Missy, Sissy and Stokes at the Iditarod

“Missy, Sissy and Stokes.”

Andy said this with such fervor it seemed his heart was about bursting through his puny chest, thought Gardner “Hutch” Hutchins as he made a record of the lead dogs for this team.

“We don’t usually record more than two lead dogs per team, but there ain’t a rule against it.”

“Missy is their mom, so they all get along. And anyway they take turns of course. One of ‘em is always on the sled to rest while the other two work.”

“OK, Andy, another unusuality, but no rule against it. Where ya’ from?”

“We’re from Stokes, Montana, right where the Mississippi River starts. That’s how the lead dogs got their names.”

Hutch could now understand the source of Andy’s passion and pride. “What’s your full name and age?”

“Well, I prefer Andy but my given name is Anders. Anders Andersson, with two esses, and don’t start makin’ wisecracks about Swedes and squareheads. I’ve got as much Irish in me as Scandihoovian and my Irish is a little touchy. My middle name is Aloysius. My mom has a sense of humor. I’m 23. This is my first time in Alaska. We’ve trained for two years, summer and winter, all in Itasca County, where Stokes is.”

“All right Andy. Your secret’s safe with me. Have you filled out the release and insurance forms and all that? Yeah, give ‘em here. How many dogs ya’ got, and what’s their names? I’ve already recorded Missy, Sissie and Stokes”

“They’re all named after some place in Itasca County: Effie, Jessie and Swannee. Swannee’s named after the Swan River. Spang, Bovey and Nash. Nash is from Nashwauk, but that’s too hard to say when I’m yellin’at ‘em. Inger, Birch and Bear, after Bearville. The rest are Morse, Kelly, Whiskey, Beaver, Mak, and Coon. The last six are the newest and youngest, but they’ve got great heart.”

“I don’t doubt it, Andy. They all do, don’t they? Let’s see, I count eighteen. One lead dog, sixteen behind her, or him—I guess Stokes is a male?—and one spare lead resting on the sled. Is that your plan?”

“You’ve got it.”

What’s your local address?”

“Itasca’s Sons of the Pioneers put me up at the Captain Cook Hotel, and it’s so grand I feel guilty. My God, what luxury. How can people stay hard and fit with all that?”

“They don’t, Andy. OK, that’s it. Thanks for the info. Oh, I almost forgot—who’s your contact back home?”

Hutch now saw Andy’s mood change swiftly. He seemed to be holding back tears.

“It’s my brother, Casey—he’s in Grand Rapids, the main city in Itasca County. It would’ve been Lorie, but she kicked me out of the house saying it was either the dogs or her. What a helluva choice to give a man just as he’s about to run the greatest race in world. And for the first time. But I ain’t gonna let that affect me, except maybe to prove somethin’ to her.

“Women in the Lower 48 just don’t understand,” said Ralph with some anger in his voice. “Andy, I hope you don’t mind hearing some advice from me.”

“Go ahead Hutch, you’re old enough to be my Pop and I always listened to him.”

“Just get out there on the trail to Nome and don’t think about anybody or anything but your dogs and how much you’re enjoying yourself. Like you said, it’s the greatest race in the world, and there’s very few who run it.”

“I’m enjoying myself already, and your advice has solved a problem for me.

“How’s that?”

“I’ve pretty much used up all the names around Stokes for my dogs, and now I know what I’m gonna name the next pup.

“Okay, I’ll bite, what’s the name, Andy.