Washington tribe offers a hand to 53 Norwegian Iditarod dogs

Fifty-three traveling Iditarod dogs got a helping hand Tuesday from the Nisqually Tribe in Washington state.

Joe Cushman, tribal planning director, said the Alaskan huskies and their handlers were camped out near Schilter Farm in Nisqually, Wash., and a staff member stopped to see if they needed help.

The dogs make up four teams from Norway that just finished competing in the prestigious Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in early March from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. The original plan to fly home from Anchorage after the race fell apart when a cargo plane wasn’t available, said musher Tore Albrigtson. A separate flight would have cost $100,000, he said.

So, Albrigtson and his three fellow mushers crated the dogs, loaded them into a large U-Haul, and began driving south March 24. They have a flight out of Sea-Tac on Wednesday morning (March 30).

Along the way, they sought rural sites to stake out the teams. They passed through the urban Puget Sound region and finally stopped in Nisqually.

A Thurston County sheriff’s deputy stopped and told the group the office had been getting a lot of calls about the dogs, and suggested they go to the Thurston County off-leash dog park on Hogum Bay Road where there was more room, said Lt. Tim Rudloff.

Then tribal employee Heidi Thomas drove by and felt compelled to help.

At first Thomas was upset to see so many dogs tied on short leads, she said, but when she understood more about the situation, she called Cushman, and a plan was made to bring the dogs to the tribe’s old Bragget Farm on Mounts Road.

“I love dogs,” Thomas said, “and I couldn’t just not do something.”

By noon Tuesday, the dogs were relaxing in the sun on their travel pickets, each with a bowl of water. Lean and bright-eyed, they look like the endurance athletes they are.

Tribal members were to take the mushers, a pair at a time, to the youth center for showers, and to the casino for a meal. But after that, they’ll be happy to roll out sleeping bags on the ground, Albrigston said.

“We are not city people,” Albrigston said. “We are more comfortable out in the wilderness.”

Albrigtson, 49, said aside from racing, he is a wilderness guide and runs a sledding tourism business, so his dogs are well socialized. At home on his 155-acre property, they have a large fenced area to run. But they also are trained to stay on long and short pickets, to crate and all are used to being indoors, he said.

Two of his dogs are named Jeff and Martin, for famous mushers Jeff King and Martin Buser. Other dogs are littermates named for various makes of cars. It’s easier to keep track of litters if the names have a theme, he said. His dogs are not neutered, and he pickets the males and females separately.

A top sled dog sells for $500 to $2,000, he said, “but some of mine are not for sale at any price.”