The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  March 2005

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Blind Dog Sledder on Her Way

From the Editor: For a couple of years now everyone in the blindness field has been cheering on Rachael Scdoris, a young woman with perhaps a unique dream for a blind person. She has wanted to enter the Iditarod dogsled race between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. This year, on March 5, she, her dog team, and her lead sled will enter this grueling race of over eleven hundred miles. This is her third attempt to qualify, so she has already won a significant victory before she even crosses the starting line. Here are two stories that describe this remarkable young woman who would not take no for an answer:

Blindness No Barrier for Nineteen‑Year‑Old

by Bruce Ely

This article appeared Thursday, January 13, 2005, published by the Newhouse News Service.

The frost that settled overnight softens in the golden sunlight. As the surface melts, the twenty-five‑mile training trail will get easier on the dogs' feet. The health of their pads, of course, is the lifeblood to a musher such as Scdoris, who tunes in to their paws as a sailor lives for the wind.

In two months Scdoris will begin an adventure on the frozen tundra--the Alaskan bush variety. The high‑school graduate, nineteen, will fulfill a lifelong dream by taking part in the 1,049‑mile Iditarod Trail International Sled Dog Race, among the most grueling sporting events. And she will do so despite being blind. As much as her story inspires, as much attention as her two‑year quest to enter the "Last Great Race" attracted, the essential chapter unfolds in the dusty dog yard.

Scdoris has congenital achromatopsia, a deficit of rods and cones in her retinas that affects depth perception, light sensitivity, and color recognition. She can see vague shapes out to her lead dogs. She compares it to gazing through glasses coated with a heavy layer of Vaseline.

Her dogs see her energy, strength, and tenderness. This morning she tours the kennel like a politician at a party fundraiser. "Hi, Gary," Scdoris says to a seventeen‑year‑old retired Alaskan husky. "I still love you even if you are senile." "Seth, you're such a cuddler," she says as a dog paws the air for a hug. Romeo, a tan eleven‑year‑old, flexes on top of his house. "Romeo is the biggest jerk we've got," Scdoris says with a laugh. "All the other dogs hate him except Robert." Next door crazy Robert barks at his beloved Romeo.

In the yard the dogs howl a chorus as she prepares them for the morning run. Eighteen dogs will pull an all‑terrain vehicle on a twenty-five‑mile loop through the volcanic badlands that loom around their home. Claude plays with a chunk of ice in his water bowl. Big Boy turns his dish into a Frisbee. Brothers Gus and Rascal howl a duet. Halfway down the dog yard, a quiet, black husky with white stocking feet waits patiently.

Duchess is Scdoris' bellwether, a seven‑year‑old lead dog that snaps to every "gee" or "haw" command Rachael utters. The forty‑pound dog has run in every race Scdoris has entered since she was fourteen. "Duchess is Rachael's soul dog," says Jerry Scdoris, who passed on his passion for sled dogs to his daughter. "Duchess is really strong in the head and an amazing athlete," Rachael says. "And smart, too--sometimes too smart for her own good."

The tethered dogs reach a frenzy as Scdoris selects those who will pull the red Suzuki ATV. It seems improbable that this line of eighteen leggy canines will haul the 600‑pound vehicle, but when Rachael hollers "Mush!" the ATV leaps forward.

The dogs have always loved Rachael Scdoris. They became her refuge during a childhood marked by the cruelty of her peers. "They still are," she said. "The dogs never expected anything but hugs and food and harness."

Her parents split when she was three, but they maintained a good relationship and taught their daughter to focus on what she could do, not what she couldn't. At twelve Scdoris began competing in novice four‑dog races. There was resistance from some race organizers who said she didn't belong. But she never believed that; neither did the dogs.

Scdoris showed grit in the snow. She once entered a six‑dog, two‑day race in Chemult, Oregon, and dumped the sled on the first corner, 100 yards out. The dogs dragged her 200 yards, but she hung on until she could stop them. She lost her hat. Wet snow packed inside her boots and clothing. Ten miles later she began to shake from the cold. She crossed the finish line on her knees, being dragged behind the sled. She had frostbite on her toes and a finger. Her ears were worse. A doctor disqualified her from competing the next day. Her ears turned black. A few days later she wore a headband to cover her ears when she sang the national anthem at a festival.

In 2001 she entered the International Pedigree Stage‑Stop Sled‑Dog Race in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Race promoters were happy to have her. A friend rode ahead on a snowmobile to instruct her by radio about hazards on the trail. She was determined to finish as a tribute to her father, who was forced to withdraw from the 1997 edition. Scdoris celebrated her sixteenth birthday on the trail and became the youngest musher to finish a 500‑mile race.

Her dream has been the Iditarod since John Patten, a friend of her father's, told her Jack London‑like stories about his experiences in the race. The day after she graduated from high school in 2003, she talked to the Iditarod board through a conference call. The members were concerned that approving her request to be led by a "visual interpreter" on a snowmobile would ruin the spirit of an event that prizes independence above all. The board denied her request.

The next year she met with the board in person. She traveled alone to Alaska and fielded questions. The board suggested a compromise: she could run with a second sled dog team that would lead her on the long trail.

On March 5 Scdoris will line up with the other mushers for the grand pageant of the start in Anchorage. "Nobody wins this race the first time," she said. "I just want to finish with my dogs."

On the trail Scdoris's job is to encourage the team to be happy in its work. She does it with hugs and praise, and the dogs respond. She will need all of their exuberance come March when she crosses the Alaska Range at Rainy Pass, braves frozen Norton Sound and the cold, windy coast coming home to the Burled Arch and the finish line in Nome. Paul Ellering, a former professional wrestler, will drive a team ahead of her and be her visual interpreter.

Her goal is simple: Go the distance. With the help of four‑legged friends, Scdoris always has.

Blind Dogsledder Races Toward Victory

by Bob Dotson

On Wednesday, January 19, 2005, Bob Dotson, NBC Correspondent, filed the following story:

A teenager refuses to let disability keep her from the Super Bowl of sled dog racing. That's why Jerry Scdoris is driving 2,500 miles to the top of the globe from Bend, Oregon, in the dead of winter--to help a daughter chase a dream she cannot see.

Rachael Scdoris, nineteen, was born nearly blind but has earned a slot in the Super Bowl of sled dog racing--also known as mushing. She will compete against sighted men on the Iditarod, a daunting trail down mountains and ice floes, where temperatures can drop to forty below. The 1,100 mile race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, winds through a wilderness so vast it could stretch from Florida to Maine.

"I function the same way as a sighted person would. I just walk into a lot more stuff," said Scdoris. But not out on the trail. Two‑way radios alert Scdoris to obstacles in her path, and she is the first Iditarod musher to be allowed a visual aide.

The whole operation is costly. Scdoris and her dad must pack for two teams instead of one, as her spotter must also be a participant in the race. "We do sled dog tours for a living. And we stay broke racing," said Jerry Scdoris.

Scdoris grew up listening to her dad's sled dogs sing lullabies. "He used to take me on runs when I was a baby to put me down for a nap," said Scdoris. At some point she started dreaming of driving her own team.

She even camped outside for an entire year to get to know each of her dogs better. "This boy's always been a challenge to keep weight on," she said pointing to one of the race dogs. "Hopefully I can get him to gain a few pounds before the race."

She will need to; the dogs burn at least 10,000 calories a day, and Scdoris and her father have to pack three tons of dog food to stash along the Iditarod route. "There's only one way to do this--one bag at a time," said Jerry as he filled the bags with feed.

Race rules insist that Scdoris be able to do everything else herself--including changing the dog's protective booties, sixty-four of them every day. "It's basically who can take care--the best care--of their dogs the fastest," said Scdoris.

At first some of the other mushers worried about the safety of Scdoris's dogs over the 1,100 miles, so the race committee turned her down. Scdoris didn't complain. She set out to qualify, mushing nearly 800 miles over mountain passes with hairpin turns, competing in two of the toughest races around and finishing sixth in a field of twenty-eight.

"The guys have to give you a little respect if you've beaten them at the race," she said laughing. Fellow dog racer Libby Riddles should know. She's run the Iditarod six times and was the first woman to win in 1985.

The Iditarod begins March 5, but Scdoris and her dad are already driving--nonstop to the starting line. "I think Rachael's victory is the starting line. And then, every inch along the way will be a bonus for her," said Scdoris's father.

"Just being there will be like, Yes!" said Scdoris. It's a big victory for a woman who sees only possibilities.

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