Ryne Olson’s life is a dogged pursuit for excellence.
As a “musher,” or dogsled driver, dogs are her life. She started her mushing career with 15 dogs in her kennel and now has 40 Alaskan huskies, all racing dogs.
They love to run. They love to pull. They love to compete.
Olson is a Durango, Colorado native who goes by “Ryno.” And yes, she was named for Hall of Fame Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg.
“My parents were watching SportsCenter one night and they thought it was a great name,” she said.
For Olson, the transition from Colorado to Alaska was an easy one. Her interest in mushing began when she was given a dogsled ride for her 13th birthday, but it was solidified when she came to Alaska to see the famous 1,000-mile Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome.
“They say Alaska is where men are men and women win the Iditarod,” she said, explaining that women, who make up about one-third of mushers in Alaska, have as much or more success running the Iditarod than men. With dreams of running the iconic race, she headed north to Alaska. She competed in the race twice, once in 2012 and again in 2016, and finished both times.
She also won the Copper Basin 300, a circular race beginning and ending in Glenallen, considered the toughest 300-mile race in Alaska, in 2017 after coming in third in 2015 and second in 2016.
After starting her racing career in Montana and Michigan, she moved north to Two Rivers, Alaska (just outside of Fairbanks), to join SP Kennels. Now she is part of the Last Frontier Mushing Cooperative, which includes fellow mushers Matt Hall and Amanda Brooks. The co-op consists of good friends who bought property together in Two Rivers. She also has her own personal kennel in Two Rivers.
“Instead of having competing kennels we decided to share resources,” she said. “We still compete against each other in mushing, but this way we can still race and take people on rides and get others interested in mushing. It’s a cooperative of mushers.”
Competition is at the heart of mushing. The term “musher” comes from the French Canadian interpretation of the French word marche, or forward. Whether English or French, the dogs understand.
“These are elite dogs,” she said. “The musher plays a big role, too, though. In competition it’s definitely the quality of the dogs, and it also involves luck. The weather has to fit the race. But it’s also the connection with the dogs. If you have a connection with your dogs, that puts you a step above.”
While Olson has developed that connection with all her dogs, all the dogs are equal in her eyes.
“You can’t have a favorite,” she said. “I have some pretty special dogs, but I can’t say there’s a favorite.”
“As puppies and yearlings, the dogs aren’t too involved in training,” she said. At two years old the dogs start training non-competitively with short races, eventually working their way up to those pushing 1,000-miles. The prime racing age for dogs is between three and eight years old.
“When they’re first born we work on socialization and all the other things that go into training a puppy,” she said. “At six or eight months we put them in the harness. They naturally want to pull and lean into the harness. We teach them not to chew on the line, to stay focused. It’s up to the dogs if they want to be an athlete or not. But very few don’t want to be sled dogs.”
During a race, both dogs and humans experience a “runner’s high” that keeps them motivated to continue on 200, 300 and even 1,000-mile races like the Iditarod.
“When you run 1,000 miles, whether you win or lose, you form a connection like no other with your dogs,” Olson said. “Sharing that experience with the dogs, even if you don’t win, it’s incredibly rewarding.”
Visitors can also experience something like that high as well. Olson offers tours through Alaska Icefield Expeditions during the summer. There are also several different types of mushing tours she offers during the winter through Smokin’ Ace Kennels, which is owned by Hall.
“In the summer we offer a two-hour ride, where you learn how to harness but you don’t drive, you ride,” she said. “In the winter, we offer aurora tours, where you mush to the top of the hills in the evening to look for the aurora and stay overnight in an authentic Mongolian yurt.” (A yurt is a circular tent made from animal skins.)
The aurora tour includes lessons from a professional photographer who teaches clients how to take pictures of the Aurora.
There is also mushing school, offered after racing season in April, where people can learn how to drive a small team of their own. On those tours Olson takes two or three clients, “teaches them how to mush and go out into the Alaskan wilderness for a week. We get off the beaten path.”
“People love it,” she added. “Every single person who has been on an expedition has really enjoyed it. They get to drive their own dog team of four to six dogs, and they really bond. Most people are dog lovers. We give them a little dog fix.”