We lost a beloved member of our pack yesterday, Zena. (Not to be confused with ZEMA)
The name says it all. Warrior. Fighter. Champion. In her life, Zena was all these things. Like the warrior-princess she was named after, Zena was a dog known throughout the mushing world. She started her life at Lance Mackey’s comeback kennel where she made a big impression, helping Lance to 3 of his 4 Iditarod first place finishes.
A long-legged lean athlete with fierce blue eyes, she certainly looked the part of an Iditarod Champion. When Lance eventually sold her to another musher, we were told, through rumor, that it was for a whooping $10,000 . I’ve never heard of a dog before or after fetching that kind of price so it goes a lot to say about her caliber as an athlete. She stayed with that musher for some time and then went on to Ray Redington for a few months before Ray kindly gave her to us where he knew she would have a good life. Like the celebrated heroes of old she had accomplished much: she deserved a place to come home to where she could have her peace.
Her love to compete was evident from the first time we hooked her up. She loved chasing other teams down and always seemed at home when in harness. On the trail her blue eyes were fierce and focused on the trail ahead, tongue hanging out her mouth in wild joy. There was always a wildness to her on the trail. She was never content with just going she always had to be going just a little faster.
Growing up as an athlete, one of the quotes that has always stuck with me was that “the vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when no one else is watching.” Seeing Zena run for us, although no longer in her prime, I would think of this quote because Zena so clearly exhibited it. Everything she did, she did it whole-heartedly. Zena was a dog who never gave up, who was always straining in harness to just go faster. And even though we had her in old age, she provided a valuable measuring stick when evaluating the caliber of our own dogs. She was really just that good.
At home, there was a quiet gentleness in her eyes that seemed to drink in the world around her. She was content to sit and observe humans without interacting with them. She enjoyed Travis and I and had a special fondness and tolerance for children. She spent the past two winters living with our our friends and Seward locals, Dan and Madelyn Walker. We couldn’t be more grateful for the love and kindness they showed her.
Towards the end, when we learned she had cancer, we were told that the vet could not believe how healthy her heart was or how flexible her joints still were. But it wasn’t hard for us to believe: she was always incredible. She wasn’t just athletic. She also had a certain gracefulness to her in all that she did. Her actions and movement, it appeared to me, were always deliberate.
She was a no-nonsense dog who loved food. It seemed to be one of the few great joys in her life. And one summer when I industriously thought of having ducks, Zena thought of nothing but dinner. She had a litter of puppies at the time (Shark, Hoover and Mr. Clean) and they were, at the time, quiet young. For reasons I don’t entirely remember — perhaps just because she was so special — we left the door to her puppy pen open so she could roam.
When I went to hand out puppies to three women dressed to the nines, I lifted the box to the puppy house to discover that nestled inbetween the puppies were two dead ducks.
The women, duck hunters from Georgia, thankfully laughed at the occasion while I mourned my ducks.
Zena, to her credit, never took any ducks after that. It seemed, to me, as if she could read my body language and disappointment.
Although Zena’s cancer was removed about two months ago it came back early this week with astonishing speed. Madelyn called me to deliver the bad news and on Saturday, I went over and spent a final visit with Zena. All I could think about was that this dog that has done so much, given so much, accomplished so much. How could this be it?
Besides her incredible achievements in Iditarod, she gave thousands of people their first mushing experience — first in Juneau and then later on, at our own kennel here in Seward. Zena was always willing to meet guests. When we told her story guests would often want their picture taken with her. She had a great story and she was sensationally beautiful. Her blue eyes stole many hearts and people often commented on how pretty she was. Inevitably, she would oblige for the picture taking — though she didn’t understand the fuss. She was often aloof — the way any great athlete is and chose to make friends outside her mushing family carefully.
My time with her on Saturday brought us both, I think, a little comfort. She nuzzled my shirt and pants smelling, I think, the kennel where that I hope she fondly remembers. It was clear she was in pain. Snape, the Walker’s other dog, routinely came over to check on her in a show of true friendship and she came in and out of sleep.
To say she will be missed and mourned seems so fleeting, so temporary. For Zena was a dog that did not leave a light impression anywhere she went: she left a deep impact. Her absence will be missed but she will be remembered.
During her time with us, she had two litters of puppies. Her first was with Pilot: Shark, Hoover, and Mr.Clean. Her second litter was the past summer with Boston: Zeus, Athena, and Check, after the slash across his chest.
We look forward to their progress and hope that they will live up to their mother’s incredible legacy.
Rest in peace Zena: May you find snowy trails to roam in Heaven!