Relief and a whole lot of fun, said the 44-year-old Gaudin, who lives in Arlington.
“When you're out on the trail away from everybody, it's just awesome,” Gaudin said. “You see the trees and the mountains and the snow, and you can't hear anything, except maybe the dogs with their neck lines jingling a little bit.”
And in those tranquil moments of beauty and solitude, “you're thinking, ‘Wow, two days ago I was in an office building in downtown Seattle. And now here I am.'
“You leave all your troubles behind,” he said. “You have to let go and concentrate on what you're doing, because whatever you were doing at work, it doesn't matter.”
Gaudin is a Houston native who spent 21 years in the Navy before retiring last October (he served two years on the USS Abraham Lincoln, and before that flew helicopters on combat missions in Yugoslavia, Colombia and Iraq). He took up sled dog racing while stationed in Europe back in 2003, and those races through the snowy Alps got him hooked on the sport.
Today he has a barn with 15 dogs that he races several times a year around the Pacific Northwest, with most of his events usually held in Washington.
“Part of it is the competition,” he said, explaining his love for the sport. “I've always been driven by competition. But it's also the love of the animals and … the satisfaction I get from being with the dogs.”
Siberian Huskies are an intelligent, spirited and hard-working breed, and they are well-suited as sled dogs.
“If you could interview them and ask them about their job, they'd say, ‘I'm a sled dog. I pull a sled,'” Gaudin explained. “For them, it's pure enjoyment. It's what they live for. They love to go out on the trail. Before they go (on a training run or a race), they're all jumping up and down. They're so excited.
“And if I ever leave one behind, it's terrible,” he said. “That dog howls.”
The sport is a family affair for Gaudin, his wife Annemarie, and their four children. Gaudin, who now works for the Port of Seattle doing short-term research projects, is the principal caretaker of the 15 dogs, but the kids pitch in every day, and his wife helps with feeding, medical issues and “doing the books,” he said.
And the latter task is no small responsibility because Gaudin figures he spends several thousand dollars a year for food, veterinary bills, equipment and travel costs.
“It can be expensive, yeah,” he said wryly.
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Charles, the oldest child, is particularly involved in helping with the dogs, and has started racing, too.
Races are typically contested over two or three days, and in daily stages of 25 miles. The starts are staggered, so racers are often off by themselves for extended periods, though they also pass each other from time to time.
Among the mushers, “there's a lot of camaraderie,” Gaudin said. “You have people from all walks of life. One guy could be a plumber. Another guy could be an accountant. Or an engineer, an architect or a retired military guy (like himself). We're all just out there, and it doesn't matter who we are in the regular world.”
The world's most famous sled dog race, of course, is the Iditarod, which is held every March and is an endurance race of 1,161 miles across Alaska from Willow, near Anchorage, to Nome. Teams are mostly from Alaska, but a few are from other states, plus Canada and other foreign countries.
Gaudin, who belongs to both the Northwest Sled Dog Association and the Cascade Sled Dog Club, doubts he will ever enter the Iditarod “because it requires too much investment. … I'm just really content just doing the 25-mile stage races.”
Here in the Pacific Northwest, he added, sled dog racing is “a low-money sport. We're also just doing it for the glory and the bragging rights. … I only compete with myself, and I just try to do better than I did the year before in some way, shape or form.”
But even on those days he doesn't win, he cherishes the beautiful natural setting and the chance to compete with his dogs.
“Because when you're out there by yourself,” he said, “it's fantastic.”
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