Kiwi woman volunteers as a dog handler in Alaskan Iditarod race

Libby Harrop was a dog handler for a Norwegian team in the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska.
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Libby Harrop was a dog handler for a Norwegian team in the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska.

For Christchurch woman Libby Harrop, Alaska has become her second home.

She has just returned from Alaska where she volunteered at this year's Iditarod, "the last great race on Earth".

For the last two years, she has travelled to the icy American state to be a dog handler in the world famous sled trail race.

Christchurch woman Libby Harrop with Norwegian dog sled rider Joar Ulsom, wearing Harrop's Delphi Lavender logo.
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Christchurch woman Libby Harrop with Norwegian dog sled rider Joar Ulsom, wearing Harrop's Delphi Lavender logo.

"It never crossed my mind that little old me would go to the Iditarod," she said.

She first visited Alaska in 2013 and said the highlight of the trip was visiting a dog shelter and learning about the dog sledding huskies.

"I realised then I had some hankering to do this," she said.

Christchurch woman Libby Harrop has just returned from Anchorage in Alaska, for the annual Iditarod Great Sled Race ...
MONIQUE STEELE/FAIRFAX NZ

Christchurch woman Libby Harrop has just returned from Anchorage in Alaska, for the annual Iditarod Great Sled Race across Alaska.

"I've always liked the cold, the north, the Antarctic, exploring, the wild … I thought, 'Let's actually do something about it. Don't just sit and dream, what a waste of time'."

Harrop's interest in sled races began when she read about the 1925 serum run to Nome as a child, in which a dog sled relay transporting medication across Alaska saved the town of Nome from an epidemic.

"I read about it in the '50s and it peaked my interest, and I've been interested ever since."

Researching Iditarod online, she became a sponsor for one of the riders, tracking the 2015 race from New Zealand.

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The following year Harrop went to Alaska as part of a tour group where she became a dog handler in the Iditarod race for Norwegian riders rider Ralph Johannessen​ last year and Joar Ulsom​ this year.

Harrop said dog sledding was "like the All Blacks" in Alaska.

Held in March each year, thousands gather for Iditarod in which riders and their 16 dogs traverse 1700 kilometres across white Alaska, taking around eight to 12 days to complete.

Support crews, including Harrop, flew to the mandatory stops for the riders and their dogs, which were small villages on the trail, some with populations as small as 10.

This year, of the 76 racers hitting the snow, Ulsum came fourth, completing the trail in just under eight-and-a-half days.

As a dog handler, Harrop's main job was to keep the dogs – including beautiful Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes – calm while they lined up to start the race.

Harrop said the friendly Alaskan people and their "snow from seashore to seashore" wilderness was "incredible".

"It's so different here from in New Zealand.

"You have no idea what -45 [degrees Celsius] is like … it is so cold, it's unbelievable, but so invigorating."

Each trip was "not a cheap expedition", costing around $25,000 all up, but she said it was worth it.

She said mushing in the white wilderness and playing golf on the frozen-over Bering Sea were life-changing experiences.

At home in Christchurch, Harrop owns Delphi, a lavender oil product line. She is a regular at the Riccarton Farmer's Market, which is now an official sponsor of her favourite rider and friend Ulsom, who uses a Delphi lavender product as massage oil for his dogs.

​"I didn't think I realised what I could do and how much I really enjoyed doing this sort of thing.

"Honestly, I'm getting on, I can't do it forever, I'll keep doing it 'til I can't do it anymore.

"I've already booked the next year," she said.​

 - Stuff

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