Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Dog Mushing Basics

If medicine is my vocation, then dog mushing is my avocation. I love them both. I was introduced to the sport of dog mushing in the summer of 1998, when I first came to Alaska, and I was hooked immediately. It is the state sport, and lots of people are doing it. Why? Because it is fun, exciting, challenging, and rewarding.

Dog mushers fall into two very basic categories: those who race and those who don’t. I am in the latter (much smaller) group. For me, mushing is about traveling around on the land; going camping, ice fishing, or logging; and just being with my dogs, who are some of my best friends. It is fun to go fast, but racing is a whole other mentality that I am not inclined toward. It is not that I am not competitive; look out if you face me across a ping-pong table! Sled dog racing puts a different focus on mushing; if I had come to Alaska in my twenties, instead of my forties, I might have gone that way. As a non-racer, mushing is all about having fun with my dogs, getting out into the country, no pressure.

Before the introduction of the now-ubiquitous snowmachine to bush Alaska about forty years ago, sled dogs were the mainstay of transportion in the roadless arctic. Most Eskimo families kept some dogs; sleds were made from willow branches bent and lashed together with seal intestines. Truly fine sled runners were carved from the ivory tusks of walrus. With a good dog team, a family could cover long distances hunting and gathering for their subsistence.

Modern mushing has become a high-tech enterprise. Sleds are lightweight things made of aluminum and plastic. Dogs wear foam-padded harnesses with reflective tape, booties to protect their feet, warm jackets when it is cold, and sometimes small collar lights. Mushers wear the latest in polypropylene and Gore-tex. Smaller, lighter, faster is the order of the day, and that includes the dogs themselves. Old-style sled dogs were big and built for slow, heavy pulling. Hundred-pound malamutes were common. Most sled dogs these days, especially racers, are thirty to fifty pounders with thinner fur coats and longer legs.

Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the old style. OK, not that THAT old, I don’t have walrus-ivory runners on my sled. But it is a handmade antique wooden basket sled that weighs about eighty pounds and drives like a school bus. A racing sprint sled, by comparison, weighs about twenty pounds and drives like a Porsche.

Now about the dogs. Sled dogs are an amazing breed. They are working dogs, not pets, and far less civilized than your average Fido. A sled dog has only three things on his mind: eating, procreating, and pulling. Mostly pulling. They are bred for it, and they love it. People who think dog mushing is a cruel sport just don’t get it. Sled dogs LOVE their work. As soon as the harnesses come out, the entire dog yard is jumping around, barking, excited, hopeful. They all want to go, every time. You cannot make a dog run who doesn’t want to.

My dog yard is small; I have only nine dogs. Some of the big-time professional mushers who run the Iditarod (more on our famous race in another post) have dog yards with a hundred fifty dogs or more. Of course they also have corporate sponsorship to pay for dog food and paid handlers to help with dog care and training.

My dogs come from old village stock; they were bred by an Eskimo musher on the Yukon River. I bought them from him as mostly two-year-olds who are all related—a mom and her offspring from two litters. Their names are Lucky (the main leader), Woody, Flash, Balto, Yoda, Buster, Blue, Brownie and Sasha (the mom). They are Alaskan huskies (not Siberians), about fifty pounds each, and all different colors. That is the reason the breed is not recognized by the AKC; there is no appearance-based breed standard. Alaskan huskies can look like almost anything; the only breed standard is performance based. They gotta love to pull.

Each dog has its own house and is attached to a six foot chain around a post next to the house. So each dog has a twelve foot circle and can go in, out, or on top of his house at will. The circles are as close together as they can be without allowing the dogs to actually touch each other. As most sled dogs are reproductively intact, this arrangement prevents accidental breedings. When the females come in heat, there is a 5x10 foot chain link heat pen with six foot walls that they go into for 21 days. Walt Disney’s movie Snow Dogs was cute and fun, but the idea of a dog team being housed loose in a big barn is totally unrealistic.

My dogs are fed a diet of meat, fish, and kibble in roughly equal proportions. They eat twice a day; a watery soup with some meat or fish in the morning, and a more substantial meal in the evening. The fish is predominantly chum salmon from the Kuskokwim River, caught during the summer fishing season and frozen whole. I have two large chest freezers dedicated to dogs. The meat portion of their diet comes from a variety of sources. Sometimes I buy cow hearts from the local butcher in fifty-pound boxes. They come frozen and are easy to chop into fist-sized portions with an axe. Sometimes people around town donate freezer-burned caribou, beaver, porcupine or bear. The kibble is shipped in from Fairbanks in forty pound bags. Only nine dogs means I can feed the whole yard from one five gallon bucket, which is really nice.

And then there is the other end of the feeding process. Poop scooping. It is impressive just how much poop nine dogs can produce (I can’t even deal with the image of what 150 dogs produce). Keeping up with it is a daily activity I call “poop rounds”. During the winter it is easier; hard-frozen turds don’t smell. Summer is a bit more of a challenge, but not that bad.

OK, enough of the basics. The fun is out on the trail. Let’s go mushing…



Anonymous niroa said...

Wow, there's so much worthwhile information here!

Sunday, April 01, 2012 12:41:00 PM  

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