Whenever December rolls around and you’re watching a college football bowl game or even broadcasts of It’s A Wonderful Life, you see that iconic Budweiser commercial.
Even for a California native, moments like this scream out how Christmas should be: snow covering the ground amid twinkling lights and a pastoral scene. So this wherever you’re spending Christmas this season, enjoy yourselves. In our December issue, we profiled the dog-sledding Berington twins, who are now veteran mushers in the Iditarod, “The Last Great Race On Earth.” It made me think of Budweiser commercials. Happy Holidays!
By Chris Cocoles
When their sleds and beloved dogs crossed that hallowed ground known as the Iditarod Burled Arch finish line – at almost the exact same time, mind you – in Nome during their first such race together in 2012, twin sisters Anna and Kristy Berington both had numb toes, literally.
Sure, completing the 1,000-plus-mile brutal course from Anchorage to Nome would give any musher cold feet. But given that Anna Berington actually lost some of her appendages from a frostbite incident in her pre-Iditarod career, this was a special moment for the sisters.
The 30-year-olds have become respected competitors in their sport. When they take off from Fourth Avenue in downtown Anchorage on March 7, 2015, it will be their fourth Iditarod together (Kristy, five minutes older, has five appearances to little sis’s three) as part of their Seeing Double Sled Dog Racing organization.
“There are so many times during the race when you want to sleep,” Kristy says, “but so many more when you’re in awe of the scenery and the athletic ability of your dogs and how far you’ve come. That’s when the happy emotions outweigh the crummy emotions.”
It’s safe to say losing parts of your toes would be considered the crummy side of this labor of love.
THREE YEARS BEFORE completing her first Iditarod, Anna and her dogs were scheduled to run in the Knik 200, an Iditarod qualifying race in Southcentral Alaska. Having already completed other mid-distance races, Anna wasn’t expecting the ensuing ordeal.
About 10 days earlier, she was on a training run on a rough and unfamiliar trail with Kristy and a longtime mentor, Paul Gebhardt, when her sled tipped over and Anna’s leg was sliced open by a hook used as a sled anchor. The open wound was a 22-inch gash along the front of a thigh.
The twins’ sixth sense had taken over when Kristy, who’d been the rear sled, feared her sister had an issue. Anna had the bloody leg to prove her big sister’s premonition correctly.
At the hospital as the wound was patched up, Anna’s doctor just happened to be a former Iditarod musher; he concluded she’d be OK to participate in the 200-mile race as long as the leg wouldn’t be hit directly and open the stitches.
“I taped some cardboard around my leg as sort of armor, but part of my problem was it got to 55 below (zero) during the Knik 200, and when I stopped at (the halfway mark) I wasn’t active or moving around a whole bunch because it was sore,” Anna recalls.
“I felt like my feet never got warm and looked at my feet were kind of gray. There were no people doctors at the race, but there were vets. And I asked them what I should do. They told me don’t thaw it out if you’re going to keep going.”
(Spoiler alert: she was going to keep going.)
Kristy, also competing in the race, decided if Anna was to go on they’d run together just in case over the final 90 miles. They were rather painful, and at the end of the race she had to go back to the hospital. Doctors eventually had to amputate tips of her toes that were affected by frostbite.
“I was scared and worried about her. I couldn’t believe that she kept going. But when you get to the halfway point, there’s no real way back because you have to get your dogs back anyway,” Kristy says. “I tried not to panic because I didn’t want her to be in any fear or concern for her safety.”
Anna’s attitude was, “If you can’t take of yourself, you can’t take care of your dog team.”
She had become Alaska tough.
WHEN KRISTY BERINGTON was born in February 1984, her new mom, Janet, was not expecting a second daughter’s appearance minutes later.
“Obviously we were there, but I don’t remember,” jokes Kristy, “but I know my grandma called and asked how my mom was doing; my dad said, ‘Oh, Janet’s fine and so are the babies, and they’re with their mom.’ My grandma said, ‘Wait, wait, wait – what did you say? Babies?’ We only had one crib that our older sister, Kat, used. It was just enough for one baby, so everyone in the town chipped in and got another crib.”
That was the down-home closeness of the Beringtons’ tiny hometown, Port Wing, Wis., which is in the extreme northern part of the state along the coast of Lake Superior, about 60 miles due east of Duluth, Minn.
It was a great place to grow up for another reason. Anna calls Port Wing, population 250 or so, “a vast playground.”
“Our mom kind of trusted us to take care of each other, so we would go down and play at the lake,” Anna says. “We were pretty independent and go out on our own and ride horses or go swimming in the lake.”
There were also brutal Wisconsin winters to find activities befitting such a cold climate. And while Anna and Kristy played basketball and volleyball at South Shore High School, a neighbor, Lisa Chaplin, dabbled with dog sledding and recruited 10-year-olds Anna and Kristy to help out with feeding of her dogs and learning how to drive a sled. According to the Beringtons’ website (seeingdoublesleddogracing.com), “they figured they would try it out with a set of skis, a milk crate, and a slightly perplexed dog team made up of a border collie and a great Pyrenees.
“Lisa was our first mentor,” Kristy says of their neighbor. “She had us over there feeding the dogs and running small teams. Our dogs, whether they liked it or not, were harnessed as sled dogs overnight. The rest of them were sheep dogs and other herding dogs.”
Anna and Kristy loved the camaraderie with the animals and they were mesmerized by a Disney movie, Iron Will, about a young man who honors his late father and helps his family’s financial woes by competing in a grueling and dangerous sled dog race.
A couple years later, the girls participated in their first junior race with four dogs and covered 4 miles. Little did they know it was the foundation that would eventually transform the sisters to the Last Frontier and compete in the “Last Great Race on Earth.”
THINK ABOUT WHEN you were 18, fresh out of high school with boundless opportunities but unsure of what you wanted to do with your life. Kristy and Anna Berington felt that way.
“We were both kind of indecisive on if we wanted to go and study in college and then having to pay for it. Looking at a military option like the National Guard felt like a great choice,” Kristy says. “We both loved adventure, and the recruiter did a good job on selling that part of the military. And there was adventure, and it taught us a lot of good skills that you would apply in your life as far as discipline and taking responsibility.”
It wasn’t going to be a lifelong career choice, but there were some memorable moments. The 6-foot blonde sisters’ identical looks even created a bit of confusion at boot camp as they weren’t in the same unit. The punchline turned out to be on them.
“Our drill sergeants didn’t even know there were twins in our unit,” Kristy says. “I remember getting yelled at by one of her drill sergeants because I was in the wrong spot at the wrong time. When I said he wasn’t my drill sergeant, he got really upset. I started doing pushups until my arms were falling off. Anna came up with her platoon and he figured it out. He was embarrassed and he made both of us do pushups.”
When their service time ended, the Beringtons quickly found out after a couple college semesters, they had the urge to search for more adrenaline. They eventually matriculated not on campus, but in the backcountry of Lake Tahoe in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. They’d spend their winters working for a dog sled touring business, and summers literally living in a tent atop a mountain and helping out at a horse stable.
“We wanted to see what else was out there,” Anna says.
“What else” would become Alaska.
KRISTY BERINGTON VISITED Alaska in 2007 and met Dean Osmar, a legend among dog mushers and the 1984 Iditarod winner. He offered Kristy an opportunity to learn the competitive side of raising and racing sled dogs.
“When she got back down she said, ‘I got us a job in Alaska,’ and I was like, ‘OK, when are we leaving?’” Anna says. “We packed up what we had. We landed in the right spot, so we were pretty lucky; I guess Alaska had always been calling us.”
Osmar is just one of several Berington mentors in the tight-clad dog musher community of Alaska. Veteran sledder Gebhardt took Kristy under his wing and Anna trained with Osmar and Iditarod regular Scott Janssen.
They first settled down in Kasilof on the Kenai Peninsula. They have since moved to Knik, north of Anchorage. Where in summer they’ll work several odd jobs to pay the bills, their winter season is all about racing their dogs.
Under the tutelage of the Osmars, Gebhardts and Janssens, Anna and Kristy learned the little details and idiosyncrasies of the sport. Gebhardt would take them on long-distance overnight campout trips with the dogs into the Alaskan bush; it was a phenomenon the twins never experienced. Gebhardt went through his routine of preparing his team to get started again for a potential race situation, again giving Anna and Kate behind-the-scenes access to a true professional.
“You pick that up. By watching Paul on these camping trips and in mid-distance races, you think to yourself, ‘OK, that’s how he’s so fast at that, or that’s how he saves so much time,’” Anna says. “So it really helps us get better at what we do.”
Kristy says Gebhardt offered valuable advice on how to properly care for these magnificent working dogs and preventing ailments that are part of the grind of sled dog racing (she’s won multiple veterinarian awards after several races).
“It takes years of experience to look at a dog and see that if the gait is off that there’s something wrong, or if they’re not having a good day that something is bothering them. You have to try and figure it out what is and give them the best treatment possible to get them back running again.”
SLED DOG RACING is not a get-rich-quick deal. The sport’s premier event earnings for the champion equates to about $50,000 plus a new truck. But the cost to care for the dogs year-round, pay for the race’s entry fees, equipment and transportation would cancel out the winnings in a hurry.
For less heralded mushers like the Beringtons, there’s little money to be made (Anna’s career earnings in her three Iditarods: $3,147; Kristy’s won $6,947 in five tries). Yet, spend some time chatting with the twins and they might as well be millionaires for how fired up they are to participate in the upcoming Iditarod prep events before competing in their sport’s World Series in March. They’ve come a long way since the skis, milk crate and hooking up their border collie and Great Pyrenees to that makeshift sled in Port Wing.
When Kristy made her race debut in 2010, she could count up the miles ridden in the qualifying races to equal the Iditarod’s approximate 1,000 miles.
“I always felt like I was so underprepared. I was pretty nervous over everything,” she says of her 39th-place finish. “But it all turned out to be a great experience, and that’s why I did it four more times.”
Three of those were extra special because of who joined her among the last three finishers. The 2012 race will always carry heavier sentimental weight.
They ran together from checkpoint to checkpoint. They encouraged each other, helped each other when there was an issue with a dog or equipment problem.
“It helped us to have some support. We’ve heard other people disagree, that maybe one of us was holding our dog team back to run with the other,” Anna says. “But you really had to be there to see what was actually going on.”
And as the Beringtons’ times two completed checkpoint after checkpoint, sometimes leaving behind a candy bar or other items along the course for the next sled to pick up, they decided to finish this one together.
Fans watching on Front Street in Nome literally did see double when the two sleds full of determined dogs and the lookalike blondes piloting them side-by-side headed for the finish line. They clasped and raised their hands in unison and stopped at the finish line, but it was determined that Anna’s lead dogs were already across the timing spot just before Kristy’s reached (Kristy was running just 11 dogs to Anna’s 12 after one suffered a minor injury and was with the vets).
It was a storybook 43rd- and 44th-place showing for the sisters, who are now making this uniquely Alaskan tradition an annual event.
“I think there was a moment of ‘we made it,’ from all of our little dreams when we were kids,” one twin says.
Adds the other: “I think if we could go back in time and tell our 10-year-old selves, ‘Hey, you’re going to run five Iditarods with your own dogs,’ we wouldn’t have believed it.”
Editor’s note: For more information on the Berington sisters or to donate to help fund the expenses of sled dog racing and care for the dogs, check out their website, seeingdoublesleddogracing.com.