“When I first picked up the wiggling newborn in June 2011 the only remarkable thing about him was the abundance of energy that seemed to course through him and spark from every limb. As all mushers do in those first moments holding a newborn, I wondered what he might become. It was a given that he would be a close friend and companion whom I would spend countless hours understanding and working with to develop and release his greatest potential. That much is true of any dog born in the kennel. Could this be a truly gifted dog, though? The type that is a serious contributor on a competitive race team? Or a one-in-a-thousand dog, the type that is wreathed in yellow roses? Little did I know the tiny dog writhing in my hands would arguably become the greatest Iditarod sled dog of all time, a once in a lifetime dog!
A few weeks later the runty, orange pup was named Reef, part of a Hawai’i themed litter. His siblings were dubbed Maui, Surf, Tide, Lava and Hula. As a group they were remarkable for their boundless energy that often manifested in yet another dog house gnawed to splinters, or a tussle between siblings that left all of them with endearing scars across their snouts which belied their sweet and trusting personalities in adulthood. Even amongst this chaotic gang, Reef stood out as next-level hyper. As he reached his full, albeit, diminutive size and began running in a team, another trait eclipsed even that of his energy: his joy. Joy for life, joy of running, joy of simply being a sled dog.
When Reef turned two, he started this first year of heavy training in preparation for a run to Nome with the puppy team. This is when it became evident that he was a seriously talented sled dog. He took to leading like it was his destiny and nothing seemed able to scratch the surface of his infinite energy. As the 2014 Iditarod approached, I found myself a few dogs short for the race team and drafted a couple of the top two-year-olds to fill the roster. My plan was to take the youngsters along for the experience and send them home at the first sign it was getting tough for them. Reef was the first choice and was promoted just a few weeks before race day.
The 2014 Iditarod is generally considered one of, if not the most challenging Iditarods ever run. Through the chaos and calamity of the Alaska Range and the Farewell Burn, Reef was never fazed. When I, and every dog in the team felt frustrated and on the verge of defeat by the hellacious trail, Reef was still overjoyed at simply —being. Rather than the two-year-old taking heart and encouragement from the older members of the team it was quite the other way around.
As we flew up the coast on an incredibly aggressive schedule trying to close the gap on the lead teams, I kept a particularly close eye on Reef watching for any sign it was time to send him home. By this point I had realized I was working with an unusually talented dog which made me all the more cautious to protect his bright future. Still, every time we stopped, he instantly started barking, lunging and wiggling as if movement was necessary to release all that pent up energy and if his feet had to stop, the energy still had to go somewhere. If he were in swing and the leaders backed off for even a second, he would put on a burst of speed and try to pass them. He is the only dog that I have ever run that I am fully convinced would rather be in lead at all times and in any condition!
The final run of the 2014 Iditarod has been described by some of the greatest mushers of the age as the worst of their life. I can’t really describe what’s required of a dog to go through that kind of storm at the end of a thousand-mile race while on a record smashing pace, but I can assure you that any dog that made it through that fiasco is at the very pinnacle of their species and they have my admiration.
I relied on Beatle through most of that storm, as he was my old war horse at the time. I had previously won both the Quest and Iditarod races with Beatle as a main leader and we had built a bond of trust and communication that can only be earned through thousands of miles and countless hardships. But even the mighty Beatle (who I would be writing this article about if not for Reef) wouldn’t have been able to do it without Reef and his boundless energy right behind him. Reef was in swing snapping the line tight and getting the team moving after each of the countless gusts of wind that blew us off the trail into a crumpled heap intertwined with a pile of rocks and driftwood.
After hours of crushing wind, confusion, frustration, and progress measured in inches we finally reached Safety. We were all a bit shell shocked and tempted by the checkpoint, except for Reef. Not five seconds after we stopped Reef started barking to go. Beatle was ready for a break after thousands of commands and hours of struggle, so I granted Reef his dearest wish and put him in lead.
A few hours later Reef was on the winner’s podium with yellow roses around his neck and still only two-years-old.
In 2015, Reef won the Iditarod again in a dominant fashion. We were more than four hours ahead of second place and put up a time that would have been a record had it not been so thoroughly broken the year before. Reef wasn’t just an incredible individual in the team, he was a force multiplier. The team was simply better with him in it. He had a knack for making even the worst situation seem not only doable but fun. His lighthearted enthusiasm spread through the team and brought everyone to a higher level.
For the last two hundred miles of the 2016 Iditarod, we found ourselves locked in a fierce neck and neck race with our bitter rival that bears the same last name. We had been laying down a record smashing pace for the past six days and now the heat was being turned up even further.
I will never forget watching Reef in absolute awe and amazement, not to mention a good deal of disbelief that it was possible for a dog to be this dang good, during that push.
We were on the trail between Koyuk and Elim and the wind was howling, making the trail indistinguishable from the soft snow to the side. Reef was in single lead attacking the trail with a fervor. We were averaging well over 9 miles-per-hour and Reef was up there trying to pull the whole team and the sled to make it 12 miles-per-hour. But every few steps he would fall off the side of the trail and get buried to the ears in the soft snow. Now, even a phenomenal lead dog will get discouraged by this after a few hundred times and ease up on the pace so that he can catch himself before all four feet are off the trail.
But not Reef.
Every time he fell off the trail he would instantly come shooting out of the hole with an incredible burst of speed, popping his line tight and shooting a bolt of energy down the gang line to lurch the sled forward. He would then drive like a little demon until he disappeared off the trail again only to repeat the process. Not once did he allow the swing dogs to pass him up!
After several hours of this, we reached Elim. In the few moments it took me to grab some snacks from my drop bags Reef created an uproar. Barking and lunging to get back on the trail and over to White Mountain. That run proved to be the decisive run of the race where we finally broke away and secured the win. For the third time, Reef was on the winner’s podium and wreathed in yellow roses. And for the second time he broke the record.
Reef was no less a stand-out in our second place-finish in 2017, but this time the competition was tougher and the mistakes made that prevented us from putting up a good fight for first were entirely my own.
Reef’s only downfall is that such an insane amount of energy was never intended to be stored in a mortal body. Nearly every year he had some injury or issue during the training season. One year it was a broken toe, the next a minor tear of the cruciate ligament that caused him to miss large portions of training. He always pulled through by March though, and despite having fewer miles, he finished every Iditarod he started as the shining star of the team.
What I love most about Reef is his unrestrained enthusiasm for life, and his desire to mush and be on the trail that rivals even my own. This, coupled with his unnatural physical abilities, is what led him a second-place finish, and three Iditarod wins as a Yellow Rose leader. These are still the four fastest Iditarods ever run. He also won the Golden Harness award twice.
Every time I put booties on and pull the hook I am asking my team one very simple question, do you want to go? With Reef in lead the answer was always a resounding: Yes!”