This is the story of Zeke, the little husky who rose from his death-bed to run the 2016 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
That’s his photo above. If you have a soft spot in your heart for dogs, even if it’s wrapped in weathered old crust, you might want to stop here and go read another story because this one could make you cry.
Zeke is a testimony to all that is good about mushing in Alaska, and all that is bad. He was unceremoniously dumped at the Fairbanks animal shelter along with a brother and sister last year. All were malnourished, suffering from mange, and near death.
One can only guess at where from Zeke came. Alaska is full of wannabe mushers short on money. Some of the crazier ones might be called animal hoarders in the lower 48. Planning to run one of Alaska’s big sled-dog races, they collect huskies until they can’t collect anymore, and then they sometimes abandon them or turn them over to local animal shelters.
Others simply live with Iditarod dreams that never go anywhere. Doug Bartko, a would-be musher from Palmer, entered the 1983 Iditarod, but made it only about 200 of the 1,000 miles before getting tossed out. With hopes of some day running the race again, he continued to keep a sled dog kennel.
In 2008, he was convicted of animal abuse after authorities investigating his operation about 45 miles north of Anchorage found 25 malnourished dogs, the carcass of a dead dog, and the skeletons of two others.
Palmer area Animal Care and Regulation Chief Dave Allison at the time told the Valley Frontiersman some of surviving dogs were so “malnourished they had trouble raising their heads. Some had broken teeth from trying to eat rocks. On a 1 to 10 scale the shelter uses to rate the weight of dogs, most rate a one.
“’Which means fixing to die,’ Allison said.”
Born into that dark underbelly of Alaska mushing, Zeke’s chances didn’t look good. Dropped at an animal shelter, however, he got lucky he was in Fairbanks. An Interior Alaska non-profit there runs the Fairbanks Animal Shelter Fund that pays for veterinary care for badly ill dogs to try to give them a chance at survival.
Vets financed by the fund started treating Zeke, who was given to a foster kennel to rehabilitate in the hopes he might one day be ready for adoption. And it was then Zeke got really luck.
One big, soft heart
Enter Kailyn Davis, a 23-year-old student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a former volunteer at the animal shelter in her old hometown of Anchorage, a mountain biker, a skijorer (a skier pulled by dogs) and a dog lover.
“I saw him at Cold Spot Feeds,” she said in a telephone interview Monday. “I just felt so bad for him. I honestly didn’t think he would live.”
She chatted with Zeke’s foster mother and got the full story. One thing led to another, and the next thing Davis knew she was taking Zeke home. It didn’t start well. The first drugs Zeke was given didn’t work. His meds were changed “kind of in a last gasp effort,” Davis said.
“I still wasn’t convinced he’d ever get his hair back,” she said, “but it started coming really slow about a month later. He was like a mystery dog for a while. For half a year, I never knew what color my dog was going to be.”
Davis ignored the hair issue and treated Zeke like her other dog, Panda. Well, sort of. She had to put a sweatshirt on Zeke before they went out, but with the sweatshirt to keep him warm, he started joining Davis and Panda for bike rides and skijor outings.
“It just kind of kept him happy,” Davis said. “He really liked it even more than my other dogs.”
She was about to find out just how much.
Zeke was merely a rescue-dog pet when Davis decided to put him in harness and see if he liked to pull. Afterward nothing would be the same. Zeke exploded into the new role.
“Zeke is something else when you put him into a team,” she said. “He turns into this feral animal.”
He wanted to run so badly that Davis once got reported to animal control in Fairbanks. She’d gone skijoring with friends. They harnessed up quickly and took off. Davis was still trying to get the harness on Zeke, and he was going crazy at being left behind. He was making such a fuss someone called animal control to report they thought Davis was torturing the dog.
In a way, she was. He wanted to be on the trail running, and she was fumbling around with his harness. It was then Davis knew she had more than just a new friend. She had a very special dog.
She asked Alan Eischens of Double E Kennel in Wasilla if she could run Zeke and Panda in the Double E team she was planning to take to the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race, a 300-mile middle distance event and Iditarod qualifier staged around Glennallen in the Interior.
Davis is one of those with hopes of running Iditarod some day and has been working with Eischens to try to complete the necessary qualifying races. Eischens was willing to give Zeke a shot.
“So I talked to my vet, and she gave the OK,” Davis said.
What happened next was almost too much to believe. Davis finished near the end of the 40 teams in the race.
But “we had a blast,” she said. “We had a great race.”
That is no small statement. The CB300 is generally considered the toughest Iditarod qualifier a musher can find. But Zeke’s story was only beginning there.
After the race, Davis remembers, “I was standing next to Alan, and he asked ‘Can I borrow that dog for Iditarod?'”
Davis wasn’t exactly enthusiast about letting Zeke go for a couple of months of training, but she trusted the 56-year-old Eischens and said yes.
Eischens wasn’t totally sure of Zeke’s potential, but “I liked what I saw at the Copper Basin,” he said. “I thought he might actually make Iditarod.”
Not only did Zeke make it, he turned into a driving force in Eischens’s Iditarod team.
“Great, great dog,” Eischens said. “He was a superstar. The whole way to Nome, he was just the cheerleader. He was always the first up no matter how far we’d run. He’d start howling and start barking and get the rest us of the team up.”
Eischen who remembered what Zeke looked like when Davis got him as a puppy admits to being a little shocked.
“When she first got the dog, we were sort of like ‘what are you doing?'” Eischens said. “It’s just a miracle the dog even lived. And then he turned out be one of the best ones. This for a dog that wasn’t supposed to be alive.”
Davis admitted she, too, had doubts Zeke would make Nome.
“It took me a while to commit to actually using my (airline) miles to fly to Nome for the finish,” she said. “I never thought Zeke would make it.”
But Eischens kept assuring here Zeke was getting stronger and stronger and had a very good chance of going the full 1,000 miles.
So sometime in February, weeks before the Iditarod start, Davis committed to being at the finish line.
“Even he doesn’t make it, I decided I had a lot of friends in Iditarod I could go see in Nome,” Davis said. “I really didn’t think Zeke was going to make it until he made it.”
When he got close, friends drove her out on the ice east of Nome to watch Eischens’s team come into town. There was Zeke pulling like a little dynamo. Davis later got to welcome him to Front Street and the Iditarod finish line.
“He jumped all over me,” she said, “and licked my face. He was pretty excited. He was definitely pretty excited.”
Eischens finished the Iditarod in 53rd with all 16 dogs that left the start line in Willow. He was the only musher to go the distance without being forced to drop a tired dog, something of which he is justifiably proud. He was nearly three days behind race winner Dallas Seavey, who strategically dropped dogs as they tired and finished with but six.
After the race, Zeke went home with Davis and Panda.
“Those are her kids,” Eischens said.
Davis and the dogs are now hanging out in Fairbanks, where Davis is studying for a geology degree to go with her degree in music education.
It’s an odd combination, she admits, but she’s always loved rocks as a kid, took an advanced geology class to find out if she was over that, “and it kind of backfired. I really, really liked it,” she said, and decided she’d rather study rocks than teach music.
“I’ve kind of set my mind on wanting to live in Fairbanks,” she added. “I’m kind of falling in love with it.”
Zeke, for his part, couldn’t be happier there. The foster dog sitter ended up adopting Zeke’s brother. Zeke sometimes goes to visit for play dates, and when Davis is doing field work in the summer, she said, Zeke will “hang out with his brother in Two Rivers,” a doggy Fairbanks suburb.
“Now, we just kind of spend our days doing whatever,” she added. Often Zeke accompanies her to the UAF campus where she has a job in the geochronology laboratory.
When they get the chance, they go bikjoring, a sled-dog sport best left to only the most daring.
“I wear out a lot brake pads,” Davis admitted.
Most of the time, though, Zeke is back to being “totally a house dog,” Davis said. “He sleeps inside. He jumps on the sofa. He’s spoiled. It’s actually really great. I did have him stay outside during the day (for part of the winter). He really started to grow out his undercoat.”
Zeke is strong and healthy now. And Davis thanks everyone for that, starting with the Shelter Fund and ending with Eischens.
“It wasn’t just me,” she said. “I had so much help from the vets and his foster home. And the fund paid his vet bills and helped. I’d never even heard of the Shelter Fund.”
It’s a feel-good story with a happy ending, but it isn’t over yet. Zeke is believed to have turned two years old just after his arrival in Nome. He’s got a lot of run left in him if he wants to try the 1,000 mile trail again.
“I’ve wanted to run Iditarod since I was seven, since elementary school in Anchorage,” Davis said. She’s now finished about half of the middle-distance races necessary to qualify for Iditarod.
Eischens has been encouraging her Iditarod dream and offering help. What more could a young musher hope for than to run Iditarod with her best friend some day in the not to distance future? Well maybe a little more.
“I forgot to mention,” Davis emailed after an interview, “that once I’m out of school and have a steady job, Zeke has really inspired me to start my own dog kennel comprised of shelter rescues like him. I wanna call it Rerun Kennel. We’ll see if I ever have enough money for that.”
She knows one thing already, though. She clearly has the team cheerleader.