“We are of one spirit — the energy, the adventure,” says this musher of Alaskan sled dogs. And they’d all better be pulling in the same direction because that strength-in-unity factor is needed when it’s 60 degrees below zero, winds are blowing at 50 miles an hour, and you’ve got a thousand miles to go before you reach home.
Hugh Neff, a 45-year-old transplant from Chicago who now resides in the tiny village of Tok, knows what its like to be behind a sled in those kinds of conditions. After being an also-ran in 1,000-mile races 20 times, Neff finally took top prize in the 2012 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in nine days, 16 hours, and five minutes, crossing the finish line a mere 26 seconds against the second place team — the closest finish ever in what is considered the toughest sled dog race in the world.
Neff discovered that world of dog mushing when he came to the 49th state in 1995. “I’m not Native-born, but I’m a big Native wannabe,” he says. “I got here with a couple hundred dollars to my name and took a job with an Alaskan Native (Athabascan) family, cleaning, feeding, and training over 200 dogs. The family wasn’t wealthy so they paid me with dogs to race and that’s how I started out mushing. The Alaskan Native influence continues as I play Native music for the dogs. I’ve got little speakers in the pockets of my parka that pound out the beat of the drum — a great way to get a dog team flying down the trail.”
Known as The Iron Man of Long-Distance Mushing, Neff refers to urging sled dogs over frozen rivers, frigid mountain ranges, and through sub-zero temperatures as ‘a magic carpet ride’. “It’s not like a walk in a wintry wonderland because you’re literally flying above the ground. There’s danger all around and it gets so darned cold out that you have to dress like astronauts, but when the Northern Lights come out, it’s a magical experience and I embrace it. When I’m in the cold surrounded by the invigorating crispness of the air, I feel more alive with the realization that I’m in a special part of the world where few humans can actually survive. I average about 5,000 miles a year on a dog sled and I often don’t see anybody for days at a time — just the wilderness, me and my dogs, and that’s the way I like life.”
Recognizing that mushers can go only as far and fast as their teams can carry them, Neff gives all the credit to his sled team of 50-to-70-pound huskies bred for speed, strength, and stamina. He calls his team “Veterans with Attitude” lead by 7-year-old Walter, a muscular dog who won the Golden Harness award in last years race.
At 20 pounds heavier than other team members, Walter literally leads the pack. “Walter’s ‘the man,’ my heart and soul…with grit and determination he loped for 60 miles in the Yukon win,” Neff told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “I left him in the lead because he knew exactly where we were going — that the couch was right around the corner and he wanted to get back on the sofa.
“Winning was such a special moment for me because I get more out of seeing my dogs get the respect they deserve than I do from any trophy.” (Although the $28,395 he collected for the 2012 Quest win also helps).
Despite the big payday, Neff says he has about as much pocket money now as he did when he arrived in Alaska. With 50 dogs of his own now, he spends about $10,000 a year for dog food alone. “These dogs have a high metabolism and eat about 10,000 calories a day when they’re on the trail. All my money goes back into the dogs, but I still consider myself a wealthy person because of all the experiences I’ve had.”
Neff entered his first Yukon Quest in 2000 where he finished in 13th place. He was named “Rookie Musher of the Year” after the 2004 event and has been one of the few teams to race in both the Quest and Iditarod (where he reached his highest finish, 9th place, in 2009.
He wouldn’t mind a few more exciting adventures however and he and the pups are already pulling 250- pound packs required to survive the February 2013 run that follows the historic 1890s Klondike Gold Rush. “I’m just a former city boy living a dream,” he says.
Learn more about Hugh Neff and The Dawgs by visiting his website HughNeff.com.