In 1989, Scott White moved across the country to Seattle from Buffalo, New York, to be closer to the mountains. He enjoyed frequent backpacking trips until a neck surgery in the mid-1990s inhibited him from carrying a pack.
Determined to continue getting out into nature, White adopted two malamutes from a shelter to help him carry his gear. While Kiska and Kidu never fulfilled their roles as White’s porters, they inspired him to take an entirely different path in life.
Today, White has a commercial kennel license and 25 dogs who live with him at his home in Snohomish during the offseason from sled dog racing, which he’s done competitively since 2001. Next month, his team will compete in one of the biggest events on the mushing calendar.
From Jan. 30 to Feb. 3, White and his dogs will compete in the 100-mile race at the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge in Cascade, Idaho. The race, now in its fourth year, is part of the McCall Winter Carnival, drawing prominent sled dog racers to compete in 100-mile and 300-mile races. The longer distance is a qualifying race for the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, considered the longest and toughest sled dog races in the world.
In competition season — the fall and winter — White boards his team in Omak, in the foothills of the Okanogan Highlands. He trains there with the dogs on weekends and has a live-in handler take them out once or twice midweek.
White leads 15 active team members and has 10 more dogs who didn’t make the team who live with him in Snohomish year-round as pets — but it all started with Kiska and Kidu.
White’s first two dogs prompted him to learn more about sled dogs, which inspired him to take a guided sled dog trip in Alaska’s Denali National Park & Preserve in the late 1990s.
“That [trip] hooked me on mushing and changed my life,” White said. He continued to visit Alaska for sled dog trips over the next five years. “By the last couple, I was helping guide them and returning home with dogs from Alaska.”
He started running with his own sled dogs in 1998 and racing three years later.
White generally races twice annually; after the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge, he is planning to participate in the Race to the Sky near Helena, Montana, in February. But unlike many competitors, White is not a full-time musher. He runs a construction company as his day job and makes the five-hour drive to Omak on weekends to train with his dogs.
While White is not a full-time musher, racing sled dogs is a full-time commitment.
“The Idaho race is considered to be one of the most grueling mushing competitions in the world due to its topography,” said Dave Looney, a spokesperson and one of the principal volunteers for the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge.
The elevation change of the 300-mile race is 36,000 feet, which is more than the Iditarod.
“The dog care and the pacing and the attention [mushers] have to pay to the terrain is really important, because there’s a lot of up and down,” Looney said. “One musher said the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge is like climbing Mount Everest — twice.”
White had originally planned to compete in the 300-mile race, but dropped to the 100-miler due to a number of young dogs on his team who aren’t quite ready to tackle the longer distance.
Still, the team’s training regimen is no less intense. What exactly goes into preparing a team of 15 dogs for such extreme long-distance endurance feats?
“Generally, and simply put: lots of miles, lots of good food and lots of care to their overall health and well-being, especially around their feet,” said White. “The dogs have usually run between 1,500 and 2,000 miles before any race.”
Sled dogs are typically Alaskan huskies, a breed often confused with malamutes or Siberian huskies. They differ in that the latter are purebreds, whereas Alaskan huskies are not. Bred specifically for racing, Alaskan huskies’ traits include speed, endurance, appetite, tough feet and extreme weather tolerance.
More than just training the dogs to run far and fast, White dedicates time training his pack for racing scenarios. The most challenging aspect of racing for White and his team is sleep deprivation.
“They have to be trained to rest, trained to camp, trained to eat how they will eat on a race, trained to wear bootees, trained to pace themselves so they don’t burn themselves out, trained to sleep on straw, wear dog coats, etc.,” he said.
He does all of this training purely through repetition.
When there is no snow, the dogs train by pulling an all-terrain vehicle; in the snow, they switch over to the sled. They train very little, if at all, during the summer. (During the summer the dogs “basically just hang out and run around the yard,” White said.)
Races like the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge can be extremely isolated deep in the backcountry, accessible only by snowmobiles or airlift in the event of an emergency. Mushers can go hours without seeing a soul. Some races, like the Iditarod, only permit crew assistance at the start, while others allow support at checkpoints throughout the race.
With the exception of the Iditarod, which White raced in 2007, 2010 and 2018, White generally places in the top 25% of the field or higher. It’s a significant accomplishment, considering White is not able to dedicate the same time to the sport as other mushers. It truly is a year-round push.
“The dogs must be cared for every day and kept healthy with regular training runs,” said Jerry Wortley, Idaho Sled Dog Challenge organizer. “So the commitment to the dogs and the lifestyle is huge — no days off.”
It’s clearly a labor of love for White, who notes that his team is unique in that he doesn’t breed his dogs.
“All the dogs I have ever raced were sold to me by another musher, which means they weren’t good enough to make that other musher’s team,” he said. “So, I feel doing as well as I have with what is comparatively a ‘second-string’ team is an accomplishment to be proud of.”