MUSHERS LIVING HAPPILY EVER AFTER OR NOT

There’s no question it takes a lot to make a marriage work. But add huskies or hounds into the equation and the solution, a long and happy marriage, gets a lot more difficult.Many a husband-and-wife duo has parted ways over sled dogs, whether it’s the huge expense or a younger, more attractive handler, the reasons vary.But in just as many, if not more, cases mushing couples have made it work and have had much success on and off the trail. Regardless if both partners are mushers, it can be done.Lance and Tonga Mackey have been married for 10 years and while Lance, the first musher to win both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year, is the musher, Tonga is supportive in a warmer sort of way.“Tonga is ultimately involved in mushing as much as possible, but she doesn’t mush,” said Lance. “It’s almost like we have two separate lives. She didn’t grow up doing this stuff, she’s not a winter-type person, she don’t spend a lot of time outside. She likes her job at the movie house but I think it has brought us closer in a way because to get to this stage, I’ve been kind of an ass. “It’s stressful and I’m grumpy all the time.”But now that Lance has been on a winning streak, life at Mackey’s Comeback Kennel is a little more laid back.“Tonga doesn’t expect me to go out and win all these races but she’s getting used to it happening, so when I don’t, she asks me what happened. She’s happy because I’m happy.”Even when Lance wasn’t winning and the couple was nickel-and-diming it from paycheck to paycheck, they still supported each other, it’s just easier now, Lance said.“We talk a lot more than we used to. Before, every dollar we made went to the dogs and for someone who doesn’t race to give all their money to go to dog food was sad for her. The cool thing lately is going and doing things together that we were never able to do before.”With extra help around the kennel, trucks and four-wheelers that run reliably and a stockpile of wood, the Mackeys have extra time for things like local university hockey games and movies.“It’s definitely made us have more fun.”And while many marriages break up because the musher is forced to choose between the spouse or the dogs, that was never an issue for the Mackeys.“The only ultimatum she ever gave me was that if I could have 70 dogs outside, she could have as many as she wanted inside,” said Lance, adding that they have 10 tiny house dogs and one cat along with 70 sled dogs in the yard.“This is not an ‘I’ sport, this is a team sport.”Sprint champion Eddy Streeper and his champion wife, Amy, agreed.“Basically we share everything,” Eddy said.While Eddy is away racing, Amy holds down the fort as far as dog chores and kids, but in the summer, Amy works and Eddy is the shovel specialist, he said.When it comes to racing, Eddy runs the open class while Amy runs the limited except early in the season when they both run the 10-dog class. And even then, there is not an ‘A’ or ‘B’ team, Eddy said.The best dogs are divided up equally amongst the two teams. The philosophy of equals on the runners has made the Streepers one of the most successful husband-and-wife racing duo ever.“I’ve seen a lot of marriages break up over dogs,” Eddy said. “Many, many marriages.”“The reason is usually the husband spending money on the dog habit and the wife freaks out,” Eddy said.“You‘ve got have a partner that’s into the dogs. And, at first, everyone’s into it, until they realize how expensive it is.”Eddy and Amy met at a race many moons ago and while Amy didn’t have her own dogs at the time, she was interested in sharing a kennel. Now the pair has 100 huskies in their Fastest Streeper Kennel.Some mushers are lucky enough to get out of a relationship before the wedding bells chime. Gerry Willomitzer and his former partner split after Willomitzer started his serious racing career a few years ago.“It’s just more difficult to give the dogs the kind of focus they need if the spouse is a non-musher,” said Willomitzer who was third in the 2007 Yukon Quest. “You need time and focus for competitive mushing, of course it’s more laid back for a recreational musher,” he said, adding that when you’re training for a competitive season, your winter is pretty much consumed with dogs.“It’s hard for some people to accept and understand,” said Willomitzer from Whitehorse. He added that his relationship never got to the point where she gave him the ‘me-or-the-dogs’ choice.“She never got to that point because she knew what the answer would be,” he said. “It was not necessarily a 100 percent dog-mushing issue either,” he added, noting that she was a non-musher.Even when both spouses are mushers, that can be problematic too because competitive nature can take over, married or not, Willomitzer said.“If one’s not a musher, but has a very rich life in other ways and strong, outside interests and they pursue them on their own, then that can work.“There’s got to be a counterbalance to the dog mushing, the other person can’t just sit around and wait for the musher to come home from a training run. And the partner has to be supportive and involved even if they’re not out there scooping poop or harnessing up the team. I see that as a successful relationship.”With her extensive career, which includes the Iditarod, Yukon Quest, Wyoming Stage Stop and many other mid-distance and sprint races, Gwen Holdmann knows what it takes to make a mushing marriage work. Her husband is Ken Anderson, a perennial Iditarod favorite who finished seventh in 2007. Together they own and operate Windy Creek Kennel, north of Fox, Alaska, and have been doing so for a decade.“The top priority in our personal life is keeping up with the kennel and we’re both 100% committed to it,” Holdmann said.“We’re supportive of each other and respect each other’s approach.”Compromise is the key, Holdmann added. And though they don’t always see eye to eye, they manage to combine both their styles of training, breeding and racing to make it successful.“If the kennel is just run the way one person wants to run it, that’s when you get into trouble because you get resentful.”Because they both race throughout the season, there is healthy rivalry between them, but, said Holdmann, they never let that competitive nature get out of hand.“I wouldn’t say that has ever crossed the line into hostility. We’ve always had a really good relationship during races because we have different strengths,” she said. “We complement each other, we ask each other for opinions and I think that’s healthy.”Though she hasn’t been mushing dogs much in the past two years because of health issues and work commitments, they still work together to maintain their large, 80-plus-dog kennel.“I expect him to support me and understand what I’m doing and in return I don’t question if he’s gone on long runs. We respect the time being put into our respective lives.”When top contender Zack Steer proposed to his wife Anjanette under the famed burled arches in 1998 after he completed his rookie Iditarod, he knew then what it would take to have a long-lasting marriage.“The trick is to get an ugly handler because that can make your life a whole lot easier,” laughed Steer from Sheep Mountain, Alaska. “I get guys with big beards and that keeps my wife happy.”The Steers take their kids on camping trips together with the dogs as a way to spend time together and keep in the dogs in shape.“To be a professional musher takes a lot of time and it can really put stress on the relationship if you don’t have a partner that understands.“To me, family is most important and I create an atmosphere that keeps everyone involved.”Sprinter Mark Hartum of Edmonton, Alberta, also involves his entire family in his competitive mushing career. He and his wife Brooke have been married for eight years and besides helping harness dogs and do chores at home, she and the kids travel to Alaska with Mark while he competes in the Alaska circuit.Brooke knew she was in for a lifetime with sled dogs, when, on their honeymoon, Mark was making dog deals over the phone. That was the start of long and successful mushing life for both.“Mark was interested in becoming competitive and he likes to do it with all his heart, that’s how he is with the family and the dogs and right now it seems to be working,” said Brooke from Alberta.They started with Siberians and since then have upgraded to husky-pointer crosses. They have about 50.A couple of years ago, the Hartums rented an RV in early spring and headed to Alaska for two months so Mark could run the Limited North American, the North Pole Championship, the Tok Race of Champions and the Open North American Championship. Last year they came for only two weeks while Mark raced the ONAC.And while Brooke has and still does occasionally race in the limited classes, she’s more focused now on helping Mark cross the finish line.“Mark has told me that he couldn’t do it without me and kids,” Brooke said. “I don’t know how you do that if you don’t do it together.”“We have specifically talked about failed musher marriages and I know it’s common, but I also know that myself and the kids are the most important thing. No matter how bad the day or week was, we respect each other and he would always put us first.”No matter what, marriage or long-term partnership takes commitment, but if you marry into mushing, you’d better be willing to share your bed with a dog or two.Jillian Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer living in Fairbanks. She covered sled dog races for seven years before venturing into mushing herself and now owns nine huskies.

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