Will fur fly again? Dent braces on sled

Baltimore's musher makes Iditarod encore


March 04, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The dog bites on his hands have healed, and Baltimore businessman Dan Dent is back in the Far North for another shot at his elusive Alaskan dream.

Dent and his all-new team of 16 huskies are preparing to leave Anchorage today with 80 other mushers in the grueling, 1,100-mile Iditarod sled dog race to Nome.

The 58-year-old financial adviser's first Iditarod attempt last year ran into a canine buzz saw. Just nine hours into the race, he was severely bitten trying to break up a fight among his dogs.

Things will be different this time, he insists. He'll be driving a new team of dogs better-acquainted with each other and less likely to fight.

Even so, he said, "I'm nervous about the first 72 hours of the race. Bad things can happen, as I found out last year. But I feel real good about this team, and hopefully I can hang in there."

The fastest mushers should begin crossing the finish line in Nome about March 15, the rest as much as a week or more later. Because he scratched last year, Dent is still ranked as a rookie -- one of 28 in this year's race.

The first Iditarod was organized in 1973 by the late Joe Redington Jr. to revive mushing and to save the 50-pound Alaskan husky from extinction in a state abuzz with snowmobiles.

The race also commemorates the mushers who carried medicine from Fairbanks to Nome to halt a 1925 diphtheria epidemic. But it has morphed into a modern sports spectacular that draws tourists, international media and corporate sponsors.

Dent -- president of D.F. Dent & Co. and a father of five -- fell in love with Alaska and mushing on a 1995 adventure vacation.

Although his height and weight (6 feet 4, 200 pounds) handicap him on the trail, he began competing in mushing races in 1997, and did well enough in the 300-mile Copper Basin races in 1998 and 1999 to qualify for last year's Iditarod.

He began the big race last year with high hopes, but his dream became a snarling nightmare of dogs, teeth, snow and blood

"I always thought the fight was the result of some things we did wrong," he said. With hindsight, he can run down a list of missteps and distractions. But Dent figures his biggest mistake was introducing four new dogs to his leased team just a week before the race.

They were sound, experienced dogs. But one was a female unfamiliar to the rest, and Dent believes she triggered unexpected aggression among the males.

When one of them stumbled in deep snow, the others turned on him. Dent waded into the fracas because he knew the dogs would fight to the death unless he could pull them apart.

Some mushers blamed Dent's inexperience, and criticized him for spending too little time with his leased team.

But other Alaskans say his courage and sacrifice in saving his dogs earned him a measure of respect. Christina Gall of Anchorage told the Anchorage Daily News that Dent "signified the spirit of the race and will always be a winner in my book."

Dent left the injured dog at the next checkpoint, and a veterinarian there stitched his bloody hands. But they grew increasingly useless, and when race officials at the next checkpoint saw him struggling with a food pot, they forced him to withdraw.

The dog survived, however, and so did Dent's dream.

His wife and children have been supportive, he said. But "they're hopeful this year will in fact be my last Iditarod." He may still do some recreational mushing, but he agreed: "This is my last big effort."

And big it is. Dent has spent more than $100,000 on it. He built his own dog lot on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, and purchased 24 of his own huskies.

"They're a little old and slow to be on a winning team" this year, Dent said. But they're proven. Half the team raced as a unit in last year's race. Eight have run with past Iditarod winners, and one led the 1995 winning team.

They have been running together for much of the past year. Dent's Alaskan trainer and coach, Dario Daniels, ran 12 of them in the Tustamena 200 race last month and finished third.

Dent has made three extended training visits to Alaska this winter to run and camp with the team. He spent New Year's Eve on the trail, alone with the dogs and the Northern Lights.

"The major thing you have to work on is bonding with the team," he said. "The dogs don't care how many checks I write or how supportive my family is. Once you cross the starting line, how you do depends on how well you work with that team."

Rest is also critical to success, so Dent has worked hard to be more efficient at rest stops -- settling the team down, preparing their straw beds, melting snow for water, cooking the dogs' food, changing their protective booties and, when possible, snatching some food and sleep for himself.

"I feel I've done absolutely everything I can, given my limitations," he said, referring to his family and business obligations in Baltimore.

Dent's goal in the 2000 Iditarod is simply to "take as many dogs as I can to Nome," he said. He wants them all to finish strong and healthy.

In the January 2000 Copper Basin race, Dent was one of just three mushers (of 30) who finished with all their dogs.

Veteran mushers admire that in a competitor, and winning their respect may be the real reason Dent is back in the race. The strain on his arms and shoulders in the Copper Basin race, however, left him exhausted.

"You're holding on for life, with a death-grip, all day long. And you're getting jerked around, and the last thing you want to do is let go of that sled," he said. The dogs won't stop just because the human in back fell off.

But he said he's ready. Physical therapy has stopped shoulder pain from a torn rotator cuff, and cortisone has helped ease the carpal tunnel pain in his wrists.

In short, he said, "I feel better than I've felt in years."

Out on the Iditarod Trail, where he will have to hang on for 1,100 miles, Dent said his mantra will be Winston Churchill's: "Never, never, never, never give up."

Follow the race at www.iditarod.com, or www.dogsled.com

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