Hi, my name is Atreyu. I am part of the Oracle Crew and we are the youngest pups in the kennel. Last year I started training with the big team. I am already looking forrward to next winter!
This is Spencer. He is getting a little grey but still one awesome sled dog. He arrived from our good friend, Hugh Neff’s kennel the second year we were in Alaska and has been a solid foundation on our team on just about every training run and race we have ever done.
Spencer is the brother to one of our main lead dogs, Sidney. Spencer is a big lover. He loves to gives hugs and kisses and will nuzzle up to you when ever we are in the kennel.
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by Nicole Forto
This is such an exciting and sad time all in one. I will be running my last junior race as a musher. Contrary to popular belief we as mushers don’t sit around on top of our dog houses all day basking in the sun’s rays glaring off the snow. Instead we spend a lot of time being glorified poop picker uppers for our furry friends. You may be sitting there asking why do we do it then? The answer is quite simple. Mushers have a deep bond, that not many people ever have a glimpse of feeling, with our dogs that can’t be broken no matter how many miles are trucked or piles of poop picked up that bond stays as tight as our tying of knots. With all that being said I would like to offer an opportunity from the Team Ineka family to yours and share with you an all exclusive inside look at my junior Iditarod team and answer any questions fans were dying to ask me!
Shock and her three brothers and sisters as well as her mom were given to us by Vern Halter when we first started our kennel. Shock has endured vigorous amounts of leader training with her pal Sidney. This will be Shock and I’s first race together.
A note from Shock: Hello fans of Team Ineka from here in alaska to all over the globe. Thank you for following my pack and my best friend Nicole on our journey across the junior Iditarod trail. Nicole has spent all season long pushing me to my limits to be the very best leader I can be for her. I would pull till the end of the earth for Nicole and maybe even do it twice! I’ll be running next to my speedy pal Frosty whom I would like to say I know a lot more then because I am of course better than anybody else. I mean come on! I’m Nicole’s absolute favorite and every dog needs to know it! I love Frosty for his speed but Nicole likes me to run with him to keep him focused! I look forward to seeing you on the trail look for my floppy ear tips!
Frosty came to Team Ineka from Hugh Neff along with Toliver to help out with leader training to get the Team Ineka crew some speed in races this year. Frosty and I had a rough beginning during fall training. He was having a lot of trouble grasping how to lead on dirt roads and how to listen to my commands as the musher. As sleds hit I gave him more chances to run with TyTy. He quickly got a hang of things and helped the team build up their speed endurance. I’m looking forward to watching Frosty pull the team down the trail.
A note from Frosty: Well hello!! I’m so excited to say thank you for watching Nicole and I out on the trail this year! I’m shaking in my booties with excitement to pull Nicole across the trail! I fell in love with Nicole when I saw her. I was really nervous when I first ran lead for her but I’m so glad she still gave me a chance to prove my abilities! I love to run fast and not ever stop! I keep all my pals on the team going through some pretty tough obstacles as fast as possible. I hope to get Nicole a fifth place trophy this year because red is just not my color! I don’t want that red lantern. You can look for me on Hugh Neffs Iditarod team.
Team Ineka received Toliver from a good friend Hugh Neff this summer. Toliver came to us to help out with some leader training. This will be my first race with Toliver, but I’ve ran countless training runs with him in lead and have complete faith that no matter the obstacle he will pull all the way to the finish.
A note from Toliver: Hi everyone, I would like to thank you for reading about me and my pal Nicole. I’m so very excited to be one of her main leaders for junior iditarod. I’ve run countless races with my owner Hugh Neff but haven’t gotten the opportunity in my years to run a junior race. I’ve been working all year long to prove myself to Nicole since we had a rocky start when I first arrived at Team Ineka. Little did I know that some 5 foot tall girl was going to be hooking me up to an ATV to run on trails that I didn’t know hundreds of miles away from my pals, so we had a bit of an argument and I got put in swing for awhile. However, once snow hit Nicole gave me another chance and I vowed I would show her what I was made of. Months later Nicole’s main leader TyTy had showed me the ropes of what it takes to be Nicole’s leader. You see Nicole isn’t mushing just to win a race she wants to be able to trust her life in the hands of her dogs and have a bond that is impenetrable
Sidney is my rock on the trail. Every race I have ran I have had Sidney, her brother Spencer, and their pal Shifter; not a single one of them ever stops pulling. Sidney is a back-up leader this year for she is getting a little slow but she can still lead her heart out. She’s going to be in swing position along with Toliver to help out on the tough spots on the trail where Frosty and Shock need it.
A note from Sidney: Hey everyone, I’m so happy Nicole decided to keep me on the team this year! I know I’m getting kind of slow but I’ve got too much heart to quit now! I feel like a big sister to Nicole sometimes; I’ve helped her get through some tough situations and with just one look she knows that I will never let her give up on herself. I look forward to helping out Frosty and Shock where I need to as well as enjoying my last race with Nicole as a junior musher!
Gabby joined Team Ineka a few years back with her brother Aussie. She’s a great little dog who can out pull any of the “big boys” in the kennel. She’s a spitfire with a lot of attitude. She always knows how things are suppose to be and how the dogs are suppose to act. Whenever anyone is out of line she is quick to snap them right back into focus. Gabby is also an astounding backup leader who will be running in team position this year.
A note from Gabby: Hi! My name is Gabby but I love to be called gabby gab or gabby girl! I’m excited to be part of the Junior Iditarod team this year. Last year I had to get benched just days before the race due to a spider bite that made me feel not so good. So this year I’ve made a huge effort to stay in tip top perfect health so I may run in Nicole’s last junior race!
Aussie is my savior on the Junior Iditarod trail. If it weren’t for his perseverance on last years race I wouldn’t have made it to the finish line if it weren’t for his courage to lead the team all the way back. I look forward to Aussie helping keep the team going up every obstacle including his all time favorite open water. Aussie dives straight in and drags the team with him through snow ice and open water. He is a true savior on the trail!
A note from Aussie: ROAR!!!!! That’s my bark! I don’t howl or cry or bark I roar! I love to run almost as much as I love to jump on Nicole for kisses! I’m running in team this year and am prepared to be any part of the team that Nicole needs me to be. I hear there is going to be a lot of hills so it’s a good thing Nicole got me nice and fattened up so I’ve got plenty of energy to make it up even the highest peak!
Spencer is Sidney’s brother and just like Sidney is a true heart and soul of the team. Spencer loves to run not only for me but for anyone and everyone. He knows how to hold the team back if need be or fight and dig his hefty paws in to make it up any hill!
A note from Spencer: Spencer here, I’m ready for those hills on the Denali Highway! I’m a powerhouse built like a brick wall I never back down and don’t plan to ever! I love running with my pal Shifter so I’m super pumped Nicole paired us together this year! My favorite spots are wheel or swing however, I’m comfortable running anywhere even lead if I must!
Shifter is the oldest on the team this year but his age doesn’t slow him down. Just like Spencer Shifter is a powerhouse on any trail terrain hilly or not! Shifter has ran every long distance race I’ve done. Last year on Junior Iditarod I almost had to drop Shifter for about halfway through the river he was dripping blood down the trail. Turns out thanks to the great vets Shifter had only knocked a tooth out because of how hard the snow was packed down.
A note from Shifter: I may have lost a tooth on last years race but that didn’t stop me from pulling as hard as I could to the checkpoint and back to the finish. I think my favorite part of racing with Nicole is when everything is settled down at the checkpoint and Nicole comes and nestles next to me in the straw for a well deserved nap. She keeps me nice and toasty warm since I am a bit old my bones get a little chillier than the rest of the team.
Valdez came to us last March from James Wheeler. Valdez in all actuality came to us as a leader but because he is so big he didn’t fit next to any of our leaders. So Valdez began his training at Team Ineka as one of the main wheel dogs along with his buddy Trapper who also came from James Wheeler. Valdez digs his giant paws in the to ground and never stops pulling rain or shine. He keeps a tight tug line and always likes to glance around at the scenery along the trail. I’ve never seen a dog be excited for hills but oh Valdez loves them. He thrives for the challenge to pull up a hill he doesn’t even bother to stop for a pee break like most of his pals on the team.
A note from Valdez: I’m super shy so my message might be quite short. All in all I’m very excited that I made the cut for Nicole’s team this year. I have ran in one other race with her but that was a sprint race and was really nothing to me with how long my legs are. I’m a little nervous about camping but I know Trapper and Nicole are going to be there to help show me the ropes of what camping is all about. I don’t like to pop my tug line while Nicole hooks up the team so I get put on before a lot of the team dogs because she knows I will stand and line out for her.
Trapper came to us along with his eight pals from James Wheeler’s kennel about three years ago. Trapper has ran with my dad on the Goose Bay 150 and Knik 200 although on Knik Trapper got a very bad shoulder injury he recovered quickly and shortly after ran Junior Iditarod next to Shifter last year. This year Trapper has ran in a few sprint races next to his buddy Valdez and will be running in wheel next to Valdez in this years Junior Iditarod.
A note from Trapper: Just as my fellow wheel partner Valdez I’m very shy and am not a huge fan of being touched. Occasionally however I don’t mind a head scratch or a quick nose kiss just as long as none of the other dogs see it! I’m not too worried about shoulder injuries or really any muscle injury for this years race. Nicole took the extra time last year to massage out my shoulders and wrists to make sure I was nice and relaxed. She gives one good doggy massage. With all the hills this year I can almost guarantee that everyone on the team will get a nice massage at the checkpoint from Nicole so, she can insure the health of her dogs and keep us all nice and relaxed. I think I look forward too it more than the nice ten hour rest.
Open Questionnarie from Facebook:
1.) Quinn Johnson asks “What got you started?”
Growing up we had thirty-six sled dogs in Colorado so my love and respect of the sport started early on. Moving to Alaska I was looking for a way to be able to help my dad reach the finish line in Nome for the Iditarod. Little did I know that I would get so involved in racing itself.
2.) Shirley Yarbrough asks ” What are the advantages/disadvantages of the new route?”
A lot of the advantages and disadvantages are all aligned in the same perspective. For instance, the new trail is extremely hilly and my dogs don’t have a lot of hill training so the race this year will not only be a challenge but a learning experience for my dogs.
3.) Donovan Burress asks ” Why doesn’t anyone use Huskies anymore?”
There are still a few mushers out there both sprint and long distance that use full teams of huskies. Team Ineka has three pure bred siberian huskies. A huge factor for having “mutt” breeds of huskies is a speed and endurance factor. I know first hand that our Alaskan Huskies or our “mutt” huskies run much, much faster than our pure bred siberian huskies.
4.) Beth Standley asks “Do you have lights on your sled? Will there be a way to follow/ track your progress along the trail?”
I don’t have lights attached to my sled however I run with a headlamp and my two leaders will be wearing blinking lights since the trail is going to be full of snowmachiners. As for a tracker to my knowledge we are receiving spot trackers. The link for the tracking website will be posted on Team Ineka.
Thank you to all who have wished me luck for this years race. Also an even bigger thank you to my sponsors; Alaska Dog Works, The Five Sibes- Dorothy Wills-Raftery, The Upholstery Gallery, Alaska Spirit Crafts, and Underdog Feeds this race wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the support of my family, friends, followers, and sponsors!
Last night Michele and Robert raced in a brand new event at the Chugiak Dog Mushers Association, the Race Under the Stars.
The race format was 25 miles on the trails at Chugiak. We had not been on most of those trails, only racing a few times at the Eagle River Classic and the Dryland Races and the South Central Challenge. The trails were awesome! We ran up and down rolling hills, through tunnels around lakes and even on the Cook Inlet with the sparkling lights of Anchorage and the Valley in the background.
We had been planning on entering a team in this race since the schedule came out last fall and way back then we thought there would be feet of snow to run teams on. Not the case. South Central, Alaska has been plagued by low snow all season and just this week we had a big warm up and rain. When we loaded up the dogs for the race it was 35 degrees in Willow and lots of slick ice.
We decided to take two teams to the race. I (Robert) would be racing with eight and Michele would bring eight along too but that would change as we arrived at the trail.
I had: Shock-Frosty, Bodhi-Raegan, Dandy-Lock, Aussie-Gabby.
Michele had: TyTy-Cession, Sidney-Spencer, Valdez-Shifter. Trapper and Barrel would not race.
We loaded up the teams slipping and sliding around the kennel and hit the road. Not 1/2 mile into our journey we started slipping really bad on the sheet ice on Allen Road and I had to correct hard to the right with the dog truck and ended up with two wheels deep in a snow bank. If I would have corrected to the left we might have rolled the truck, loaded with 16 dogs, two sleds, three people and all our gear down the hill.
We commenced to digging out the wheels with the little poop shovel while Nicole braking off branches and twigs to place under the wheels. After about thirty minutes we were back on the road, albeit very cautiously, heading toward Chugiak.
We arrived just in time for signups.
While waiting for the musher’s meeting we decided that Michele would only run a six dog team and leave Trapper and Barrel behind. They would stay in their comfy straw-lined boxes while the others braved the elements.
I drew bib 3 and Michele drew bib 5. We would be leaving four minutes apart. As we started hooking up its always chaotic especially when the parking lot is a sheet of ice. Nicole and our friend Dale got my team hooked up in quick order and I was on the trail. I started off slow and on the drag and brake for the first few miles. The trail was pretty good up to the tunnels and I felt good at how the dogs were responding to the icy conditions.
As we approached Clunie Lake I could see Kim, bib 2 just ahead and James, bib 1 at least a mile or so out front. I didn’t have to turn on my headlamp until right before I approached Kim to pass her. She pulled off her team and I passed her with a bit of confusion on the part of Shock and Frosty.
As we came off the lake we had to make a hard 90 degree turn and a guy was there with a snow machine to get us in the right direction. The next couple miles were hard packed snow and dirt and the occasional rut. The sled was bouncing and the dogs were cruising fast. Kim was not too far behind and I could see her headlamp and her lights shining brightly as she raced behind me.
At almost exactly the halfway point Dandy decided he had enough. I quickly set my snow hook and zipped him up in the bag. Just then Kim came up and passed me again. Dandy would ride as a passenger for the rest of the race and I now had seven dogs with Lock running on the line without a partner.
The next few miles Kim and I hopscotched up and down the hills and through the swampy, slushy trails. As we approached the Inlet and what felt like a two lane highway of a trail the dogs kicked it into gear again.
We made it around to Beach Lake and finally to Heartbreak Hill. Kim was stopped just a little way up it and remarked that she was “getting a little too old for this crap,” and I said we are almost done, just a couple miles to go. We both laughed as I ran by and I jumped off the sled and ran up to the front of the team. I ran in front of Shock and Frosty up the long incline. As we headed down the other side of the hill I jumped on the sled as it rolled past.
We were just a couple miles from the finish. We crossed the line with Kim’s team just seconds behind. Nicole and Dale were there to guide us to the truck. A nice second place finish and a great run for us!
At the musher’s meeting reality began to set in! What was I thinking? I haven’t ran a race in over a year and not only that I’ve never ran a 25-30 mile race nor have I raced in the dark! Training runs this year have been done by our daughter Nicole. I had been on the sled just once, Valentine’s Day for a quick fun-run with Robert for approximately 12 miles with my old buddy Ringo in single lead. I don’t mind just trotting along the trail taking in the sights. This Race Under the Stars would be a challenge, for me! Moments before the musher’s meeting I decided to drop two dogs and only run six, considering the speed of an icy trail. This later proved a wise decision, for the most part.
I drew bib #2 after Robert drew #3, immediately I told the marshall that I needed to draw again as this would place our handler in a bad mood. I ended up with bib #5, usually a lucky number in the Forto household being that every sport any of the kids or Robert has participated in it’s usually that number.
The start. My dogs were ready to go well before our turn to hook-up. The excitement of Robert’s team going out really set the mood for a fantastic start. With my leaders; Ty-Ty & Cession we headed out from the post and into the start chute at a pretty good clip. I knew immediately that we were going to fast and needed to slow down or we’d experience burn-out.
It is a beautiful trail. The fastest I’ve ever been on in all my years of mushing. Ty-Ty was leading beautifully and I was filled with pride knowing that my little girl had done a great job training up this rag-tag leader. Then the race really began, I caught up to #4 (and I hadn’t expected too, he had 8 huge dogs), I get nervous passing. “On-by” I hailed, and like a well-oiled machine on-by we went without a hitch! This continued up a hill 4 or 5 more times, it was exhausting! Then a third musher #6 joined the melee of passes. With 4 dogs he wasn’t faster than us but more skilled on the sled than I was. Eventually #6 and I pulled away from #4 and then all of a sudden #6 bailed out on the side of the trail, later I would understand why! Around the corner lurking in the haze of dog breath was what I referred to as “Silent Hill”. We were clipping along at probably 9 or 10 miles an hour when we began the climb, the wheel dogs Valdez and Shifter, big boys had no trouble getting me up the hill until just before we reached the top, or what I thought was the top, it leveled out for a few feet and went up again! Jesus! I said to the team, Momma’s getting off to help so take it easy!” The team and I drudged up this hill and then gently coasted down. Did I mention, #6 blew by us! Nice break before the hill.
Finally, reached Clunie Lake, if it hadn’t been cloudy, I surely would’ve stopped and taken in the stars. It was peaceful. But alas, this is where my leader Cession was experiencing heat exhaustion. She had stopped along the trail before hitting the lake a couple of times to dip snow, but on the lake she completely laid out. There is no safe place to set a hook to get a dog off the line that needs to be in the bag with 5 other dogs raring to go. So we’d run a little ways and stop to break for Cession. We reached the other side where the big trail boss guy was waiting, thankfully, it was good to see him. But this proved to be a challenge for my team. Cession wanted to rest next to his snow machine instead of heading down the trail. He held my sled, after falling in a hole himself, and I got them turned around and switched Cession with Sidney in swing. Big trail boss guy says, “hang on tight this turn is gonna be a hairpin for you” he wasn’t KIDDING! I apologize for this but I did yell out, “Holy Sh*t thanks for the help! After I successfully leaped over a burm and hay bale and retained my balance only because of the years of dry land cart training we used to do. I hate it when the sled is on one runner and at that on the left side which for me is weak, but that’s another story.
On into the swamp near what I believe was the inlet, dirt, dirt, bumps and ice. This part of the trail was highly challenging for me. Cession was pulled and placed in the bag, she didn’t like that one bit. Zipped in and tethered with three necklines little Houdini still managed to escape. See she was hot but still wanted to run. She surfed on the sled for quite a few miles before I broke a rule. I put her back on the line for the safety of the team and myself. I couldn’t drive the sled and hold on to her on this type of trail.
Hills and more hills. This is where I began to feel defeated. Cession had me very worried. I pulled her again and this time she didn’t fight as much. While zipping her into the bag. I was passed by TWO Siberian husky teams. Really! That meant I was at least 30 minutes off the pace! I’m not competitive but that pissed me off. Here I am out on a trail I don’t know, in the dark, (thank god for Nicole loaning me the Lupine) and I’m passed by Siberians!
We continue, back through the tunnel. Okay I felt like I had my bearings back a bit. Cession once again has her head popped out and is attempting to escape. More hills, and the final Siberian team catches me. We pass each other a few times, and settle in on Beach Lake. He has a bad headlamp and mine is so bright I’m able to light the trail for us both. We have a conversation on the lake and I let him know that I’m pacing my team with his Sibes in order to finish strong. All the while Cession is now leaping up and out of the zipped bag so I’m hunched over the drive bar holding her with my right hand by her harness, right foot on the drag, trying to drive this sled on bumpy icy trail. Heartbreak Hill, the one everyone said would kick my butt, didn’t. In fact, my dogs took to it like Chariots of Fire! At Sibe pace but nonetheless we finished strong.
After the race and the dogs fed and loaded back into the truck we headed to the club house for some yummy pizza and conversation with the other mushers. I (Robert), came in second and found out early the next morning we left before we were able to collect our prize!
We made it home by 11:30 and had the dogs back at their houses and us inside before midnight.
All in all it was a great night of racing. There was a great turnout of mushers, many of them who we had raced with before. It was a low key, fun event which memories we will share for a long time. Being Michele’s first night race I think she had a good time.
Thank you Chugiak Dog Mushers Association you are a class act and a great club. We always admire your attention to detail and putting the safety of the mushers and the teams as priority. I hope you have this event every year. It is a nice way to get out and enjoy everything that South Central, Alaska has to offer even if it does mean low snow!
Follow Team Ineka on twitter @teamineka
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 11, 2015
(Willow, AK)—While most teenagers are thinking about what movie to catch at the mall or what outfit to wear out with their friends, 17-year-old Nicole Forto is thinking about insulated clothing, food rations, check points, and her beloved sled dogs—all 36 of them! Nicole, who is a senior at Houston High School in Alaska, and a junior musher is busy getting prepared to run her family’s team of Siberian and Alaskan Huskies under the Team Ineka banner in the Junior Iditarod that kicks off on Saturday, February 28 from her home town of Willow. This is Nicole’s second run in the popular race, and last year, she was the recipient of the Red Lantern award, which goes to the last team crossing the finish line. According to Gypsy at the Iditarod Education Portal (www.iditarod.com), the Red Lantern “is a symbol of perseverance and mushers feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when receiving it.”
Nicole says, “As the Junior Iditarod is just a few short weeks away, the ‘pre-game’ jitters are already forming. I’m both excited and nervous about the race. I ran the Junior Iditarod once before, but it still feels like the very first time. I want this year’s race to be the best racing experience for both my dogs and I since this is my last year in junior racing.
The Junior Iditarod is a 150-mile dog race in South Central Alaska. It is a qualifier for the Iditarod for junior mushers ages 12 to 17 years old. And with the race right around the corner, Nicole admits that, “It feels like I have to be frantic and rushing to get everything picture perfect for the starting line! Then I remember to just take a deep breath and have as much fun as I possibly can.”
Nicole’s main sponsors for the race are the FiveSibes™, Alaska Spirit Crafts, The Upholstery Gallery, Alaska Dog Works, and the Willow Elementary First Grade Class.
The beautiful snowy Alaskan trails are where Nicole loves to be. She enjoys her time with the family Huskies that she helps train along with her parents, mushers and canine behaviorists, Robert and Michele. Nicole says she is truly looking forward to the race and to running her lead dogs, Frosty and TyTy, no matter if she comes in first, tenth, or last. And Nicole appreciates the valuable lessons one learns while out on the trail. “Mushing…has shown me that believing in yourself and pushing through the good and bad times is where you measure how successful you are,” states Nicole. “My dogs run thousands of miles never giving up on me and I will never give up on them. Mushing has shown me that the word ‘quit’ is no longer in my vocabulary.” Read more about Nicole’s thoughts on success and the journey of a Junior Iditarod musher in her article “Measurement of Success” posted on Tracy R. Williams’ AlaskaTracy.com blog.
Even though Nicole will be hanging up her junior sled after this year’s race and beginning life as a college freshman at the University of Alaska in Anchorage come fall, maybe one day her name will be among the great mushers of “The Last Great Race” itself—the Iditarod. But, in the meantime, Nicole is simply looking forward to this, her final Junior run.
“I hope to have a time-of-my-life experience out on the frozen trails of Alaska with my team,” she says with a smile.
To learn more about Nicole and the Forto mushing family, visit www.TeamIneka.com.