Charley Bejna describes himself as an adventurer. Born and raised in Addison, he is the owner of Charley's Landscaping Co. But after a 1991 trip to Alaska with his dad, he knew he wanted to return.
So in 2006, Bejna traveled North to witness the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an annual, long-distance run from Anchorage to Nome on the first Saturday in March. Mushers and their teams of 16 dogs cover the distance of almost 1,000 miles in nine to 15 days.
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"I went up and saw and it's absolutely amazing," Bejna said. "The excitement of the dogs grabbed me!"
Now, the Addison man spends his winters in Alaska. The next Iditarod is March 1, and Bejna expects to be competing with his team of Huskies along the Northern Route of 975 miles.
Bejna followed the Iditarod when he was younger. A dog lover, he said dogs have always been a part of his family. Several years after seeing the race in person, Bejna met G.B. Jones, who has run the Iditarod numerous times.
Jones suggested that Bejna visit his kennel. Bejna did and was able to mush a team several times around a quarter-mile loop.
"This is awesome!" Bejna recalls thinking. "It's something I don't do every day."
When Jones needed a dog handler to feed and clean up after the dogs prior the 2011 Iditarod, Bejna offered his services. They shook hands and had a deal. That was the beginning of a dream for Bejna.
"I never thought in a billion years that I'd be doing the Iditarod," he said.
Bejna now has his own stable of 31 dogs at the Iditarod Trail Kennel in Knik, Alaska, where he is training for the 2014 race. He competed in the 2013 Iditarod but had to scratch after 724 miles in the best interest of his dogs.
All of Bejna's dogs are mixed-breed Alaskan Huskies. Each dog has its own, distinct personality and is an important part of the team.
"Their temperament is very lovable," he said. "And they have endurance."
Bejna has five retired dogs living with him: Nellie, Pearl, Thunder, Indy (females) and Dusk (male). Pearl and Thunder have both been lead dogs and go with Bejna to Alaska for the winter. The retired dogs are 9 to 14 years old.
"You can tell when they are not enjoying running any more," he said, "and they can't keep up with the team. Every dog is different."
Two males, Bernie and Tundra, are dogs Bejna has bred to other dogs in the kennel. Males weigh 50 to 60 pounds; females are 40 to 45 pounds. Bejna says males and females are equal in demeanor and attitude.
Height is not important when putting together a team, as dogs are paired by how they get along next to each other. Bigger is not always better, Bejna said, as 70 pound dogs are putting more weight on their leg joints and shoulders. He cites a female, Candy, who weighs only 37 pounds but is one of the strongest runners.
"I didn't think she could do it, but she was almost the best at the end," he said. "Smaller might be better."
When a litter is born, the first six months is about letting the pups run around and be loose; they don't wear leashes. Bejna takes daily walks with them, which helps him get to know their personalities, to see what their endurance is and to learn if they'll listen.
"It's how you bring them up as puppies," he said of being a successful dog handler.
When a dog is a year old, Bejna puts a harness on to see what the dog can do. "At first they're confused -- 'What's going on'," he said. "They try to chew and get out of the harness."
After they're used to a harness, they leave the kennel with a sled. Pups are put next to experienced dogs when running with the sled, so there is no goofing around.
Bejna's dogs don't learn the common commands of "sit," "heel" and "stay." They are trained to respond to "haw" (left), "gee" (right), "hike" (go), "whoa" (slow down/stop) and "on by" (to pass another team).
In the summer, April through August, the dogs are leased to Alaska Icefield Expeditions. It's dog camp has 300 dogs in residence. When the cruise ships arrive in Juneau, one of the most popular land expeditions for visitors is to go dog sled mushing on the Mendenhall Glacier. Bejna's dogs are among those working.
"I don't have to worry about the dogs and they get exercised," Bejna said.
September is when Bejna leaves Addison for his other home -- a cabin in Wasilla, Alaska. The dogs come off the glacier the first or second week in September. Training starts in mid-September.
Bejna said this is a full-time job, leaving no time for anything else. He is busy running the dogs six to eight hours daily, feeding them two to three times a day and cleaning the kennels twice each day.
"Training is all about getting the dogs to run properly," Bejna said. "That and finding the dogs that get along with each other."
Training is harder than a race; it is teaching the dogs how to behave on the trail. Bejna likens it to training for a marathon. The dogs are well-conditioned.
In September, the dogs train on a four-wheel ATV. The team does "road training," using local roads as there is no snow. The four-wheeler is run in neutral gear. A 16- or 18-hitch of dogs is used to pull it.
There are no reins to guide the dogs, only spoken commands. The teams go about three miles daily in the beginning. By January, they will be up to 60 to 70 miles a day. When the snow starts around Halloween, Bejna can start using the trails.
"You don't just go out and do 26 miles," he said. "It takes six to seven months of training prior to the Iditarod."
Part of training is learning the dogs' feeding habits and needs. The dogs eat chicken with the skin, lamb, salmon, beef, beef fat and/or tripe mixed in with their kibble. "Some are picky eaters," Bejna said. "I want them to eat so they like what they're eating."
The dogs have different jobs. The lead dog needs to listen and follow commands. He must be focused on running straight and not looking back.
"Duke and Fuzzie always want to run," Bejna said. "As a lead dog, they're leading you first through the trail. Everyone follows him through snow or water and ice on a lake."
Mick and McKinley are wheel dogs. A wheel dog is in the rear, has an extreme amount of power and is capable of pulling more, as they are big-boned and big-bodied.
"I use them because they're taller and have a lot of power," Bejna said.
The rest of the team dogs fit into their spots and keeps things going. Bejna tries to have all his dogs run in every position. If a dog doesn't work out well in a spot, he can move or be replaced with another dog who can do the job.
Bejna qualified for the 2014 Iditarod by finishing three other races: The Willow-Tug 300, Knik 220 and Northern Lights 300. For the Iditarod, there is a ceremonial start in Anchorage with 12 dogs per team. The next day, March 2, there is a "restart" in Willow with the 16 dogs chosen to run the complete race.
Based on training and a complete veterinarian check, Bejna will choose which of his dogs will run the week before the race.
"So much goes into it," Bejna said, "and it's worth everything."
For more information on Charley and his dogs, go to his website at www.iditarodmusher.com.
In 1973, the Iditarod began as an event to test the best sled dog mushers and teams; it has evolved into a highly competitive race. For more details, visit Iditarod.com.