MOUND HOUSE - A flurry of Y2K anxiety will keep Gordon Hutting from racing his dog sled in the Canadian Open Championship in northern British Columbia.
What does the Year 2000 have to do with an 18-pound wood sled and eight yelping Alaska huskies?
Hutting, 57, fits his racing and training around his job as director of quality and risk management at Carson-Tahoe Hospital. The races in Fort Nelson are Jan. 8 and 9, but the hospital wants its Y2K team to hang around in case any computer glitches arise in the week following New Year's.
Starting in mid-January, though, Hutting will devote himself to the race season in western Canada and Colorado until the start of March.
A dog sled racer living in Mound House? Sounds strange to the folks in Canada and the northern states, too, but sled dog racing is just Hutting's latest, uh, eccentricity.
In his 40s, he was a competitive triathlete (1981-89), ranked No. 5 in the world for his age in the grueling swimming-biking-running races.
"This isn't where I took a dramatic left turn in life," Hutting said. "I was already on the fringe - but not over the edge. I honestly believe I have learned more about myself in the last 16 years than I did in the first three-quarters of my life."
His race kennel - typically about 15 dogs - gives him and wife, LaVonne, second jobs 365 days a year. They clean the pens twice a day and each dog gets a customized high-protein, high-fat diet to stay in peak condition.
From September to March, he runs the dogs each weekend, either in faraway races or on training runs in Hope Valley, at Webber Lake north of Truckee or on the Misfit Flat dry lake bed south of Stagecoach. In deep winter, he adds one or two 5:30 a.m. weekday runs before heading to the hospital. The rest of the year, the dogs get exercise on Hutting's six-acre plot.
"I work very long hours," Hutting said one morning before sunrise on the way to Misfit Flat, named after the Clark Gable-Marilyn Monroe movie filmed there.
"I'll get to the office today at 10 or 11 and work until 6 or 7. Tomorrow I'll probably get there at 7 and won't leave until 5-5:30. So it all sort of balances itself out."
Like humans, the dogs have names, personalities, peculiarities. Kaydie, Freddie, Beau and Escher are his best leaders.
"I learn a lot from them by watching their behavior and watching their society," he said. "It's helped me manage myself better as a human being. A mistake is nothing more than a mistake. If you're going to get mad, get mad at yourself. Don't get mad at the dogs."
Last season, Hutting was ranked No. 11 out of 160 registered racers in the eight-dog class. He said winning's not the priority, even with his desire to reach the top three to qualify for the world championships in 2001 in Fairbanks.
"I don't care if I win races," Hutting said. "I just want to be out here running my dogs. To me a successful run is if I have a clean run, no breakdowns, no tangles."
Hutting assigns dogs to three positions: lead, point and team.
The lead dogs are the two out front.
"It's what we call a strong lead, a dog that can take the pressure," he said. "They have to pick a trail. They have to listen to commands. They have the pressure of six or eight dogs behind them that are just running. They have to run all out but be in control."
On a recent training run south of Stagecoach, the team came upon a loose dog from a nearby home. The dog wanted to play but the team's job was to keep going.
"That's what you want from a leader: to run through all distractions," Hutting said, encouraging the team: "Good dogs!"
The point dogs are the pair directly behind the leads. They provide the speed. The rest of the dogs actually pull the sled.
Hutting uses a mix of Eskimo commands and English to direct his dogs. He does not have a whip or even reins. Words alone get the job done.
He shouts out,"Let's go!" to get the dogs in motion, instead of the classic "mush" - a bastardization of the French marche. "Gee" gets the dogs to turn right, "haw" is for a left turn. "Gee over" and "haw over" moves the team a bit to one side or the other. Hutting whistles if he wants more speed.
The dogs yelp and bark incessantly in anticipation of the morning run. Hutting says they can't contain their enthusiasm to work. Once the 5-mile training is done, the team is docile, quiet and not at all exhausted.
"It's genetic," he said. "These are working dogs. In most of Alaska, you have dogs that are working dogs. You don't want to rely on machines. "
Hutting this year was elected to the board of directors of the International Sled Dog Racing Association on a somewhat unpopular platform espousing animal welfare.
"Why don't we just do the right and ethical thing?" Hutting said. "If we don't do it, PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - will do it for us. The reality is you cannot make a dog run that doesn't want to run. You don't have to hit a dog to make a dog work."
Hutting inadvertently got hooked on sled dog racing while living on Kingsbury Grade.
"I had an old beagle and an English setter," he remembered. "This stray husky sort of wandered into my yard. I said, 'This is a nice dog.' Then I looked for a (husky) puppy. Instead of one, I got two. Now that I had three huskies, a woman said I could have a sled dog team. I said, 'What the hell's a sled dog team?'
"I didn't have the foggiest idea what it was. I had to teach myself."
He learned he needed a lead dog. At his first race in Markleeville in 1987, Hutting found dog trainer Hal Roemick. Roemick didn't just offer a lead but a full team, on condition that Hutting give the dogs a good home.
"All of a sudden, I went from having three dogs to having 12," Hutting said.
Roemick, who lived near Hutting, trained Hutting for a year. Hutting moved to Mound House in 1991 and set up Cold Nose Kennels.
Hutting raises sprint dogs that typically race between eight and 12 miles. He has never competed in the Iditarod, the ultimate sled dog race across 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome.
Sled dogs already consume huge amounts of his life. The Iditarod is another matter altogether.
"I would have to leave the hospital or get a leave of absence for at least a year or probably two," Hutting said. "I would have to hook up with a kennel in Alaska (for long-distance dogs)."
World championships or the Iditarod are probably beyond Hutting, not for lack of ability but more the realities of life.
"The reality is if I had unlimited funds and I didn't have to work and I could have a kennel of 60 to 85 dogs, I could get myself in the top three in five to seven years," he said.