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He grew up in Barnard. Now he's mushing dogs across Alaska in the Iditarod

Dog musher Eric Kelly mushers with a team of sled dogs harnesses to his sled in front of a white wintery background.
Mountain Glory Photography / DayBreak Mushing, courtesy
Eric Kelly, originally from Barnard, Vt., moved to Alaska in 2008. He started mushing dogs competitively, and has mushed his team more than 2,300 miles to preparation for this year's Iditarod, which starts Friday, March 5.

Musher Eric Kelly is originally from Barnard, Vermont, and this weekend he and his team of dogs will start their rookie run of Alaska's 1,000-mile sled dog race known as the Iditarod.

VPR's Connor Cyrus spoke to musher Eric Kelly about dog training at his family-run kennel DayBreak Mushing, and his path from Vermont to Alaska, mushing and the Iditarod.

A man in a large navy blue parka harnesses dogs to a sled as part of the sport of mushing.
Eric Kelly, originally from Barnard, Vt., harnesses dogs on his team during a February 2022 training run. Kelly will take a team of 14 dogs to compete in the Iditarod.

Eric Kelly: Well, I'd always dreamed about Alaska, I think like a lot of people do. And I actually left Vermont and I went and lived in northern Arizona for about 10 years. From there, we came to visit a friend who was in Alaska, and that was in November 2007. And we just loved it. Me and my wife and the kids. And I found a job, accidentally, while we were here. So, we went back to Arizona and decided to move to Alaska. And we've been here about 15 years now.

Connor Cyrus: There's a solid dog sledding tradition here in New England. In mid-February, the town of Laconia, New Hampshire hosted the World Championship Dog Sledding Derby, but I understand that you did not get the mushing bug in Vermont. So, how did you get involved in the sport?

Well, my son had to do a school newspaper report about the Iditarod, and a friend of ours knew a musher, whose name was Newton Marshall. He's actually from Jamaica. Not Jamaica, Vermont, but actually Jamaica, the island. And he was preparing for his fourth Iditarod, and I got to talking to him, and he needed some help. So, I just started helping him out that winter, and it led to where we are now. So yeah, not probably many people have been inspired to much by a Jamaican dog musher. But that's how we got involved.

For listeners at home who maybe aren't familiar with mushing, can you explain the basic concept of it?

The concept is, you have a team of dogs, and the dogs pull your sled. That's the basic concept of it.

The part that I love is the team building, it’s the connection with the animals. It's being out in the wilderness, away from town, you're just out there with your dogs, even when you're in a race. Most of the time you're by yourself, with your dog team, unless you're in a checkpoint. So, I think the concept is basically being in nature, with amazing animals.

A map showing the Iditarod sled dog trail from Anchorage to Nome.
The 1,000 mile Iditarod sled dog race will follow the Northern Route in 2022, ending in the gold rush-era town of Nome.

The original mushing was more of a way of transportation, a way to get supplies to and from the villages, to get medicine to Nome—people probably know that story of Balto in the serum run—but the basic concept here is that, I built a team around me that have dogs that I love, dogs that love me, and we work together in the wilderness.

You have to be prepared to do everything yourself, you have to feed and care for your team in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, when your next checkpoint could be 100 miles away, and a snowstorm could be coming through. What do you like about that, and why do you put you and your team through it?

I've always kind of looked for adventure. After we have worked so hard with these dogs, I like to see what we can do. Because we're such a fluid team. And I have confidence in my dogs. My dogs have confidence in me.

We just ran a race earlier this year, we're out on the trail, the winds were blowing 75-80 miles an hour. And I really don't like the wind. But I was with my dog team. And we made it through there with no issues. It was, actually, for some reason, enjoyable, the dogs thrived, and we did awesome. So, it's just facing the challenge. That's why I do this, for the challenge, for the adventure of being in the Alaska wilderness. It just pushes you and pushes you to to work hard and make it happen.

What do you have to do to train for a 1,000 mile race like the Iditarod? It's obviously a race, but even the fastest winner takes more than a week on the trail to finish. So, what goes into training?

It starts with a lot of small steps. In the summers, the dogs are kind of resting. We free run them around the yard, they stay in shape, but they're not pulling. Come early fall, we start running at about two mile runs. And we do that till the dogs are comfortable. Usually takes about a week. Then we'll double to four miles, and we keep doubling up. Until we get to where the dogs are comfortable running 35 to 40 miles. Sometimes we'll push further into 60-70 miles on a run. And the dogs will get to where they're comfortable running about 100 miles in a 24 hour period. That's kind of what we shoot for.

And then what do you have to do to qualify for the Iditarod?

To qualify for the Iditarod, you have to run 750 miles of mid-distance races. The way I did it was, I ran a 150 mile race, and then two 300 mile races this year. The dogs all have, right now, about 2,300 miles of training miles on them. We keep track of it on a spreadsheet, so we know what everybody's doing. We'll train three days, rest two, train two days, rest one. And we just stay in this cycle. They just get used to it. They know what to expect. They know when every time we stop, they get a certain treat. They know every time we stop, that's when we put down the straw that they rest on, or they go back to their house. It's a solid team effort. The dogs know what to expect of me. I know what to expect of them. It' really a cool, cool thing.

So the most important question I think that I can ask is, how much dog food are you buying each day? Or, are your dogs eating each day?

Each dog eats about a pound or so of food a day. So, we're basically going through a 40 pound bag of kibble, and then we mix that with meat, so 50 to 60 pounds of food per day for the team. When we're racing, the 14 dogs will eat 100 pounds of food per day.

Oh wow. So what's your dog food bill like each month?

It's probably about $2,000, or $1,800.

Wow. This is kind of a neat year for you, because this is your rookie run of the Iditarod. Some mushrooms have run the race for decades without finishing in the top 10, let alone winning the race. What does a successful race look like for you?

For me, a successful race is, I want to get to Nome with happy, healthy dogs. It doesn't matter to me where I finish. One thing that you get when you finish the race is, there's a belt buckle that you get, that's like the prize, I guess, it's the belt buckle. No matter where you finish, you get the belt buckle.

So I've made that my goal is just, I want to achieve the belt buckle, we're gonna be in the race, but we're gonna do this more like a like an extended camping trip, we're gonna take our time, we're gonna rest a lot, we're gonna learn the trail. You know, I'm a rookie. So I've got a lot to learn. And I do a lot of listening from the experienced mushers that I know, and they've kind of said, just take your time, it's your first one. Just enjoy it, your dogs will enjoy it. So that's our goal, is to get the belt buckle.

Listen to the full interview to hear about Kelly's training conditions in Alaska this winter, and how he keeps himself entertained while mushing alone with his dogs for the 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome.

Broadcast on Friday, March 4, 2022 at noon.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Connor Cyrus was co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition from 2021-2023.
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.