Lowcountry couple tracking daughter mushing the Iditarod

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMarch 4, 2014 

Don and Susie Drobny of Colleton River Plantation never dreamed it would come to this, staying up through the night tracking their daughter by GPS.

Paige Drobny is a fisheries biologist who went to Alaska to study salmon and turned into a musher.

On Sunday, she took off with a team of 16 yelping huskies in the Iditarod Great Sled Race, 1,100 miles across Alaska.

The signal from her sled blinks down to the Lowcountry from the rocky, icy trail brutalized this year by "warm" weather well above zero.

"If we had written down a million things we thought our daughter would grow up to be, this would not have been on the list," Don Drobny said.

When Paige and her husband, Cody Strathe, visited her parents in October, they showed slides and explained their lifestyle to packed houses at Colleton River and her parents' former neighborhood, Leamington in Palmetto Dunes.

They said mushing was not on their lives' to-do list. Paige is a Virginia Tech graduate with an advanced degree in biology, and Cody's advanced degree is in archaeology. They settled in Fairbanks, Alaska, but longed for the adventure of the state's wild side, accessible only by dog sled.

First, Cody made Paige a sled. And when he was out of town, she got some puppies. They explored the wilds, and got more puppies. Soon enough, they were sliding down the slippery slope toward mushing in real races.

They now have 56 dogs in what they call Squid Acres Kennel.

"We're a pack now," Cody said.

In the offseason, Cody designs and builds skin-frame kayaks, wooden paddles and dogsleds in his DogPaddle Designs company. Paige studies salmon. And they share lessons by Skype with classrooms in Australia, Egypt and the Lower 48.

But, like the dogs, Paige and Cody long to be in the open, frozen nowhere. About the time our marsh grass starts to turn golden, Paige and Cody start moving toward the cold ("but it's a dry cold," she said) to train for races that take a year to plan.

They buy meat for the dogs in 50-pound blocks and cut it all up. They must pack, organize and haul 1,000 pounds of food for a 1,000-mile race. They keep track of 1,000 little booties that the dogs wear, hundreds of gloves, repair kits, 1,600-lumen lights to guide the lead dog, 85 feet ahead.

"We trust the dogs, and they trust us," Paige said. "Our bond with the dogs grows every day. They have taught us a lot about living in the moment, being out there and doing what you love to do."

Don and Susie Drobny's two children grew up with many addresses, as he was one of H. Ross Perot's top lieutenants in the business world. Now their little boy is an asset manager in Hawaii, dealing with hedge funds, and their little girl is blinking across the frozen frontier with her best dogs and best friends.

"We're never going to get rich doing this," Paige told her parents' friends and neighbors. "But if we just have the dogs and snow, we are going to be happy."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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