Evanston native prepping for Saturday’s Iditarod dog-sled race
Updated: April 2, 2012 8:44AM
Hugh Neff has been fascinated by Native American culture ever since he was a Boy Scout growing up in Evanston. As an adult, the graduate of Loyola Academy in Wilmette moved to Alaska to live with the Athabascan people and experience native culture – including dog sled racing, or mushing – firsthand.
Now Neff, 44, has proved his mastery of mushing by winning the 2012 Yukon Quest dog sled race. Early in the morning on Feb. 14, after 9 days, 16 hours and five minutes of racing against 23 competitors, Neff won the 1,000-mile race a mere 26 seconds ahead of Allen Moore. The finish marked the closest race in the Yukon Quest’s history to date.
“I’ve been in some tight finishes before, not in first place though, so that was a big difference,” said Neff in a phone interview from Alaska on Feb. 17 while out to lunch with some of his mushing friends.
“You definitely get down in your reserves, and you bring back that energy … to bring it to the finish line,” he said.
This year’s Yukon Quest – which runs between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory – might have been his first victory, but it was hardly his first long-distance dog-sled competition. Between past Yukon Quests and the better-known Iditarod races, Neff has run 1,000-mile races 20 times.
His lead dog, named after legendary Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, led Neff’s team into their victory.
“He was the star of the team, and he did a good job. It was a pretty amazing experience,” said Neff.
He began the race with 14 dogs but finished with only nine. With the health and safety of the dogs at the forefront of the musher’s mind, it is common for mushers to drop off tired dogs at race checkpoints before continuing on.
“It’s really about the bond you have with your dogs as a musher that determines how well you’ll do,” said Neff.
Neff first learned how to bond with his pet dogs in his youth. The dogs helped him stay healthy and “out of trouble,” Neff said, and he remembers walking his dogs around Evanston while he was growing up.
“I used to walk around by the golf course there, and I’d go up to Lighthouse Beach,” said Neff. “I spent a lot of my youth just walking around Evanston. You know, I love the area, and I feel really fortunate to have grown up around there.”
Though Evanston and Alaska could hardly be more different, Neff said he feels privileged to know the North as well.
“I’ve lived in some very remote bush villages,” said Neff. “We learned a lot about the natives in Boy Scouts, so I’ve always been fascinated by native culture. So to actually go and live in a native village was really cool.”
At first he lived in a small village of only 300 Athabascan Indians, where he had the opportunity to experience the life and culture of whom he calls “the people.”
“They’re the ones that talked me into doing dog mushing,” Neff said.
“Part of my (Yukon Quest) victory was to do well for them, because I know they want me to do well. So I pulled one off for them,” he said. He keeps his relationship with his Athabascan friends strong by going back to visit them every year.
Neff also returns to Evanston every spring as a part of a 50-school tour to promote literacy. An interest in Native American culture was only one of Neff’s inspirations for moving to Alaska. An avid reader, Neff enjoyed reading the works of Jack London and James A. Michener when he was young, and their books helped motivate him to move north.
“That’s how I fell in love with the ‘green land,’” Neff said.
Advice to students
During the literacy tours, “I talk to kids about the importance of reading and going out and living life, taking risks and living your dreams,” said Neff. “You might have to be a little bit frugal if you want to achieve your dreams.”
Frugality is important in the life of a musher. Although Neff won $28,395 in the Yukon Quest, he estimates that for his 40 dogs, food alone costs about $10,000 a year, and a sled can cost up to $5,000.
“It’s not necessarily a sport I’d make a big, large income off of, but we’re not necessarily doing it for that reason. We’re doing it for the lifestyle and the love of the animals,” said Neff.
And Neff has fully committed himself to the lifestyle. Even with 20 big races and a first place victory under his belt, he has no plans to give up on mushing any time soon.
“A lot of people don’t understand that mushing is about suffering and surviving. It’s about getting out there and enjoying nature,” he said. “I want to run dogs for the rest of my life.”
Neff is staying true to his word by preparing to compete in the Iditarod, which begins Saturday. Most of the dogs that ran with him in the Yukon Quest will join him in the Iditarod as well. Though he is slated as the favorite in this year’s Iditarod, Neff says winning dog sled races is not his primary objective.
“I think that anyone that finishes a 1,000 mile race is a winner…. For me, life isn’t about trophies and money. It’s about the journey,” said Neff. “I’m having a heck of a journey for a city boy from Colfax Street in Evanston.”