Personable Karen Land, a veteran of three Iditarod races, enthralled a large Kiwanis Room audience at the Putnam County Public Library Tuesday night as she detailed her love affair with the wilderness, animals, her sled dogs and the Iditarod itself.
As her sled dog Borage wandered about the room and lower level of the library, Land explained how her desire to tackle the 1,150-mile race grew from reading a book about the Iditarod while "taking a really long dog walk" with canine companion Kirby in hiking the 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail in 1997.
Land interspersed stories of the Iditarod with tales of her dogs and their antics and exploits, always stopping to ask the many youngsters present and seated on the floor in front of her to answer questions about the race and its four-legged competitors.
The race is essentially an homage to the 1925 "serum run" by local mushers relaying vaccine via dog sled in pony-express style fashion from Anchorage to Nome when Diphtheria medication ran short and put children of the area at risk.
More people have reached the summit of Mount Everest than have made it to the finish line of the Iditarod behind a dog sled team, notes Land, who ran the race in 2002, 2003 and 2004 and hopes to race again as early as next year.
In her first effort, she finished the race 10 minutes shy of 14 days, good for 49th among the 65 competitors.
"Actually they're doing it in under nine days now," Land said, adding that in 1973 the first winner took 20 days to cross the finish line.
Racers are required to stop at a number of checkpoints along the route and vets are on hand to check the dogs at each stop.
Land grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from Chatard High School before starting college at the Herron School of Art and then transferring to the University of Montana.
During her Hoosier upbringing, she was "way into dogs and horses ... I was just nuts about them as a kid."
She said many of the questions people pose to her concern the dogs.
They often ask why the dogs are so skinny.
Sled team dogs typically burn 10,000 calories a day during the Iditarod, Land said.
"Think of them as human marathon runners," she suggested. "We don't make them eat rice cakes, we eat the rice cakes and they eat anything they want.
"Today, so far," she said of Borage's dietary demands, "he's had two pounds of hamburger and all the dry dog food he wants."
People also question the "fuzzy-looking" fur of the active sled dogs.
"That's his normal hair coat," she said of Borage. "It's perfect for the Iditarod."
"Believe it or not, the main concern during the Iditarod is actually dogs overheating."
Youngsters also tend to ask about the booties the sled dogs wear as foot protection on the course. Land said they cost $1 apiece and mushers can typically go through 2,000 of them over the race.
"They're like tires on an Indy car," she said, indicating you can't buy cheap versions and expect the same result top-grade booties help provide.
"They're what has made the race go faster," she added. "These and Velcro (for easier replacement)."
With the Iditarod race running through small towns throughout Alaska, children can be found out lining the course day and night, awaiting the dog sled teams to come through.
"Whether it's 3 a.m. or 30 below zero," Land said, "you'll still have a pack of children chasing you, wanting your autograph and shouting, 'Give us your booties! Give us your booties!' I think they must be selling them on eBay or something."
As Land told that story, she caught sight of Borage disappearing out the Kiwanis Room again, asking "Did my dog just leave?"
Assured by the library staff he was fine, she nonetheless related the story of their recent visit to an Indianapolis school where Borage disappeared during her remarks.
The dutiful dog was discovered moments later, "face down in a birthday cake." Borage happened upon a nearby open room where school personnel had left a sheet cake, awaiting a teacher's birthday celebration.
"We went out and bought a new cake with 'I'm sorry, Borage' written across it," Land smiled. "Of course, he really wasn't sorry."
Further proof, of course, that you indeed can't teach an old dog new tricks.