In 1998 when I first met Frank Teasley, he was training for his eighth and final Iditarod. And my impression of him in 1998 still fits. Frank is a good-looking man who has taken risks in life most would not dream of. His ruddy complexion and strawberry blonde hair match his personality, and to many, he is gruff and difficult to read. Intimidating to some, he is a smart businessman, a rugged musher who sticks by his old-school attire of Carhartts and mukluks. A former cross country runner and distance bicyclist, Frank jokes that he got into sleddogs because he wanted to cover more ground. And ground he covered. After working as a commercial fisherman and living in Alaska for years, Teasley went on to complete eight Iditarod finishes, won the coveted Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award for the Best Cared For Team in 1989, and the Sterling Silver Award for the Most Improved Team in 1991. He founded the largest dog sledding stage race of its kind in the lower 48: the International Pedigree Rocky Mountain Stage Stop, which combines distance racing endurance with sprint/mid-distance speed and strategy (according to Frank, the average speed of a Stage Stop team is 18 miles per hour, compared to an average of 9 miles per hour of an Iditarod team). He began manning the Stage Stop as president in 1994 and has never looked back. Running one of the most successful sleddog touring companies in the business, Teasley and his wife, Stacey, operate a 180-dog kennel along Granite Creek Road at the foothills of Teton National Forest outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and are booked solid with a waiting list all winter season. In addition, Frank has traveled all over the world mushing, from Italy to, more recently, Russia for Nord Hope, a project that introduces mushing and dog care to orphanages around Russia. I had an opportunity to sit down recently with Teasley and hear his pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story, and I think you’ll agree, he is a man worthy of all 3,000 words! Way Up NorthIn 1979, New Orleans born Teasley read a newspaper article about Joe Redington Sr. Intrigued, he picked up the phone and contacted Redington, who invited him to visit in Knik. Realizing his dream, five years later Teasley packed up a 1971 International school bus with his belongings, 35 dogs and $1,200 and was Knik-bound, not knowing at all what kind of adventure he was about to walk into. With a passion for the Iditarod and for dogs, Teasley ventured into unknown territory 3,000 miles from home. “I had a vision of what Joe Redington’s camp would be like in Knik, and when I got there, it wasn’t what I thought,” admits Teasley. School buses lined the property with other hopeful dog mushers, like Jacques Philip, standing around 50 gallon drums as fire pits, keeping warm. “After driving 3,000 miles, I pulled into the yard,” recalls Teasley. “Joe asked if I’d follow him to find a place to park. I pulled my bus in and promptly sunk into 18 inches of mud. So, I wasn’t going anywhere!” With the $1,200 quickly dissipating from the trip, Teasley quickly began seeking work to fill the bellies of himself and his 35 hungry mouths. Many mushers had said a construction boom would happen in Knik, but despite waiting patiently and down to his last $280, Teasley began seeking work on the coast as a deck hand for some of the big commercial fishing outfits in Anchorage. He finally landed one with Les Stambaugh, a commercial fishing company in Bristol Bay. “I worked through the herring season, red pink silver kings, not necessarily in that order, and then went back to Knik where people were still saying that things were about to get going with construction.” Tenacity certainly paid off for Teasley. Still trying to get up with money to get to the starting line of the Iditarod, Teasley headed to the North Slope. Undaunted by the fact that all the commercial fishing jobs on the North Slope were union, Teasley put his powers of observation to work for him. “It occurred to me that everyone I saw walking around looked like they were wearing Carhartts,” he says. “And it looked like their ID was a Wyoming driver’s license,” he continues. So he donned the familiar garb, pinned his driver’s license to his Carhartts, and scoured the North Slope looking for someone to hire him. “It’s cold on the North Slope in late August, early September,” admits Teasley. Without a place to stay, he made due: “I snuggled up to heated septic tanks to sleep.”Within a week, however, Teasley landed a job as a “stick picker” – a person hired to pick up cigarette butts and gum wrappers — for a guy named Jimmy Wombles. “A month later, he made me the head of his crew, and I was making $32 an hour as a jet boat mechanic.” Teasley worked two weeks like this on the North Slope, and one week back in Knik with the dogs, saving money all the while for the Iditarod. Within twelve and a half weeks, he flew back to Anchorage with the money needed to run the Iditarod. Instead of signing up upon his return, however, he took the advice of Joe Redington Sr., who encouraged Teasley to work toward building an Iditarod-caliber dog team. “I looked around and realized I had a bunch of dogs where everybody around me had a dog team which is very different than just having a bunch of dogs,” says Teasley. “Joe Redington said, ‘Frank, I definitely think you need to go home and take care of business. The Iditarod is here, it will always be here.’” Ten years later, in 1989, Teasley ran his first Iditarod, and as it is for many, he says it was a dream come true. “The Iditarod is not for everybody, but it was definitely for me,” says Teasley. “I never felt intimidated, I felt excited about it. It was like, ‘I’m finally here!’” The night before his first Iditarod, Teasley received confidence from mentor Redington. “Joe said something, and it meant the world to me, ‘You may be [a rookie], but I’m fairly certain you’re not a rookie.’ And it just gave me confidence, and away we went,” says Teasley. During that same year, Teasley had left Nikolai and was heading into McGrath in 19th place and doing well, considering it was his first run. By the time he left Nikolai, he was in 10th place. Feeling confident, he said he turned around to a wake-up call. “I saw this team that just looked like a freight train, coming up that fast on me, and I couldn’t figure out who it is,” recounts Teasley. “Ten minutes later, he’s closed on me by half, and ten minutes later, he closed on me by another half, until finally, ten minutes later, I hear the leaders on my runners.” He turned around to find Joe Redington Sr. starting to pass him on the river, “but he was sound asleep! He was sitting down on the back of the sled, head bobbin’ as he goes by me, and I said ‘Joe! The very least you could do is wake up if you’re gonna pass me!’” Teasley says with a chuckle. “He turned around to me and waved to me as he passed, saying ‘good luck, Frank!’ and kept right on going.”One of his original Iditarod dogs, Creature, who he describes as a “bowling ball with a harness on,” is responsible for helping to forge a connection between Teasley and Martin Buser. Busted flat for cash, Teasley ran his first Iditarod without even a spare harness. He jokes, “I did have a needle and dental floss.” Continuing, he clarifies, “I’ve never had a dog since then who was a chewer anything like Creature.” Stealth-like, Creature would move in, unbeknownst to a trail-weary musher. “You’d never see him move, you’d never see him do anything,” says Teasley of Creature. “He would just lay down and twenty minutes later, stand up and 18 pieces of a harness would fall to his feet,” says Teasley. On one such occasion, Teasley came into Rainy Pass after Creature had his way with a harness. “I walked into the cabin, and I felt like I had just stepped into a history book,” says Teasley. Rick Swenson, Jerry Austin, DeeDee Jonrowe, Martin Buser, Rick Mackey and Bill Cotter, to name a few, were hanging out in the cabin getting warm. “Nobody knew me and I didn’t know any of them, but I knew who their names were,” says Teasley. Getting the feeling that some mushers thought he didn’t deserve to be in the top 10 as a rookie, Teasley stuck to the task of repairing the destruction Creature had done to his harness. “I was sitting there sewing up Creature’s harness, and I’ll never forget this: Martin Buser stood up and said, ‘Well, you’re here. You must deserve to be here. I have a harness for you,’ and he went out to his sled and got a harness and handed it to me.” Teasley says proudly, “I still sewed up my harness, and I gave that same harness back to Martin in Nome that year….without it being chewed up!” Gonna Take You Higher: from Musher to BusinessmanSpeaking frankly, Teasley is not shy about giving thanks. “I feel really fortunate that, years ago, I chose to go down this path and it worked out for me,” he says. A quick-thinking businessman, Teasley thought hard about how to sustain his mushing lifestyle, make a profit and still find time to train the dogs. “Flippant as it may sound, I didn’t want to work for anybody,” he says. In Jackson Hole, many work for the ski resorts or snow machine touring companies during the winter and as fishing guides in summer. Watching one snow machine touring company taking tourists out on trips to see the Tetons, Teasley had an idea. “If people would hire snow machines to take them out on an adventure, maybe they’d be more interested in a dog team.” He admits many thought he was the “village idiot” for his idea. But he went forward with his idea. He launched his touring company, Jackson Hole Iditarod Sled Dog Tours, while working as a dishwasher in an Italian restaurant at night, saving meatballs from customer leftovers for dog food and scrimping by at $3.25 an hour. “That first year, I wouldn’t exactly call it thriving, but I took seven clients out that winter.” Now, Teasley touts a waiting list all winter long of tourists waiting to see the Tetons via dogsled. Fifteen years ago, Teasley was approached by the governor of Wyoming, who inquired about how to start what was originally thought of as the “Iditarod of Wyoming.” “I said that’s not gonna happen,” says Teasley of his response. “There is only one Iditarod, it will always be the Iditarod.” He sat down with the officials from the state and shared his thoughts about what the race that would eventually become the International Rocky Mountain Stage Stop should look like. “Make something more spectator friendly,” guided Teasley. He advised the stage race format. “What I did not realize then was, although I didn’t want it to be an elitist format, I wanted it to be extremely competitive,” admits Teasley. I literally get chills up my spine as Frank speaks with certain clarity of just how competitive the Stage Stop is. “You could lose two hours in the Iditarod, but could make it up somehow. But if you lose two minutes in the Stage Stop, you’re not getting them back. There is no coasting in this race. You take it easy in this race, you’re done.” “People ask whether I am a dog musher or a businessman or a promoter, or director. I will say this: I’m a very good team builder, whether it’s towns, dogs, or people.” Teasley again gives credit to those who’ve stood behind him. “This race has gotten so big going into its fifteenth year [not because of me]. I can’t do it anymore, it’s too big. I need the people I surround myself with to make it a success. I have the best race marshal in the business, Mark Nordman. I’ve got the best chief veterinarian in the business, Carolyn Griffith. I’ve got the best timer in the business, Stan Rogers. They all do their portion. I just put the team together.”The Stage Stop touts an impressive 1,400 volunteers. Teasley gives credit where credit is due. “Without volunteers, there’s not a race on the planet that would exist.” He likens his role in the Stage Stop to that of a director in an orchestra: in the background, guiding and pulling together a team of experts who do what they do best. He says finally, “I can’t ask a volunteer to do something I don’t do myself. So, in fifteen years, I’ve never drawn a paycheck from the Stage Stop.” He is quick to clarify his meaning, however, “I’m not patting myself on the back. I just wanted to put on a dog race.” A dual role the Stage Stop and the touring company share is education – not only educating the media about what mushing is all about, but educating people who come for a day tour about Alaskan huskies and the traditions tied to running a team of them across the tundra. “People show up with the tour operation and say, ‘wow you expect the dogs to be so much bigger,’” says Teasley. “Unfortunately, because of Hollywood, people think of “Snow Dogs,” and that’s not the real deal. I try to educate people that we’re breeding for travel and locomotion, not appearance.” So, what does it take to be competitive in a race like the Stage Stop? “Every year, the competition gets stiffer and stiffer,” admits Teasley. “But I hope the mushers are intrigued by that.” Then Teasley corrects: “The question should be ‘how good of care can I give my dog team to make them the perfect athletes?’” True to form, Teasley says frankly, “There’s no hocus pocus going on here, or silver bullet. If you’ve got the right dogs, that certainly helps. But knowing how to care for them when they’re going at top end for eight days in a row, is the other piece of the equation.” Behind every good musher is a good handler. The other piece of the equation, according to Teasley, is a darn good handler, “someone who knows what you’re thinking before you even think of it.” He says a good handler is like a good pit crew. “Once you leave the starting line, they can’t help you. But they can drive your truck, read the packet, and do all the things they do to help you race.” His wife, Stacey, is whimsical and child-like, a strong brunette with sturdy shoulders and golden skin. A recent YouTube post shows her skipping through a field of balsam root with a dog trailing behind. The Frank Teasley I knew was hard-driven, serious, often intimidating. Clearly, marriage has softened him. He says of Stacey, “I built this house, but she’s made it a home.” Throughout our interview, dogs randomly bark in the background. As I finish chatting with Frank, I hear Stacey giggling. “Here, this will be a good sign off from the kennel in Wyoming,” says Teasley. At that moment, Stacey howls a long, mournful howl, and within seconds, all 180 dogs in the kennel resound with yips and barks, a cacophony of ‘thank yous’ and ‘good nights’ echoing off the canyon walls that surround the Teasley cabin. The perfect sound off, indeed.
Racing in the ACE Race with Tonya Helm On this episode of the Mushing podcast,