Here are a couple of stories in PDF format that have been requested by readers. One is an article about Joe Garnie surviving the storm of 1991 the old fashioned way, and the other is a profile of a wonderful dog I once had named SunBear. (SunBear died about a year ago.) I will add more stories as I find them, or if someone asks for one.
The following story ran in October 2003 on the former Cabelasiditarod.com web site. Some of my posts from the past four years are no longer available on line. This was one of them. A musher asked me to make it available, so I’m posting it here.
Jeff King has recently changed his harness design a third time, first switching to a pulka harness, also made by ManMat, which he modified slightly; an din 2009 going to a custom-made, padded version of that pulka harness built by his former handler Mike Santos. These harnesses have D-rings on either side of the dog, and King likes being able to choose which side of the gangline his dogs run on, which can help reduce fatigue-related soreness. If a dog has a sore right shoulder, he can run it on the left side of the line, for example.
Another option for trying out the no-neckline system is to simply sew an O-ring — the same ones that come on a dog collar — to a Taiga collared-neck harness and get similar results.
Harnessing a new idea
Halfway into the 2001 Kuskokwim 300, one of Jeff King’s team dogs, Marco, seemed to be tiring. He stopped pulling. King had a simple, tried-and-true formula for helping the dog out. He halted the team and unclipped Marco’s tugline.
When they got going again, the rest of the dogs were pulling and Marco just ran along, connected to the main gangline only by a thin, 12-inch-long rope snapped to his collar. King’s intention was to give Marco a little bit of freedom to keep pace without stress. Then, King noticed, Marco started pulling by his neck. Through trial and error for the next 150 miles, King realized the dog wouldn’t pull when he was hitched to his tugline. He would only drive forward with the neckline.
That 150-mile conversation between dog and musher set the wheels turning in King’s head. “I thought, ‘I need a harness. The collar is a little Neanderthal to pull against,’ ” he said. So started a chain of events that would lead to a complete overhaul of the entire front end of King’s dog team. Anyone paying attention to the distance mushing world has by now realized that King’s harnesses are different, his gangline is unique and he has been championing an end to a reliance on the established tugline/neckline combination. His innovations already are spilling over into other kennels. If the experiment survives the test of time, it could change the face of distance mushing.
Even to the casual observer, King’s dog team looks kind of funny. He typically runs without using any necklines at all. But last year, when he showed up at the start of the Iditarod with modified tracking harnesses – designed for skijoring – it was a certifiable shocker. The stumpy harnesses looked better suited for walking cats in Manhattan than running dogs over 1,100 miles through Alaska.
It bemused spectators and competitors. Some scoffed at the big, knotted marine rope that passed as a towline and the lack of necklines. His tuglines were about half as long as normal.
King laughed too, all the way up the trail. He finished a strong third with a team of 11 dogs so eager to keep running that he signed them up to race the grueling Kobuk 440 a month later, which he won. That, coming off a season in which he scorched the trail to win the Kuskokwim 300, finishing with 11 dogs. His daughter, Cali, ran with the same getup and completed her rookie Iditarod with 14 dogs, having started with only 15.
I point out those numbers because King believes his harness and gangline system, when used in tandem, is a healthier way to run dogs in a long-distance event such as the Iditarod. Although a single season’s results aren’t enough to bank on, his track record in 2003 is enough to attract attention.
It already has. A booth at the annual mushing symposium in Fairbanks, Oct. 3-5, displayed the new distance harnesses, called Guard Harnesses, that were used by King last year. The booth was swarmed by inquisitive mushers. Most bought one or two of the harnesses, as I did, planning to try them out. Some bought enough to outfit a racing team.
What role did those harnesses really play in King’s success?
There can be a myriad of reasons why a dog musher has a good season. Training conditions. Diet. Morale. Pack chemistry. An outstanding leader. There are factors that may never be known. The question remains, what complex set of ingredients resulted in King’s recipe for finishing well last year? It’s not like he suddenly shot up the ranks. He’s been winning dog races for years. But the way he did it, with such large teams at the finish line, was noteworthy. Did his harness and gangline system play a pivotal role? The jury is still out, but King is convinced he is on to something.
I got a first-hand look at his team, and the system, during an early October training run at his home in Denali Park. He hooked up 12 dogs to his gangline, made of half-inch-thick nylon rope with 18-inch tuglines every 7 ½ feet. Another peculiarity of his is running three dogs abreast, instead of the usual two. He had three leaders and three swing dogs on this training run.
I thought it was done as a way to train young leaders, by sandwiching a young dog between two veterans. Nah, he said, that might be a fringe benefit, but really it’s done to shorten the gangline. He pointed out that the traditional gangline was developed by and for sprint mushers. It is made of sections 8 feet long, or longer, often with 12-inch necklines connected to a loop in the front and 42-inch tuglines coming from a loop in the back. Distance mushers have unique needs, he said. Twisting trail being one of them. Rough trail being another, not to mention the sheer number of hours spent running.
Learning his reasoning for that gave me some insight into King. He is creative, and does what creative people do. He looks at something and doesn’t accept it at face value. He asks questions. Could it be done better? What is best for the dogs in a distance race? It should be a natural set of questions for a musher training 50 to 60 dogs year round and staring at the towline anyway.
The same kind of mental spark is visible in other top mushers. Martin Buser has been a pioneer with hardware, race strategy and breeds of dogs. Egil Ellis introduced the eurohound, altering the course of sprint mushing. A great many others have contributed ideas that sometimes spread, sometimes fizzle.
“What separates the “elite” in the mushing world, be it sprint, stage, mid or distance, from the rest of the pack is their ability to think outside the box,” said Art Stoller, a sprint musher and a real student of the sport. “They see success as a complex task of making hundreds, if not thousands of decisions on a constant basis. They are continually looking at the main ingredients of the recipe, i.e. the dogs, feeding, training, equipment, and so on, and asking themselves is that the best we can do in each area. This is what Jeff, and Martin, and Egil, and the others are doing to stay on top. They are always open to change, as long as the potential to improve is there.”
It’s all in the geometry
So how does this harness thing work? King is a big picture guy, so getting him to divulge details isn’t easy. He speaks in generalities. The system also takes some getting used to, because it violates some core mushing dogma. While I sat on the back of his two-seat ATV watching his team run, I said, “Don’t you get less power with those harnesses?”
“That’s the point!,” he shouted back over the rumble of the engine. “You’ve removed a really low gear and gained a really high gear – it’s like overdrive in a car.”
The Guard Harnesses are modified tracking harnesses, designed to benefit skijorers – the cross-country skiers who skate-ski as they are pulled by one or more sled dogs. There is a simple collar and a second loop around the belly. A key to the harness is a strap over the dog’s back that connects the two loops. The tugline is snapped to a D-ring at the end of the strap, which can slide to either side of the dog, depending on which side of the gangline the dog is running.
A standard X-back and H-back dog harness covers the dog’s whole upper body, spreading the pulling load a little around the shoulders, belly, back and haunches. Straps going back to the tail focus the dog’s energy at the tugline. It is a brilliant design that works well. But the way King sees it, a traditional harness may not be the best approach for distance dogs. He said those harnesses work best if a dog is pulling straight ahead – and that is physically impossible. The only line going straight out from the sled is the gangline, and the dogs run on either side of it.
Given that all tuglines pull at an angle, a harness going back to a dog’s tail can put unneeded stress on the dog’s hind end. Some dogs respond to the pressure by running a little sideways, which is known as crabbing. Crabbing over a long trail is believed to lead to shoulder and wrist soreness.
King’s solution is to accept that power will always be transferred to the towline at an angle, and work with it. He said the harnesses he uses make the best use of that geometry – with that sliding strap. He compares the harnesses to a simple army rucksack slung over one shoulder. If a dog is running on the right side of the gangline, King said, it will pull with its right shoulder. Dogs pull a little less hard and run straighter, without a crabbing gait.
The shorter, 18-inch tugline also is key to the system, he said, pointing out that the angle created by the shorter line makes for a better pulling geometry. It may help to think of it not so much as a tugline but a hybrid between a tug and a neckline, since the thing snaps to a D-ring only a few inches behind the dog’s collar. When that harness and tug system is used with a team trained to run without necklines, the dogs will run straighter and have the freedom to choose their footing without the fear of slipping up and getting yanked by a neckline, he said.
It appears to me that King’s result, at least in this stage of its evolution, is a team that finally is pulling by that “less-Neanderthal collar” King wanted after watching Marco do his thing.
King is a strong believer that for a dog to rest while running, it should be attached to the line by a neckline or tugline, but never both. Having both attached creates “a teeny little window for the dogs to perform in,” he said. “If a dog slows down, it gets intimidated by the neckline, scolded by the musher and it doesn’t feel good.”
Other mushers watch his innovation with a mixture of curiosity, admiration and skepticism. After all, other Iditarod frontrunners, and a few recent winners, have finished with large healthy dog teams as well. And they didn’t use modified skijoring harnesses.
“You can never argue with success, but by the same token I think good sled dogs combined with a good musher win dog races,” said Stoller, who lives in Fairbanks. Stoller has a background in harness marketing. Regarding King’s answer to crabbing, Stoller said, “I think his solution is probably just a first step in that direction, or maybe a big step. But I doubt it’s the final solution.
“More importantly than what this harness is, or does, is he’s getting people thinking about their harnesses,” Stoller added. “I think that’s really, really important. Mushers need to be looking at their harnesses and asking, are they right for the job? Whether they switch to the harnesses he’s using, that’ll be an individual choice.”
With only one season under his belt with the new system, King said he, too, is anxious to see how it will affect his team in the years to come, not just his race record but individual dogs. He hopes it will boost the longevity of his dogs’ careers.
He noted that Jenna, beloved little leader and Golden Harness winner from his victorious 1998 Iditarod, was outside the house puttering around with a litter of puppies. She is officially retired at age 8. “Jenna retired maybe too early,” he said. “Maybe there are dogs whose racing careers will be longer.”