Dogsledding in Alaska

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When I met Dario Martinez, owner of Chugach Express, yesterday in Girdwood, Alaska, his team of mushing dogs harnessed and ready to go against the backdrop of the surrounding peaks in alpenglow, he asked me if I planned on attending the start of the Iditarod tomorrow. Downtown Anchorage will be transformed today–snow covering the streets, dogs howling and yipping with anticipation, mushers shaking hands with spectators and worrying over logistics. Then the race with begin, the dogs will pull through the streets of the city and the state of Alaska will celebrate it’s unique heritage.

I told him I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

The famous race, known as The Last Great Race on Earth, keeps Dario’s dogs working. A hundred years ago, sled dogs were large, strong creatures weighing in over a hundred pounds and depended upon by Alaskans as transportation. Today, the dogs are slender and fast, having become marathon racers. And their sole purpose is to win. 

These dogs love to pull. When Dario stopped the sled after a taking a lap through the beautiful meadow at the base of Alyeska Resort, he dug a brake like a claw with six inch talons into the snow and tied that to a rope. That way, he explained, when we returned from our tour of the kennel, we’d still have a dog team waiting for us.

Dario also explained the lure of the sport. A nine-time Iditarod veteran, he knows what it takes to endure the 1,150 mile race over mountain ranges, frozen tundra, pack ice and snowy forests: Dario calls it “being in the now”. Running on a six-hour and six-hour off schedule, when the musher stops the team for a rest, his job as a sled handler ends but his job taking care of the dogs begins. In that six-hour rest period, the musher might get 45 minutes of rest.

Dogs are intuitive creatures. And they know their humans. If a musher is stressed and anxious, the dogs pick up on it. If their human is tired and rundown, the dogs will be too. But you can’t fake it. Dario knows that his dogs will pick up on any false pretense. Instead, the key is to say to yourself, “Yes this is a struggle, but it’s all for the good. It’s all worth it.” Whatever task that must be done is essential to the team and to the race. The secret, Dario claims, is staying in the “now”.

Today as I watch the dog teams race through the streets of Anchorage on their way towards a frozen ordeal requiring endurance, strength and the sheer will to pull, I will remember Dario’s words. Dog sledding is more than a sport–it’s a lifestyle that transcends the trails, circling back to all interactions required in life. Stay in the moment, enjoy the task, no matter how great and arduous, and bring that back to your pack.

 

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6 responses »

  1. Thank you, Kim, for a terrific story, and for taking me back to Alaska. As a reporter up there in the 90′s, I covered much of the Iditarod: the beginning in Anchorage, the middle in the bush, and the end in Nome. I remember once flying between villages in a single-engine, four-seater plane with a pilot, photographer, and grip, over broad snow-covered plains and sudden mountains, without a village in sight. When I saw a small moving dot, I asked the pilot to land.

    He landed the plane on skis, creating his own landing field, as great waves of snow flew up around us. When we stopped, the silence was intense. We were standing in a broad plain with evergreen-scattered mountains on either side, waiting for one of the Iditarod’s top mushers, Dee Dee Jonrowe. As she and her team approached, I could hear the jingling of the harnesses and the soft pad-pad-pad of the sled dogs’ feet in the snow. When she chirped out a cheery “Hi!” the sudden sound of her voice surprised me.

    Not long after that, a blizzard hit, and DeeDee, several other mushers, and their dogs were stranded on the ice overnight, while I was stranded in the village of Koyuk – population 200 or so. Wind chills reached 90-below and visibility was zero. Talk about living in the moment!

    Everyone made it, but the next day one musher arrived with a face black-and-blue from severe frostbite. He looked like he’d been in a prize-fight. I was sitting nearby when he called home to say he was calling it quits. He started to cry. If it weren’t for the danger of actually losing part of his face, I think he would have kept going. I could understand why Alaskans treat their mushers like other people treat NFL stars. Their determination, fortitude, and sense of adventure are inspiring.

    As always, your photos are gorgeous, DeeDee. I especially love the one of the dog with his tongue hanging out – hilarious.

  2. wonderful post!!! YAY! So glad you were able to get a taste of these remarkable dogs. And the start, or rather, the ceremonial start in Anchorage is so exciting! I know you’ll have such a great time!

    One thing I must comment on, and I sure hope you don’t mind me waving my opinions around on your blog: I don’t feel the dogs sole purpose is to win. Rather, the races exist because mushers still need an excuse to keep a team of working dogs in their lives. Whether they win or not, to most, is not that important.

    • Terry,
      Excellent point about winning (or rather the importance of participation not merely crossing the finish line first). I appreciate all your insight my dear!

  3. I love Megnix comment where she called you DeeDee!
    Forgot to mention – I TOTALLY love these photos you’ve taken of the dogs. You’ve captured their personalities somehow, especially that black one with one flopped ear. And look at those muscles. Such athletes!

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