i've got a nephew that loves huskies. i'm not sure that he's ever spent much time around them, but that doesn't stop him. he also loves polar bears and i KNOW he doesn't see them much either. fortunately for Timmy, he's got an auntie who lives in Alaska. last week, i was in Tanana (where i used to live for those of you who remember) doing some research with a few folks and this is one of the folks i visited: Lester Erhart.
Lester's a cool guy. he breeds, raises, and races sled dogs. he's one of a handful of Alaska Native village residents maintaining an old tradition of keeping dogs. historically, dog traction was the primary means of transportation in bush Alaska. Trapping, hauling wood and water, and travel between the seasonal camps that were home to Athabascan people up through the 1950s were all made possible by dog teams. dogs were the original snow-mobile. and these dogs didn't just work in the winter when there was snow. many teams were harnessed to boats, lining canoes and boats up the Yukon River to summer fish camps.
many people in the villages still use dogs for work, but racing has also been added to their repertoire. as any dog musher knows, these guys are critical to any good working or racing team: the leaders. Dog mushers have endless stories about the amazing intelligence and experience of their leaders to get them out of all manner of fixes.
keeping dogs is a full-time job in itself. here a neighbor's house, also a musher, is storage for all the harnesses and gang lines, snow hooks, and other dog sled stuff. Lester keeps his in a separate shed by his dog yard.
all of these dogs have their own personalities and skills. Dog mushers spend a great deal of time with their dogs learning their possibilities and limitations and figuring out where to put them in a team.
how 'bout this guy?
and once they're all together, a dog team is an amazing thing to witness. in Fairbanks on the trail system and in the villages right on the roads through town, a dog team running at full speed can literally sneak up on you making no more sound than the wind, and gliding right past you with a low whoosh...
in the line-up, they bark and yip, jump and howl, but the moment the musher lifts the snow hook, it's all business with no time to talk. it's racing season in interior Alaska and these guys are off!