by Justine Pechuzal for Seward City News-
Winter for Alaskan recreationalists is a special time for skiing, snow machining, ice skating, or, if you’re a serious dog musher, racing. Travis Beals and Sarah Stokey of Seward’s Turning Heads Kennel are no exception.
Most recently, both mushers completed the Tustamena 200, with Beals placing second, his highest finish in the race yet, and Sarah placing 11th, with her best time.
“Place-wise I did the same,” Stokey said. “But my enjoyment of the race greatly improved.” When asked if the change was a question of weather or dogs, Sarah said neither. “When I ran the race in 2012, it was my first qualifying race for the Iditarod. Since then I’ve put ten thousand miles on a dog team. My experience is a lot better.”
Beals credited his high Tustamena finish to different variables.
“I felt confident going into it, with a good group of dogs I’ve raised since pups,” he said. “Also, the course is really hilly, which my dogs are good at.” Other than a slight wrong turn on a tight corner, costing a five or ten minute delay, Beals took the race in stride. “The main purpose was to train for the Iditarod,” he stated.
The 2018 Iditarod race, less than a month away, is the end goal for many competitive dog mushers. Both Beals and Stokey have competed in the race. Stokey finished the race in 2016, but will sit this year out and assist Beals. “I’d like to run it again, possibly next year,” Stokey said. She spoke of the unique challenge of being a competitive dog sledding couple. “The Iditarod is a big commitment, so it takes a lot of planning to work out the schedule for us and the dogs.”
That Beals appreciated his partner’s efforts is clear. “Sarah has been my knight in shining armor,” Beals said, “helping out with last minute logistics, and taking care of things in the kennel.” This year marks Beal’s 5th Iditarod competition. His aim is high, yet grounded.
“Our goal is to finish with happy, healthy dogs in the top ten,” Beals said. Hard training and a new nutrition program for the dogs has increased the team pace and musher confidence. Given the harsh conditions and extremes of the race, it can be difficult for a non-musher to understand the draw of this eight to fourteen day competition. For Beals, the motivation is a no-brainer.
“The scenery is unbelievable,” Beals said. “To travel across the state by dog team is an epic journey with best friends.”
Beals claims that race challenges like weather, water, or broken parts on the sled, are all part of the fun.
“It’s the Iditarod; there’s always some sort of drama,” Beals said. For him, the biggest challenge of the race is getting to the start line. He cites planning, dog training, food and gear logistics. “This [dog racing] is a lifestyle, not something you clock in and out for.”
Beals has certainly worked hard to get to this point. Though he experienced dog sledding early in life, participating in his first race from his mother’s womb when she was seven months pregnant, Beals had to make his own way into the professional world of the sport.
“My family is very supportive of racing,” Beals said, “though I didn’t grow up in an Iditarod mushing family with long distance racing. We just loved the outdoors and dogs.”
At twelve years old, Beals started his first kennel and was competing in junior races. Five years ago, he and Stokey started their local dog sled and helicopter touring business, Turning Heads Kennel, in part to help fund their dog sled racing ambitions. The business has kept them as busy in the summer as racing during the winter.
“There’s never a dull moment,” Stokey said. “It’s very fast paced, like any seasonal business.” In 2017, Beals faced an even bigger challenge: sitting out the Iditarod race due to assault charges. Beals then participated in a year and half long court-ordered rehabilitation program. In hindsight, Beals reflected on how the year away from racing helped him.
“You won’t see me down that road again,” he said, and emphasized how time mushing with his team moved him forward. “My dogs have taught me what it is to be strong. You tip over the sled, you get back on.”
Sarah echoes Beals’ emphasis on the the importance of a musher’s relationship with his/her team. “Racing gives us a framework and goals for our lives,” she said, “but what we love is being out on the trail with the dogs.”
It appears there’s still plenty of trail time ahead for the pair.