UGA alumnus participates in Alaska tradition

Philip Walters

A native of Washington, D.C., Philip Walters (BMUS ’04) moved to Alaska after graduating from UGA. A middle school band teacher by day, Walters is training to participate in the 2015 Iditarod dog race.

Former UGA Alumni Association communications intern Bernadette Green ’15 had the opportunity to chat with Philip about his upcoming trek.

Going from Georgia to Alaska is a huge change! What motivated you to move to Alaska?

I visited Alaska in 2002 while on vacation. My family has always been very outdoorsy ─ I was camping and hiking at a young age ─ and Alaska is pretty much an outdoor playground, so I immediately fell in love with the state and tried to find ways to get back there. In 2004, I worked at a string music camp in Birchwood (just north of Anchorage) and met some local music teachers who encouraged me to move up to Alaska after I graduated that fall.

Could you give us some background on the Iditarod? What inspired you to participate?

The Iditarod was started in 1973 as a way to bring sled dogs back into the public spotlight. The race is 1,049 miles and runs from Anchorage to Nome, crossing three mountain ranges and running over frozen sea ice near the finish. It follows the Iditarod mail route, which was the only way to move mail and freight from one place to another before the railroad and the road system came to Alaska. In fact, sled dogs are still used as a main form of transportation in some rural Alaskan villages. The Iditarod begins the first weekend in March every year.

After visiting Alaska for the first time, I read everything I could get my hands on about Alaska, and much of what I read was about sled dogs and dog mushing. I began dreaming of running the Iditarod after reading a book called “Winterdance” by Gary Paulsen. It is still one of my favorite books about the sport, even if it is a bit romanticized in regard to what actually takes place during a race.

I started volunteering with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 2006. I’ve been a volunteer every year since, in some form or fashion, including working at several remote checkpoints. I love watching the teams come through on the race, and can’t wait to be on the other side of the race.

How did you get into running sled dogs?

I met a local musher in 2007 who put me in touch with Kurt and Val Jokela, local mushers who were looking for a “handler,” someone who could help them with dog chores in exchange for learning the tricks of the trade. They taught me how to mush, let me run their dogs, use their equipment and even helped me train for my first distance race. Once their dogs started getting older, they put me in touch with Alan Peck and Barbara Trost, who allowed me to train their dogs and begin working toward my Iditarod qualifiers.

I now run dogs for Snowhook Kennel, which is owned and operated by Justin and Rebecca Savidis. I’ll run the Snowhook Kennel “B-Team” (think about it as the junior varsity team) in the 2015 Iditarod.

How do you train for such a feat?

Basically, we get the dogs out running pretty early in the fall. In fact, we started in July this year. When there isn’t snow on the ground, we hook them up to a gangline that is attached to an ATV and have them pull it while it’s in gear. It’s basically weight-lifting for the dogs. We use that to slowly and safely build up muscle and get them back in shape after taking the summer off.

Once there’s enough snow on the ground, we will start running the team on sleds. We try to put the dogs and ourselves in a variety of situations so they are ready for any sort of terrain or issue that might come up on the trail. In a 1,000-mile race, you’ll run into every type of weather and terrain imaginable; for example, last year much of the race was run without snow!

I’m basically running dogs four to five days a week, in addition to my full-time day job as a middle school band teacher in Anchorage. I come home from school, change clothes, drive an hour out to where the dogs are located, run the dogs, come home, go to sleep, wake up and do it all over again the next day. It’s a crazy schedule, but I love working with the dogs and I’m Iditarod-bound, so I’m willing to do what it takes to make this dream possible.

What is your favorite memory from your time at UGA?  

Most of my memories revolve around the Redcoat Band. I was a 4-year marching member of the band, and most of my friends were in the Redcoats with me. I guess many of my fondest memories were also football-related because I was at almost every game. I was there for the “hobnail boot” in Tennessee, and Michael Johnson’s miraculous touchdown catch at Auburn. I was a member of Kappa Kappa Psi, and many KKPsi brothers are still some of my best friends. As a member of the Wind Symphony, I was honored to record two different professional albums of amazing band music under some of the best conductors I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with.

Do you keep up with UGA football or other university-related happenings?

Of course I keep up with UGA football! I have a big Georgia banner in my band room, and I’ve worn holes in my UGA sweatshirts. Most of my mushing gear is red and black, I painted my dog box, the box on my pickup truck that I use to haul the dogs around to races, red and black. Once a Dawg, always a Dawg ─ how sweet it is!

Good luck, Philip! The UGA Alumni Association looks forward to keeping up with your progress during the race. If you would like to follow Philip’s Iditarod journey, check out his website or Facebook page.