Sometimes on a bitter, starry night, when a pockmarked moon rises from behind the Alaskan landscape, a wolf howls near John Suter's house. As its cries echo along the banks of Knik Inlet, Suter's sled dogs cock their snouts toward the mountains and reply. There is nothing odd about this. Buck, the canine hero of Jack London's The Call of the Wild, often conversed with wolves.
What is a trifle unusual given the subarctic setting is that Suter's dogs are black standard poodles, curly-headed fellows whose jet coats seem misplaced in a world of snow.
Poodles. For decades the breed has lugged a load of stereotypically dainty baggage—a burden Suter, 38, is determined to replace with a sled. "People should give poodles a chance to enjoy outdoor activities," he says. "There's a great misunderstanding about what poodles can do, and that's why we're on this crusade."
In January, Suter, his wife, Mary, and their three children loaded the family motor home and flatbed trailer with kibble, sleds and 19 dogs—11 poodles and eight huskies. From Chugiak, 20 miles north of Anchorage, they headed east and south along the Alaska Highway. The Suters' destination was Duluth, the starting point for the 500-mile John Bear-grease Sled Dog Marathon.
Suter's goal was not to win the race, which traces the U.S. Mail delivery route followed in the 1800s by the Chippewa musher John Beargrease. Suter was determined just to finish it—something many of his Alaskan friends were betting he and his poodles couldn't do.
As the starting time approached, the temperature in Duluth dropped to -32�, with a windchill factor of -50. Fresh snow blanketed the ground. Waiting his turn at the starting line, Suter psyched the poodles and their husky harness mates into a competitive frenzy. They were about to go up against 28 dog teams—one made up of white German shepherds and the rest composed of huskies, malamutes and related mixes. There was not another poodle team in the field. Attached to Suter's red sled, where the STP or Pennzoil decals would go on race cars, was the logo for the team's one official sponsor: OUT! Pet Products, manufacturer of animal stain removers and deodorants. The logo showed a cartoon dog and a cartoon cat holding their noses. On his sky-blue parka, Suter wore a matching OUT! emblem. The company, he says, paid $250 for the advertisement.
When at last the race began, Suter and his string of 19 yelping dogs shot off around the oval starting track and headed for the outskirts of Duluth. Almost immediately the poodles spied an empty parking lot and skedaddled across it before finally getting back on the right path. A few minor tangling mishaps later, the team found the entrance to the North Shore Trail. From there, with snow flying backward from churning poodle haunches, the team mushed off to fulfill its destiny.
By his own admission, John Suter was not exactly born to race poodles. A self-described California sunshine boy, Suter spent his youth pursuing fair-weather sports; he excelled in swimming and soccer. In the early '70s, he volunteered for the Army and was sent to Alaska, where he served as a Ranger and was a member of the Army's biathlon team. By 1973, he had become Alaska's Army middleweight boxing champion.
When his tour of duty ended, Suter stayed in Alaska and worked as a truck driver, a stevedore and a support man for the Alaska pipeline. In 1974, after marrying Mary and settling down in her hometown of Chugiak, Suter realized he needed a new sport, one to take the drudgery out of arctic winters. Mushing seemed like a good possibility. He had always loved dogs: As a child he had belonged to a police K-9 club, working with German shepherds. But a year of library research and interviews with mushers convinced him it would take a lot of money to get started. Maybe, he thought, by introducing a new breed to the sport, he could win some support.
One weekend Suter's father-in-law asked him to look after his miniature poodle, Fluette. For fun, Suter took Fluette for a ride on a snowmobile. "Fluette would jump off and run alongside me," Suter says. "I was extremely impressed with how fast this little dog could go." Perhaps standard poodles, which beneath their curls have body types similar to those of huskies, could hold their own as sled dogs.