Going to the dogs

Abbie Vansickle

When Jon Little graduated with a journalism degree from the Medill School of Journalism in 1986 and headed out to work for a small newspaper in Alaska, little did he know that in just more than a decade he would be competing with the best mushers in the world for a top spot in the Iditarod, the most famous dogsled race in the country. In fact, he didn’t know the first thing about mushing.

“Well, it all started because I really wanted to get a cat,” Little said, laughing.

Little went to the animal shelter to get a cat, but having no luck, he decided on the next best thing, a dog. He named her Dingo and took her home. It was love at first sight.

Little, a bureau reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, began to race Dingo in a sport called skijor, which is basically mushing on cross country skis. He made friends with a group of seasoned racers and got four more dogs and a sled. Once he got his first sled, he couldn’t stop racing, he said.

“I’m as competitive as anyone else,” he said. “I wanted to do better.”

Little said he loved his first dog sledding race, a 200-mile trek. He came in close to dead last but was hooked on racing. In 1999, after almost a decade of racing, Little decided to enter the Iditarod, a 10- to 17-day, 1,150-mile race through the wilderness from Anchorage, in south central Alaska, to Nome, on the western coast of the Bering Sea.

“The best of the best are in that race,” he said. “It’s the Indianapolis 500 of dog racing.”

The race, run for the first time in 1973, pits 65 to 85 mushers against each other and nature to see who can claim the coveted title of the Iditarod champion.

Little finished about halfway back in the crowd in 36th position in his first Iditarod. He said he was happy but determined to re-enter and climb in the rankings.

Sponsored by his newspaper, several local businesses and friends, he placed 23rd in 2000, 15th in 2001 and fourth this year.

The 38-year-old said he was thrilled with his dogs’ performance, especially because mushing, for him, is just a hobby.

“There are guys out there who have more than 200 dogs,” he said. “I have only so much time for mushing. I work and try to give my dogs as much attention as I can.”

With his tight schedule, Little looks forward to his time out on the course, alone with his dogs.

“Really, you’ve got nothing else to think about other than your dogs,” he said. “You’re traveling through this beautiful country and all you have to do is to know when to stop them before they want to stop.”

Little said the relationship between the Iditarod participants is low-key and makes the race even more enjoyable.

“You’re all going through the same thing,” he said. “Out on the course, people are really friendly and kind of goofy.”

Little said strong friendships often develop between the contestants because of the hardships they must endure together. His most terrifying moment during one of the races was when his sled fell apart on a rocky piece of ground, he said. He had to stitch the sled together with sticks and baling wire.

Strong bonds also form between the mushers and their dogs, he said. Little raced with 16 dogs in last year’s competition and usually keeps 25 race dogs at once.

His relationship with his dogs doesn’t take anything away from his journalism career, Little said.

“It’s like a separate life,” he said. “I’ve written almost nothing. I really wear two hats right now, reporter and racer.”

Little’s passion for dogsledding came as a surprise to his circle of friends from college, said his college roommate, Tim Knuth, Speech ’86. Knuth described Little as “a skinny New Wave guy” in college and said Little never struck him as an outdoorsman.

“I knew he grew up in Seattle, but he was very much a suburban kind of guy,” Knuth said. “I think that until he started getting ready for his first Iditarod, I had no idea he was taking mushing that seriously.”

As for Little, he said he is not sure if he’ll run in next year’s race but definitely wants to run again.

“It’s like any other event,” he said. “You get caught up in it.” nyou