A Bulldog in the Iditarod

Mississippi State chemical engineering graduate Seth Barnes traded in the corporate life for snow and a sled a few years ago, and he hasn’t looked back since. Growing up on the Alabama Gulf Coast, Barnes’ relocation to Alaska may have seemed unlikely, but after working for a while for private industry and the federal government in Washington, D.C., he needed a change. He took a cross country trip to Alaska, settled in and fell in love with sled dogs and racing.

Q: From a suit and tie in Washington, D.C, to Alaska mushing dogs––how does that happen?
After working in D.C. for some time, I decided to get away from the busy life, and that’s when I was introduced to sled dogs. I was traveling around the U.S. and Canada via motorcycle, and I kind of found a home with a few people in Alaska. Mushing dogs is very addicting to some, and I guess you can say I was bitten by the bug very early. So that next January I flew into Fairbanks to run dogs with Sirius Sled Dogs (Siriussleddogs.net) for two weeks, and I am still here. One piece of advice: do not move to Alaska’s interior in the middle of winter with only carry-on luggage.

Q: What do you miss about living in the South?
I miss the beach at times, the food, the hospitality, the kindness and most importantly, family.

Q: What do you enjoy most about Alaska?
I enjoy the peace, quiet and vast openness of living and training in remote wilderness. But what I truly enjoy most is traveling thousands of miles with some of the best athletes in the world and the adventure that comes with that.

Q: What is mushing?
Mushing or the running of sled dogs dates back hundreds of years. It is the art of traveling by dog team typically using a sled of some kind. In the past, it was a way of life. Mushing was the only means of transportation in the Arctic and Subarctic. Then along came the “iron dog,” or snowmobile, and like the automobile was replaced by the horse, the sled dogs started being replaced. In the early 1970s the Iditarod was founded to save the Alaskan Husky. Beside long distance mushing––Iditarod, Yukon Quest, Kobuk 440––there are other forms of competitive racing like sprint racing, usually 30 miles or less at high rates of speed; mid-distance racing, which is usually 50-300 miles at a slightly slower speed; and stage-stop racing, a combination of sprint and mid-distance, kind of like the Tour de France. Distance mushing is unique, especially 1,000 mile races, because it is continuous, non-stop, unassisted, multiday racing that takes place in very remote places typically far away from roads.

Q: What environmental issues impact racing?
Mainly weather is an issue. The temperatures and precipitation accumulation can make it difficult at times. However, the dogs seem to adapt much better than the human. Also, the open wilderness that Alaska and parts of Canada have allow for places to run dogs. If there was an abundance of people and roads in rural Alaska, then this sport might not be possible.

Q: When and where was your first race? What was that experience like?
My first race I believe was the 2011 Knik 200, in Knik, Alaska. It was awesome! Even though it was one of the slowest Knik 200s on record due to the extreme amount of snow fall and wind, I finished the race in ninth place and could not wait to race again.

Q: How does one train for the Iditarod?
It takes hard work, commitment, finances, dedication, toughness and probably a little bit of craziness. After all, who in their sane mind would go out in temperatures 40 degrees below zero to run a thousand miles and sleep in the snow when one could just stay home?

Q: What do you do on a regular day in preparation for the Iditarod?
Dogs, dogs and more dogs. The day-to-day care and upkeep of a dog team consumes about half of my day. From cleaning up after them to feeding them, it takes a lot of work. In addition, we cut thousands of pounds of frozen meat to feed them, and we’re constantly buying, maintaining, and making equipment; doing sports medicine-type vet work to keep them at the top of their game; training them to run thousands of miles in the winter; and countless other tasks. Without a support crew, all the work would never get done.

Q: What can you tell us about the dogs on your mushing team?
Having favorites does not do the team very much good, and remember, this is truly a team sport. So my favorite dog on the team is the one that is in front of me at that given time; that dog is the most important one because I have to give that dog the best training, conditioning, nutrition, care, attention and love I can. Dog personalities go across the board. We have the sweet little one who is always happy to see you, the grumpy one who is not happy unless he is in harness and the crazy kind that seems to have Attention Deficit Disorder. Come to think of it, most of them probably have doggy ADD, if such a thing is real.

Q: What are you looking for in a sled dog, and what characteristics does one who breeds dogs like these for competition want for the team?
Good feet, confirmation, eating habits, size, weight and the list really keeps going. I like to say the most important things are the simple things––attitude and appetite.

Q: What about the Iditarod are you looking forward to?
Traveling about 11 days with my dogs in the open wilderness through some very beautiful and historic places in Alaska. Also, testing my skills and the dogs’ training and conditioning through a grand adventure and the loads of knowledge that I should gain that will make me better in the future.

Q: What advice do you have for current students here at MSU?
Work hard and never give up, think outside the box, do what you truly want to do, and always remember the only thing holding you back besides yourself is air and opportunity.

To learn more about Barnes and his team, visit SethBarnesRacing.com.

Photography by Albert Marquez at Planet Earth Adventures and Conway Seavey