ALFALFA — The ranch is a flurry of activity, and Rachael Scdoris is at the center of it.
All at once, it seems, she is feeding some 130 dogs a soupy, reddish concoction of chicken and water by the bucket, loading heavy bags of dog food over her shoulder and into a shed, and conversing with her husband as he helps.
She is adept at multitasking, which should be no surprise for somebody who has raced four times in the Iditarod — the world’s most famous sled dog race — and was considering racing the Iditarod and the Paralympics (in tandem cycling) both in 2016.
“I knew that wasn’t really practical, and then he came along,” Scdoris said. “But it’s OK, I like him better anyway.”
“He” is her 13-month-old son, Julien, who is attached to his mom in a backpack, going everywhere she goes all around the ranch, the din of barking dogs never ceasing.
Julien does not seem to mind. At the moment he is sound asleep.
But his mom is busy at the sprawling Alfalfa ranch, some 2 miles from the nearest paved road amid the flat, sagebrush-dotted terrain east of Bend.
Scdoris’ last Iditarod — the annual 1,000-mile race across Alaska — was nearly seven years ago. But the dogs are still a crucial part of her life, as she runs the Oregon Trail of Dreams sled dog tours at Mt. Bachelor ski area with her husband, Nick Salerno.
It has been more than 10 years since Scdoris, now 30, made worldwide headlines as the first legally blind musher to attempt the Iditarod. She scratched from that 2005 race some 700 miles in due to illness among her 16-dog team.
In 2006 she completed the race, placing 57th among 72 finishing teams, and the 10-year anniversary of her becoming the first legally blind musher to finish the Iditarod is just three months away. She skipped the Iditarod in 2007, and in 2008 she pulled out of the race 941 miles into the route. In her last Iditarod, in 2009, Scdoris finished 45th.
Scdoris was born with achromatopsia, a rare vision disorder that limits her to seeing only blurry shapes of objects more than a few feet away and makes her acutely sensitive to bright light. Despite her disability, Scdoris, a graduate of Redmond High School, has been mushing since she was 3, starting with the encouragement of her father, Jerry Scdoris, from whom she inherited the tour business.
Each time she raced the Iditarod, she had a fellow musher along with her as her “visual interpreter.” (Scdoris says doctors have examined Julien and have found his vision to be normal.)
She decided not to race in the 2010 Iditarod, instead preparing for a 1,000-mile tandem bike ride from Anchorage, Alaska, to Cancun, Mexico, with Mexican adventurer Diego Gonzalez-Joven.
They completed the trek in four months, and the epic transcontinental ride got the attention of U.S. paracycling coaches, who invited Scdoris to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for testing.
Scdoris would go on to win the U.S. Paralympic Cycling National Championship, staged in Bend that year, with tandem partner Sarah Max, of Bend, although they were the only entry in the race. She competed in the Paralympic World Championships in Quebec in 2013 with new tandem partner Lisa Turnbull, of Eugene, and the pair finished ninth.
But Scdoris still regrets not entering her fifth Iditarod in 2010 — and she wants to eventually return to the “The Last Great Race on Earth.”
“Not running the 2010 race was, careerwise, the worst mistake I could have possibly made,” she reflects. “So I’ve been out (of the Iditarod) for a few years but it’s always kind of been in the back of my mind like, it’s OK that I’m not back there, but I’d certainly like to be.”
She explains that by not racing in 2010 she lost footing with her sponsors, so when she wanted to return to the race in 2011 she lacked financial backing.
“But Nick and I have been talking. … We thought it might be kind of a cool thing, the Iditarod and the Paralympics in the same year,” Scdoris says.
The arrival of Julien put an end to those plans, but Scdoris still aims for a return to the Iditarod, perhaps in 2017 or 2018.
“By then Julien will at least be able to relieve himself on his own,” Scdoris said with a laugh, as she continues to walk around her property feeding dogs while her young son dozes on her back. “It also depends on what happens with bike racing. I think it’s possible to do both, but it would be really hard. But it’s good to aim high, right?”
Salerno would possibly serve as his wife’s visual interpreter for a future Iditarod. He raced the Bachelor Butte Dog Derby in 2013 and finished second. Although the Iditarod is a much longer, more grueling event, Salerno and Scdoris, who married two years ago, certainly have the dogs and the knowledge of how to properly train them for the arduous race.
“The possibility of racing has always been in the back of our mind, and it’s kind of where Rachael’s roots in the sport lie,” Salerno said. “We never really thought that we would ever stop racing, it’s just that it kind of took a back seat with the business and just making sure that we could make ends meet. I think deep down in all of our hearts we’re competitive and we want to show the world what these dogs can do.”
Scdoris still has four dogs from her original 2005 Iditarod team, all Alaskan huskies: Bernard, Brick, Mickey and Hailey. Bernard and Brick are four-time Iditarod racers with Scdoris.
She has fond memories of her Iditarod racing career, especially from 2006, when she first finished the race with the help of fellow musher and visual interpreter Tim Osmar. Scdoris remembers in dramatic detail her mishap along the infamous Happy River Steps, one of the Iditarod’s most hazardous sections that includes steep, windy switchbacks descending to and rising up from the Happy River.
“I went around the first corner and smashed into a tree and broke my gangline (connecting the sled to the dog team) and 16 dogs went running down the trail without me,” Scdoris recalls. “And there I was with my sled, having to push that down the steps, and that is much more difficult, going down the steps without a team. Just me in a sled, that was tough.”
Scdoris was the center of a media storm, especially in 2005, when national news outlets took notice of a young, female, legally blind musher attempting the Iditarod. She even appeared on NBC’s “Today” show.
“I don’t remember a lot of the interviews, specifically,” she says. “It was just a whirlwind of media activity. My sponsors loved it, but really all that stuff, I could take it or leave it.”
Scdoris expresses disbelief when reminded that it has been more than 10 years since her first Iditarod in 2005. That year she raced against Alaskan Dallas Seavey, who at 18 was the youngest Iditarod musher ever. Now Seavey is a three-time Iditarod champion (2012, 2014 and 2015).
In the decade since, Scdoris has transitioned into cycling and started a family. But she has always planned a return to sled-dog racing.
“Right now my main focus is this little guy, but I want to get back on the bike,” Scdoris says, as Julien crawls around the floor of her home. “Lisa (Turnbull, the Eugene cyclist) and I want to get back on the bike, and Nick and I want to get into some more distance (sled dog) racing.”
As she finishes saying this, she runs back into the living room to scoop up Julien, who has found a guitar lying on the floor and started strumming the strings. After she secures Julien onto her back once again, she hustles out into the yard to resume feeding the dogs.
“Never a dull moment,” Scdoris says with a smile. “And I didn’t have a lot of dull moments before, but I really don’t now.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,