Iditarod rookie’s sled dogs are city dwellers
Iditarod rookie Christine Roalofs ladled beef scraps into a steaming bucket of high-priced kibble on a recent weekday. A dozen pairs of brown eyes watched.
“Don’t spill it!” Roalofs told a five-year-old husky named Seven. “Watch,” she said to a visitor. “He’s going to pick up his bowl and spill it all over.”
Other dogs waited outside the dog barn, breath clouding in the early morning chill and darkness. It’s a scene that replays every day in every Iditarod musher’s dog yard across Alaska.
For Roalofs, a pediatric dentist hoping to finish her first Iditarod this year, there’s one big difference. Her 22 sled dogs sleep two blocks away from a a well-used thoroughfare in the middle of Anchorage.
It didn’t take long for Roalofs’ neighbors to meet the city-centerd musher and her city-kenneled sled dogs.
“That first night we woke up at 2 O’clock in the morning and it sounded like a pack of coyotes outside of the window,” neighbor David Nanne said of his arrival to the Russian Jack neighborhood two years ago. He can sometimes hear Roalofs’ dogs at feeding time, above the muffled rush-hour traffic of East Anchorage.
Alaska’s largest city is awash in sled dogs this lately. Last weekend, it was sprint teams running in the Fur Rendezvous world championships. Iditarod dogs are now arriving for the Saturday ceremonial start through the city. Teams will idle in McDonald’s drive-throughs and pace the snow in slushy hotel parking lots.
Three of the 66 mushers expected to begin the race next weekend live in Anchorage. “Mushin’ Mortician” Scott Janssen keeps a few puppies at his home, but races with a Kasilof-based team.
Veteran Robert Bundtzen, a doctor who specializes in infectious diseases, keeps his kennel of 24 dogs at the edge of town.
Only Roalofs’ dogs live all year round in the middle of the city. (See a 2011 interview with Roalofs here: http://youtu.be/bixWqT2N3Cw)
Unlike many mushers who can step on the runners from their backyard, Roalofs must load the dogs in her truck and drive to out-of-town trails to train.
City law requires anyone with four or more dogs or cats to apply for a $100 to $150 kennel license.
No one has complained to animal control about Roalofs’ kennel, a constant worry for the 46-year-old musher.
The yard is a fenced circle of dog houses surrounding a “barn” that the huskies freely enter to warm up or eat meals — Picture a shed with six doggie doors. A collection of security cameras could be used to defend against noise complaints, she said.
One neighbor is a member of the National Guard and gone much of the year. “The other house you can actually see,” she said, looking down the hill, “He has a bunch of dogs that make way more noise than mine.”
Raised in Kentucky, Roalofs moved to Alaska in 1999. She never planned to balance a growing dental practice with her commutes to the Chugiak and Willow for training runs, she said. She first encountered the Iditarod when a friend invited her to watch the ceremonial start.
“That looks like fun,” Roalofs remembers saying.
Her friend: Do you have any idea how much work that is?
Two years later, Roalofs opened a dental practice and one day found herself treating the son of musher Gary McKellar. Shortly after, he invited her to visit the family dog yard. She was impressed and soon she was learning how to harness sled dogs.
Not long after, in 2007, she ran her first 200-mile race.
“I want to call it divine intervention, how it all came together,” Roalofs said.
Roalofs attempted the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest in 2011. She was mushing at the back of the pack when a snowstorm slowed her progress. She pushed the help button on her GPS tracker, which disqualified her from the race. She said she had run out of food for her dogs.
A watershed moment came last month during the Copper Basin 300, when one of Roalofs dogs led four teams into the wind on the summit between Chistochina and Paxson, she said. She finished 26th of 31 finishers.
In January, she placed 14th of 25 finishers in the Northern Lights 300, which travels from Big Lake to Finger Lake and back. “That was the race where I realized I’ve been doing this long enough to not be a true rookie anymore. I might be an Iditarod rookie, but when it comes to 200 and 300-mile races, I’ve been around long enough to be kind of figuring this stuff out.”
One potential leader in her pack of dogs is Inca, who ran the Iditarod with Wasilla musher Ryan Redington. Other strong racers came from a litter of 10 puppies, all named after X-Men comic book characters.
Although her dogs live in the city, finishing the Iditarod would be a homecoming of sorts for Roalofs since spends several weeks a year working in communities on the Iditarod trail.
In addition to her Muldoon dentist office hours, Roalofs sees patients in Nome, the Iditarod endpoint, and the village of Shaktoolik, one of the race’s checkpoints. She even has packed her drop bags with toothbrushes and stickers to hand out to her young patients and other school kids.
The ceremonial start begins at 10 a.m. Saturday.
Reported by KYLE HOPKINS of the Anchorage Daily News in ANCHORAGE, Alaska. (MCT)
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