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Career With the Canines: 30-Year Musher Aili Retires

  • Keith Aili nears the Sawbill Checkpoint during the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in January. (Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune/TNS)



Duluth News Tribune
Sunday, March 04, 2018

Keith Aili had a mix of emotions when his sled dog team crossed the finish line to win the Upper Penninsula 200 race in Marquette, Mich., on a recent Sunday.

“It was the hardest finish of my 30 years because coming into the finish line, you’re going to win the race and you’re pretty happy, but on the other end, it was bad,” he said.

It was his fifth U.P. 200 win, but he says it was the last race of his career.

Aili, a musher from Ray, Minn., who has been a regular at Midwestern races since the mid-1990s, decided last summer that it was time to retire — and he officially announced it after finishing the U.P. 200. The 43-year-old won the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in 2006 and finished the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 2002.

Although Aili is retiring, his dogs will continue to race. They’ll be joining the kennel of Ryan Redington, this year’s Beargrease marathon champion, and some will be racing on his team during next month’s Iditarod. Redington took most of Aili’s kennel following the Beargrease; the remaining dogs joined Redington after the U.P. 200. Aili said it was difficult to return home without his dogs, because they’re more than pets.

“Ryan is a good friend and I respect him as a dog driver, too. He understands dogs like I do, so it couldn’t have worked out any better,” Aili said.

With Aili’s retirement, the sport is losing a good competitor, said Nathan Schroeder, a Warba musher who is good friends with Aili and has known him since they were kids.

“He’s very good. He’s a very competitive guy and he knows what he’s doing. Definitely a good bond between him and his dogs,” Schroeder said.

When Schroeder won the Beargrease in 2013 and 2014, Aili was right on his heels the whole way.

“He was not easy to outrun. Any little mistake I made, he would have won,” Schroeder said, adding that Aili has finished ahead of him at the Beargrease, too. “I wish him the best. He’s a good friend of mine.”

Aili said he has gotten to know and become friends with most of the Midwestern mushers well over the years

“But at the end of the day, we’re fierce competitors. When I go to a race, I want to win it, but as soon as the race is over, we’re back to being friends,” he said.

Aili said he decided to retire from dogsledding because it has increasingly taken more time and money to compete over the past 20 years. Mushers have to work to fund their kennels, but then working takes away time that they should be training their dogs, he explained, adding that marathon racing is hard to do without sponsors these days.

He said he probably will maintain some involvement in the mushing world, and since he announced his retirement he already has started to receive calls from other mushers to help train and handle dogs. However, he said he’s going to rest for a while.

He has a lot of favorite memories and goals that he has accomplished during his racing career, he said.

“I’m pretty content. I didn’t really care to keep racing the Iditarod because it’s not too realistic, but I always wanted to finish it and I finished the Iditarod and I won all the major races down here in the Lower 48,” he said.

Dogsledding was a good fit for him because he grew up in the woods and enjoyed being outdoors, he said. He’ll miss running his dogs the most in his retirement.

“I always enjoyed training dogs and being in the woods with them,” he said.

He started running a dog team when he was 14 years old. Growing up on the family farm in Ray, he began hooking up his family’s pet dogs to a sled and begged his dad for a sled dog. His dad bought three sled dogs and his interest in mushing took off from there, he said.

His five U.P. 200 wins have taken place over the course of decades — his first occurred in the late 1990s. But this year’s victory was especially meaningful because it was a particularly competitive field of mushers, he said. He added that he can’t remember a race that had as many good teams of equal stature.

Aili’s rookie Beargrease marathon race happened in 1995, after he finished the Beargrease’s mid-distance race in 1993.

“I’ve only won it once, but man, I’ve been second in that race a lot,” he said of the Beargrease marathon.

He repeatedly was drawn to the Beargrease over the years because it was a Minnesota race that was challenging and difficult, especially in the early years when the course was nearly 500 miles with little layover time at the checkpoints, he said.

“I ran Iditarod, too, but that old 500, in my opinion, was harder to finish,” he said.

While competing in his last Beargrease earlier this winter, he was keeping pace with eventual race-winner Redington before deciding to scratch a couple checkpoints from the finish line.

“With a young team, I had two older leaders and I knew it was a gamble because I needed both the older leaders to make it to the finish line. My old female leader got a sore wrist so there was nothing I could do. I could go out there and push the young dogs, but it’s not worth it,” Aili said.

He left the sport for six years after he won the Beargrease marathon in 2006. He decided to step away at that point because he wasn’t enjoying it and was getting burned out after racing for a number of years. He hadn’t planned to return to dogsledding after six years away, but he had an opportunity that was hard to turn down, to buy a kennel of dogs that had the same bloodline as his previous kennel.

Aili said he has learned a lot about dogsledding over the years, especially how to race a dog team in a way that best suits the team and to ignore what the other mushers are doing with their teams on the trail.

“People get caught up in the race and start making mistakes. The hardest thing you’ve got to do in a race is race your own dog team,” he said.