Famous Feet: Tanner of Mitch Seavey’s kennel

Tanner of Mitch Seavey's kennel

Tanner won the 2013 Iditarod, but more than winning the race and running the Iditarod trail multiple times, he was instrumental in successfully navigating what Mitch Seavey has described has the most extreme and difficult run in his 50-plus years of mushing.

Below, Seavey describes the last leg of the Iditarod in 2014, a notoriously difficult race due to very little snow, leaving many mushers beat up and bruised. According to Seavey, he sustained a fractured right tibia (lower leg), ruptured left patella (kneecap) and “spectacular bruising and relentless pain on my left torso” and a lot of torn muscles in his upper body. But the last 44 miles between Topkok and Nome turned out to be the most difficult of all.

Read for yourself:

“So, as I pulled into White Mountain, 77 miles from the finish of the 2014 Iditarod Race, I was at peace with my fourth place standing. It wasn’t great but it didn’t suck, and I just wanted this race to be over. I would finish, be beaten by Jeff King, Aliy Zirkle and Dallas Seavey, and get fourth place. “Whatever,” I groused, “I just have to get there.”

Weather reports as conveyed to the mushers were ominous but muted. Race officials manage these things. A report of bad weather or bad trail ahead can paralyze fatigued and fretting mushers into overstaying at check points. I didn’t worry about the weather. I served my mandatory layover and left exactly eight hours after I arrived. Nothing short of armed conflict would have changed my mind.

My lead dog Tanner may be one of the best sled dogs there has ever been. Possibly one of the best dogs of any kind. He had led us to victory the year before and everyone, even media (who rarely know what’s actually going on), gave him all the credit. They had gotten that one right. He had been eight-years-old and had found the grit to lead us in a home-stretch dash for the win, holding off a late-race challenge from Aliy Zirkle and her leader Quito.

This year (2014) at nine, Tanner’s stellar career had seemed to be mostly in the rear-view mirror. He was dealing with mild diarrhea, running in the middle of the team, the least stressful position, and was hanging in there.

The trail was poor with light snow but unremarkable on the 25 miles from White Mountain to the Topkok foothills. On the last long descent to the beach, however, the scant snow layer thinned even more. Dropping in elevation to the beach, soon all snow cover was gone. We scraped and scratched down the dirt and rocks, facing the last 50 miles to Nome.

Suddenly, I heard jet engines.

Not actual jet engines. Just the wind — just some moving air. Just the wind — which sounded like jet engines. A lot of jet engines.

Iditarod mushers expect to mush in the wind. Sometimes we pull our neck gaiter up over our face. Sometimes we turn around on the runners and face away from the wind or put on another layer of clothing. Sometimes we duck down behind the sled’s handlebars to get a windbreak. The dogs wear their booties, leggings, coats and wraps. There’s wind, and then there’s wind.

As we cleared the protective ridge and darted out onto the beach, the breath was sucked out of my lungs.

Alrighty then.

I adjusted the fur ruff on my parka. The dogs leaned their bodies dramatically to the right, into the wind. We scraped over rocks and gravel to the first frozen slough and darted out onto the ice.

If hockey great Scotty Gomez were 300 feet tall and the wind was his stick, then my dog team was the puck. The back of the goal was a boulder-strewn beach littered with driftwood. We accelerated as we slid, then crashed and wrapped around the driftwood heap. The tangle was epic, my headlight was lost, and I was stunned.

That moment in time was critical; one of the most important in my career. We had just been wadded up and tossed at the waste basket. I was frightened and injured, and a sense of hopelessness welled up. We were getting our butt kicked and it was still a very long way to Nome.

But there was something else, like defiance or anger. Stubbornness maybe. I had come all this way, with all this difficulty. Was I to be defeated, even by these conditions? I think not.

Eleven pairs of bewildered eyes searched mine. Their instincts told them to hunker down and curl up in a ball. But sled dogs don’t hunker down and curl up in a ball when they’re supposed to be travelling. Yet a power greater than any of them had ever experienced had just tossed them in a heap on the beach. This wind, this wall of force, was beyond their comprehension. Now they looked to the one in the team who they knew could manage incomprehensible situations. They looked at me. What’s he going to do? What are we going to do?

“Waaaaa-hoooo!!” I yelled. “That was AWESOME!! Looks like we’re in for a helluva ride, boys!” The 22 eyes were puzzled now, but not panicked.

Several minutes were lost finding another light in my sled, untangling the team and getting started again.

Tulsa was tentative in lead. The wind screamed and sled bag fabric whipped and popped. The dogs leaned at a 45-degree angle. The snowless gravel trail dumped us onto another ice pond, and we were blown off our feet again. The dogs slid on their bellies to the edge of the ice where we crash-landed in another pile of rock and driftwood. The sled barrel-rolled upon impact. The wind screamed in my ears. Tulsa took shelter behind a log and a few other dogs followed. We had covered about a half-mile in the last half-an-hour. This was looking like a long night.

“Waaaaa-hoooo!!” I shrieked again. Now, 22 eyes looked skeptical. Tulsa was unsure but Tanner was standing up, leaning into the harness. He wasn’t fooled by all this “wahoo” crap. He knew we might be in a bind, so he was stepping up. “The man is smart, but he can’t do this alone.”

That moment in time was one of the most important in Tanner’s career. He knew. I knew. I moved him into the lead.

Many more minutes were lost untangling and rearranging but as I said “Alright!” to start the team, 11 pairs of eyes looked reassured. Tanner charged the storm. I later heard from a news reporter the Topkok weather station had recorded gusts to 60 miles per hour.

The sled dragged hard along the gravel beach and every low area was an ice pond – remnants of the melted snow, refrozen. Each ice crossing, some a hundred yards across, meant being blown sideways until we hit something solid; sometimes gravel or rocks, sometimes driftwood, sometimes the solid trail marker posts which resemble telephone poles in this area. Always a crash, sometimes a tumble or being dragged – it never felt good.

It was difficult to stay anywhere near the marked trail.

Giving up was not an option. Twenty-two eyes now looked determined. Crash, untangle, run, repeat. For hours. My world became focused like a laser. Each next move was all that mattered.

Don’t let go, don’t let go. Upright the sled. Unclip this snap. Untwist this line. Untangle that dog. Lift this one up and move him over. Pull this driftwood out of the gang line. Work my way back to the sled. Go on once more.

“This might look hopeless – but we can still go a little. So, then it isn’t hopeless, is it? We may only get a few yards at a time, but then we’re that much closer. So that’s progress – and that’s hope.”

“Waaaaa-hoooo!! That was a good one!” Twenty-two eyes looked defiant now. No windstorm was going to stop us! Each crash meant assessing damage, righting myself and unraveling a big tangle. It all took time. “Ready?” 11 dogs stood up. “Alright, let’s go!”

I couldn’t see the other side of the next ice patch with my headlight. As we dashed out onto the ice, the sled began its usual downwind slide, but this time there was nothing to stop us. We slid until we spun completely backward and were blown down-wind, sled first, dogs dragging on their bellies, trying in vain to stop the slide with their toenails. But we weren’t slowing down.

As teams travel toward Nome along the southern edge of the Seward Peninsula, the north wind is on our right and the ocean of Norton Sound, normally frozen, is on our left. I was suddenly gripped with a sickening feeling. I had heard enough of the muted talk at White Mountain to know that this year open water was only a few yards offshore. Was it possible this powerful wind could just blow us off the beach and onto the sea ice, then to the edge of the ice – and into the ocean?

A gravel bar angled out into our path, and as we accelerated helplessly backward toward the edge of the ice, the sled caught on the solid ground and stopped abruptly, flipping violently on its side. The team pin-wheeled to my right and slid a half-circle arc until they too came to rest on the sand bar, now facing directly away from the trail. I got up to my knees and aimed my light offshore. The shininess of the ice reflected my light for a short way out, but beyond that, an abrupt blackness. The end of the solid ice. If we had not hit the sand bar, we might have blown all the way to what I believed was open water. Deep open seawater. I didn’t investigate further.

I couldn’t muster much of a “wahoo” at that moment. I hurt everywhere, badly. I had been in bad shape at White Mountain and I had received multiple beatings from falls and crashes and being dragged during the ensuing hours. I was dead tired, and I had just gotten one of the worst scares of my life. This wind wasn’t letting up and now there were hundreds of yards of glare ice upwind between us and the trail. I sat on my overturned sled for a moment with my eyes closed. Tired, just so tired.

Suddenly, I felt the sled jerk. Instinctively my hands found the driving bow, and righted the sled, my feet landing on the runners. Tanner had found traction on the sandbar and was circling the team back upwind. “Dog, you are something else!”

Without any direction from me, Tanner followed the gritty sand bar back to the trail.

At that moment I thought the wind slacked off for just a second. Maybe this thing would blow itself out. Then it seemed to scream even louder. To hell with it. We hit the trail for Nome.

The wind was still blowing insanely by most standards, but there were now lulls and it was indeed slacking off compared to the last few hours. I snacked the dogs with red salmon, handing the slices directly to the dogs’ mouths because any pieces that fell just blew away in the storm.

When I arrived at the Safety checkpoint, I asked whether I could go inside for just a minute to warm up. In spite of all the exertion, I was shivering. The checker said I was welcome to get out of the wind, but the power was out so there was no heat. She then pointed out that my parka was unzipped and perhaps that was why I was so cold. Indeed. I’d better just keep going.

We turned north, more directly into the wind. Though only a little less in velocity, it was easier to manage the head wind than being blasted off our feet broadside. And we were back on adequate snow cover. The worst was definitely over. Tanner suddenly slowed and looked back at me, then stopped and turned his back to the wind. He’d never done anything like this in his long career.

I walked up to Tanner and rubbed his ears. “Good boy, Tan’ Man, I got you.” Even in his weakened state he had stepped up and led me through the toughest storm mushing I have ever done. He knew, and I knew another dog could take the lead from here. I moved him back to an easier position in the team. A youngster named Wall-E showed remarkable energy, even playfulness, so I moved him into lead, and though he repeatedly wandered off course in the last 22 miles, he eventually got us to Nome.

The finishing order of the race got rearranged due to the storm, so my son Dallas took his second Iditarod championship and I placed third. What a run. I hope it remains my toughest run ever, forever.

Tanner completed two more Iditarod races with our puppy team and retired after the 2016 race at 11-years-old. He trained many other young leaders, then passed away in his sleep last winter after a brief illness; a life well lived.”