Most of you all know we are cat people. But in Alaska, it’s all about the dogs.
Alaskan Husky is the unofficial breed of “sled dogs” here (Siberian Husky might be the other breed you’ve heard of), and there are plenty of dog teams all around the area. Dog sledding, also known a “mushing,” is simply put, the practice of using dogs to pull sleds.
You might have heard of something called the Iditarod, the 900+ mile race across Alaska that’s been going on since the 1970s. Jeff King, four-time Iditarod winner, lives in nearby McKinley Village.
Besides the most celebrated dog sledding race and other popular races, dog sledding has alternative purposes.
Denali National Park & Preserve is home to a working sled dog kennel routed in the history of the park. Throughout the winter, rangers travel with dog teams in the name of patrolling, transport and research throughout the millions of acres of the park. Even with airplane travel and the park road, the park still uses dog teams on the basis of tradition and practicality.
Outside of the park, our community has many dog teams in the area, for fun, but also those that help haul thousands of pounds of gear, food and fuel for climbing teams and ski expeditions.
So you could say this is a mushing mecca!
Given that, we knew we had to jump on the bandwagon, or better yet, sled.
Yep, that’s Justin. He was a natural musher.
This week, we went out with JJ, a tried and true local musher, complete with his thick beard and arctic outerwear.
It was a bit cold to get good pictures, so JJ let me steal this awesome photo of him.
JJ lives off the grid in Healy and keeps 21 dogs. I use the word “keep” because these dogs require an amazing amount of upkeep. Just learning their names (Carmel, Rex, Pedro, Liger, LaFonda, etc) was a task in itself, let alone feeding them and getting them exercise. I am definitely too lazy to be a sled dog owner.
Need I tell you how loud the cacophony of 21 dogs barking & howling is when they are hungry, or getting ready to run? They circle around their swivel posts in their individual private spaces yelping every chance they can. Mainly, they are always ready to run and release their energy, truly fulfilling their breed’s purpose and their best life. Some people think dog sledding may be animal cruelty, but they are truly in their element.
Carmel was one of my favorites!
Once harnessed in, they are raring to go.
“Hike!” That’s the command for the dogs to move.
They almost immediately silence once they are running with all their might along the trails, clawing through the snow under their loads, fat tongues hanging loose.
Oh, and they poop ON THE GO! Which is an admirable skill, but not cool for the dogs behind them …
“On by! Good dogs!”
JJ took us on a 9-mile loop through the wilderness on the outskirts of Healy. We started by sitting in the sleds for the bumpy ride along the lopsided snow. But shortly after getting going, he handed over the literal reins to feel the thrill of being a musher and driving a dog sled!
Justin ended up driving his sled with his 7 dogs for the majority of the trip (with one of JJ’s handlers, Tim). I was more timid. I liked driving my 9 dogs, but I did get colder and was a bit worried about flipping the sled or something!
We were in wide-open landscape, and without many trees to navigate or other dogsled teams/wild animals to avoid, we only needed the bare-bones
intro on how to operate a sled. Honestly, it’s pretty simple. JJ”s dogs are extremely well trained and have an evident camaraderie. Really the key was knowing when to apply the breaks in motion and digging the “boat anchor” in the snow when stopped to keep the dogs from pulling away. I asked JJ how fast they can go, and he didn’t have an exact speed, but it felt fast. I think we were out for 1.5 hours or so. It was a “warm” day, above 0. But that doesn’t stop the crystals of snow and ice forming on our clothing and exposed skin.
Our sled is purposely on its side to really keep the dogs from moving!
So even though we will never be dog people, it’s hard not to think they are adorable and admire their hard work, as well as that of the mushers! Justin is pretty hooked, and can’t wait to go out again. We actually have a friend that we met on Te Araroa, and she is training to race in 2025 in Europe, with a whole setup in Norway with dogs! I hope Justin doesn’t get that hooked …
If we need our sled dog fix, we have Rico and Shasta as neighbors. Rico actually comes from one of JJ’s litters and our friends, Sarah & Ryno adopted him. I first met Rico last winter before we met Sarah & Ryno. I went outside to pee, and as I was squatting, Rico jumped on my back. I literally thought it was a wolf. Nowadays, we go out exploring often with Sarah & Rico. Rico has become quite the skijoring dog, but we don’t usually do that with him … too fast!
This picture is on Denali National Park’s road when we were skiing. Always yield to sled dog teams!
What a fun and very Alaskan. adventure!
That is so cool! I had wondered what exactly the dogs did for the park when I saw John and Christine running with them during their time in Denali. And I’m on a section of Jill’s book where she talks about biking on the Iditarod and OMG those people are brave!
What a sweet way to see Denali!
PS: are y’all gonna get a cabin cat? Maybe adopt that lynx out back? lol