With 57 years of living behind him, a home, family and two friendly dogs in Baltimore, investment adviser Dan Dent should have been home by the fire with his feet up in January.
Instead, his breath frozen on his face, he was alone in the wilderness, mushing teams of huskies across 600 miles of icy rivers and snowy forests in Alaska.
He returned to Baltimore qualified to compete in the 1999 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, at 1,150 miles the longest and most grueling in Alaska.
But he also came back with an idea that he hopes will give inner-city youths a taste of the adventure and romance he's found among Alaska's hardy dogs and frigid beauty.
In the coming months, children at Police Athletic League centers across the city will be invited to compete, through an essay contest and interviews, for a chance to ride with Dent and his dogs on the first day of the Iditarod. The contest will be judged by police officers and PAL directors.
While the race is on, youngsters at the PAL centers will follow Dent's progress through the Internet.
"They're going to learn about a world so extraordinarily remote from what they know on the streets of Baltimore," Dent said.
The contest winner will fly to Alaska with a PAL officer. On race day, he or she will climb aboard Dent's sled as an "Iditarider" -- one of many adults and children who win or bid for rides during the ceremonial departure of the race's 75 or more teams from downtown Anchorage. It's an easy hour's ride, less than half of the first day's 20-mile run.
(The race is restarted the next day in Wasilla, closer to the real Alaskan wilderness.)
Paying own expenses
Dent is president of D. F. Dent & Co., a midsized Baltimore investment counseling firm he founded in 1976. He said he will pay all his expenses in the race, which he estimates at more than $200,000, in the hope of attracting corporate sponsorships of more than $500,000, all of which would be donated to PAL.
Dent became a PAL board member as a result of his friendship with his North Baltimore neighbor, city Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier. His fund-raising idea has won enthusiastic support from PAL, which officials say must raise $1.3 million in private donations each year to run its 27 neighborhood centers.
"It's a real struggle," said Col. Alvin A. Winkler, chief of the city Police Department's Youth Bureau. "We are fortunate at PAL in having Mr. Dent. He understands our plight as far as finances go. As a one-time opportunity for us, we're very pleased and proud to have it."
Winkler is confident that sled dogs, the Internet, and a chance to go to Alaska will fire young imaginations. In PAL's educational programs, he said: "Those things we introduce that are totally foreign are the things they seem to be interested in. A husky is not a dog you see every day in the streets."
A different kind of lesson
Dent has two lessons he wants his adventure to teach. First, "that these kids should reach for any aspirations that they might have in spite of people telling them that it's beyond their reach."
Second, "that if you pursue a goal with honesty and passion, it's OK to fail. Fifty percent of the rookies [first-time Iditarod mushers] do not finish."
Dent is pretty bald and gray for a rookie. "I am in kind of a hurry to get this Iditarod under my belt," he said. And, at 6 feet 4 #F inches, 210 pounds, he also has a weight disadvantage. "I would like to finish next to last or better," he said. "But if I have to take last place to finish, I'll take it."
Dent has always loved dogs and cold winters. But mushing came late. He fell under Alaska's spell during a 1995 vacation. He was smitten by its beauty and romance, and by the Iditarod's frontier egalitarianism, where fishermen and mechanics and stockbrokers are all on an equal footing against the elements.
" 'The Iditarod is a vortex,' " he said, quoting another musher. "And I got too close to the edge."
That 1995 vacation was a mushing and camping adventure with his eldest son, Michael, then 25. Called the "Iditarod Challenge," it was led by race founder and Alaska legend Joe Redington, now 80. Father and son drove their teams more than 100 miles up the Iditarod Trail to Skwentna, then watched as the real Iditarod racers mushed through en route to Nome, on the Bering Sea.
"I was just blown away by the physical beauty of the mountains, the experience of going through that pristine winter landscape with a team of dogs bred for generations to want to do one thing -- and that's run," he said.
Dent has returned to Alaska every winter since, soaking up the lore and romance, acquiring huskies, building friendships with mushers and breeders, and gaining trail experience.
In January, Dent finished 17th in the Copper Basin 300 race, and a week later completed the Klondike 300 race. That qualified him for next March's Iditarod. He will be one of the oldest mushers in jTC the race, and one of the few non-Alaskans.
A dream to be shared