Champion musher Hugh Neff exchanged his sled for a wheeled cart and his parka for shirtsleeves at the Dirty Dog Dryland Derby this weekend.
Neff, who operates Laughing Eyes Kennel in Tok, Alaska, was special guest for the award-winning sled dog dryland race, taking place at the Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan Boy Scout Camp near Pearson.
And the champion musher, who has logged thousands of miles on famed trails such as the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, promptly wiped out wrangling a borrowed four-dog team and rig Saturday, a fact he cheerfully admitted during a fascinating presentation later in the day.
“It’s just part of mushing,” he said.
Hugh Neff leaves the starting chute with his borrowed
four-dog rig at Saturday's Dirty Dog Dryland Derby.
Neff grew up in Evanston, Ill., and spent many summers at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan, both as a camper and a counselor.
“The beauty of my life started here at Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan,” he said, recalling days running the trails with a couple Labrador retrievers. “I love the freedom of the northwoods.”
Together with his team he affectionately calls “dawgs,” Neff has competed in 28 1,000 mile races since 2000, including 16 Yukon Quests which run from Fairbanks through Dawson City to Whitehorse and 12 Iditarod’s.
He won the Yukon Quest in 2012 and 2016, posted top 10 finishes in the Iditarod in 2010 and 2011 and was named race rookie of the year in 2004.
But to the audience largely made up of mushers, he stressed his goal is never to win, it is to create and enhance a bond with his animals.
“A lot of it is knowing how to bond with your dogs,” he said. “I run my dogs, from my dogs. The more you run dogs, the better they become.”
Neff shared experience from his kennel, speaking fondly of his now-retired lead dog, Walter, who led him to a Yukon Quest win; the value of running a largely female team, calling them “competitive and ruthless; and the care and feeding of his dogs. He said he feeds them the “Wisconsin diet...that’s about 10,000 calories a day.”
“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.”
Neff shared some of his training tips, noting that his home in Tok is near—at least by Alaskan standards—Dawson City, Yukon, which he called his “favorite city on Earth.” The Top of the World Highway, which connects the Yukon and Alaska is not plowed in winter, making it more or less a freeway for training dogs.
The musher, known in racing circles around the world, said that while his heart is firmly in the Alaskan wilderness, he retains a special fondness for Wisconsin dating from his scouting days.
“People in this state are happier than any state in America,” he said, joking “I don’t know if it’s 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 mushers,” Neff said.
While Neff’s presentation was a weekend highlight, in the end it was all about racing, and there was plenty of it under sunny and unseasonable warm conditions.
Top three finishers over the combined two days include:
—Adult four-dog rig: Jan Bootz-Dittmar, 15:11.97; Savannah Schallock, 15:27.24; Richard Korb, 15:40.13.
—Adult six-dog rig: Mike Marsch, 13:48.80; Jan Bootz-Dittmar, 14:08.15; Richard Korb, 15:55.72.
—Adult two-dog bikejoring: Jamie Johnson, 14:57.08; Richard Kisseloff, 15:02.96; Torrey Swanson, 15:21.03.
—Adult one-dog bikejoring: Mike Christman, 08:08.62; Jamie Johnson, 08:11.86; Richard Kisseloff, 08:46.02.
—Adult one-dog canicross: Jamie Johnson, 16:58.65; Niina Baum, 18:31.44; Ellyn Reese, 18;54.14.—Adult one-dog canicross: Nick Weis, 14:37.38; Christopher Spears, 15:42.99; Skyler Jacoby, 16:30.39.
—Junior one-dog canicross: Aubrey Johnson, 20:32.25; Mikhah Marsch, 23:16.62; Riley Jacoby, 26:10.94.