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Hugh Neff, Who Spent Summers at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan, in Thick of Iditarod

March 13, 2017

Antigo Daily Journal

Antigo Daily Journal

Langlade County is pulling for one of its own in the Iditarod.

The storied 1,000 mile sled dog race across Alaska is at its midpoint, and Hugh Neff is in the mix.

Neff, 49, operates Laughing Dog Kennel in Tok, Alaska, and is a trail-hardened musher, but he grew up in the far gentler climes of Evanston, Ill. and spent his summers at the Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan Boy Scout Camp near Pearson.

“I am one of the luckiest Alaskans ever,” Neff said in his Iditarod biography. “It’s been a difficult journey, but the beauty of the dogs and the majesty of Alaska’s landscape make it well worth the effort. We love doing the Iditarod each year, visiting with friends along the way is
always a highlight of the experience, especially our Native friends. After all, it’s their dogs that I am blessed to play with every day, whether they be from Tanana, Huslia or Kotzebue – Alaskan huskies are number one.”

Neff returned to his onetime summer home for a visit to the Dirty Dog Dryland Derby in November, trying his luck with a borrowed fourdog
team and two-wheel rig.

“The beauty of my life started here at Ma-Ka-JaWan,” he said during his visit.

“I love the freedom of the northwoods,” he said, recalling days running the scout trails with a couple Labrador retrievers.

Now, he said at Pearson, his life revolves around his dogs, stressing a goal of creating and enhancing a bond with his animals.

“Mushing for me will never be just about racing,” he said. “It’s the day-to-day training. The best thing you can do is race against yourself and realize how stupid you are.”

While his heart is firmly in the Alaskan wilderness, he said he will always retain a special fondness for Wisconsin and Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan.

“People in this state are happier than any state in America,” he said, joking “I don’t know if its the alcohol or the Packers.”

And he said he loved the Dirty Dog experience.

“I learn as much from hanging out with you today with your dogs as when I’m with big-time musher,” he said.

Neff began mushing in 1995 and after reading Iditarod Classics by Lew Freedman, he became interested in running the Iditarod.

Neff has competed in 28 1,000 mile races since 2000, including 12 Iditarods. He posted top 10 finishes in the Iditarod in 2010 and 2011
and was named race rookie of the year in 2004.

Neff uses his celebrity status to be an avocate for literacy, often wearing a Dr. Seuss hat while mushing. He also traditionally carries a book on the Iditarod trail to deliver to the library located in Nome, where the race concludes.

This year, the elementary school he attended growing up in Evanston donated a book for his journey: "Dear Pope Francis: The Pope
Answers Letters from Children Around the World."

"Every year it's a different book," Neff said. "I just try to promote reading for the kids." As of Journal press time, Neff was running in ninth
place. His 14 dogs were averaging 5.58 miles per hour. Mitch Seavy, the 2004 and 2013 champion, was in the lead.

The race will conclude sometime next week.

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