When your mushing camp is based 18-miles inland in the Caribou Hills of Alaska, many things involve a plan. With no electricity, simple tasks such as charging a phone require forethought. On March 3, Monica Zappa will take her fully-charged plan to the start line of her 5th Iditarod race.
Zappa’s two lifestyles of dog mushing and commercial fishing intermingle with her advocacy for environmental and social issues. As in all her competitive races over the past six years, Monica Zappa will be Mushing for Salmon.
By Kevin Majoros
Becoming a musher and bonding with dogs
As an only child, several years of Zappa’s childhood were spent in a dog sled. Bouncing along in a straw-filled box, coloring book in hand, she was part of the mushing lifestyle. Her parents were competitive dog mushers based in Wisconsin but when she was ten, they sold the team.
One year into her Ph.D. program at University of Oklahoma, she made a life-changing decision. She left her job at the National Weather Center and moved to Alaska to begin training as a dog musher.
“I missed being outside and being active. And I really missed bonding with the dogs,” says Zappa. “I thought I would try it for a year and then join the Peace Corps.”
Four years after starting and many races later, she completed her first Iditarod in 2014, finishing in 47th place. She crossed a day faster in each of the two subsequent years, also in 47th place both times. In 2017, she didn’t finish due to female dogs in heat and uncooperative lead dogs.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began in 1973 and this year will follow the southern route of 1,606 kilometers. Her fastest finish in 2016 was 11 days, 0 hours, 17 minutes and 30 seconds.
“The race itself is filled with incredible highs and incredible lows,” Zappa says. “People watching on television are only seeing a tiny part of what makes up the mushing lifestyle.”
The mushing lifestyle and training for the Iditarod
The Team Zappa base camp boasts 48 adult dogs and 8 puppies. Her partner, Tim Osmar, is a highly regarded musher with over 100 races including 24 Iditarods. Together they manage and care for their four-legged athletes daily with help from multiple veterinarians in the area.
They run three teams of ten dogs during training and experiment with pairings. After evaluating their personalities and who they run best with, the dogs are placed in position on the team. The important lead dogs are followed by swing dogs, team dogs and wheel dogs.
For training leading up to the Iditarod, both Zappa and Osmar race multiple events with two sleds of 12 dogs. At the beginning of February, the dogs have bloodwork and their hearts are checked.
A maximum of 16 dogs may start on an Iditarod team. At least five are required to be in harness to officially finish the race. Team Zappa has never finished with less than 12 dogs.
Over 2,300 pounds of supplies are shipped to the race site for both the dogs and Zappa. The team of dogs are microchipped the day before the race.
“The dogs are amazing – the bond, their personalities and their excitement to run is a beautiful thing,” says Zappa. “It’s a complete adrenaline rush on the first day of the Iditarod. There will be a great amount of power coming from the dogs and I will be hitting the brakes. They calm down after day two.”
Mushing tours and adventures with Team Zappa
Team Zappa offers mushing adventures at their base camp ranging from one-hour rides to overnight stays. Zappa describes the experience as completely quiet, super Zen and incredible therapy.
“There are mountains and beauty all around with nothing to worry about except the team,” Zappa says. “Couple that with the fact you are being pulled through the wilderness by a team of animals. It gets you into a space that makes you incredibly present.”
Zappa says that all the people who come on the tours are captivated by the dogs. Overnight adventurers learn the basics of distance mushing, camping, steering and commands.
Advocating for clean water and wild salmon
In the summer months, Zappa and Osmar make their livelihood salmon fishing in the Cook Inlet. In late May, they pack up their dogs and move to their fish camp in the Cohoe area. They open their operations in mid-June to prepare for the salmon run that starts in the beginning of July.
Their fish camp also has no electricity and their days are filled with operating a small skiff. They use the set netting technique and travel up to a mile and a half offshore. Accompanied by a small crew, their catch is mainly red salmon.
Commercial fishing being their livelihood has given them a firsthand understanding for the value of Alaska’s salmon habitat. Since 2012, every mile mushed has been dedicated to protecting the resources in the region. Zappa hands out informative packets to the villages along her race trails to reinforce the message.
She walks a fine line with the organizers of the Iditarod who introduced a gag rule effective for their 2016 race. Iditarod mushers are not allowed to say or do anything that might be considered disparaging to the race or sponsors.
It’s in effect from the time participants sign up until 45 days after the last musher crosses the finish line. It’s called Rule 53 and Zappa signs up late for the race because of it. No further comment can be made here to preserve her status as a competitor in the race.
The future of Team Zappa
Zappa’s main goal for this year’s Iditarod is to get to the finish line. Her mindset is to compete with herself and not worry about her placing.
“It’s good to push away the competition with the other teams,” says Zappa. “The beauty is not in the competition, it’s in being present. You have to be percolating.”
Zappa is considering taking a year off next year. Her former lead dog, King Dweezil, has retired and she would like to spend more time with him. Plus, she is interested in brainstorming on new activism ideas.
“One of Alaska’s sustainable resources is wild salmon. They come back every year and we need to protect them,” Zappa says. “I am hoping to find ways to re-energize the Alaskan population and to get something on the ballot. When the numbers speak, it can lead to good things.”
You can follow Monica at http://teamzappa.com/
The Iditarod 2016 with Team Zappa
Team Zappa – Enjoy the Ride
Check out more photos here:
Kevin Majoros shares stories on sports, ocean adventuring and conservation. He is based in Baltimore/Washington and travels the world as a competitive swimmer.
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