Owner Christina Gibson prepares for new training adventures
By Sandra Strieby
In 2018, the Methow Valley News introduced readers to sled-dog racer Christina Gibson, then 17. Gibson has been running dogs since 2014, and racing and training dogs at her Whiteout Racing Kennel near Carlton for since 2017.
In the years since the initial story appeared, she has completed the Junior Iditarod, run more than a dozen races totaling close to 2,000 miles, and developed a mid-distance racing team — a goal she set when she was a teenager.
As she approaches her 10th racing season, Gibson is preparing for significant transitions in her career, including a move that will take her out of the Methow Valley.
Gibson’s 2022-23 season included the Pedigree Stage Stop Race in Wyoming, Race to the Sky in Montana, and a race she’d never run before, the Canadian Challenge.
The Stage Stop is a training race for the Whiteout team. It’s not a continuous race, but one in which each team runs a set distance — a “stage” — each day for eight days.
Competing in the Stage Stop is a strategic choice for Gibson. “It’s not the kind of race that my team will be successful in,” she said. “So if you look at the standings for that race each year, we’re going to be towards the back … Running those shorter legs for that many days in a row in a racing atmosphere really takes the dogs into [the] gear that we need for the 100-mile races.”
The Race to the Sky, which Gibson won in 2022, is one of those 100-mile races. In ’23, she placed 3rd while beating her previous time by a couple of hours — a standing she feels good about. “I was particularly proud of that run, because two of my yearlings were on it, that I had raised” — Percy and Bill, whom readers may recall as members of Whiteout’s first litter, the “Owl Babies.”
Erratic weather made training difficult last winter, as rain falling on snow created what Gibson termed a “gritty slush” that’s hard on the dogs’ feet. Rigorous when it comes to the well-being of the athletes on her team, Gibson provides a level of care that’s won her two best-kept team awards. That care includes boots when conditions allow, but warm weather last winter made booting inadvisable; since dogs sweat through their feet, boots can cause overheating if it’s not cold enough outside.
The upshot was that Gibson’s dogs were not in peak condition for the Canadian Challenge, and she chose to pull her team about 50 miles from the end of the 200-mile race. It was a difficult decision as the dogs were eager to keep running, but important to their welfare.
“We’re definitely looking at going back there,” she said. “I’m not sure if we’ll make it this winter … but in the next two years, I’d like to go and complete it.”
“Probably that’s going to be one of my new favorite races,” said Gibson, because longer races evoke a different mindset than shorter runs. “You breathe, eat, and sleep dogs and you’re so focused on that that it opens something between you and the dogs … It’s essentially this wordless communication. I know what my dogs need before they even need it. And they know what I’m going to do before I do it.”
The winter season of challenges and rewards was followed by a spring of new beginnings as Lead Dog Windshear birthed six puppies — the second litter out of Whiteout Racing Kennel, known as the B Litter. Gibson’s joy in welcoming the new arrivals was tempered by her grandmother’s fading health. The older woman lived long enough to meet and help name the members of the new generation, infusing the team with the legacy of her love.
“We’re all very sad and we miss her very much, but the way that it happened with the puppies coming into the world as she was leaving, was absolutely incredible. And I think all of us were very grateful for that … she voiced that as well.”
Now Gibson is at work raising the B Litter — including Chickadee, named for her grandmother’s favorite bird — and, with partner Aidan Torres, training her yearlings — last year’s A Litter — while preparing for her team’s next move. Torres has played a significant role in the Whiteout team’s development, helping Gibson train the team for the last three seasons and racing the yearling team for the last two.
In his work with the younger dogs, Torres has been “helping them have a positive experience on the trail, which is a really important job,” said Gibson. “There’s not a lot of people I would trust to take my dogs out so I really appreciate his attentiveness to the dogs and his skill … he’s done quite an incredible job with the young dogs.”
In addition to her racing work, Gibson has been working toward finding a career that will suit her while supporting her passion for racing. Her understanding of the realities of racing as a way of life has matured since she decided at age 4 that she wanted to run the Iditarod.
“The difference between when I was 4 [and] being 22 now is that I can understand that the financial impact and life implications to successfully building a team of your own and running the Iditarod are really, really large,” she said.
Whether or not she runs the Iditarod (“I would not say no to that opportunity,” Gibson said), the care and feeding of 18 dogs requires a substantial commitment of time and funds.
Dog training — a line of work that interested her as a child — has emerged as a focus for Gibson’s vocational energy. After shadowing and then working with trainer Shannon Fharnham in Twisp, Gibson began training dogs in the spring of 2022, and continues to work with pets in the Methow Valley. “I absolutely love doing that,” she said, “and I will still be open for new clients through the summer.”
Next leg of the journey
In the fall Gibson will start a new chapter, one that will include moving to Wisconsin, where she and Torres will work with the Whiteout team while training yearling racing dogs for friends. She doesn’t know yet which races they’ll run in the coming season; that will be decided in conversation with the Wisconsin dog owners. “We definitely have already had a conversation about Canadian Challenge, so that’s a potential,” she said.
Gibson will also enroll at the Tarheel Canine School for Dog Trainers in Sanford, North Carolina. “I’ll be learning how to train police canines and detection dogs for both narcotics and weapons and explosives, as well as pet behavior and pet obedience,” she said, in a course of study that will lead to master trainer certification. Whiteout Racing Kennel will be rebranded as Whiteout Working Dogs, encompassing both racing and training as aspects of Gibson’s work.
Of preparing to move the Whiteout team out of the valley, Gibson said, “We’re getting ready to head out and it’s really made me think back on and appreciate the time that we’ve spent here and the people who have supported us … We’re not gone forever. We’ll certainly be back in the area to say hi, and be a part of the community again … We’re definitely gonna miss it here.”
Community has been integral to Gibson’s career so far. The racing community is supportive as well as competitive, said Gibson, speaking of the “unity that is so deeply rooted in the tradition of running sled dogs.”
“There’s a lot of competition,” she said, and yet “if you are in trouble, or your dogs are in trouble or something is going wrong, you can bet that pretty much every single musher that comes by is going to stop and make sure you’re OK and help you if you need it.”
As she looked ahead, Gibson also took time to reflect on the season just completed. “They always say that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey, and somebody added on to that and said, ‘it’s about the people that you travel with.’ And I think that that’s been very true for this team … of all of the things that I’ve accomplished, it’s really been the people that I’ve made that journey with that have made it mean more than I ever thought it could, and that includes my dogs, and that includes my family, and that includes friends and the people around us … that to me is what has really mattered with this team.”