Dogs and the top mushers are Celebrities
Forget Angelina Jolie, Brad Pit, Tom Cruise and his underwear. In Alaska, dogs and their mushers are celebrities. Everyone knows Togo and Balto. Togo was Leonhard Seppala’s lead dog. He trusted his dog’s nose to smell open water and his experience to recognize thin sea-ice and took the short-cut over the Norton Sound. This shortcut saved them a day, but is a very hazardous stretch due to the currents in the sound. For Alaskans, Togo is a real hero. Balto was the lead dog of Gunnar Kaasen, who delivered the serum in Nome on Front Street.
Ask an Alaskan kid for Pilot and Crisp, and they will tell you that they are Mitch Seavy’s lead dogs and won the Iditarod of 2017. When Alaskan kids talk about Guinness and Diesel, there is know reason to worry. They are not talking about Irish beer and fuel, but Dallas Seavy’s lead dogs.
Alaskans have dogs, sled dogs, real dogs and pet dogs
Probably there are more dogs in Alaska than there are humans. The typical Alaskan family doesn’t have a dog, they have dogs. They often have one dog per kid so each kid can do ski joring. In case, you never heard about it, the dog runs in a harness and is connected with a wire to the belt of its owner. The dog pulls the jorer, who is on skis. The jorer supports the speed by foot work and with sticks. There are even competitions.
Then there are the dog mushers. A private person who does dog mushing for recreation or exercise has typically six to eight dogs. A small private dog kennel encompasses about 20 to 30 dogs.
Professional dog mushers have kennels of 80 or even more dogs. That allows them to do both the Yukon Quest – a 1000 miles (1609 km) sled dog race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory (even years) and from Whitehorse to Fairbanks (odd years), and the Iditarod. The Iditarod starts in Anchorage and ends in Nome after 1,150 miles (1,850 km). In years with low snow depth, the Iditarod is re-started in Fairbanks on the Chena River.
Mary Shields, who was the first woman to compete in the Iditarod in 1974, was our neighbor when we lived out in Goldstream. Today she still has over 80 dogs. We never missed a great aurora display as her dogs jauled at the aurora. They obviously can hear the sound. In summer, she “mushes” her dogs with a four-wheeler and offers tours thru her kennel. In winter, she offers sled dog rides for tourists. Some mushers train their dogs using sleds with wheels in summer.
Even students have dogs. Of course, dogs aren’t allowed to live in the dorms on campus unless they are service dogs. But love goes a long way and so they live in dry cabins in the permafrost area. They have no running water, but WiFi.
There are many high school kids, who train service dogs, and even ride with them on the school bus and go with them to class as part of the training.
The sled dogs, labs, and mixed large dogs are the “real dogs”. Sled dogs ride in kennels on pickup trucks. Each dog has their own little kennel with a grid window for fresh air and straw for comfort. “Real” Alaskan dogs are huge dogs, the size of a baby pony. They ride in the back of pickup trucks (which is very dangerous). In summer, they ride on motor boards and in canoes. They serve as an alarm system when their owners are camping, berry picking, fishing, hiking, jogging, hunting, …. In winter, Alaskan dogs hang their heads out of the open car windows, no matter how cold it is outside. Their face hair collects little ice crystals during the ride. They wear booties at 0F (-18oC).
Then there are the small so-called “pet dogs”. In the eyes of most Alaskans, these dogs are not real dogs. Little pet dogs wear booties and have coats in winter. They look pretty fashionable. There are entire collections in the pet stores.
Alaskans dress their pet dogs when going with them on the daily walks. Alaskans who cannot afford a “real dog” get a pet dog. However, they won’t dress their pet dog except for booties in winter. Even though it is not a “real dog”, they do at least some outdoor things with their pet dogs. The weirdest thing I saw in a while was this young guy paddling his way up the Chena River on a board.
Do you have a dog? In which of the above categories would it fall? Celebrity, sled dog, “real dog” or “pet dog”? What do you do with your dog besides walking?
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Photos: G. Kramm
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