A dogged rebirth

Allyson Griffie's return to competitive mushing after cancer affirms her bond with the sport and huskies she loves
Musher Allyson Griffie practices with her dogs, from left, Thor, Sasha and Sitka on Saturday at Diamond Lake. Griffie, who survived a yearlong bout with cancer, and her team of huskies will participate in todayís Chemult Sled Dog Races. Mail Tribune / Julia MooreJulia Moore

Pulled quietly through a snow-cloaked forest by four of her favorite furry friends, Allyson Griffie finds respite from the pressures and perils of life — and in a fashion dog mushers almost universally savor.

Working in unison with her Siberian huskies with only their slight pants breaking the silence, a special run today through the woods of northern Klamath County will be more than a sled-dog race for Griffie.

To learn more about local mushers

Allyson Griffie is a member of the Pacific Sled Dogs and Skijoring Association. To learn more about the association and local mushers, visit the association's website at www.psdsa.org.

It's her way of showing the world, and herself, that cancer's got nothing on her anymore.

"It's kind of like a rebirth," Griffie says. "Getting out there will make me feel human again."

Griffie and her dogs will be among the competitors in the 50th annual Chemult Sled Dog Races, her first race after a more than yearlong battle against breast cancer.

Her team of four rescue huskies will run the forest course today and Sunday not to set records or even to place anywhere near the top half of the field.

After three surgeries in a lost year, the 53-year-old Medford woman simply will relish her return to the snow and her team.

"Now I am starting over with everything — my health and my dogs," Griffie says. "Getting back out there is really important to me. This is what I love to do."

A lifelong husky-phile, Griffie was constantly seeking new ways for them to burn their unbridled energy while giving them a physical purpose. Like a job.

She considered buying roller skates to let a dog tow her around town, then in 2005 she discovered "urban mushing" and its two-wheeled dog scooter.

She later added a three-wheeled cart for city workouts, then a four-wheel ATV for mushing on the Oregon Dunes, a favorite among Western Oregon mushers during nonsnow months.

Griffie bought a used sled in 2007, and started training alone in the snow, captivated by the oneness if creates between dogs and their handler.

"Mushing is a very isolated sport," she says.

It's also a sport that has no true finish line. Between races, the huskies are Griffie's constant companions, overtaking her west Medford house. She drives a pickup truck with a large, boxy dog kennel on the back that she affectionately calls the Toaster, and stays home with her dogs rather than joining her musician husband on performance trips across two continents.

But the responsibilities become incredible assets on days Griffie travels to the snows of Lake of the Woods or Diamond Lake to ride the sled's runners as her huskies — each one rescued from a broken home or shelter — do what they love to do for her.

"It's so peaceful," she says. "It's such a stress-reliever."

Hers was a solitary feeling until Griffie discovered a small cadre of women mushers in the Rogue Valley, who helped her shape her training and got her into competitions.

She ran three races in 2011 before a diagnosis of an aggressive form of breast cancer struck.

She backed off work as a Mercy Flights communications supervisor, ground through her series of surgeries while ruing not being able to take part in Oregon's 2012 mushing race circuit.

The circuit, ironically, waited for her. Late snows last year forced the suspension of Oregon's mushing race season.

"If there was a year to be away because of cancer, that was the year," she says.

Now she's back and can't wait to get her boots on the runners today, barking out the "gee" and "haw" commands that ring poetically to mushers.

"After losing that one year, I feel like I'm starting all over again," Griffie says.

As a team of pure-bred huskies but not bred from mushing stock, her foursome is not in the same class of pullers as dogs bred for the task. And other racers from as far away as British Columbia and Michigan will benefit from regular training regimens and racing experience.

Griffie has gotten her team onto the snow just three times since they last raced, the latest for a short jaunt through the Diamond Lake woods this past Saturday.

"My dogs are pretty slow," she says. "They haven't been training. I'll try not to have any expectations for them.

"They'll do the best they can," she says. "Just let them out there to run and have fun."

She could be talking as much about herself as her dogs.

"I'm ready to be out of the limelight of the cancer thing," Griffie says. "I just want to be me, not the musher with cancer. I want to be that musher who can't keep a smile off her face."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.



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