Next on our journey was a trip to visit four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser in Big Lake, Alaska. The drive offered some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen!
We also passed this railroad stop, which is apparently one of the last “flag” railroad crossing stops in the country. If you want to catch the train, you just take the flag from the post and put into this spot on the post so the conductor can see it, and when the train comes through it will stop and pick you up!
We arrived at Happy Trails Kennel and Martin came to greet us on the bus.
Martin introduced us to his son, Rohn, who was named after one of the Iditarod checkpoints (Martin also has a son, Nikolai, named after another checkpoint). Rohn will be running the Iditarod this year, as will one of their handlers, Matt Failor, who will be running a group of yearlings (2 year olds). Martin explained that Matt will stay at the back of the pack with the intention of just giving the young dog team some experience with the race. Rohn took us into the “Trophy Room” which includes Martin’s trophies for winning four Iditarods and Rohn’s latest trophy, winning the Kuskokwim 300, beating out dad Martin!
After the trophy room, Martin spoke to us about dog care. He is resourceful and creative, and his team is always looking for ways to improve the care and safety of their dogs. He spoke about the new “leggings” that they use for the dogs to support their legs:
All of the mushers now carry a GPS system which is GREAT for fans, because we have access to musher locations all the time. It’s awesome to be able to tell exactly where your musher is and who is near them. Some of the mushers were not too happy about carrying a GPS because they didn’t want to reveal their strategy, and did not want other mushers to be able to tell where they were on the trail. In this clip Martin talks about what he did the first year they had GPS systems:
Carrying a GPS was voluntary that year, and I was watching the GPS update when Martin’s suddenly showed him making his way back to the starting line at record speed! Now all mushers carry them (mandatory) and it has helped locate rookie mushers more than once.
Martin and his team are so innovative. Martin said they have bags with various supplies, like the snack bags for the dogs (even though the dogs eat about every 6-8 hours, they will stop and “snack” them midway between feedings). Martin talked about how fatigued you get out on the trail. After days of sleep deprivation it becomes harder to think clearly, so they draw arrows on the bags pointing to where they need to pull to open.
He also talked about how the dogs have different sized feet, so they have booties in small, medium and large. Most wear medium or large, so he keeps extra medium booties in his left pocket and large in his right. It’s important to keep things simple so you are not out on the trail trying to put a medium bootie on a large dog paw.
Rohn is following in his dad’s footsteps, making improvements as well. The weight of the sled is an important factor as you want to minimize the amount of weight the dog team needs to pull. Martin bought each of them a new ladle for digging out dog food kibble to feed their dogs during the race. The ladle is metal, and Rohn decided they did not need the entire ladle to be made out of heavy metal, so he cut off the handle and attached a much lighter wooden handle. Now all three musher teams are using the lighter ladle.
Back outside, we had the opportunity to tour the kennel. One of Martin’s innovations is a wheel where his dogs can run and run as much as they like. You can read more about the Happy Trails Kennel, Martin and his dogs here.
We were allowed to wander freely around the kennel, ask questions and play with the dogs. They were SO social and loved to be petted. There is a separate puppy pen as well as a section for the yearlings, which Matt will be running in this year’s Iditarod. The dog to the left is Caribou, Martin’s lead dog. What a sweetie!
Martin and Rohn Buser were such gracious hosts, answering a million questions. Will definitely be pulling for team Buser in the Iditarod!!