SLED DOGS OF ALASKA

Since our seventh collection of animal stories has to do with animals of the North, our recent cruise to Alaska was a real serendipity. Reason being: we could thereby dig deeper into stories we were engrossed in. Thus when we discovered that one of the shore excursions offered by Royal Caribbean in Juneau would give us the opportunity to study sled dogs firsthand, we jumped at the chance.

Togo by Robert J. Blake

Togo by Robert J. Blake

I’ve attempted to capture that experience in the introduction to our upcoming book, Togo the Sled Dog and Other Great Animal Stories of the North; here’s a sneak preview of part of it.

Togo, image courtesy of Robert J. Blake.

Another contributing factor to the epiphany was a visit Connie and I made (during that same cruise) to a summer training camp for huskies in the hills above Juneau. I don’t know what I expected to see and experience, but it most certainly didn’t mesh with the reality.

As our minibus approached its destination, it seemed like all the dogs in the world were barking at once! Well, 150 huskies barking full-torque at once—suffice it to say, it’s an unforgettable experience. Until that moment, the dog-factor of sled-dog racing was just an abstraction in my mind. Suddenly, this collective howlerama blew years of misperceptions of what sled dogs were out of my mind, leaving me with a tabla raza on which I might construct a new template.

For it didn’t take long before I realized what all the howling was about. Just outside the circle of howling dogs (each one tied to a blue wooden hutch) was the beginnings of a sled-dog team. And each of the unchosen 150 dogs was belting out a canine plea: Hey there! Don’t you dare leave me out! Don’t you even think of not taking me along! Every last one of them harbored an all-consuming dream: To pull a sled at full speed somewhere. Had any of the 150 ever raced in the Iditarod, undoubtedly they were now dreaming of doing it again.

We were permitted to look at, and pet, those huskies (most with Sepphala Siberian ancestry in them) as we walked down the line. All the while, other huskies were being untethered from their hutches and brought over to the growing team. Believe me, each of those dogs was more than a handful! For the excitement over being chosen was so great they could hardly keep all four feet on the ground for the very rapture of what might lie ahead.

Who knows what goes through the mind of a wannabe sled dog? For starters, we must realize that since their life expectancy is only about one-sixth of ours (that they’re old by twelve), it means they have to cram into their moment-by-moment living six times as much intensity as we do.

At any rate, it took several dog handlers to keep them from tackling each other. Continually, they were messing up the lines attaching them to the tugline. And they’d leap high in the air in exuberant ecstasy at being among the elect. Just imagine trying to keep two dozen rough-housing little boys from tearing up a house—multiply that energy by at least six, and you have some idea of what it would be like to be a musher. Keep in mind that all this time the continual howls of outrage at being left behind from all the other dogs added up to an inimitable sound track. One that will remain in the archives of our minds forever.

At the end of this tugline was a cart large enough to carry up to a dozen people (total weight: a ton and a half). A wheeled cart because, though there was still snow on the slopes above, it had already melted down below. Someday I hope to be able to repeat the experience, but on snow. But mushers, in order to keep their sled dogs in year-round condition, yoke them to wheeled carts during the off-season months. And we tourists represent a serendipity: plenty of weight to pull [even more than normal, after getting off a cruise ship].

Finally—after what must have seemed an eternity to the fourteen dogs, it was time to move out. As we did, so excited were the long tied-up dogs that the musher had to keep the brake on to keep them from running away with us.

The rest you’ll get when you buy the book—that is, if my editor is kind and leaves all the words in.

ALASKA—A STATE OF MIND

We’ve just returned from our third cruise to America’s last frontier.  Each time we go there, the realization that we’ve but touched the fringes of it sinks deeper.

For it is so vast that travel writers exhaust superlatives in vain attempts to describe it.  After all, it encompasses 580,000 square miles (as large as England, Italy, Spain, and France combined).  It has more shoreline than all the rest of our states combined.  It is blessed with 150,000,000 acres of national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, and other designated preserves; 38 mountain ranges, 3,000 rivers, and 3,000,000 lakes. Of its 15 national parks, only 5 can be accessed by road.  Much of it is barely charted, let alone touched by the human foot.  Indeed, of the 670,000 people who live there (about the number who live in Fort Worth, Texas), almost half of them live in only one city, Anchorage.

And it changes dramatically with the seasons.  That reality became evident during this our first spring visit to Alaska. Especially was it evident in towns such as Juneau and Skagway, that we’d experienced previously only during summer or fall; during those seasons, they seemed to be rather typical semi-frontier coastal towns, but now, in the spring, against the backdrop of towering snow-capped mountains, it felt like we’d suddenly been transported into the Swiss Alps!  It was a magical experience.

But why so few people?  Part of the answer to that question came to me in my research for “A Thousand Miles to Nome” (the fascinating epic story of the Great Serum Run of 1925, when dog-teams alone represented the difference between life and death in that northwesternmost Alaskan town, in the midst of a deadly diphtheria epidemic).  It was in the dead of winter, and ice had cut off all access to the town by sea until May—only by dog-sled teams could the life-saving serum make it through in time.  Of the ten lectures I gave to the SAGE group on board Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas, this was the only lecture open to the entire ship.  In that lecture, I noted that, during winter months, added to the bitter cold and frequent blizzards, it was dark 20 out of every 24 hours—only the hardiest and bravest could stand it.  Offsetting this, of course, in the summer 20 hours of light each day made it difficult to sleep.

Not surprisingly, given our fascination with Alaska, our seventh story anthology of The Good Lord Made Them All series will feature Animals of the North.  It will most likely be released by Pacific Press in January of 2011.