Dog musher Von Martin, who adopted his first sled dog 21 years ago, honors each of his dogs that have died by placing their ashes in wooden boxes next to their old collars.
A row of wooden boxes and collars line a shelf in Martin’s Call of the Wild Huskies Kennel in Chehalis.
There have been several additions to the makeshift memorial lately.
“This is the part of dog mushing people don’t think about,” Martin said. “What happens when they get old? That’s the part that breaks your heart. They are all your best friend.”
Martin, 60, who found his passion for dog sled racing more than a decade ago, owns the kennel in Chehalis and is the vice president of the Northwest Sled Dog Association, a group of mushers who organize sled dog races around the region.
At his kennel, Martin now trains a pack of 10 sled dogs, all 8 to 15 years old, which he considered “geriatric” two years ago when they finished the 2011 Serum Run ’25, an 800-mile run across Alaska from Nenana to Nome.
Martin first attempted the Serum Run in 2009, but had to evacuate due to severe weather.
When he reached the finish line on the successful trip in 2011, Martin scattered the ashes of his beloved Alaskan Malamute, Wolfie, who died in 2005 from cancer.
Martin made a promise to Wolfie, who is the one that originally sparked Martin’s interest in mushing, that he would take her ashes with him on the 23-day trek.
“We are going to go to Nome someday,” Martin told Wolfie the day she died.
He carried the ashes on both expeditions before finally scattering them at the finish line.
Martin wrote about his promise to Wolfie in his 2009 book “A Long Way to Nome.”
Since the Serum Run, three more of Martin’s dogs have died from kidney disease and cancer, including Pike, Martin’s 12-year-old alpha dog, a week ago.
“You get to the point where you owe them that last piece of love,” Martin said. “I lay them on a blanket, surround them with their race winnings. It breaks your heart and brings it full circle. It’s part of the experience.”
Donna Marker, the office administrator for the Jackson Highway Vet Clinic, said the clinic put down several of Martin’s dogs in the past decade. Marker said Martin takes each loss with much grace.
“What amazes me is his compassion for his sled dogs,” Marker said. “He rescues them, gives them a purpose and a good home.”
Faced with losing more dogs from his pack, Martin said he will adopt six new dogs this year. Four of the dogs are puppies related to his 13-year-old Grits.
Before adopting the younger dogs, Martin is planning to race in a dry land event April 27-28 near Ellensburg, the last race for most of his pack that will have to retire this year.
Martin coordinates with other mushers and shelters when he adopts his dogs. Some of his dogs have run more than 40,000 miles in multiple races including the Iditarod before Martin adopted them.
“I’m giving the old dogs the chance to do what they want to do,” Martin said.