Courtesy of Ryne Olson
Former Mountain Brook resident Ryne Olson at the Yukon Quest.
The Iditarod is known as the last great race on Earth, and for good reason. Mushers and their dog teams must traverse 1,000 miles of Alaskan wilderness by sled, battling extreme cold, sleep deprivation and challenging terrain to be the first across the finish line in Nome, Alaska.
This year, when the sled teams leave Anchorage on March 5, former Mountain Brook resident Ryne Olson will be among them.
Olson is now the owner of Ryno Kennel in Two Rivers, Alaska, but she moved to Mountain Brook, her mother Katy’s hometown, when she was three years old. Olson attended Mountain Brook Elementary for several years and even when her family moved to Colorado, they would return each summer to visit their network of family and friends.
The path to the Iditarod began with a sledding trip as a middle school birthday present. Many years later, when Olson was trying to find her path in college, she remembered that trip. It led to a winter job at a Michigan sled dog kennel and some races in the continental U.S.
Olson was hooked.
“It was a pretty incredible sport and if I wanted to be serious about it I needed to move to Alaska,” Olson said.
So she did.
Olson moved to Two Rivers to work for Aliy Zirkle, who placed second in the Iditarod multiple times, and Allen Moore at SP Kennel. There she learned the basics of mushing and communicating with the dogs while on the trail. In the feeling of a sled whipping around a snowy turn, Olson discovered a throwback to her summers in Alabama, being pulled in an inner tube behind a boat on the lake.
“Holding onto that inner tube in my elementary school days, it’s the same muscles I swear,” Olson said.
In 2012, Olson had her first Iditarod experience, running SP Kennel’s puppy team to get experience in sledding races of that distance. Along the way, Olson got to see the famed Northern lights in shades of red, green and purple, as well as miles of windswept, arctic coastline near Nome.
“[It was] just incredible because you could see forever,” she said. “Sometimes it would be hard to see where the sea ended and land began.”
To travel through snow, ice and temperatures that can reach 40 or 50 degrees below zero and reach the finish line safely, Olson and other mushers require intense training and close communications with the team of 12 to 16 dogs pulling the sled.
“The dogs don’t really make a mistake, you make a mistake in how you were training them,” Olson said. “You always want to set up your dogs for success.”
This includes understanding their moods and when a slight change in gait means a dog is worn out. Olson compared it to being the teacher in a classroom of kids, each one with its own personality.
“You have to pick up on those things because they’re stubborn. They want to pull no matter what,” she said.
It also means knowing how each dog will interact with the ones around them, which dogs’ excitement can cheer up a tiring team and which ones are intelligent and confident enough to find the path when storms or wind obscure their handlers’ view.
Sometimes, mushing requires Olson to just trust her team and make sure, no matter what, that she doesn’t let go of the sled.
“If you let go, they’ll go on without you,” Olson said. “It’s actually really scary if you lose your team.”
However, sledding has also given Olson the chance to see lonely, beautiful landscapes as she has traveled thousands of miles across Alaska, including above the Arctic Circle, with her team of Alaskan huskies.
Olson decided to start her own kennel three years ago so she could raise her team from puppies, both to bond with them and ensure the quality of the dogs and their training.
“I have a competitive nature, so I wanted to run the best dogs and try to win races,” Olson said.
Ryno Kennel now has about 30 dogs, many now old enough to begin serious racing. Olson competed in the Yukon Quest, another 1,000-mile race, in February 2015 and placed second in the Copper Basin 300 in January, among other races.
“It’s amazing. I’m just amazed by everything about her. The way she’s grown in the sport, the time she’s taking, the maturity she’s shown,” Olson’s mother, Katy, said.
Mushing is an expensive sport, both in caring for the dogs and entering the races. It cost Olson $3,000 just to enter the 2016 Iditarod. She offsets the cost with kennel sponsors and her part-time job as an accountant with an understanding boss, but she admits from the outside it “really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
“You have nothing nice that you own and everything goes to dogs,” she said.
Olson is not trying to be competitive in this year’s Iditarod, especially since some of her dogs have never run a 1,000-mile race before, but the run requires a lot of preparation. Olson must plan out her entire schedule and when she expects to reach each of the 23 checkpoints along the way.
She also had to plan out the supplies she needed and place them in drop bags, which were flown out to the checkpoints by bush plane a month before the beginning of the race. This includes enough food for a team of dogs burning 9,000-12,000 calories a day. If anything unexpected comes up, Olson said she has to hope she has the supplies she needs, or another musher at the checkpoint does.
“Each stop is like a small village in the wilderness, so they’re not going to have a Wal-Mart,” Olson said.
Katy, who was in Alaska for her daughter’s 2012 Iditarod race and 2015 Yukon Quest, said she’s just beginning to understand the strategy of sledding and it can be nerve-wracking to watch Olson disappear into the snow for days and rely on the GPS tracker, especially “if the tracker stops [and] you don’t know what’s going on.”
“The animals are first in their lives. They do everything to make sure their dogs are healthy and happy,” Katy said. “It’s not like any other sport that I have ever seen. So it was really fun to be a part.”
Back in Mountain Brook, Olson’s family and godmother will be cheering her on and checking the website every day, or sometimes in the middle of the night, to make sure she’s made it to the next checkpoint.
“Everybody’s so supportive down there and I know it’s so foreign to them,” Katy said. “I appreciate the love and support they’ve given Ryne.”
After she leaves Anchorage at the start of the Iditarod, Olson said there will be a special sort of calm that she feels every time she’s sledding. Olson said she particularly feels it at night, when “your world is reduced to the tunnel of the headlamp.”
“You’d think time would go slow or get bored, but I honestly don’t know what I think about ... You really just live in the moment,” she said. “Because the dogs are living in the moment, you kind of pick up on that.”
To learn more about Olson and her team, visit rynokennel.com. To follow the 2016 Iditarod beginning March 5, visit iditarod.com.