Photos by Tim Bulone
No sane person visits Alaska in early March unless forced to by a business or family obligation. Nonetheless, I did just that a few years ago, making the trip to Fairbanks, not for business or family, but just for fun. And, oh, what fun those 14-degrees-below – yes, I said below – days were.
If you’re from North Dakota or Wisconsin or even the East Coast, you’ve had plenty of experience with cold weather. Not me. I’m a native Southern Californian, who thinks cold is anything under 60.
But when you’re geared up, figuratively and literally, for 14 below, you might as well take in the local activities, right?
So, dog mushing was definitely on the agenda.
I’m not talking about Iditarod-type mushing, which you may have followed in the news recently. That annual race covers more than 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome, requires months of preparation, and years of training and experience to not only finish, but to be competitive. Only professional mushers and those who take the sport extremely seriously enter the Iditarod.
My kind of mushing involved riding in a sled for a few miles while the musher drove the team. Despite wearing goggles and a balaclava, plus a parka provided by the musher, I had to close my eyes at one point to keep them from stinging.
Then we switched places so I could drive. Unfortunately, I did the one thing the instructor told us not to do: “Don’t release the brake until you’re completely set to drive.” It’s engaged by putting all of your weight on a metal plate. Before I got control of the team, I released the brake by moving one of my feet onto the runner. Oops!
Off went the team.
Onto my butt I fell – with significant force. Not into fresh, fluffy snow, but rather onto the packed-down track, easily as hard as a dirt road, possibly harder.
Of course, I wasn’t the first person to lose my team during an introductory lesson. The musher climbed over the sled and onto the brake while commanding the dogs to stop. I walked and walked and walked to catch up. Running in my 40-below-rated boots, snowboarding pants over sweatpants, and four layers up top was not an option. You’d be surprised how far those dogs ran in just those few moments.
Their reaction to being given essentially free-rein showed me how wrong I’d been about something for a very long time. I’d always thought mushing was something we humans “did” to dogs. Not so. These dogs, mostly Alaskan Huskies, simply love to run. If they’re not eating or sleeping, they want to be running. Thus the directive not to step off the break unless fully prepared to drive the team.
I learned a fair amount about the business of mushing while in Alaska too. It’s like any other job. Some people do it with integrity and compassion for their animals. Others don’t. Some mushers simply shoot dogs that are no longer competitive or dump them at the overflowing animal shelters. But most mushers either keep them to run in local events or find homes for them. And some sport enthusiasts are part of a group in Fairbanks that tries to re-home those in shelters.
While some mushers do make their livings from these dogs, either by racing or giving lessons to crazy Californians, the animals clearly mean more to them than bills paid and food on the table. Their lives revolve around their teams.
We pet owners might find the dogs’ housing substandard – tiny houses to which they are chained and on which they quite often stand – yet the dogs seem perfectly happy and healthy. One couple I visited in Fairbanks, who by all accounts are responsible, compassionate dog owners, maintain this housing scheme for their own sled dogs.
One of the fondest memories I have of my afternoon in the sled was when we returned to the woodstove-warmed yurt that served as the school’s headquarters. Before my musher got a drink or went to the restroom, she retrieved a bag of frozen salmon. With an axe, she chopped the fish into hunks. She then walked down the line of the team, giving each dog a chunk and an obviously sincere “atta boy.”
My heart softened a little toward serious mushers in that moment. I was ready to believe that they valued their dogs for more than their contribution to the household budget. Few of our dogs add to our coffers, but clearly my musher gets something less tangible from her dogs just like we do. And, in those few moments, she paid them back with delicious calories from fish she had caught herself the summer before.
If that’s not love, what is?