A Labor of Love: Caring for sled dogs

by | Jul 6, 2017 | Alumni Profiles, Summer 2017

Some people like to celebrate getting their master’s degree with a vacation or dinner at a fancy restaurant. But all T.C. Wait ’93, MS ’01 wanted to do was drive a dogsled.

Fascinated by Alaska’s Iditarod race as a child, Wait talked her mother into taking her on a weeklong graduation trip to Wyoming, where they zipped along in husky-pulled sleds. Wait liked the experience so much that she took her husband, Dave Wurts, on another mushing trip soon afterward. He liked the thrill as much as she did.

In fact, they both liked the experience so much that the couple returned home to Colorado with Sally, a tiny sled dog runt that no one wanted. “I hooked her to my bike, and we went all over the place,” Wait said.

The dog wasn’t the only one hooked. Shortly after, the couple got a second dog to pull Wait’s bike. “I thought, if we get two more, we can put them on a sled and have a four-dog team,” she said.

They did, and as Wait noticed how much the animals seemed to thrive on pulling a sled, they couldn’t resist adopting even more sled dogs. Today, they have a motley crew of 20, composed of retired Iditarod racers and shelter rescues.

Though she loves riding a dogsled, Wait never wanted a competitive racing team herself and really loves the animals more than the sport. Seeing the dogs’ need for exercise gave her compassion for shelter dogs and former racers no longer fast enough for the Iditarod but still raring to go. “A lot of dogs need a good home,” she said.

In 2004, Wait and her husband began traveling to Alaska every year to help with Iditarod logistics. They eventually bought 20 acres in Willow, the usual starting point of the race. Little by little, they saved up to build a cabin that they designed and built together.

Every winter, they transport their 20 dogs and two cats over 3,000 miles from Colorado to Willow in a pickup with built-in boxes to safely transport the dogs. They spend the season dashing along sled trails with their non-racing team and caring for Iditarod dogs that have become excessively tired or injured during the race. The animals are flown to Anchorage and picked up by people like Wait, who care for them until their owners can pick them up at the end of the race.

“These dogs want to run, even if they can’t race. We have 13-year-olds that run 30 miles a day. If they’re not running they get destructive, digging holes and barking,” she said.

The couple has made many sacrifices to care for the dogs. Wait now works part-time or seasonal jobs so she can spend five months a year in Alaska, and every extra penny goes toward dog supplies and veterinary expenses. Ministering to a couple of dozen dogs is no easy task, but for Wait, it’s a labor of love.

In the summer of 2015, the couple’s challenges multiplied when the Sockeye Fire swept through Willow, destroying 55 homes, including theirs.

“It was the worst feeling ever,” Wait said. “It was our dream house, and we’d just finished putting on the final trim.”

But the tight community, home to many mushers, pulled together. As the area began to rebuild, a local elementary school teacher called Wait, who was in Colorado at the time, and said her class was building new doghouses for many of the local residents and painting them in bright colors and wanted to know if she would like some. The students built and painted 20 doghouses for Wait and many more for her neighbors—probably over 100 in all. This was just one example of the town’s solidarity.

“The community up there is tremendous,” Wait said. “People just showed up to haul debris or frame houses.” By Thanksgiving that year, Wait and her husband, with the help of many others, had rebuilt their home enough to move back in.

Despite all the hardships she’s endured, Wait doesn’t think she’ll ever give up her sled dogs. “I love the working bond between me and my dogs when we’re out,” she said. “It’s an ancient and traditional way of exploring the world.”