyone ever tells you that a dog doesn’t have the ability to think or reason to solve a problem, you can tell them about Rocky. Rocky saved my bacon that day and I have many other stories about him for another time.
In over 40 years of mushing and raising sled dogs there are many special dogs that become close to the heart and together we cover a lot of miles with these animals. I think the reason I have chosen Rocky was that he helped me grow as a person in my life at a very impressionable age. Rocky showed me love, loyalty, respect, pride, humility, toughness, never quit, and a drive that continues in me today in all that I do. In my professional life I manage a civil construction company working in some of the most challenging locations in Alaska and many of the traits I look for in my sled dogs are the same traits that I look for in my crew. Being able to work together as a team, leadership, positive attitudes, drive, caring and reaching out to pick up the team mates that are having a bad day.
Rocky challenged me to be a better dog musher, to learn from my mistakes and helped me grow a love for this sport that keeps me going still today.
A dog is a man’s best friend! Rocky showed me that and I have had many great dogs since Rocky.
He was born June 14, 1989 and began his overwatch on August 27, 2002.