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Month: February 2017

A Tail of Winter

Thousands of years ago, as humans migrated and spread across the terrestrial landscapes of our planet, the methods and modes of transportation diversified with each challenge faced by these early explorers. Driven not by fame or fortune, but instead by necessity, our early ancestors traveled deep into the cold white expanses of Asia and North America, following large packs of animals rich in fat and thick furs. As the snow drifted deeper, and the winds grew sharper, a relationship formed between humans and another highly intelligent and cooperative pack animal, the wolf.

Bolt and Stinky lovingly greet one of my fellow guides Luke during a snow storm.

The history of this relationship is vague and uncertain, however, the outcome is clear to anyone who as ever owned or interacted with the only animal ever granted status as man’s ‘best friend.’ From the northern Grey Wolf, a breed of dog was bred into existence that was highly devoted, sturdy, strong, and tireless. Fastened to a rudimentary sled along with a team of other dogs, these animals would pull their human companions for many miles for a fee of raw meat and a place in the pack. Thus, Dog Sledding was born.

A team of Siberian Huskies in British Columbia, 1909. These dogs were pivotal in transporting goods and equipment during the Gold Rush, as well as for early Arctic expeditions. Source: http://www.historymuseum.ca

The term ‘Mushing,’ as it’s often referred to, derives from the French word ‘marcher’ which means to walk. This was the command that French colonials used to order their team of dogs to begin moving. From it’s pre-historic roots, both the dogs and the activity itself have changed significantly. Used heavily for the North American fur trade of colonial times, and the Gold Rush of Alaska and the Canadian Rockies, dog sledding spread and diversified. Different regions sported a variety of breeds, from the massive Alaskan Malamute that pulled massive freight loads, to the stark white Samoyed used in the summer as well for sheep herding, each had it’s unique purpose specialized to the needs of it’s region of origin. Similar to the dogs themselves, the organization of dog sledding teams varied as well. In most of Canada and the Northern United States, the dogs were fastened double file onto a single cable called the gang line that would pull the sled in a narrow formation down wooded trails cut through dense Boreal forests. In the wide open tundras of Siberia, Greenland, and the Nunavut, dogs were each attached to the sled with a single line, and spread out in a wide fan formation that more evenly distributed the weight. Though the means and methods were varied, the purpose of driving a team of dogs across vast landscapes of snow and ice was never lost.

Inuit hunter and his dogsled team travel the frozen polar sea of Baffin Bay in search of seals, walrus and polar bears in northwest Greenland. The dogs are fastened to the sled in a fan formation, each attached to a line that runs directly to the sled. Source: https://blog.education.nationalgeographic.com

Today, with the rapid progress of motorized transportation, the utility of dog sledding has diminished, however the spirit remains in both the people who have experienced the power of a dog team, and the dogs who never lost their desire to run and pull. Across the world, Mushing has developed into a highly competitive sport that is both brutal and genial, where your competition is the ceaseless arctic wind, and your team is comprised of the most loving and devoted companions you may ever know.

The two Siberian Huskies in my kennel, Lou and Sparky, demonstrate their ceaseless enthusiasm for running.

Though the activity today is mainly sport, there are still pockets of the world where the most efficient mode of transportation is by dog team. Far north in Greenland, Nunavut, Alaska, and Siberia, the price of gasoline is too expensive to justify the use of snowmobiles for longer commutes, and thus teams of dogs are still utilized as transportation in these communities. Arguably the most famous contemporary utilization of dogs came in 1925 when the conditions were so harsh in Alaska, that neither ships, trains, nor aircraft could deliver a priceless cargo of anti-toxin to a remote town struck with Diphtheria, an illness fatal to children. A relay of dog teams delivered the medicine over one thousand miles from Nenana, Alaska to Nome, Alaska in just five days, saving many young lives. The event today is memorialized by a statue in Central Park, New York, as well as a one thousand mile race held every year in Alaska called the Iditarod that comes to completion in the same remote town, Nome.

Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo of Nome serum run fame, 1927.
Source: Spirit of a Racer in a Dog’s Blood, Stephanie Clifford, New York Times

Now, despite the romantic history of dog sledding and the ways in which it has affected the world of people, arguably the most incredible part of this story are the dogs that have made it all possible. Indeed, many a sled dog has endured the harshest conditions ever known to exist on this planet, and carried on diligently to fulfill their duty. Though dog sledding in its most original form has all but died out, the indomitable spirit of the sled dog lives on in each canine bred for such a purpose. For the past several months, I have been immersed in their world, caring for twenty three Alaskan Huskies bent on doing what they do best. Throughout the experience, I have been taken by each one’s ability to both love what they do, and to look after me in return. As we glide quietly through the deep snows of the Boreal North, there have been good days and there definitely have been harder days, yet these canine companions of ours never fail to carry myself and my spirit forward with compassion and intent.

An Alaskan Husky named Chuck. The Alaskan Husky is a breed that has been specially bred for speed and endurance. They are often used in the contemporary race scene.

Eight Alaskan Huskies excited to be running a new trail behind 2017 Yukon 300 finisher, Lynne.

For me, dog sledding has been in dedication to them, to their heritage, and to the spirit of what they embody. Though the work is hard and the nights of winter are long, when I walk out to greet each one in the morning, eyes glinting, and tails wagging, I know just what they hope to do that day. What they were born to do. And we run.

Lady and WXCL resting during a 20 mile run.

Leaders Chuck and Cyborg resting at the front of an eight dog team.

The content of this post is a collection of oral traditions gathered by myself from a number of fellow Mushers, as well as my own personal experience. It only reflects my narrow understanding of the culture and it’s history, and is in no way exhaustive or objective. As are most cultures, dog sledding is far too complex to be summarized in one post, and I urge anyone interested in the subject to do their own research, or even seek out a dog sledding experience of their own!

Gravity of Love

Working in a variety of places, and meeting countless individuals with inspiring histories and experiences of their own, one of the most rewarding opportunities of setting out, away from my roots and into the unknown, have been found in the experiences I have come to share with the people that have been there since my entry into this world. Despite the physical distance that always tends to come between us, these moments bring closer an understanding that we can never truly lose what we have come to know and love.

When I left my home in Rochester, New York for college in a town that I had barely even visited to live with people I had never met, I imagined that leaving was a way to move forward and discover what was ‘out there.’ I wasn’t wrong, but in leaving, I discovered a that there was more to exploration than just experiencing something new. Life is the accumulation of every moment you live, so when the moment passes, I have found that you do not actually leave those moments and people behind, but you carry them with you wherever you go, and with each new moment or relationship we can enrich our past, our hearts, and our minds. I have experienced both sides of this process, and each in our own ways I’m sure, so have we all.

Before I left my small college town in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, my parents were setting out on their own journey to the deserts of central New Mexico in search of their own growth and discovery. It was terrifying for myself, and I’m sure also for the rest of my family. What I thought to be the only true home I had ever known was going to pass out of our lives, and into the past. I decided to stay in New York to preserve my heritage, and viewed New Mexico as a foreign place to visit when I could, and leave when I wished to return ‘home.’ What I failed to realize, was that I had done the same thing several years before, and my parents were about to set out on a journey that would shape our lives in a completely unexpected and significant way. New Mexico would eventually grow, as do all changes that we undergo, into an important part of who we have become, and where we are headed, though Albuquerque has now also passed into the history of our lives.

Now, sitting here in a small Michigan town on the shores of Lake Superior, which has only recently grown in familiarity to me, it is easy to forget the fear of change and growth that plagues us with each new transition we face. The one constant has always been the close friends I have made along the way, and most importantly, my family. Two thousand miles away, a distance that at time’s feels like it could be measured in light years, and only traversed by myself in the cabin of an aircraft far above the world that connects us, my parents are recently returned home after a journey to visit their son, but more importantly, to share with me a world that has become my life.

My Mom and Dad with Prim and Mr. Schue!

Though they had never been here in particular, this trip for them was certainly not the only time that they had taken time out of their lives to travel long distances in order to share with me my own. From the shores of Lake George, New York, to the Vail Valley of Colorado, my parents have done all they can to explore my life, and I myself, from the Rio Grand Valley in New Mexico, to the Hill Country of Texas, have done what I can to explore their own. With each crossing of paths, I have come to discover novelty and wonder in the people that have always been there, and the further growth of a bond that has always seemed limitless.

This isn’t always easy to see, and often times, the weight of the past or obligations of the present can distort our perspective enough to completely miss opportunities, and never is it more important to measure these parts of our lives, than when it all seems to have grown stale.

So we went sledding, my parents and I. We rode, and we talked, and despite the Upper Peninsula’s descent into my own normalcy, we discovered here together, things that none of us had ever seen or done. We loved some dogs, we walked out on the northern ice, and passed the time catching up until eventually we had to say goodbye for our next adventure.

Lake ice at Whitefish Point, Michigan

But, despite the miles that filled the space between us as they flew south, the separate worlds on which we live, seemed to orbit a bit nearer, held close by the gravity of love.