CARCROSS, Yukon — Twenty-four of Hans Gatt’s dogs are racers, and nine of those have just pulled off one of the most amazing feats in sled dog racing.
Kinvig, Stitch, Big Girl, Tyvek, Topkok, Tank, Sonny, Banjo and Cliff finished the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in 9 days, 26 minutes. They not only shattered a record but furthered the known possibilities of what sled dogs could do on little rest, sometimes running for 21 hours in 24-hour periods.
Kinvig Age: 5
Kinvig is the ultimate closer.
He was born with an incredibly low heart rate, at least 20 fewer beats per minute than the average dog, and can thus push himself harder and longer than most dogs.
Even Gatt doesn’t know Kinvig’s limits.
“I’ve never seen him tired,” he said. “It’s absolutely incredible, that dog.”
Because of his limitless drive, Kinvig was in lead for the final 100-mile push from Braeburn to Whitehorse.
“When I need some more speed on team, I put him up there,” Gatt said.
Kinvig also ran in lead from the Fortymile hospitality stop to the midpoint of Dawson City, when Gatt sprung to a 2 1/2-hour lead.
The dog’s smarts also proved sharp a few miles outside of Dawson City. Kinvig led the team around a deep patch of overflow water that Gatt could not see. The following two competitors arrived soaked above their boots.
“He really saved my day there,” Gatt said.
Stitch Age: 4
Kinvig may be the ultimate driving force, but Stitch isn’t far behind. he was also running in lead when the team crossed the finish line.
Even just going around the dog yard, Stitch doesn’t take his time.
“He doesn’t trot much,” Gatt said. “He lopes most of the time”
Though the pair of Stitch and Kinvig can put a spark in Gatt’s team, it’s a mixture that can only be used in moderation. Otherwise, they drive their teammates too hard.
Though he was obviously built be a sled dog, Stitch would make a good housepet, too.
“He’s very affectionate,” Gatt said.
Big Girl Age: 6
Up front for most of the race was Big Girl, who makes up in smarts what she lacks in sprit.
Big Girl’s the kind of dog who knows the way home, even when her musher doesn’t. That’s why she’s Gatt’s go-to dog and led most of the way during the Quest.
Sometimes she doesn’t fit in with the mass of yipping energetic dogs around her.
“She shouldn’t be as good as she is, when you consider her personality,” Gatt said. “She’s just a quiet easygoing dog. ... She’s kind of a wimp a little bit, too.”
She keeps to herself, doesn’t run with the other dogs when they’re turned loose, likes to go into the house and whines unless her harness is on just so — until it’s race time.
“She’s all business on the gang line, of course,” Gatt said.
Sonny Age: 4
Sonny was originally owned by fellow Quest competitor Gerry Willomitzer, but he was too small and a pain to deal with, so Sonny was sold to Gatt.
“He’s little. He’s got a skinny butt. He’s a picky eater. He bites. He’s awful. That’s why Gerry wanted to get rid of him,” said Susie Rogan, Gatt’s partner and fellow musher.
He’s still high-maintenance, but has proven he’s worth the extra attention. In his first race, the 2009 Quest, he ran so well that Gatt made him a main leader for the following Iditarod and this year’s Quest.
“Every time I pass Gerry, he asks for him back,” Gatt said.
Frustrating as he may be, Sonny is one of Rogan’s favorites because of his quirks.
“He’s funny,” Rogan said, embracing the pooch. “He’s a snot. That’s what he is.”
Just watch out for his chompers, as a vet in Braeburn learned when he surprised Sonny and got a quick bite in return.
“When he gets tangled up in the line or something, he freaks out and you’ve got to watch it because he will bite you,” Gatt said. “He blames it on everybody.”
Topkok and Cliff
Ages: 7 and 6 respectively
Gatt passed three competitors to charge into first while climbing American Summit, and he can thank Topkok and Cliff for that.
They’re the power boys, the workhorses who get the team uphill as fast as possible.
Topkok, at 66 pounds, is by far the strongest dog in Gatt’s yard.
"He’s unbelievable,” Gatt said. “There’s never a slack line on that dog.”
It’s also hard to find Cliff, who is Big Girls’ brother, not pulling on a slope.
The duo are the picture of blue-collar workmanship, strong, no-nonsense and effective.
Tyvek Age: 7
Tyvek’s race might have been over after the team left the Fortymile hospitality stop, about 100 miles from Dawson City.
The veteran bruised some ribs on jumble ice while Gatt was unable to find the trail for two hours. After the long ordeal, it was questionable whether Tyvek would continue with the team out of Dawson City.
But when the 36-hour layover in Dawson ended, Tyvek emerged as the team’s symbol of toughness and crossed the finish line 500 miles later.
“He’s extremely reliable,” Gatt said.
Banjo: Age: 2
Banjo is the young gun of the squad who proved his toughness to Gatt last week. The Quest was Banjo’s first race, and he is one of four 2-year-olds that Gatt plans to use in the Iditarod.
Banjo proved himself worthy of being able to handle the long runs and keep a positive attitude in a sport where morale is the difference between first place and a scratch.
“He was never bummed out,” Gatt said. “Always happy, always ate like crazy.”
Tank Age: 4
At Pelly Crossing, about 250 miles away from the finish, Gatt’s dogs slurped down their food like drinking sodas from a straw. They licked their plastic bowls clean and yipped for more.
A few hours and unusually short rest later, they were kay-yaying and yanking on their harnesses.
That enthusiasm is one of the reasons Gatt won the Quest, and Tank is the driving force behind it.
Tank, brother of Stitch, hardly has a down day, and his compatriots on the gang line follow his spirited lead.
“He’s always the one who is wagging his tail and is up first at the checkpoints,” Gatt said. “He’s like the cheerleader of the team. Tank is one of the ones who instigates, who gets everybody going.”