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5 June 2016 / leggypeggy

Meeting an Iditarod (dog racing) legend

Mary Shields with dog

Mary chains one of her dogs to its kennel for the night

Mary Shield's dog yard

The dog yard behind Mary’s house

Gate to dog yard

The gate says ‘May I be the person my dogs think I am’

It’s winter in Australia and we’ve had wonderful soaking rain yesterday, with more drenching us today.

The weather got me thinking that if our winters were much, much colder we’d be completely blanketed with snow by now. And that got me thinking about our snowy time in Alaska in March.

I’ve already written about our first visit to the world ice art championships in Fairbanks, but I haven’t told you about our amazing afternoon with Mary Shields. In 1974, she was the first woman to finish the famous 1000-mile Alaskan dog sled race, the Iditarod.

Mary welcomed us into her log cabin on the outskirts of Fairbanks. She and her then husband designed and, for the most part, built the house. It’s a simple design with two floors (ground floor and basement) and a large kitchen with a wonderful wood stove/cooker (I still love my wood stove and should write more about it).

Mary Shield's kitchen

A wonderful kitchen

Wood stove

Mary’s wood stove in action. Mine isn’t nearly as beautiful

After a tour of the house, Mary led us outside to her largish backyard where her team of huskies is corralled. The dogs were overjoyed to see her, and happy enough to see us too.

We had the chance to meet and pet the dogs, and see the range of sleds she keeps on hand. Mary still does a run most days and can range for 20–30 miles on any given expedition. She says the dogs love to run, and it’s pretty obvious that she loves to hang on the back.

Mary makes sure each dog changes their kennel every day so they don’t become possessive about one place. She also keeps them chained to the kennel of the day, so that fights don’t break out while she’s inside or away.

Each kennel is low, square and filled with straw for warmth. If I recall correctly, there are eight kennels for six dogs.

Mary brings the dogs inside regularly, but they don’t stay for long. Their coats are long and they are bred for living outdoors, so they overheat when they are inside for too long.

Mary Shields with a sled

Mary with one of her sleds

Mary Shields' log cabin

Looking down to the bedroom

Eventually, we retreated to the house and got comfortable in Mary’s warm and cosy living room and kitchen. That’s when she told us of her experiences in the Iditarod as well as her runs in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the Hope Race from Alaska to Siberia.

She told us how she came to love mushing and how it still gives her so much joy. And, as I said before, she still runs (hope I’m using the right terminology) them regularly. In between, she’s had time to write five books.

For our visit, Mary wore what I think is called a kuspuk, a traditional garment for Alaskan women (and now men, too). Even though they appear to be lightweight, they must be lined and super warm because Mary showed no signs of being cold. Maybe she was warmed to the bone by her gorgeous wood stove, which also produced the lovely hot drinks and biscuits we enjoyed for afternoon tea.

If you make it to Fairbanks, we can highly recommend a stop at Mary’s for a Tails of the Trail experience.

Oh, and if you’re interested in reading a wonderful story about dog sled racing, I can highly recommend Gary Paulsen’s book Winterdance: The fine madness of running the Iditarod.

Start of a sprint dog race

Sprint dogs are raring to go. Notice how lean they are

Our first mushing of the day
Before we visited Mary, we stopped at a dog sled racing competition. It was an important international competition, but I can’t remember what it was called.

It helps to know there are three kinds of sled races that require different kinds of dogs.

The competition we saw was for sprints only. These races range from four to 100 miles. Then there are mid-distance races, 100 to 300 miles, and long-distance races that can exceed 1000 miles.

We watched 15 or 20 race starts, but the great bonus was to meet Leonie Tetzner. At age five, Leonie won the Montana Creek World Championship, making her the youngest dog racing champ in the world.

It was fascinating to watch her. Remarkable confidence. Keep an eye on her.

Leonie Tetzner

Leonie Tetzner, junior champion at dog sled racing

65 Comments

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  1. Rashminotes / Jun 5 2016 3:51 pm

    Very interesting; it is always great to have such nice experiences when you travel. Apart from the usual “touristy” spots, meeting native people and soaking in the local culture is all about the essence of travel for me. Nice read Peggy!

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 5:17 pm

      Thanks so much. It’s these kinds of experiences that make a trip special.

      Like

  2. Yvonne / Jun 5 2016 4:19 pm

    There are so many interesting people in the world. Thank you for introducing us to Mary (and her dogs and stove).

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Sharon Bonin-Pratt / Jun 5 2016 4:20 pm

    The Iditarod is fascinating, so thank you for this inside look, Peggy. Mary’s house is lovely with those wildflowers painted on her cabinets, but also very interesting to see the dog’s houses. And that little race champion – just wow! To be so capable at five – how old could she have been when she started to learn?
    What year did you visit Mary? Or are you there now? I thought you were still in Cuba.

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 5:20 pm

      We visited Mary (and her amazing house and dogs) in March and went to Cuba after that. We’re back in Australia now, but don’t tell anyone. Sh-h-h-h! 🙂

      Like

  4. adventuredawgs / Jun 5 2016 4:45 pm

    I love the saying she has on the gate.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. fiftywordsdaily / Jun 5 2016 5:05 pm

    Brilliant and fascinating as always! Also good to be introduced to the Mozart of mushing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 5:21 pm

      She sure is! There were two women entered that year, and everyone was pretty sure the other woman would come in ahead of Mary.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Vicki / Jun 5 2016 5:16 pm

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful experience of Mary and her sled dogs. I follow a coupe of Alaskan bloggers and have watched several dads of this race. I am always amazed by their dog’s tenacity and joyful yaps champing at the bit waiting for the release to run in these races.

    (Bearly. over at bearlyblog.wordpress.com relates a wonderful experience of working as a musher for a season, but just now, I couldn’t find his post on the Iditarod. Bearly doesn’t post often, but his photos are wonderful). I’m lucky enough to have several DVDs on Alaska, but I guess Alaska will always remain on my Bucket List. Maybe in my next life………. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 5:22 pm

      Oh Vicki, thanks so much for the tip about Bearly. Off to check it out now.
      Here’s a link to a collection of his Iditarod posts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vicki / Jun 5 2016 5:32 pm

        Thanks Peggy. Got them. Bearly also has some amazing images of the Northern Lights. By the way, I’d love to see some more of your Alaskan images.

        Liked by 2 people

      • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 5:34 pm

        I’m not done with Alaska yet! 🙂

        Like

  7. Dorothy / Jun 5 2016 5:41 pm

    Mary is an awesome lady, living in such a cold environment with all her dogs. Love her kitchen. Don’t think I could stand the cold. Even Christchurch is too cold for me in Winter so I am off to Fiji for a fortnight next week. Will try and get some good photos and do a blog on it. Dorothy

    dorothysstories.wordpress.com

    >

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 8:45 pm

      Have a wonderful time in Fiji. It’s a place I’ve not yet visited, but I hear the Fijians are among the friendliest people in the world.

      Like

  8. derrickjknight / Jun 5 2016 7:17 pm

    A fascinating post, Peggy

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Judith / Jun 5 2016 7:38 pm

    Enjoyed “meeting” Mary through your post, and I will definitely be checking out Paulsen’s book. I’ve always been fascinated by the Itidarod race. How awesome to get such first-hand knowledge of the experience.

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 8:56 pm

      Hope you enjoy the book half as much as I did. A real adventure.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Judith / Jun 5 2016 9:55 pm

        I’m sure I will. It’s incredible to think of what these racers endure.

        Liked by 2 people

      • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 9:59 pm

        It’s all about endurance on the part of the dogs and the mushers.

        Like

  10. GP Cox / Jun 5 2016 8:11 pm

    Beautiful animals. How old do they have to be before they can finally retire from pulling their masters around?

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 8:50 pm

      Gosh, what a good question, but I don’t have an informed answer. But I’m guessing they go until they drop. We had, Barney, an ancient, arthritic dog who still insisted on going on walks. The vet said, and I quote, ‘A dog with four broken legs will still want to go on a walk’.

      Like

      • GP Cox / Jun 5 2016 8:53 pm

        I wonder what drives them.

        Liked by 2 people

      • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 9:00 pm

        Maybe it’s what makes people run or swim or cook or whatever—passion.

        Like

  11. wfdec / Jun 5 2016 8:29 pm

    What beautiful dogs and how sad to see some in Melbourne as house pets that don’t get to run anywhere.

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 8:50 pm

      Oh yes, it’s very sad to see dogs living in the ‘wrong’ environment.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Louise Terranova / Jun 5 2016 9:21 pm

    Sounds great. I don’t know a lot about the race I will have to read up about it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 9:38 pm

      It’s sometimes called ‘The Last Great Race on Earth’.

      Like

  13. Becky / Jun 5 2016 9:23 pm

    What a beautiful place this is!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. spearfruit / Jun 5 2016 10:13 pm

    Very interesting story and Mary appears to by an awesome lady. Thanks Peggy for sharing, I enjoyed it! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 5 2016 10:16 pm

      Thanks so much. Mary seems to rise above awesome. So blessed to have met her.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Sheryl / Jun 6 2016 3:47 am

    I enjoyed reading Mary’s fascinating story. The Iditarod sounds like so much fun. I’ve seen a few small dogsled races in the lower 48, and would love to see the Iditarod someday.

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 6 2016 2:01 pm

      I think you’d love Gary Paulsen’s book. It made me understand why it’s sometimes called the ‘Last Great Race on Earth’.

      Like

  16. luckyjc007 / Jun 6 2016 7:05 am

    Enjoyed this very much! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Sy.S / Jun 6 2016 10:37 am

    Many dog breeds need to be active, to stay healthy and have a good state of mind…. the dogs fortunate enough to be part of a dog sled run, have the good life… And I would guess very well taken care of by most of their owners.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. Lynz Real Cooking / Jun 6 2016 1:51 pm

    Thanks for sharing all of these experiences with us! truly they are amazing! I love the pictures that go along with the story! x

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 6 2016 2:16 pm

      Thanks. It took a long time to decide which pics to include.

      Like

  19. Brenda / Jun 6 2016 10:41 pm

    How wonderful that you visited Mary and got to see some Fairbanks cabin life. One winter in the 70s, we lived in the Goldstream Valley (not far from Mary’s) on Yellow Snow Road–a fitting (if silly) name, considering the resident dog teams.

    Liked by 3 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 7 2016 9:51 am

      What a great name for a road in Alaska. Reminds me of the joke that goes ‘What’s the first thing an eskimo mother teaches her child? Don’t eat the yellow snow!’

      Liked by 1 person

  20. mommermom / Jun 6 2016 10:45 pm

    I really love the quote etched on the gate!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Carol Ferenc / Jun 7 2016 5:31 am

    Mary has lived an interesting life, hasn’t she? What a great travel opportunity for you, Peggy. So glad you were able to meet her and her dogs.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. sepultura13 / Jun 7 2016 11:43 am

    Awesome photographs! Mary Shields is an icon for many Alaskan girls and women…our family moved there in 1973, so her name was well-known in my house. Susan Butcher is a lady who won the Iditarod at least three times, and I believe that Mary was her inspiration!

    “Alaska – where men are men, and women win the Iditarod!”
    🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / Jun 7 2016 1:16 pm

      Thanks so much. Mary could be every woman’s inspiration. She’s amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

  23. voulaah / Jun 7 2016 6:15 pm

    Super post as always Peggy, thank you for sharing
    Kisses
    anita
    🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Elouise / Jun 11 2016 10:01 am

    Wonderful photos of Mary’s place! It looks totally inviting, eclectic and comfortable. Warm, too. 🙂
    Elouise

    Liked by 1 person

  25. tony / Jun 12 2016 10:41 pm

    Great post Peggy! Great activity and nowadays a sport, I suppose. I used to enjoy Farley Mowat’s books on the opening up of the Canadian frontier when I lived in Canada. Great cabin! Could imagine living there but only for a couple of weeks! Good to see that something of the old lifestyle is left in Alaska.

    Tony
    http://breadtagsagas.com/

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 12 2016 10:48 pm

      Hi Tony, I forgot that you lived in Canada. That aside, I reckon Alaska is one of the last ‘modern’ places to hang on to their ‘old lifestyle’.

      Liked by 1 person

  26. philosophermouseofthehedge / Jun 14 2016 11:46 pm

    So cool you got to meet Mary and see the dogs! We follow the race (online at a distance). Remarkable land and inhabitatnts – man and beasts. Our rescue dog, Molly, looks pretty much like the one above the green fence in the picture – I don’t think she ever feels rain or cold. Great phrase on that fence. Thanks for letting us trot along with you on this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 15 2016 9:14 am

      My pleasure. We were thrilled to meet Mary and the dogs (and see that fence). Mary is such a gracious person and so passionate about Alaska, dogs, the race and the environment. Give Molly a pat from us. 🙂

      Like

  27. milliethom / Jun 17 2016 11:25 pm

    Fascinating post Peggy. Mary’s an awesome lady, and I love her log cabin – and that wonderful wood-burning stove. She certainly looks the hardy type, and what a great achievement to win the celebrated dog-sled race. Not to mention the writing of five books. As I said, she’s just awesome (not a word I use often, but Mary fits the bill). 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 18 2016 8:11 am

      I agree. Mary really is awesome, but I should clarify that she was the first woman to finish the Iditarod. Libby Riddles was the first woman to win it.

      Like

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