Dog mushers support one of their pack
When Medford resident Allyson Griffie was diagnosed in 2011 with breast cancer, she realized more than ever that the loyalty of canines — and girlfriends — toward members of their pack is truly a force to be reckoned with.
Griffie, 53, is a musher, one of a half-dozen or so Rogue Valley women between 50 and 73 who run dog teams over sand dunes, dirt and snow. Amid Griffie's aggressive form of cancer and subsequent double mastectomy, the group proved it's about more than dog sports and enjoying the great outdoors.
Two- and four-legged friends joined Griffie's journey through diagnosis, surgery and recovery with some good, old-fashioned grit and a hefty dose of humor. Getting Griffie back outdoors to enjoy both her dogs and fellow mushers is the ultimate finish line.
A communications supervisor for Mercy Flights, Griffie always had a special fondness for Siberian huskies. A longtime fan of dog races, she enjoyed the high-energy dogs as pets, but she was especially interested in their pulling and sporting capabilities.
In 2007, after her husband gave her a "scooter," used by husky owners for working with dogs on land, Griffie found her way to a three-day weekend in La Pine, where she got to test her skills, learn some new tricks and watch other dog teams in action.
It's ironic that on that trip to Central Oregon, far from home, she met some Rogue Valley women who became her close friends. A hearty crew, bound by their love of dogs and the great outdoors, the women spent years running dogs and enjoying each other's company.
They also were destined to share a common thread.
One by one, most of the mushers either faced cancer or weathered the diagnosis of a family member or close friend. Story after story surfaced of struggles with cancer, says Jan Purkeypile of Shady Cove.
"Each of us in this very special group has been touched by cancer, whether it's as a cancer survivor or having had a friend or family member affected by the disease," she says.
One musher, she notes, trained her husband's dog team while he battled cancer.
"My son has had cancer twice," adds Purkeypile, "so we have all been touched by this horrible disease in one way or another."
Just months after another group member faced a bout with cancer in September last year, Griffie noticed a lump in her breast. With a firm diagnosis by November, Griffie's mushing family sprang into action to pull off the race of their lives: to help one of their own through treatment and recovery, and then to assist with staggering medical bills.
Displaying dedication as fierce as the pulling power of their Siberian huskies, the women tackled a raffle and dog-wash fundraiser at Happy Tails in Medford, and they're not finished pulling for Griffie yet. They have a slew of other things planned to help her pay her bills.
When the mushers made it back to the snow last winter, the group was whole again, and Griffie credits her supportive friends for her ongoing recovery.
"It was very touching the way they supported me through this," says Griffie. "We have an interesting group because we're all so different, but we have a few things in common that bring us really close.
"Running our dogs can be a very dangerous sport, and we're all out there helping each other. We all really have been there for one another on a lot of levels. I didn't run my dogs at all last year because of my cancer. When I was finally able to go out again, they all took me out, got my sled off my truck, helped with my dogs and I got to run them three times. It felt like things were OK again."
Griffie says she was overwhelmed by the efforts of her pack.
"They were totally focused, not on putting time into themselves or their dogs, but in getting me back out there doing what we all love to do."
Purkeypile credits the fact that all the mushers, Griffie included, are a "tough bunch of women," bound by some special animals.
"There's something about the dogs," she says. "No matter what you're going through or what mood you're in, they will lift your spirits.
"And good friends do that, too."
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.