WILLOW — When Curt Perano left the starting gate in the 43rd annual Iditarod sled dog race earlier this month in Fairbanks, a spectator hollered, “Win it for the Kiwis.”
The New Zealander flashed a faint grin, waved and continued on. He had the look of a man on a mission.
It was Perano’s fourth Iditarod. The 41-year old musher, who calls Willow home when he’s in Alaska, completed each of the three previous 1,000-mile mushing marathons, and improved his time with every outing. After finishing 23rd in 2014, his goal for this year was to crack the top 20.
For a time it looked as if he would. Seventy-eight mushers entered the race. At the halfway point he was in seventh position. But as the race continued, he ran into difficulties, including a brutal storm with high winds, temperatures that plummeted to minus 50 degrees, and zero visibility that forced many of the mushers and their dog teams to burrow in.
Perano went on to finish 32nd, completing the race in 10 days, 21 hours and 11 minutes, two days behind the blistering pace set by winner Dallas Seavey.
In April, Curt will pack up and head home to Roxburgh, New Zealand, with his wife, Fleur, and young son, Wyatt, where the family owns and operates a business conducting sled dog tours in the Southern Alps. They’ll remain in New Zealand until October, when they will return to prepare for the 2016 Iditarod race.
Perano was born to be a world traveler and risk taker. His father was a situation diver on oil rigs, and the family moved frequently – not down the street, but thousands of miles from one locale to the next, from New Zealand to Singapore, including several stops in Europe and multiple addresses in the United States.
After finishing school, Perano spent 14 years in the New Zealand Army and did a tour in Afghanistan. After leaving the military, he worked as an independent security consultant and field producer for numerous media companies, including CNN.
During a four-year stay in Togo, Minnesota, he learned the finer points of mushing from Jamie Nelson, who completed the Iditarod three times, finishing as high as 25th and twice winning the race’s sportsmanship award.
“We’ve worked hard for several years to build our team,” Perano said. “We raise and train all our own dogs. We don’t buy and sell dogs. We breed our own and keep them.”
He and Fleur currently have 25 dogs at their kennel in Willow and 21 at their place in Central Otago.
“It’s not about the money,” he says of mushing. “It’s about a lifestyle.”
He knows his dogs well. “You can hear them bark and you know which one it is. You get to know their little quirks and moods.”
Dogs can sense a musher’s frame of mind. “If you’re gloomy, the dogs will get gloomy, Perano said. “Attitude is everything. I’m a true believer in that.”
Fleur was asked if she ever worries about her husband when he is racing.
“I worry about the dogs,” she said laughing.
He recalled a race where he arrived at a checkpoint in last place. Fleur was there and wanted to know what was wrong. Perano told her it was a combination of things, but not one in particular.
“Go get your head on straight,” she said, “and don’t come back until you’re happy,” she chided.
He ate chicken wings, put on headphones and listened to music. A half hour later he came back. “I’m ready,” he said enthusiastically.
He left the checkpoint, the dogs perked up, and by the time they reached the finish line, he had moved up to fifth place.
“When we crossed the finish line my dogs were really screaming, and the only reason they stopped was because they ran out of trail. I learned a great lesson about attitude that day.”
Race officials gave him an award for best cared-for team.
His current lead dog is named Run, and that’s what he likes to do.
“He likes to take charge, and he’s a good finisher,” Perano said.
A lack of snow this year forced last minute changes in the route to Nome before the race began.
“The Iditarod is like a chess game,” he said. “You constantly have to think ahead. The different trail this year and the weather presented special challenges.”
When he arrived at Front Street in Nome on March 20, his dogs were lively and looked like they were ready for more racing. Fleur and Wyatt were there to greet him.
His 32nd place finish put him in the top half of the field, a distinction he has enjoyed for three straight years.
Ray Gaskin is a journalism instructor at SE Oklahoma State University.