Iditarod -- Race Across Alaska
Meet Hannah Moderow and Cali King
February 2002

Hannah Moderow (Photo courtsey Pedigree Food for Dogs)

Young mushers Hannah Moderow and Cali King, both 17, are veterans of dog-sled racing. Both ran in the Jr. Iditarod February 23-24, 2002, with Cali placing first. Hannah also ran the International Pedigree Stage Stop Race in Wyoming in January. The 450-mile race is the longest in the lower 48 states.

Hannah and Cali participated in a live online interview with visitors to Scholastic News Online in 2002. Below is a transcript of their discussion.

Q: How does it feel to be in the Iditarod?

Hannah: Well, I haven't been in the real Iditarod, but I've been in the Jr. Iditarod. It's fun to be in with a whole lot of kids with the same interests. It's really the sense that you're getting ready for a race as big as the Iditarod.

Cali King (Jeff Schultz/AlaskaStock.com)

Cali: Like Hannah said, it's great to be with people who are interested in the same things. There is a very social group out there this year. We always build a campfire when everyone is done with his or her chores. We sit and talk about dogs and everything else. This year, I competed in the Jr. Iditarod for my second time and came in first.

Q: How many other girls race?

Hannah: I think two thirds of the field were girls in the Jr. Iditarod this year. That's unusual in racing. In the Iditarod, it is nowhere near that ratio. The Jr. draws a lot of girls. There are a lot of young mushers. I think girls have a lot of fun together out there. Some of it might be for social reasons. A lot of people are friends. It was more fun when Cali came. We have a big group of friends rather than rivals.

Q: I just want to know how you got started.

Cali: Well, it runs in my family. I didn't get started until a couple of years ago, focusing on racing, actually. But I've been mushing ever since I was little. I finally decided it [racing] was something I wanted to try, so I started working for that goal.

Hannah: When I was 4, I was friends with another 4-year-old whose dad was running the Iditarod. We got one sled dog that was retired. One night my dad signed Andy and I up for a one-dog and a two-dog race. I went into the one-dog course for a quarter mile. I've been racing ever since.

Q: Have other members of your family raced sled dogs?

Hannah: My whole family trains and races sled dogs. My brother ran the Iditarod last year. He's a four-time Jr. musher. My mom runs sprint races and the Pedigree Stage Stop sled dog race in Wyoming. My dad hasn't raced as much as he's trained. He's in his first big race next week in the Denali 300.

Cali: My dad has been in racing all my life. Before we came about he and my mom did some racing, smaller races. He's done a lot. He's won the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod three times. I couldn't list them all off the top of my head. My little sister is very interested in racing, but she's not old enough. She's only 10.

Q: How old are you?

Hannah: 17.

Cali: I'm 17, also.

Q: How many times have you been in the Jr. Iditarod and is there an age limit for that race?

Hannah: I've run the Junior four times. That's as many times as you can. The age is from 14 to 17.

Cali: This was my second year. I've completed it twice. I was second last year, and won it this year.

Q: How many dogs do you have?

Cali: My guess is we have somewhere around 80 dogs. Only a percentage of them are racing dogs. At the most, 20 percent are racing dogs. The rest would be retired or puppies still in training. They're not quite ready for racing. They are in different stages of puppy hood.

Hannah: We have 25 sled dogs and they are a combination of older dogs and younger dogs. They all race. They only have one year when they are a puppies; after that we try to integrate them with everybody else. We have a small kennel.

Q: Are the dogs your pets? And how long have you known the dogs?

Cali: There are a few of the dogs in the yard who enjoy being inside the house, but not all of them. They are all on friendly terms with us. They all get a lot of attention. Not all of them come in the house, just because they'd rather not. We raise them as puppies so we know them all their lives, pretty much, unless we sell them.

Hannah: We have most of our dogs in the house. We think it's important that they know how to be in the house so when we retire them they can be house pets. We make sure they know and love the house so that's a future option for them. Some don't like the house as much as others. We usually have about four in the house at a time, either retired or because we are teaching them how to be inside. They have big fur coats and are otherwise pretty happy to be outside.

Q: What happens when a dog is hurt in the middle of the race?

Cali: In a race, if a dog gets hurt, they have a system where you can send the dog home. If it gets hurt on the trail, you put it in your sled and carry it to the next checkpoint and send it home. In the Iditarod, they can send dogs home from all the checkpoints. The musher can have one of the handlers pick them up and take them home.

Hannah: If a dog gets hurt on the run, you put it in a sled bag, but there's a lot of new information about massaging and how stretching can help keep a dog from getting too sore. There's a big difference between soreness and an injury. On the Iditarod there are vets everywhere. Volunteer vets are at every checkpoint. You can't know all you need to know, but the vets are there to help. It's not always clear whether the dogs are capable of going on or not and the vets are helpful in making that decision.

Q: How many dogs do you have on the team?

Cali: In the Jr. Iditarod, the maximum is 10 dogs for your team. It varies from race to race. In the Iditarod the maximum is 16 with a minimum of 5.

Q: What is your best dog's name?

Hannah: I don't like to pick favorites and I especially don't want to tell them who my favorite is. Currently, there are three favorites: Juliet, Vicky, and Lucy.

Cali: I'd have to say one of my favorites is Kansas. He did a great job leading for me in both my Jr. Iditarods. It's hard not to like him.

Q: Do the dogs all have to be the same sex?

Hannah: No. You have to be really careful about how you mix the dogs together. You have to keep a close eye on the females to be sure they are not in heat.

Cali: Lots of times you'll need to mix them because some of the males don't get along. Males and females do get along running next to each other.

Q: When are they retired?

Hannah: It depends from dog to dog. Generally, the peak of a racing career for a dog is between ages 2 and 7, but there are a few exceptions to that.

Cali: Depends on the dog. They pretty much tell you when they want to be retired from what they're doing. You can just tell their heads aren't into it. They might be spacey and aren't as excited to go on a long run. Some of the older dogs want to continue mushing, but not as competitively, or for as many miles. You can tell by their attitude.

Q: Do the dogs carry the supplies that you need for the long, tiring trip?

Cali: We're required to have certain things in the sled, like an ax and emergency food in case we end up staying an extra night on the trail. Also, matches and stuff to start a fire with. You are also allowed to send food and extra booties and more clean and dry socks out to the checkpoints. That's what most Iditarod mushers do.

Hannah: You carry enough gear to survive on the trail for an extra two days in case you get lost and have to camp. Poundage-wise, you have to have 2 pounds of food per dog, 10 dogs, 20 pounds. It adds up pretty quick.

Q: How do you choose your dogs?

Cali: If you have a lot of dogs, enough that you are making a choice—not everybody has that freedom- you train them all season long. You train everyone, even the puppies, and as it gets closer and closer to racing, you've seen the outstanding performers. You separate them out into different teams and you continue to watch them and race them in smaller races. It's the same as any human athletic sport; you watch for the ones with the best heads. Good eating and good coats, those are all things in a distance kennel we look for to choose dogs.

Hannah: In our kennel, there's not that many choices, but that becomes part of our strategy. We have to maximize what each dog can really do. I started 20 dogs and had to have 18 of them ready to go with me to Wyoming. It became a challenge how to get those 18 ready to go. In some cases, we're not as competitive as others, but it's a challenge that I like.

Q: On average, how long does it take to train a dog before it is ready for the Iditarod?

Hannah: There are different theories about how much mileage. I'm pretty sure most Iditarod mushers would have 1,500 miles going into it at least. That would be a bare minimum. Some of them have as many as 2,500 miles in a year. I think my team has over 2,000 on them right now.

Cali: I wouldn't know any more than Hannah does about that. Some people train as much as they can, to the dogs' capabilities. Within reason, you're training them as much as possible, with days for breaks after long runs. If the trails are good, you might as well train.

Hannah: It's good to work with your dogs as much as possible. We like raising dogs from puppies and having them perform for us. I know that some Iditarod teams' ideal would be to raise some superstars all their lives. It's the best way to predict what they will do out on the trail.

Cali: One of my dad's main leaders, Kitty, raced in the Iditarod until she was 10 at least. She was really into it until she was pretty old. Sometimes we race the yearlings. We have a team that's half yearlings in this year's Iditarod. They'll take a slower and easier race to none. But next year they'll do better.

Q: What breed of dog seems to be better than most for training?

Hannah: The standard sled dog is an Alaskan husky, which is a mixed breed, so there are a lot of different types of Alaskan huskies. Some have more hound, for instance. The most popular dogs have a little shorter coat than the Siberian husky. They are very fast and they utilize their fur and they do fine in the cold. They're a real cross between a hound and a Siberian husky.

Cali: Most people generally can't imagine what our dogs look like because they aren't anything like Siberian huskies, our personal dogs. Our dogs look like mutts, really. We don't breed for what they look like. We breed for their athleticism and health. In a litter you can get no two dogs that look the same. Generally, they are leaner dogs than the malamutes. Not fluffy like Hannah was saying.

Q: I don't get why you should go out in the freezing cold weather and run dogs. I wouldn't find it fun, why do you?

Hannah: You really adapt to the cold weather, so that doesn't become an issue for long. You learn what clothes to wear. For the most part , I stay warm on the trail. There's a thrill to being out in the mountains in the snow with 10 of your best friends [the dogs]. You're not alone; you're with a team. It's great to do as much as you can with and for the team.

Cali: I would agree with Hannah. It's great to be out with the dogs. You're pretty self-reliant. You have to be when you're out there and it feels kind of good to know that you are in charge of you. If you ever get cold, there are things you can do. You can just push, run up the hills; your blood will start circulating. You learn little tricks to stay warm.

Q: What was the most thrilling experience you've had racing?

Cali: I'd have to say my race last year was very thrilling. I was very close almost the entire race and it was thrilling because I had never really raced before and my dogs did so great. It was a very close finish. I could see Tyrell [Seavey — last year's winner] finishing as I came around the corner. It was really close

Hannah: Last year's Jr. was probably the most thrilling for me, too. I was in third place last year. First day I ran with Cali the whole day and we had a lot of fun. The second day I left a few minutes behind Cali and Tyrell and didn't catch up with them. I took a few detours. It was the first time I was competitive in a distance race. My dogs were incredible.

Q: What do you do about school while you are on the trail?

Cali: I would never take my homework with me on the trail. My teachers are pretty lenient. They give me the work I have to make up and I do it before-hand or after. Same as making it up for any sport. I play basketball and volley ball, also. So when we travel for those sports, it's the same deal.

Hannah: Same for me. I make up the work that I miss. I go to a school that believes that what you do outside of school contributes to the whole school atmosphere.

Q: Are the trails marked really well? How do you know for sure that you are on the right trail?

Hannah: The trails are usually marked really well. The Jr. Iditarod is good at that. Some trails you don't always know where you are. If you get in a storm, you don't always know. You have to trust your dogs. And you have to keep your eyes open for the markers. If you miss the trail, you turn around and just go back. Usually, it all works out.

Cali: There have been times I thought I missed a trail, but there are always insecurities at some points in the trail. I had a leader last year that followed the markers so well, he'd go right to them, even if they were zig-zagged on the trail. He'd follow from side to side.

Q: Do you carry cell phones in case of an emergency or to contact family during the race?

Cali: In both the Jr. and the senior Iditarod, cell phones are illegal. No two-way communications are allowed.

Hannah: You learn from the beginning that you have to be self-sufficient. It's really great to know other mushers are on the trail, but you have to be able to solve the problems on your own. There's 150 miles between each checkpoint. Your dogs get to where you need to go. And the other mushers will help you out.

Q: Do all the Iditarod teams help each other in bad weather to make sure that everyone finishes safely? For example, do you work together to get through snowstorms?

Cali: It was snowing on the trail last year, but it wasn't a storm. We all just left at our allotted times, knowing the trail was well marked and that it wasn't actually a storm. We didn't feel the need to travel together. In the senior Iditarod, it happens sometimes. People will decide to face a storm together rather than going out alone and waiting.

Hannah: Yeah, you know you learn that you can go out in any sort of weather. If there's a particular danger, you team up with a musher. For the most part, you're pretty self-sufficient. You might end up with another musher, but I'm not sure you would plan on it specifically.

Q: Are you at a checkpoint during this interview? Which one?

Hannah: No. The race has a ceremonial start in Anchorage, which is my hometown. The second day, which was last Sunday, they start the real race in Wasilla. I know a lot of Jr. racers who will be going to Nome and welcome the Iditarod racers in. It's a great time to meet with our friends. We'll both be going.

Cali: I'm at my home in Denali Park, Alaska. That's in Central Alaska. I have a basketball game in Galena, which is a checkpoint, this week, so I'll be there for the game, but I'll also get to see the teams when they go by. Then I'll go to Nome next Monday. My dad is out of Rhon right now. The next stretch of trail he'll be on is the most difficult. He'll probably stop and rest. He left Rhon early this morning.

Hannah: I'm in Anchorage at my house. I went to the ceremonial start in Anchorage. It gives the town a chance to get a feel of the race. I went with Cali's dad, Jeff King, on the second sled. Cali got to lead the start because she won the Jr. It was a real thrill to be part of the big Iditarod versus the Jr.

Q: Do you ever feel scared and miss your home?

Cali: Yes. Maybe not scared, but in both my races this year and last year there was a moment when I didn't want to go on. That's one of the great things about these races, that you can overcome that and feel great accomplishment in the end. Not much you can do about it anyway, if you did want to go home.

Hannah: I guess, more than anything, I thought about how I wished I was in my bed sometimes. You don't get a lot sleep on these races; you get the feeling that you'd like to be tucked inside your sleeping bag or in your bed. It's one of the challenges that are appealing, also. You have to keep yourself awake and attentive to your dog team.

Q: What kinds of foods is it important to eat while racing?

Hannah: You need to eat a lot of protein to stay warm. If you don't eat enough you get cold and it's not very useful for the dogs. It's really important to stay hydrated. Like any other athlete you can't produce a lot of energy without eating and drinking. My first couple of distance races I made that mistake. I won't make it again.

Cali: I would eat lasagna on the trail or something of the sort. My mom makes lasagna prior to the race and vacuum packs it. Then you throw a frozen pack meal into the hot water you boil for your dog's food. That heats it up and you eat it right out of the bag. We also eat a lot of gorp. Gorp has almond, raisins, and chocolate chips. You can eat that on the trail if you're low on energy. You fill a thermos full of Tang or warm lemonade. Some people just drink hot water, too, to stay hydrated. I throw frozen Capri Suns in my hot water as well to have thawed juice. Usually, on a short race, like the Jr., I'm never able to force anything down before I leave. I leave at least by 7:00 in the morning, and I just eat gorp until I get home. I think gorp actually means granola, oatmeal, raisins, and peanuts, but I think all mushers have M&Ms in theirs, too.

Q: How do you keep your water from freezing?

Cali: It's not easy. If you were to just have a water bottle out there it would freeze if you didn't drink it fast enough. I put warm water or warm lemonade into my thermos and it will stay unfrozen. At the checkpoints, you can refill it with warm water or warm juice.

Hannah: You can also put a normal water bottle inside a small sleeping bag with an insulated cover. It doesn't freeze. It stays thawed 10 to 12 hours. You always need to make sure that when you're at the checkpoint you have to thaw out water for yourself and your dogs.

Q: Where do you get the firewood for your boiled water on the trail?

Hannah: Actually, you have cookers, in which you put a type of antifreeze in the bottom of a roasting pan for the fire. There's a pot on top of the melting pan—no wood involved. You melt snow or heat water. Sometimes you have fires on the side, but they aren't for cooking. They are for warmth and enjoyment. The alcohol is called Heet. If you're camping on the trial, you'd carry a couple of bottles of Heet with you.

Cali: Most people use that setup, using Heet to cook your food. It's much easier to light than trying to light a wood fire. And it goes a long way. You can add to it as necessary. It's a liquid, but it doesn't freeze.

Q: What do you feed your dogs?

Cali: We feed name brand Kasco dog food and along with that, for the racing dogs, we add supplements like a dried egg supplement and a yeast supplement. Sometimes like lard or fat just to give them all their calories. For the dogs that aren't racing, we soak the dry dog food and we don't add too many supplements so they don't get overweight. Then we also feed them snacks on the trail. That would be frozen meat, beaver or tripe.

Hannah: We feed a combination of dried food called Anamaet and meat. A beef mix. Then we add fats and oils as necessary. It's good to have dried dog food as your base and you add meat as the racing and training gets harder and harder. On the trail, we feed salmon and lamb and beef, whatever types of beef they like.

Q: What special needs do your sled dogs have that an ordinary pet does not have?

Hannah: You really need to work on making sure they are good eaters and that they get enough rest so they perform their best. You should watch dogs closely and see what they need. When you get on a trail and the pressure is high for the race, you have to know what each dog needs. You have to monitor it. If you miss the special needs of a dog, it may not work well for a race. For instance, if one dog needs more sleep, or one more food.

Cali: Exercise is a big one. Normal pets do need exercise, but they often don't get as much as they should. All our dogs get a lot of exercise. We pay more attention to our dogs' feet than any pet's. Pets normally don't need as much attention to their feet. With as much running as our dogs do, it's good to watch their feet.

Q: What is the best part about being a musher?

Hannah: Just being out on the trail with the dogs and enjoying what they do, challenging the dogs to do better than the race before, learning the ability of the dogs to work together for a common goal. You have a team you are working with. You're out with so many of your friends—the dogs—working for one goal, which is the best that the team can do. You can only go as fast as your slowest dog. You have to maximize everything you have. It's not about the lead dog or you: it's about the team.

Cali: I'd say being on the trail with the dogs is a great feeling. Especially compared to riding a snow machine or some other motorized vehicle. It's so peaceful. It's great to watch them do something they enjoy so much. It's great to watch them do it. They really love it and it's great to watch them just as it is anyone who enjoys doing something.

Hannah: I really recommend that anyone who is interested in dog mushing should see a video of it or see a dog team somehow. It's amazing how much the dogs do love it. You put them in a harness, they different dogs. They are ready to get out on the trail. I do this for the dogs as much as anything else.

Cali: Anyone really interested, no matter where you are, should go after what you want to do, because every year, for the last couple of years, people from all the U.S. were in the Jr. Iditarod. There was a Georgia musher last year. Anyone can do it if they put their head to it.