INTERVIEW: MELLISA OWENS: 2008 SEPPALA HERITAGE GRANT WINNER

Melissa Owens, 4-time Jr. Iditarod f inisher and 2005 Champ, has already signed up to race the 2008 “Adult” Iditarod. She will turn 18 just 12 days prior to the start of that race. Melissa has also run the Junior Quest, finishing in 1st place, but “off icially” placing 4th because of a small rule technicality regarding the handing of a headlamp to her at a checkpoint by her mother. She has recently been awarded the 2008 Seppala Heritage Grant, which was specif ically designed to help fund the efforts of mushers who aspire to run the Iditarod for the 1st time. Applicants have to demonstrate a commitment to work with, train and race sled dogs, and show value traits of generosity of spirit, courage, integrity and love for the dogs, land and people of Alaska. That’s quite a resume for someone of her age, but in talking with her, we found a teenager with poise, intelligence and of course mushing experience, that belies her age. Amanda and I had a chance to sit down with Melissa at the Fairbanks ADMA symposium recently and talk with her about her past, present and future. GS: Have you always lived in Nome, and did your parents have dogs while you were growing up?MO: My dad was an Iditarod competitor and we always had dogs around. I grew up with having dogs around. I can remember the older ones, sometimes we talk about them. GS: Do you have any siblings, and do they mush also?MO: I have one brother, Michael, who will be 15 this year. He is also a musher.GS: Neither Amanda or I grew up in a “mushing family”. What is it like? Are you kind of expected to carry on the family tradition?MO: I think I have surpassed my dad’s legacy by winning races, both in town, and major mid-distance and junior races. He is like, “Wow”.GS: How did you learn to run dogs, from him, or from other mushers?MO: I learned quite a bit from him, and then I learned a lot from the locals. I also learned a lot from DeeDee (Jonrowe).GS: Give us an idea of a teenager living in Nome with dogs. We understand there are no dogs allowed in town. What is your daily routine?MO: That’s right, there are no dogs allowed in town. We live a few miles out of town but still we cannot have dogs in our yard. The reason is that we do not own the land, the gold company does. The Nome Kennel Club leases a small block of land for all the dog teams in the club for like $2 a year. They let us keep our dogs up there as long as we keep it clean and organized. GS: How many families keep their dogs there?MO: Around 8 families. We have the biggest yard. The yards are apart from each other with some up on a hill a others down a little road.GS: Do the families share responsibilities? If a musher goes away, do you feed their dogs?MO: I was feeding one of the other musher’s dogs while he was out of town for a long time.GS: Do you have to haul water and food to the dog lot?MO: I haul food and water. I haul10-days worth of food at a time down to a shed, and I haul it to the house for water and back to the dogs to feed them.GS: How many dogs do you have right now? MO: 38. GS: You take care of them with your younger brother?MO: I do most of it. (laughs)GS: Are these all your dogs, or are some of them your dad’s?MO: More and more of them are becoming my dogs. GS: Just quickly, what races have you done well in?MO: Jr Iditarod, I have run it 4 times and won it in 2005. I did the Don Bowers 200 last year and came in second. My brother might race the Jr. Don Bowers race this year. I did the Jr. Quest and finished that one. I crossed the finish line first but got 4th. My mom passed me a headlamp and I got a time penalty. GS: Tell us a little about life in Nome. Are you home schooled?MO: I am home schooled. I actually attend school in Florida. It is an online school, we get together on camera three days a week. I see my teacher and classmates on the screen.GS: Wow, that’s cool—you don’t need a hall pass.MO: She knows when you leave because you are on camera.GS: Why did you choose this school?MO: They have a really good distance education program. My Dad actually went there, when he grew up in Florida, but I didn’t choose it because of that. I heard of the school at a summer camp. GS: What about social activities? Do you have friends your age in town?MO: My life is so busy, it’s all about the dogs, and I sleep when I can.GS: How long does the internet school last every day?MO: The classroom session is only 50 minutes. But because it is online does not mean we have less homework. We have a lot of homework.GS: Do you think you are getting the kind of education that you could if you attended a public school?MO: Yeah. Better. It is actually an Adventist school. GS: Are you going to college? Do you think an online school is a plus or a minus for getting into college?MO: I do not believe it would be much different. We might have a little better computer skills because you are doing everything on the computer. We do everything on MS Word and MS Powerpoint. GS: Describe your typical day, like tomorrow.MO: I get out of bed and sit down in front of the camera at 8.54am, Then Heather, my handler, will come over at about 9.30am and prepare dog water, and as soon as I am done with class (9.54) we will go down and water the dogs, do some errands around town and check the mail. Then we will water my brother’s dogs that are not running until 2pm, and load my dogs on the truck to go and run and then we come back at about 3 pm and we eat lunch. Then I do homework until about 5pm and then throw dog foood on to cook, which takes about 1 hour and forty-five minutes, and then we go and feed dogs. GS: This is your first year in the Iditarod as an adult. Are you excited or nervous?MO: I am excited. I will do that, and then afterwards, my dad and I will do the All Alaska Sweepstakes together.GS: And, you will still be a junior for the Jr. Quest.MO: Yes. The Jr. Quest race is at the beginning of February, and my birthday is the 18th.GS: The Iditarod is going to be, by far, your longest race.MO: Yes, We started training later this year. Usually we start August 1st, this year we started September 1st. I am training my dogs a little differently. I changed up the harnesses a little. I use a normal X-Back but I added a ring behind the collar of the harness. I put them on myself. I hook the tug line to that, and they don’t use a neck line. GS: What bloodlines are your dogs?MO: I have a few dogs from Ivana Nolke, some from Arleigh Reynolds.GS: Did you make a conscious decision to start adding sprint lines to your established distance lines?MO: I was looking for a leader, I got one from Ivana, she did really well. Then I was got another leader. They did so well I got a brother and another dog. It just came about that I needed this kind of dog and they became available.GS: Do they fit in well with your other dogs?MO: Yeah, I have found that if I have sprint dogs that don’t run as fast, I put them in my team and they love it. GS: Do you have any problems getting them to go so far?MO: No. I just fit them into the training and they go. GS: How far are you running right now? How long was this particular run going to be before you ran into the muskox? (see page 49)MO: It was going to be 8 miles. GS: Well it’s been a pleasure talking with you. Best of luck this season, and try to stay away from herds of large animals!MO: Thanks, I will.Not just another training run. by Melissa OwensMonday, October 15th, 2007 started as a normal day. I dragged myself out of bed, threw on some clothes, made myself presentable and went to class. Then the first strange thing happened, the fish for the dogs’ breakfast wasn’t cooked even though I had given it plenty of time—the night before someone had turned it off. So I let that cook anddecided to go fill up the truck with gas and get the mail. I fed my brother Michael’s dogs and harnessed mine and put them in the truck so that we could go for a training run. There wasn’t enough snow for a sled, so we have been training all 23 dogs off of the front of the truck. I got out behind the high school and hooked the dogs onto the line and got the run started. About 1 mile into the run things got interesting. I noticed a Muskox up around the corner on the side of the road. I stopped the dogs but they had noticed them too and they weren’t too thrilled about the idea of stopping with this critter up ahead of them. As the muskox crossed the road, the bushes suddenly came alive with the rest of the herd. When I saw that I said to my friend, who was in the passenger seat, “This can’t be good”. They started moving up the hill just a little, so I inched the dogs forward hollering for them to go on-by. I had a couple of younger leaders up front and they wanted to go investigate the critters on the sidelines. This caused the muskox to charge the team. The leaders quickly retreated, but the middle team dogs didn’t get the message so quickly and that provoked the muskox to charge again. God’s angels were watching over us, because we were able to pull dogs off the gangline and into the truck before any dogs could get hurt. As we were frantically loading dogs, the herd charged a third time, but then retreated into the bush. We finished loading them into the truck with a weary eye on the herd. With all the dogs loaded into the truck, all the while being closely watched by the herd, we decided to call it a day and go back to the dog yard. When we got back, I discovered that my friend had taken these photos. For about 3 hours afterward, I had this lump in the bottom of my stomach and my heart rate wasn’t quite normal. I sent another thank you prayer heavenward because it is only by God’s grace that I didn’t end up dealing with injured, or worse, dead dogs. Later that day, I took my school teacher and superintendant out to see the herd. There were 17 muskox. It was a nightmare I care not to repeat anytime soon.

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