On the Iditarod trail

SARANAC LAKE – “Awwwwwwww.”

That’s the sound nearly 20 second-graders made as Peter Reuter put pictures of his dogs up on the screen Monday afternoon. From lounging on deck chairs to sleeping on hay while covered in blankets, the kids in Jen Rondeau’s class loved seeing Reuter’s dogs.

But then all of those “awwws” turned into giggles and outright laughter as Reuter’s dog pictures moved from showing dogs lounging to bouncing off the wall.

Reuter wasn’t at Petrova Elementary School just to show pictures of run-of-the-mill dogs, though. Reuter was there to talk about his special dogs. Dogs that may be running the more than 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race next year.

The pictures that generated the most laughter were the ones of huskies jumping four feet in the air due to their excitement at starting a sled race. Reuter pointed out all the people needed to hold the dogs at the starting line. He also pointed out what was obvious to anyone who has known a dog: the look of pure, unadulterated joy on their faces.

Reuter splits his time between the Tri-Lakes, where he and his wife Daun live, and Alaska, where Reuter works probably the most Alaskan job possible: helicopter-supported sled dog glacier tour guide.

Reuter is usually in Alaska this time of year, where in addition to the guided trips, he takes care of sled racing dogs, both his own and other people’s. He said he stayed home this year to get ready for the Iditarod next year. He said he’s been “collecting” dogs since the ’80s and has had about 2,000 dogs in that time.

“The kids kept asking, ‘Have you ever won? Have you even won?’ That’s not my job,” Reuter said. “My job is to get other racers’ dogs in good shape.” That is a talent that should serve him well over the next year. Part of Reuter’s current job is to help train dogs for long-distance races, and as such, he isn’t overly concerned with winning a race. But that attitude may very well change this year.

Reuter was able to qualify for next year’s Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome by completing multiple shorter races of 300 to 500 miles long.

“I’ve been dreaming about it since I was 12 years old,” Reuter said. “I’ve been running sled dogs since the mid 1980s. It’s the culmination of a lifelong dream.”

For the big race, mushers start with 16 dogs and need to finish with no fewer than six. Dogs get tired or possibly injured during the race, even though Reuter and other mushers’ main goal is the health and well-being of their animals.

The Iditarod is a whole other beast when it comes to distance. Imagine leaving Saranac Lake on a sled behind 16 dogs. You then go to Plattsburgh, turn around, and ride the sled all the way to Chicago. In just 10 days. In the winter. When it’s 40 below zero. With no trail to follow.

Reuter needs to raise $60,000 to compete in the race next year, and he is starting to make the rounds to raise awareness so that he can start fundraising.

The entry fee is $4,000, and the rest of the money essentially goes to dog care. Reuter passed around booties his dogs wear when racing and said that they cost $1 each. Reuter estimates he will spend between $5,000 and $7,000 just on “booty expenses.”

There’s also food, coats, medical care and everything else that goes along with caring for a dog. Reuter’s dogs are treated like professional athletes, which is exactly what they are. All dogs entering the Iditarod need to pass a full medical screening, including urinalysis for performance-enhancing drugs, before they’re allowed on the course.

While the Iditarod is most certainly a professional sport, with a purse of $70,000 or more and a brand-new truck on the line, Reuter said it’s still a close community. Not that people don’t want to win, but racers will bend over backward to help out a musher in trouble.

Reuter said that in the 45-year history of the race, fewer than 800 teams have finished. Each year, no more than 100 teams can enter, and qualifying has become more stringent over the last several years. This year’s race has 85 teams competing.

Due to the difficulty of the race, Reuter said finishing, not winning, is the main goal.

“I just want to get the dogs to Nome!” he said.

Reuter had one unifying theme throughout his time with the second-grade class, and that was that well-being of the dogs is paramount.

When he gets to a rest point, Reuter spends most of his time taking care of the dogs. After reaching a resting point, he will unclip his dogs from their harnesses, which acts as a signal to the dogs that it’s time to chill out.

“First thing I’m going to do is toss them a piece of meat. I’m going to strip their booties off, lay straw down and then start cooking them a meal,” Reuter said. “It takes about 45 minutes to prepare the meal. While the meal is preparing, I’m going through the entire dog team. I’m stretching them out, checking their feet, that sort of thing. As soon as I’m done with that, the dogs are sleeping.”

He said the dogs spend about equal amounts of time running and sleeping during a 24-hour period. Meanwhile, Reuter only bags about three hours of sleep each day because he’s caring for the dogs.

“By the time you hit 500 miles into a race, you’re starting to see Burger Kings in the middle of the tundra,” Reuter laughed.

Reuter said the musher is the only one who is allowed to handle the dogs during a race, so even though there’s a mandatory 24-hour rest period in the middle of the Iditarod, mushers still have to be up and awake enough to feed, stretch and handle the entire dog team.

While the second-graders were thrilled with the pictures of goofy dogs and their teacher donning about 30 pounds of winter gear, the thing Reuter hammered home was that care of the dogs is most important.

It’s apparent that he treats his and other people’s dogs, with the utmost respect. And in return, all that he asks is that the dogs get him to Nome next year.

While fundraising hasn’t yet begun in earnest, Reuter said that there will be information available soon on his Facebook page.

You can also follow along with this year’s Iditarod, which is happening right now, by checking in to www.iditarod.com.