A Mushing Dream: Part One
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Kelby Dillon was fascinated by mushing from an early age, but he had never been on a sled, let alone run a sled dog race.
Nic Petit gave Dillon the chance of a lifetime when a Team Petit musher backed out of the Copper Basin 300 [CB300], the toughest mid-distance race. With less than two weeks to train, Dillon was 14 miles from an official finish when he scratched.
The Gazette interviewed Dillon at The Grind to learn about his amazing experience. Part two will be in the Feb. 14 Gazette.
GCG: Dec. 31, 2017 was your first time on a dog sled mushing for Team Petit. How did that chance come about?
Dillon: One of Nic’s handlers backed out because it’s a pretty demanding sport. Nic gave me a call and said, ‘Do you still want to learn how to mush dogs?’ I said I’d like to come up for about a week. He said, ‘Or you could come up for two weeks and run the Copper Basin 300.’ I said, ‘No, I know that’s a really tough race. That sounds like a pretty tall order.’ I told him very regrettably I couldn’t do it.
I called my mom and told her I had to pass it up, but talked myself into in over the next couple of days. I couldn’t sleep, and I finally said I was going to do it.
GCG: Did you have any experience mushing?
GCG: Was this your first time ever on a dog sled?
GCG: What gives you the confidence to do something like that?
Dillon: I had the confidence of having a little bit of information. It’s hard to be good at it because you have to put in a lot of practice to be as good as Nic. I had studied it enough, so I knew the ins and outs a little bit. I’ve worked with animals my whole life, so I was confident about dealing with the dogs. I had to grip it and rip it. You can’t baby into something like that.
GCG: Can you give me a little background about yourself?
Dillon: I am 28 years old. I moved up to Alaska six years ago. I’ve been doing construction work to keep myself fed and keep my hobbies fed. I really enjoy fishing and snowboarding.
I first learned about mushing was when my mom, our school librarian, did a project on the Iditarod. Every class got to pick a musher. Every day of the Iditarod, you could write about the dogs, the musher, and part of the trail as part of the project. My mom had a huge board in the hallway and little dogs with your musher name on it. She would look at the tracker and update where all of the teams were.
GCG: It seems like your mother is a big influence in your life. Can you say something about that?
Dillon: She’s a totally awesome woman. She is the one who I shared this love of dog mushing with. That’s the one thing we like and really enjoy talking about and sharing with each other.
GCG: Over almost two weeks, how did you train and prepare?
Dillon: Nic started me by learning how to put the harnesses and booties on correctly. Nic is super particular about putting booties on, and it works really well. He taught me about the gangline and putting necklines on. Then he told me how to drive the sled.
I took six dogs out with Nic running in front with the snow machine so I could get used to it, and they wouldn’t run away. He could use the snow machine to get them at a pretty good speed. He was talking me through it. I had questions.
Then I did six dogs by myself for three or four more runs. I did eight dogs one time, nine dogs one time, ten dogs one time. The race was the first time I had 12 dogs.
GCG: What did Nic see that allowed him to trust you with his dogs knowing your limited experience?
Dillon: I have no idea. They told me at the hotel in Glennallen, ‘Nic is the only person crazy enough to let somebody with no experience drive his dog team, and I’m the crazy guy that’s doing it.’ I’ve talked to him a lot throughout the past few years. Every time I saw him, I tried to pick his brain about dog sledding because I’m really interested in it, and he’s a great musher.
I think he saw in me that I knew a little bit about it because I’m a hard worker. He knows that I’ve worked with animals my whole life, which gives you a basis of understanding. It’s a whole different level in how you have to deal with them. They can never see you get upset. They can never see you get angry with anything, with the trail, with the sled, and with them especially. They will absolutely quit on you. It’s all about positivity.
GCG: What was race day like?
Dillon: I had to focus on getting all of my stuff ready for my sled. Nic would pop around the trailer and mutter something to do, and I would do it. I had to make sure I had my mandatory gear and whatever I thought I’d need. Then they hook you up to the 4-wheeler. That was wild getting up to the start line. You want to keep your dogs from getting tangled up. And away we went, like a rocket sled. It was an awesome feeling.
GCG: It’s your first time, and you looked good, but you were probably nervous.
Dillon: I was definitely nervous. I had no idea what to expect. The first part of the trail is in town. At the very end of the trail report at the musher’s meeting, the guy said if you could make it the first two miles out of town, you’ll be fine. He was not joking. There was uphill, downhill, and it was super soft. All of those driveways you cross, you shoot up them and you scoot across the driveway. By the time you’ve crested it, you’re dogs are downhill on the next one.
There were people yard sailing all over the place. One guy lost his cooler. A guy lost all of his dog food bowls. There were hundreds of booties on the first two miles of the trail just because the snow was so deep. The dogs are ramping to go. They’ve got people clapping and cheering, so the dogs are not holding back anything.
I was really on the drag mat and the brake for the first five miles until I could calm them down a little bit and run them at a reasonable pace.