Teen-age musher Christina Gibson and her sled dogs share a love of hours on the trail
By Marcy Stamper
After spending more than three hours driving her eight sled dogs 24 miles — slow going in almost a foot of fresh snow — Christina Gibson didn’t even check her time on the scoreboard.
Instead, she spent more than an hour checking the dogs’ paws, massaging liniment into their muscles, putting support straps around their wrists, and feeding and watering them.
Once she’d made sure all the dogs were happy and healthy, Christina checked the board. Over two days at the Conconully Snow Dog Super Mush last month, Christina finished third out of four competitors in the eight-dog class. But for Christina, who just turned 17, what was really gratifying was receiving the Best-Kept Team award from the race veterinarian.
Christina knew when she was 4 years old that she wanted to be a musher, but it was nine years before she got to run a sled dog for the first time. “I convinced my mother when I was 12 that I was very serious,” said Christina. At 13, she ran a dog for the first time, and got her first sled dog the following year.
Within just a few years, Christina had assembled a team of eight Alaskan huskies and has completed numerous races, including her longest, the 100-mile Eagle Cap Extreme, in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains, in January.
It was the animated film “Balto” that got Christina hooked on the sport at age 4. The movie is based on the true story of a dog that transported diphtheria serum to Alaska.
“She really had to drag me into this kicking and screaming,” said Christina’s mother, Emily Gibson. “I’ve always loved getting out in the woods — I just wasn’t that into dogs.”
But when Christina was about 10, she persuaded her mother that part of her dream was to grow up running dogs. “She convinced me to figure out how to make it work,” said Emily. They got one sled dog, added another, and moved from western Washington to Okanogan County.
Emily is now one of her daughter’s biggest supporters, sometimes accompanying her on a snowmobile on training runs, and driving her to races all around the West.
“The more she does this, the more I see how it’s impacting her in a positive way. There are not many things I’d rather my 16-year-old be doing,” said Emily. “It makes you strong in a lot of ways. It takes more mental toughness than physical — physically, it’s just cold.”
Alaskan huskies are a mixed breed, derived from Alaskan malamutes, hounds, pointers and Irish setters to produce a longer body, longer legs and more speed, said Christina. And the dogs may be even more passionate than Christina is about running. “They go nuts — they would rather do this than anything else. This is their whole world,” she said.
“My dogs love me; they’re my best friends and my family. But they love running more,” she said. “The order in which they like things is: (1) running, (2) food, and (3) Christina.”
In addition to 40-mile training runs — she typically trains for two days on and one off — Christina spends hours each day caring for the dogs at her home on Libby Creek. She also has one dog that’s retired from racing and one pet. “The dogs are why I do it — it’s their positivity and love of running,” said Christina. “I love seeing them fulfill their purpose.”
Christina saw the Conconully Super Mush as a fun event and a chance for her and the dogs to catch their breath after the Eagle Cap. But the Super Mush was also important training for Christina’s next big event, the 150-mile Jr. Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska on Feb. 24-25.
Young in sport
At 17, Christina stands out in the sport more for her age than for being female. “One thing that’s unique about the sport of sled-dog racing is how gender-equal it is,” she said between races by email. “The mindset is more that no one cares if you’re a woman or not — it just matters how well you can drive your dog team and how well you take care of them.”
Christina has had a lot of help learning the sport from other mushers, including another Washington native who got hooked on the sport when she was 10 and became the first woman from the state to run the full-fledged Iditarod.
Christina is home-schooled, which allows her to coordinate her studies with dog training, racing and the responsibility of caring for 10 dogs 365 days a year.
As she was learning, Christina was nervous about running just two dogs for 2 miles, but now even 50 miles doesn’t seem far, she said. Christina does most of her training runs near Blackpine Lake above Libby Creek. “When you get up high in the mountains with the dogs, you get to see a lot of cool things, like moose. You hear nothing but the runners and the sound of the dogs’ paws,” she said.
She’s seen tracks of bobcats and coyotes — and lots of deer — but, with eight dogs, actual animal encounters are rare. “They don’t want to be in my space, and I don’t want to intrude on theirs, so we observe each other from afar,” she said.
Christina doesn’t worry about being in the woods on her own. “It’s actually rather comforting to know we aren’t out there alone,” she said.
It takes practice to get the hang of driving a sled, and there’s a lot of work for the musher, said Christina. Training the dogs involves teaching them to follow commands and to run with other dogs.
Racing sleds are fairly light, with a roomy zipped compartment for extra clothing and snowshoes, emergency supplies, an axe, and food for Christina and the dogs. The musher stands on the back of the sled while driving, but usually runs alongside when going uphill. One of the most important things is making sure the lines don’t get tangled.
The sleds have a foot brake and a snow hook that serves as a brake if the musher needs to stop. “But you have to be ready for the snow hook to pop out and for the sled to go flying — it takes a lot of athleticism,” said Katie Turnbull, another musher at the Conconully event.
Because the dogs have such a powerful drive to run, if the musher falls off, the dogs won’t stop and wait, said Christina, who has lost her team only once. Fortunately, it was a sunny day and it was easy to reunite them. “The No. 1 rule is don’t let go,” she said.
Solitude on the trail
Dog racing involves a lot of solitude. On longer races, competitors occasionally see another team, but they can go for hours without encountering anyone. “Other than that, it’s just you and the dogs. They’re not dogs to me — they’re my best friends,” said Christina.
Christina is competing in the 100-mile Race to the Sky in Montana this coming weekend. She and her mother will leave from there to drive to Alaska for the Jr. Iditarod. “It’s a couple thousand miles — I hope to do it in six days,” said Emily.
Christina expects to spend 40 to 45 hours on the Jr. Iditarod course (including a required 10-hour layover). She is one of 10 mushers registered for the race. While the Eagle Cap involved steep terrain, the Jr. Iditarod route is mostly flat, following the river from Knik Lake in Wasilla for 75 miles, and then back.
This year, with bare ground and slush at the lower elevations, the weather was part of the challenge at the Eagle Cap. Not only was it cold and wet, but without snow, it was hard to brake the sled, said Christina. “It’s called the Eagle Cap Extreme for a reason,” she said.
The dogs burn about 10,000 calories on a race like that. “They’re such incredible athletes. Taking care of the dogs is my fitness,” she said.
Ultimately Christina hopes to form a competitive mid-distance team for races of 100 to 250 miles. One of her primary goals is to compete in — and win — the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which winds for 1,000 miles through the Alaskan wilderness.
But for now, it’s more about the experience than the contest. “As long as all the dogs are having fun, it’s a good race,” said Christina. “My goal is to come back with a happy and healthy team. I don’t care where we finish.”
Spotting the skijorers about to start their race at the Super Mush — a sport where a skier is pulled by a dog harnessed to the skier’s waist — Christina said, “If I was braver, I’d do that. At least in sledding, you have brakes.”
Christina Gibson’s Whiteout Racing Kennel is supported by donations and sponsors. For more information about Christina, her team, and ways to support her, visit whiteoutracingkennel.com.